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.
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.
The Madagascar government seems to have monopolized the rosewood trade and made it less visible.
Rosewood logging causes problems that go well beyond the removal of rare tree species. In West Africa, it can dry out forests and leave them vulnerable to fires and desertification. In Madagascar, which has “more genetic information per surface unit” than any other country in the world, tall rosewood trees serve as key nesting areas for endemic animals such as ruffed lemurs. Logging has “devastating consequences” on the ruffed lemur population, according to a 2018 study in the American Journal of Primatology.
“The rosewood logging affects lemurs on many levels,” Natalie Vasey, a primatologist at Portland State University who co-authored the study, said. “When loggers remove the rosewood, there’s a lot of bycatch. They’re taking out the largest trees in the forest and removing other trees in their path. And then they’re also hunting lemurs to sustain themselves while in the woods. They only bring rice into the forest, and they rely on wild foods for the rest of their diet.”
The rosewood trade has been banned in Madagascar for decades, but the government has issued brief exemptions, most notably during two periods in 2009. This muddied the legal waters for years after the fact, allowing traffickers to claim their wood was harvested during an exemption period and therefore legal. In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed all types of Madagascar rosewood as Appendix II, prohibiting their trade except in the rare cases in which a local CITES authority has issued sustainability permits. Similar listings have been issued in other tropical countries over the last decade in an attempt to keep up with traffickers.
Finally, in 2017, CITES listed all the world’s Dalbergia species, as well as other rosewoods, banning their trade under Appendix II. Rosewood refers to the darkest and most uniformly colored hardwoods in the genera Dalbergia and Pterocarpus, among others. Dalbergia from Madagascar and Asia-Pacific is generally darker and more valuable than the Pterocarpus of West Africa.
Strengthening the law is a start, but in practice, conserving rosewood is only possible if source countries and timber dealers make it a priority. In Madagascar, that has yet to happen. The government has putatively cooperated with CITES and international conservation groups, but in fact has not made serious efforts to stop rosewood trafficking. Rather, it seems to have monopolized the trade and made it less visible. It has in recent years prosecuted several activists working to stop the illegal trade, but has not touched the so-called timber barons who run the trade, many of whom are themselves politicians or have close ties to government figures.
“It’s very difficult to be an activist here, especially when the government is involved with the trade,” Armand Marozafy, the vice coordinator of Lampogno, a grassroots environmental group in Madagascar, said. “The government doesn’t protect activists, but it protects the gangsters.” Marozafy, who has denounced rosewood trafficking for years, was jailed for several months in 2015 for posting information on social media about two influential businessmen believed to be involved in the trade. Despite an outcry from civil society groups, he was convicted of defamation.
Paying bribes is typically the only way to get rosewood out of the country. For example, several government gendarmes are stationed in Fampotakely, which is highly unusual for a remote village in Madagascar that is not a county seat. Armed with machine guns and highly skeptical of a visiting reporter, the gendarmes are clearly here because of the rosewood. And yet as with the illicit moonshine production that takes place right before their eyes — several makeshift stills, each beside a giant pile of pressed sugarcane, can be seen alongside the river — the gendarmes seem to be more interested in controlling illegal activity than stopping it.
In many source countries, the most valuable rosewood has already been cut, and Madagascar is no exception. The surge of logging over the last decade has left relatively few large-diameter trees in the forest. The timber barons did a poor job managing the forests, according to Rick Hearne, a U.S.-based timber dealer who, working as a government consultant, inspected some of Madagascar’s stockpiled wood last year. “It was a massacre,” he said of the post-2009 rosewood logging frenzy, which was precipitated by a coup d’état. “You can see the greed. Some of the [stockpiled] logs were only four to five inches in diameter.”
Yet the logging continues deeper and deeper into the old-growth forests of northeast Madagascar. Last year, journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project posed as rosewood buyers and were promised that 80 percent of their purchase would be freshly cut, direct from the forest. Its export would be coordinated with government officials, the seller assured them.
