Robbing rosewoods from Madagascar

MAROANSETRA, Madagascar – Exploiting a
political crisis, Malagasy timber barons are robbing this island nation of its
sylvan heritage, illegally cutting down scarce species of rosewood trees in
poorly protected national parks and exporting most of the valuable logs to

For a decade or more, this illicit trade
existed on a small scale. But in the past year, it has increased at least
25-fold, according to environmental groups that have been tracking the outgoing
shipments. They estimate the value of trees felled this past year at $167
million or more.

This accelerated plunder of the rainforest
coincided with a military coup in March 2009. Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of Antananarivo,
Madagascar’s capital, was installed as president and he has since led a
weakened and tottering government that is unable – and perhaps unwilling – to
stop the trafficking.

“The government does nothing because it
shares in the money,” said Ndranto Razakamanarina, president of an association
of Malagasy environmental groups and a policy officer with the World Wildlife
Fund. “Many of the ministers think they’ll be in office only three or six
months, so they decide to make money while they can. The timber mafia is
corrupt, the ministers are corrupt.”

Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest
island, is a place of extraordinary botanical abundance, with perhaps 14,000
species of plants, 90 percent of which exist nowhere else. Saving the rosewood
trees has become an international cause. Environmentalists check the manifests
of outbound vessels calculate the amount of timber in each container and try to
embarrass the owners of the wood and the participating shipping companies.

Repeatedly, the government has announced
new policies to halt the trade.

“The exporters are strong, but so are we,”
Prime Minister Camille Vital said in a recent interview. “Just last week, we
arrested 52 of the people involved.”

But the men in custody, as the prime
minister admitted, were among the hundreds of impoverished villagers who earn
$2.50 a day to trek into the far reaches of the rainforest. Two men can chop
down even a thick, sturdy rosewood tree in an hour. Then it requires teams of
15 or 30 or 50 to pull the logs through the muddy up-and-down of the
vine-covered woodland.

Last month, the government announced yet another
decree to protect the affected forests of the northeast. The area includes two
huge World Heritage sites: Marojejy National Park, where the rainforest
descends into valleys of dense evergreens and rises into rocky-crested
mountains; and Masoala National Park, on a broad peninsula where a high slope
of virgin rainforest plunges to within feet of an unspoiled shore.

But the American ambassador, R. Niels
Marquardt, dismissed the new regulations as “one big loophole.” Lisa Gaylord,
the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “Whatever the
law, this government always finds a way to grant an exception.”

In the past, the government has sometimes
seized illegal timber and fined the owners. But the penalties were much less
than the value of the rosewood, and once the assessments were paid, the logs
were authorized for export.

Malagasy rosewood – reddish and superbly
grained – is among the world’s most sought-after timber, especially since Asian
sources of similar trees have been depleted. In China, the finished wood is
primarily used to make replicas of antique furniture and musical instruments,
some for export.

Madagascar is a trove of the wondrous. The island
drifted free from Africa 165 million years ago and remains 480 kilometres off
the continent’s southeast coast. Evolution used the isolation with great inventiveness,
taking advantage of a landscape that laces together savannah grasslands with
lobes of desert and long ribbons of rainforest. Like the plants, most of the
wildlife – long-tailed lemurs, iridescent birds, giant yellow moths – are
unique in the world.

People began arriving 2,000 years ago, most
paddling from what is now Malaysia and Indonesia. Here in Maroantsetra, a dusty
town not far from Masoala National Park, the evidence of the assault on the
forest is an open secret easily shared along the Antenambalana River. Some 500
rosewood logs lay stacked behind a padlocked bamboo fence in a storage lot
surrounded by fields of corn and manioc.

The river also sits on Antongil Bay, and
across the choppy water are coastal villages on the fringes of the Masoala
forest. Many of the families owned land within what is now the national park
and say they were falsely promised payment for the appropriated property.

They feel a reverence for nature – and also
an entitlement.

“God gave us the forest so that we could
take what we need,” said Francel, a 23-year-old man who uses only one name. “My
ancestors are not angry. There are still many trees in the forest.”