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11 January 2010

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Madagascar

Madagascar sanctions logging of national parks

Madagascar has legalized the export of rosewood logs, possibly ushering in renewed logging of the country's embattled rainforest parks.

The transitional authority led by president Andry Rajoelina, who seized power during a military coup last March, today released a decree that allows the export of rosewood logs harvested from the Indian Ocean island's national parks. The move comes despite international outcry over the destruction of Madagascar's rainforests for the rosewood trade. The acceleration of logging since the March coup has been accompanied by a rise in commercial bushmeat trafficking of endangered lemurs.

The decree, dated December 31, 2009, says that "the export of precious wood can proceed." Hundreds of containers' worth of rosewood can now be shipped from Vohemar, a port in northern Madagascar.

Two weeks ago a $40 million shipment of rosewood from Vohemar was canceled after complaints that the French shipping company, Delmas, would facilitate the trafficking of illegally logged timber, potentially in violation of the E.U.'s FLEGT, a regulation which aims to reduce illegal logging. Protesters argued that the Delmas' shipment would undermine France's negotiating position at climate talks in Copenhagen. France has pledged to fight illegal logging and support rainforest conservation as a means to fight climate change.

But shortly after the Delmas shipment was canceled, Rajoelina's government began applying pressure on Delmas to resume rosewood transports. Patrick Leloup, an adviser to Rajoelina, reportedly threatened to prohibit Delmas from conducting future business in Madagascar if it refused to pick up rosewood stocks stored in containers in and around Vohemar. More than 200 containers — worth at least $40 million — are said to be awaiting shipment. The first pick-up may come as early as Friday.

Rosewood logging may get a further boost this week if Cyclone Edzani hits the eastern coast of Madagascar. The storm could bring devastation to Madagascar, which is already reeling from an economic crisis caused by the ongoing political strife. Previous cyclones, which hit Madagascar every few years on average, have caused extensive damage and loss of life.

Cyclones are also linked to rosewood logging. While harvesting of precious hardwoods for export has been prohibited for a decade, an exception has been made for "fallen trees" ostensibly knocked down by powerful cyclones. However in practice, this has created a loophole for illegal logging since the government has never conducted an inventory of downed trees following a cyclone. Timber traders can easily claim the logs they've harvested are the result of storm damage (similar approaches are also employed by loggers in the United States and elsewhere). Since national parks are about the only place where these valuable trees still stand, these areas will be targeted.

Resumption of the rosewood trade could be a windfall for traders — rosewood is one of the few sources of foreign exchange at the moment in Madagascar, where banks — especially in the north — are reported to be having difficulty facilitating large cash transactions. With elections approaching, rosewood may also be seen by politicians as a means to fund campaigns, according to an observer, who spoke to mongabay.com on the condition of anonymity.

But while traders and politicians may benefit from lifting of the export ban on rosewood, its unclear whether most Malagasy (as the people of Madagascar are known) would see the upside. Logging employs few people yet has taken a heavy toll in some of Madagascar's most spectacular parks, which are the basis for the 390-million-a-year tourism industry. Further, logging has been associated with a rise in commercial hunting of birds and endangered lemurs, chief draws for tourists. Therefore expanded logging could well have long-term ecological impacts on the country's most biodiverse forests thereby undermining ecotourism for years to come.

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