Once a deal has been struck, a container ship parks offshore and waits for smaller boats to bring out the rosewood. In November, six ships off northeast Madagascar were suspected of loading rosewood en route to Singapore. But such ships, eager to hide their contraband’s country of origin, often use complex routes, stopping off at ports in East Africa or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. Groups such as Lampogno often work with international NGOs to tip off foreign authorities, and customs authorities in Singapore, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere have made large seizures of Madagascar rosewood over the past decade. But seizures very rarely lead to convictions, and as with any contraband, huge amounts of illegal wood are never seized at all. When they don’t forge country-of-origin permits, traffickers often simply label containers of rosewood as vanilla or some other product, and pay off the necessary inspectors.
“It’s a very ‘dirty’ environment… You can’t be in this business without corruption,” says one Chinese timber dealer.
“We know that most of the logs are illegally felled, but when they enter China with the ‘right’ documents, they become legal,” says Xiao Di, a timber researcher based in Jiangsu, on the east coast of China. “Chinese dealers bribe [customs] officials to buy CITES certification.”
The corruption doesn’t stop when the logs enter the country. “It’s a very ‘dirty’ environment… You can’t be in this business without corruption,” says Chun Rong Chen, a timber dealer based in Zhangjiagang, a hub in the rosewood trade. The city’s large port, along the Yangtze River, is the entry point for many shipments from Africa and elsewhere.
Chen inherited the wood business from his father. With close to two decades of experience in the trade, he says that “slipping money into the pockets of officials” or “arranging women for them” is just the way business has always been done. “They come inspect your factory, find fault with it, and tell you how much it costs to ‘fix’ it.”
He sells Central American cocobolo wood (Dalbergia retusa), a threatened species protected under CITES, at Da Di Cheng Wholesale Market, an industrial park the size of three football fields. Warehouses with towering stacks of logs and planks stretch as far as the eye can see — and this is only one of about 25 industrial parks in Zhangjiagang.
The warehouses contain rosewood from Southeast Asia, West Africa, Madagascar, and islands in the Pacific, such as the Solomon Islands, which have recently seen feverish exploitation. Much of the wood is of illegal provenance — including anything traded since the 2017 CITES listing — but proving as much about any given log would require high-tech identification techniques and analysis to determine its age. Considering that much of it had to be secretly hauled across the world, the atmosphere is strikingly relaxed, and there’s no obvious security presence. Once inside, it’s hard to tell where one dealer’s wood begins and another one’s ends. They seem to trust one another, and their customers. If something catches a buyer’s eye, he can ring the dealer. Often, the phone number is scrawled directly onto the logs in colored chalk. (The outer sapwood is of little value — the logs’ beauty is found on the inside.)
Back in his office, Chen sits on a dark-hued three-seater sofa — made of rosewood, of course — and discusses his business while brewing loose-leaf white tea. His clients operate furniture factories throughout China, including well-known rosewood hubs such as Xianyou and Dongyang in the southeast.
Factory, it turns out, is a misleading word. The type of artistry required to make hongmu furniture can’t be done on an assembly line. In Xianyou, craftsmen work in bare-bricked, one-room workshops that line the street. Passersby can look in and see rosewood scattered alongside power tools, and furniture in various stages of assembly. Everything is covered in wood shavings and a fine layer of red dust. Because rosewood is so hard, artisans use dowels, rather than glue and nails, to fashion it into wardrobes, beds, and dining room tables, executing the same carvings popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the former sleek and simple, the latter intricate and ostentatious.
Several hundred miles to the north, in Dongyang, there are larger manufacturers with showrooms. The Rong Ding Xuan factory is in a gated compound with two multi-story buildings and a private parking garage. Here, gleaming rosewood furniture is displayed alongside accessories. There are silk cushions on chairs, well-pruned bonsai plants centered on dining tables, and calligraphy brushes atop study desks, so that customers can imagine what the pieces would look like at home or in the office. The type of wood, its country of origin — mostly “blackwood” (Dalbergia melanoxylon) from Mozambique — and other specifications are marked on placards. Soft music and gentle lighting complete the high-end shopping experience.
Wealthy Chinese parents buy rosewood furniture as an investment or a gift to pass down to their children.
