China, Zambia and the rosewood tree

From ToxicLeaks

The mukula tree and endangered rosewoods[edit | edit source]

In October 2018, the 70th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) was held in Sochi, Russia. More than 700 representatives, from 80 countries and more than 100 organizations, focused on elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolin and more endangered species subject to illegal trade. There was one more item on the agenda that – while not as cute and cuddly as wildlife – is just as threatened. That’s the rosewood tree, which is carefully regulated. Rosewood grows across the globe, from Asia to South America, but Africa’s forests are among the most vulnerable. Five types of rosewood are considered endangered. The so-called “African rosewood,” the Pterocarpus erinaceus is found in West Africa, especially Benin, and continues dramatic decline. Also endangered are the Dalbergia xerophila and the Dalbergia abrahamii of Madagascar. And then there’s what’s known in Zambia as mukula – the Pterocarpus chrysothrix, a “safe” relative of the rosewood tree.


As of January 2017, all Dalbergia along with the African rosewood are listed under CITES Appendix I or II, which forbid legal trade or establish strict compliance rules. Yet demand continues and so does trade. At Sochi, Nigeria was put in the hotseat for failing to guarantee sustainable practices while shipping 180,000 cubic meters of the precious hardwood to China and Vietnam, resulting in a temporary ban. That followed prior cases of alleged corruption and bribery in the rosewood trade between China and Nigeria. In December 2018, the watchdog NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) tracked the sale of rosewood logs to China from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. The “Authorized Plunder” report said sales of African rosewood driven by high-level officials put the CITES protections in jeopardy – with CITES knowledge. Regulation is one reason China turns to Zambia’s mukula tree, which skirts the CITES rule.


China driving rosewood demand[edit | edit source]

The trees are technically different but there’s one thing the African nations all have in common: China is driving demand, and much of it is illegal. “Over the past decade, China has emerged as the epicenter of the international rosewood trading and trafficking routes,” the EIA said. Primarily that’s for high-quality furniture sales to China’s growing middle and upper classes. The volume from Africa has risen to about 600,000 cubic meters in 2017 – down from an 800,000 peak – against a nearly flat 2009 baseline. Africa overtook Asia as a rosewood source in late 2011, and both continents far outpace Latin American sources. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) says that by one estimate, 75 percent of Africa’s timber is exported to China. The demand creates environmental crisis, but it also drives armed  conflict and puts activists at risk. It fuels sustainable development frustration for many Africans, particularly in villages and countries where Chinese investors and companies own the timber operations.

Zambia’s timber industry at a crossroads[edit | edit source]

In Zambia, academic researchers in the Copperbelt region completed a study on the mukula tree in 2015, as demand for this rosewood cousin was taking off and tighter controls on other rosewoods loomed large on the supply side. Illegal logging and overharvesting in Zambia were common, and the government led by President Edgar Lungu instituted an export ban, with no log transport trucks permitted whether they originate in Zambia or not. During just four months of 2017, police detained 466 such trucks of mukula.


Yet observers within and outside of Zambia question if the ban is curbing the illegal and unsustainable timber harvest, or merely making the country’s elites rich while blaming small mukula operators. “Legal uncertainties and corruption mean that laws, regulations, or sustainable forest management plans related to rosewood are rarely implemented and monitored,” said a report from Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) experts. “This means that Zambia doesn’t benefit much from rosewood trade.” The forests are being decimated, and the country is losing USD$3.2 million in potential revenue per year. Worse still, the center’s forestry experts estimate $1.7 million in bribes is facilitating illegal mukula trade.  Others warn that Chinese companies aren’t creating Zambian jobs and simply export the raw materials rather than creating furniture, musical instruments and other products in the country. In November 2018, riots were sparked by rumors that China was buying Zaffico, Zambia’s state-owned timber operations. The incident caused a diplomatic crisis, and Zambians remained dubious about official denials of rumors. Meanwhile, the Zambian timber trade association says the illegal logging is financed by Chinese actors.


Efforts to protect the mukula tree[edit | edit source]

Zambia’s situation demonstrates how a constellation of factors places pressure on African timber – including the unintended consequence of putting southern Africa’s mukula trees at greater risk because of strict CITES control over other rosewood trees and woods. One solution proposed by CIFOR is to put the  P. Chrysothrix, the mukula itself, on the CITES list so it is not a go-to “alternative rosewood” for China.


Other sub-Saharan countries should take note and work together, the CIFOR team said. “While Zambian forests were emptied of rosewood – and the government was deliberating potential countermeasures – buyers and traders had already moved into Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. While trying to perfect domestic laws, the precious resource will already be gone.”