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Authorities in Madagascar successfully blocked an attempt to ship illegally logged rosewood from the port of Vohemar over the weekend, according to local reports. The incident—while isolated—suggests citizens, the Waters and Forests Administration, local media, and shipping companies are having an impact on slowing the rosewood trade that has devastated Madagascar's rainforest parks, wildlife, ecotourism industry, and rural communities.
News of the pending shipment broke on November 2 when a local newspaper, La Verité, reported that preparations were being made to ship up to 100 containers of rosewood—with a retail value of $20 million—despite a nation-wide ban on rosewood exports. The shipment was allegedly being organized by Vernier "Veve" Mathon, a rosewood trader who claimed to be acting under an exemption granted by Andry Rajoelina, Madagascar's president under the "transitional government" that seized power during a coup in March 2009. Mathon said the customs authority of Vohemar had signed off on a shipment abroad the Kiara, a ship owned by the French company CMA-CGM.
But as news of the impending shipment spread, officers from the Waters and Forests Administration stepped up efforts to monitor the port, according to a local source.
"It was the officers of the Waters and Forests Administration who really prevented the traffickers [from succeeding]," said the source. "They followed each empty container in great detail with serial numbers in the entire area of Vohemar and double-checked what was in it. This way, the traffickers couldn't fill the containers [with rosewood] out of sight of the officials."
At the same time, the shipping company CMA-CGM also increased its vigilance.
"CMA-CGM has been very careful with its shipment and checked all the forms," the source said, noting that the September arrest of two Maersk representatives in Toamasina (Tamatave) for allegedly allowed rosewood-filled containers to leave the port aboard one of their ships, may have had an impact.
"It is very likely that the misadventure of the two Maerks representatives in Toamasina makes shipping companies very sensitive, now."
There were also indications of grassroots opposition to the shipment, include local discussions around organizing an "occupation" of the port in order to bear witness to any transgressions. Rosewood trafficking has turned into a hot political issue in recent months in Madagascar, with members of the transition authority being linked to illicit transactions. Last month an undercover investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Global Witness captured Chinese rosewood dealers on video claiming to they make wood deals directly with President Rajoelina.
But rosewood trafficking isn't new to Madagascar: research published in the June issue of the journal Madagascar Conservation & Development found that rosewood logging has followed a cyclical pattern since at least the 1990s. Timber is harvested on a continual basis and stockpiled until a natural disaster, like a cyclone, or political strife creates an opportunity for shipment. Logging syndicates make a fortune until opposition from conservation groups and international aid agencies shuts down the trade, at least until the next event.
"Illegal exploitation continues throughout the entire cycle, as the government only really controls the export process (i.e., from the loading of containers on board a ship in port to its departure). Timber exporters accumulate stocks while waiting for a favorable phase in the cycle," wrote Randriamalala and Liu, authors of the Madagascar Conservation & Development article.
Most of the benefits from illegal logging accrue to a small group of wealthy individuals. The costs are borne by the rest of Malagasy society, which is increasingly dependent on tourists who come to see the island's natural attractions, including endemic wildlife like lemurs and impressive landscapes like rainforests and coral reefs. Deforestation can also reduce the availability of clean water and food sources.
"Madagascar’s tourism industry annually brings nearly a half-billion US dollars to tens of thousands of people involved in all aspects of the industry (hotel and restaurant staff, guides, drivers, taxi operators, boat skippers, artisans and more)." Randriamalala and Liu wrote. "By contrast, the illegal high - end timber industry has resulted in a one-time windfall of an estimated $ US 220 million for just twenty-three individuals."
Chatham House is assessing the scale and effectiveness of the response to illegal logging and the related trade around the world. Full details of this work, including analysis and data, will be available online soon.