Owning rosewood furniture has long conveyed a certain status, if not always a desirable one. During the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, it sent exactly the wrong message. “Wealthy families hurried to jettison their rosewood possessions before Mao’s Revolutionary Guard came knocking at their door to confiscate these signatures of a decadent life,” Annah Zhu, a Ph. D. candidate in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a 2017 Geoforum paper. “Antique family heirlooms not burnt in heaping piles in the street were thrown haphazardly into large government warehouses for later redistribution to peasants throughout the countryside. After the Cultural Revolution, one would not be surprised to find an antique Ming Dynasty table — a wanton bourgeois relic according to Mao — serving as a chopping block for a rural farmer.”
In recent decades, China’s rising middle and upper classes have sought to “buy back” their cultural heritage, Zhu says. Wealthy parents buy rosewood furniture as an investment or a gift to pass down to their children, or simply for the same reason they might want a flashy car or a fancy handbag.
“It’s all about having ‘face,’” said Mark Ng, a wholesale wood dealer at Shanghai’s Furen Market. “If you go to someone’s house and see that they don’t have rosewood furniture, you say they’re so low-class.”
However, the culture of conspicuous consumption may finally be changing. Some timber dealers say that demand has declined in the last two to three years. This might be due to the precedent set by President Xi Jinping, who has tried to clean up the Communist Party and discourage the lavish gift-giving that party officials were once known for. “You can still slip $10,000 into a wallet, but not $10,000 worth of furniture,” Chen, smiling impishly, said.
From the standpoint of rosewood conservation, there’s also another reason for hope: It seems that young Chinese people prefer less extravagant styles. “Only old people like this kind of furniture,” Chen, the wholesale dealer, said. “Young people prefer simpler designs, like IKEA.”
If, as the timber dealers claim, Chinese attitudes toward rosewood furniture are evolving, it doesn’t seem that conservation has much to do with it. In fact, Chinese attitudes toward timber conservation seem almost nonexistent. Far-off trees are hard to care about in a country with treasured panda bears that are endangered and a slew of domestic environmental issues, including severe air and water pollution.
China has taken steps to improve its import monitoring system. The customs lab in Zhangjiagang now checks some logs entering the port.
Moreover, there are few institutions that draw attention to the illegal timber issue. It is not well covered by the media, and there are no Chinese environmental groups dedicated to taking on the illegal timber trade. “Ultimately, I think really what’s needed is an increase in political will,” Earthsight’s Lawson said. “Many of the countries where this timber is originating are very unstable, very poor, with low levels of government, [so] China is where the greatest opportunity lies. The Chinese government, when it decides to do something, is incredibly capable of doing it.”
China has taken a few steps to improve its import monitoring system. The customs lab in Zhangjiagang checks some logs entering the port. When a timber species can’t be identified visually, inspectors slice off a sample to examine under the microscope; growth rings, vessels, and cell structure help pinpoint the exact species. Larger state labs, such as the Chinese Academy of Forestry lab in Beijing, have begun trying to use DNA analysis, stable isotope identification, and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. But these techniques are still being developed and are currently too expensive for widespread adoption. Plus, as conservationists point out, new monitoring techniques will not be sufficient to solve the trafficking problem.
“Ultimately, it’s about the government being unwilling to implement laws, it’s about corruption by individual enforcement officials,” says Lawson. “And neither of those things is going to be addressed by technology.”
International nonprofits such as Forest Trends and Global Witness are advocating for tighter timber legislation, modeled on the EU Timber Regulation or the U.S. Lacey Act, that forces companies to take responsibility for the sourcing of their wildlife-based products. They are also hoping that China will assign timber trade regulation and enforcement to a well-funded agency or ministry; currently, the task is assigned to low-level bureaucrats in the State Forestry Administration.
Madagascar is in the process of installing its own new set of bureaucrats. The incoming president, who was sworn in on January 19, is the same man who led the country from 2009 until 2013 — the most intensive period of rosewood logging in the country’s history. He’s thought to be close to the timber barons, and conservationists fear that another major rush to the rainforests could commence.
Of course, a lot depends on how much the Chinese want the wood.
“If I met Chinese people buying rosewood, I would say ‘Why?’” Marozafy, the anti-trafficking activist in Madagascar, said. “The relationship with China and Madagascar is not fair and equal. There are winners and losers. When we have political problems, the Chinese are happy — they can take what they want. They take advantage of poor governance because it means more profits. If they really want to help conserve wildlife, they have to stop.”
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Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists.