When Madagascar experienced its latest political coup in 2009, one of the consequences was a pause in government operations. Nobody was quite sure who was in charge and in some of the further flung parts of the country, lines of authority broke down. The logging companies were quick to seize the brief window of opportunity, and armed gangs moved into the Marojejy National Park. The park closed to the public, and the official website reported helplessly from the sidelines: “Loggers have their run of the park, operating large camps, conducting business openly in broad daylight, threatening villagers and bribing local policemen.”
Calm was eventually restored, but the local ‘rosewood mafia’ and their Chinese export contacts had the run of the park for weeks. The park estimates that over 46,000 rosewood trees were cut down, with a value of over $100 million. Gangs were also able to take back large stockpiles of confiscated wood and ship it abroad. Other national parks were also targeted, and the battle to police the forests continues.
Of course, a trade in illegal wood also needs traders and buyers as well as loggers. Campaigners are working with the Malagasy government, but they have also tried to target the demand side. The French shipping company Delmas has been accused of profiting from the trade by shipping illegal timber from Malagasy ports. Much of the wood ends up in China, where it becomes impossible to track. Other shipments head for Europe or America, and one investigation was able to track the illegal wood right through to the a rather high profile end user – Gibson guitars. This summer Gibson were fined $300,000 for possessing illegal rosewood.
The US government were able to prosecute Gibson under amendments to the Lacey Act, which gave the US some of the tightest regulations in the world on illegal logging. That measure inspired the coalition government to include a similar bill in its agreement, but then they decided not to bother. With the government failing to deliver, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party introduced the law as a private members bill, but it ran out of time in the house. Britain remains the biggest market for illegal wood in Europe.
In the absence of national regulation, campaigners have worked with councils and businesses to move independently to verify their wood sources, my local council in Luton being one of them. For us consumers, we’re still best off looking for FSC certification on wood and paper products that we buy, and encouraging our favourite brands to source their wood products responsibly.
There is some progress on the issue however. New EU regulations come into force next year that will clamp down on the sale of illegal wood. This will make it harder to bring it to market, but campaigners say it leaves too many loopholes. Possession won’t be illegal, which means that companies will face no penalties for buying and using illegal timber and therefore have no incentive to improve their sourcing standards. Still, the EU ban is better than nothing. It comes into force in March 2013, so we may see more about illegal timber in the news next year.
Can we hope for more? Not in the current economic climate. Any tighter regulations would be seen as more red tape for business, and that’s unpopular right now. Madagascar’s forests will have to wait.