New restrictions aim to save ‘forest ivory’

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(MENAFN-Asia Times)

A preliminary internet search of the word “rosewood” would inevitably stumble upon its connection to a Hong Kong luxury hotel brand, steeped in opulence and offering a quality guest experience, suited to the business traveler and the entrepreneur, a rare global symbol of status and wealth.

Search for “rosewood” or “hongmu” – which refers to a specific range of durable tropical hardwoods in rich hues – and one would find it to be the most trafficked wild species in the world, more than the elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and pangolin scales combined. .

People call it “the ivory of the forest”. The main markets are all in Asia, mainly in China and Vietnam, where hongmu is used to make luxurious replicas of antique furniture, musical instruments and traditional Chinese medicine products.

It is at the same time a coveted status symbol among the growing Asian middle class and also lies at the heart of a complex web of corruption, violence, forest crimes and dirty supply chains that make havoc on ecosystems around the world.

Traditionally, only royalty and elites in China had the privilege of owning hongmu, with materials sourced from China, Southeast Asia, and India. During the Cultural Revolution in China, antique “bourgeois and pretentious” carved rosewood furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties was confiscated, stored, and even burned.

As the country gradually opened up in the late 1970s, the remnant antique rosewood furniture returned to the market, sparking renewed interest and sparking an insatiable demand that hasn’t stopped since then.

In fact, as China’s economy reached double-digit growth, hongmu furniture became a status symbol for the rising middle class, a quintessential addition to any newly wealthy family looking to ‘show face’. As the middle class in China grew rapidly, so did the demand for hongmu.

Hongmu traders have historically focused on the two species native to China. As permanent stocks dwindled and reached commercial extinction, traders diversified into species with similar qualities in neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

These countries’ proximity to China, weak forest governance and the presence of high-value hongmu species have made them prime targets for the criminal networks that underpin much of the burgeoning hongmu trade.

Rosewood logs (hongmu) in Nigeria. Photo: EIA

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has consistently uncovered massive illegal logging operations that transported stolen logs on unmarked routes from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand across land borders and through ports.

As noted, Asian species of hongmu have become commercially extinct. Governments have begun to enforce national laws to protect them and take advantage of the multilateral treaty that regulates international trade in endangered species, known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). extinction). Demand continued to grow steadily. Traffickers had to find new options for rosewood.

To satisfy unchecked demand and a manufacturing sector that has become one of the most dynamic in China’s timber industry, the criminal networks that were de facto in charge of the vast majority of hongmu supply have turned to Africa. Since 2010, the continent has emerged as an important source region, rapidly overtaking Asia in volume.

Commercial networks have replicated their usual approach, steeped in rapid illegal over-exploitation, smuggling, tax evasion and corruption. Boom and bust cycles have taken place across the region, affecting Gambia, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia (again) and Mali.

Forest communities have relentlessly expressed their anger over the chaos wrought by rosewood logging, including growing conflicts caused by quick money offered to young people, threats and bribes to traditional rulers , the destruction of the forest and the acceleration of desertification in many cases. .

Following the approach of Asian governments, African nations that found themselves unable to match the resources and adaptability of hongmu trafficking networks, joined forces and worked through CITES to control international trade. endangered species and bring the requesting countries, in particular China, to be part of the solution and no longer the problem.

Some West African countries have decided to drastically regulate or even stop their rosewood exports and have forced China to enforce these rules by implementing the Convention.

A timber depot in Bamako loads rosewood into a container. Photo: EIA

In these cases, the international illicit trade has disappeared. Other countries, such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia and Mali, have gone the opposite way. Despite being signatories to the multilateral treaty, some officials from key administrations and ministries, such as forestry and commerce, actively pressured and bribed by traffickers, have found ways to allow illegal and unsustainable trade to grow and to be covered by invalid CITES permits.

EIA investigations revealed scams and violations of international convention in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Mali. According to EIA analysis, as of April, this represents a total of over 3 million tonnes and over US$2 billion of hongmu illegally traded between West Africa and China.

This is arguably the most brazen violation of CITES. New findings from Mali’s EIA, presented in the Poached Timber report, underscore the importance and urgency of a regional solution to the rosewood crisis.

In an unprecedented decision, on June 8, a decision by the CITES Secretariat was officially announced to immediately suspend international trade in the hongmu species Pterocarpus erinaceus from West Africa under the Convention.

The landmark decision to ban trade in what has become the world’s most trafficked wildlife product applies to all 16 source countries, including current major exporters Sierra Leone, Ghana, Gambia and Mali. The decision is binding on the 184 member states of the Convention, including importing countries such as China, which will no longer be able to accept illegal shipments of Perinaceus.

This historic breakthrough was mainly achieved by a number of West African countries which showed the world that despite the huge socio-economic challenges they currently face, they are serious about protecting livelihoods. their people, vulnerable forests and our common future. .

Their leadership and the EIA’s revelations elicited an unprecedented response from the corporate world. After the EIA’s investigation into Mali, the world’s largest shipping company, AP-Maersk has pledged to immediately halt the country’s rosewood trade and roll out new measures to support the potential regional suspension .

The immediate suspension of trade in Perinaceus by the CITES Secretariat will effectively regulate a trade that has caused massive destruction, while supporting courageous African governments and communities, global corporations and determined civil society.

The EIA also looks forward to seeing China become a responsible global center of consumption and manufacturing of forest products. The Hongmu crisis demonstrates that supply chains rooted in overexploitation, illegality and corruption are short-lived. They cannot sustain growing and mature demand or be the sole supply upon which an entire industry depends.

It seems that China has recently taken important, if largely symbolic, steps in the right direction. In its recently renewed forest law, China has officially banned the trade in illegally sourced timber.

In November 2021, in addition to signing a global agreement to halt and reverse deforestation at the United Nations COP26, China and the United States signed a joint declaration with specific goals to eliminate illegal deforestation by effectively implementing the laws prohibiting illegal imports.

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