In The Eyes Of Motivated Beholders


Stacks of rosewood at a timber market in Dongyang, China, a well-known hub for the illegal trade. SANDY ONG

Thanks to Sandy Ong and Edward Carver for this story about a type of tree that is too beautiful for its own good:

The Rosewood Trade: The Illicit Trail from Forest to Furniture

The most widely traded illegal wild product in the world today is rosewood, an endangered hardwood prized for its use in traditional Chinese furniture. An e360investigation follows the trail of destruction and corruption from the forests of Madagascar to furniture showrooms in China.


Logged wood on a path near Masoala National Park in northeast Madagascar. The park has been plundered not just of rosewood but many types of tropical hardwood. EDWARD CARVER

Fampotakely, a sandy village in northeast Madagascar, at first seems an unlikely destination for migrants. It has no hospital, no secondary school, no electricity, and limited well water. Yet its population has exploded to 5,000 in recent years. A few of the houses, usually made from dried palm leaves and stalks, now have concrete foundations and solar panels. Fampotakely’s relative wealth is due to its strategic location in the illegal timber trade: it’s downriver from Masoala National Park, home to some of the world’s most valuable rosewood.


Waterways around Fampotakely, Madagascar run blood red from rosewood stored underwater while waiting for ships to transport it to China. EDWARD CARVER

For the last decade, men from all over the region have gone into the park’s dense forests to work as loggers, a job that pays well by local standards. They cut down the massive trees, carve grooves in the logs, and use climbing vines to drag them to the nearest waterway. With rafts made from other felled trees, they use bamboo poles to float the precious hardwood toward Fampotakely and other villages along the Indian Ocean coastline.

Traffickers have to find something to do with the wood while they wait for a ship to come collect it, especially now that various laws and treaties have outlawed the rosewood trade. In Fampotakely, they bury much of the wood in the sand. Indeed, one cannot walk far in the village without seeing the rounded tops of rosewood logs emerging from the ground like little submarines. And there’s even more rosewood underwater: The inlets and estuaries around Fampotakely are blood red from all the rosewood being stored in them. Underwater storage is in fact preferable, as it prevents rot.

Almost all of the rosewood is headed to China, where its lustrous red interior is used in traditional hongmu furniture, and a single bed made from Madagascar rosewood can cost $1 million. Rosewood is the most trafficked form of flora or fauna in the world, measured by value or volume, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It’s traded far more than elephant ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales put together, and is often called the “ivory of the forest.” Conservationists are so concerned about the fate of rosewood in part because it takes many decades to grow to a commercially viable size and centuries to reach full maturity.

Southern China has extraordinarily valuable varieties, such as “fragrant rosewood” (Dalbergia odorifera), but they have been overexploited and may never have existed in large quantities. Rosewood imports from Southeast Asia became common when China opened up its economy in the late 1970s. The trade has boomed in the last two decades. From 2009 to 2014, it increased 14-fold, according to Chinese customs data collected by the Environmental Investigation Agency. Few tropical forests have been safe from the plunder. In West Africa, the demand has created logging frenzies, with exports of lower-quality “kosso” rosewood increasing 1,000-fold over roughly the same period, according to the customs data.

“African rosewood is now by far and away the single largest traded CITES-listed species in the world… It could be as much as 40 percent,” said Sam Lawson, founder of Earthsight, a London-based nonprofit that investigates environmental crime, referring to the treaty barring trade in endangered species. “The thing that really amazes me is the value… It’s almost like cocaine.”

The trafficking networks are so efficient that in many cases, by the time a country — or a conservation organization, or a group of local people — realizes it has a trafficking problem, all of its best trees are gone, its forests are under severe threat, and it has no tax revenues or export levies to show for any of it…

Read the whole story here.




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