No one paid much attention to the gnarled, yellow-blossomed rosewood trees dotted around farmsteads in northern Ivory Coast until Chinese-backed buyers started offering money for the timber.
Fast forward five years and Ivory Coast is looking back at a tumultuous time in the logging industry, with confusion over permits, illegal harvesting of trees, seizures of trucks, and finally, a blanket ban on rosewood exports in 2014.
“We simply had no idea; for decades, the trees were just there,” said Jean Yves Garnault, the government’s principal adviser on rosewood. “We only realized its value when we discovered that the wood is fashionable in China.”
Soaring Chinese demand for rosewood has spurred a largely illicit trade in West Africa worth at least $1.3 billion since inception, according to advocacy group Forest Trends. That’s decimating forests and heightening tension as governments find that export bans simply prompt dealers to divert truckloads of timber to ports in neighboring countries.
Seven of China’s biggest suppliers of rosewood logs by volume are in Africa, with Nigeria topping the list and Ghana ranking third. Gambia, even if it’s 86 times smaller than Nigeria, is fourth because it illegally ships rosewood from neighboring Senegal, according to activists and the Senegalese government — part of a cycle in which illicit trade moves opportunistically from country to country.
Rosewood is coveted in China, the world’s largest consumer of the wood, because it’s used to make antique-looking furniture with intricate carvings fashionable among middle-class consumers. Importers initially turned to nearby forests, but when southeast Asian stocks were almost depleted, traders in 2009 began eyeing West Africa, home to a more affordable variety.
Representatives of China’s ministry of commerce didn’t reply to a request for comment.
“What happened is a combination of the species being overlogged in southeast Asia to the point of endangerment, and more Chinese consumers having the budget and appetite for rosewood,” Naomi Basik Treanor, a researcher for Washington-based Forest Trends, said by phone. “African rosewood has that luster but it’s cheaper, so it’s in high demand.”
Pterocarpus erinaceus, the scientific name for the tree that’s 15 meters (49 feet) high, can survive protracted droughts and grows in semi-arid savannas from Senegal to Central African Republic. Its grey bark is used for medicinal purposes, and the leaves, once dried, are popular with sheep farmers as fodder.
Most West African countries have imposed export embargoes on rosewood, an umbrella term for more than 30 species of the red-hued hardwood, with some bans going back decades and many revised regularly. Togo issued the most recent prohibition in June, as the government announced a 10-year stop to logging. During a summit in Guinea Bissau in March, 11 West African countries agreed to urge China to restrict imports.
But regulation hasn’t stopped illegal logging and shipments continue unabated. Volumes of Chinese imports of West African rosewood logs surged 30 percent between January and May, according to Chinese customs data compiled by Forest Trends. The value of the imports rose 19 percent, it said.
Weak rule of law and opportunistic traders mean that exports from one country often originate in another. To circumvent bans, logs are smuggled across borders or cut into blocks and labeled as generic timber. That accounts for hugely volatile import data, such as a 100 percent collapse in exports from Guinea Bissau, a 50 percent decline in shipments from Togo and a 350 percent surge in exports from Ghana since last year, the Chinese data show.
“One export ban will invariably lead to leakage to neighboring countries,” Basik Treanor said. “These measures are a stopgap and a real solution would be for China to prohibit the import of illegal timber. There needs to be robust legislation on the consumer side.”
The Gambia is a case in point. A tiny enclave that cuts a horizontal swathe through larger Senegal, it shipped 57,900 cubic meters of rosewood logs to China last year, despite an export ban in place since 2012, according to customs data. Prior to 2010, the Gambia didn’t export timber.
Almost all of that rosewood is smuggled from Senegal, whose forest reserves are in the relatively remote Casamance region close to the Gambian border, according to activists and the Senegalese government. Illegal traders, most of them Senegalese, are destroying at least 40,000 square meters (10 acres) of forest area annually, President Macky Sall said in a speech last year as he announced an immediate halt to all wood-cutting permits. He also pledged to recruit thousands of additional forest rangers.
Senegal in 1998 completely banned exports of the Pterocarpus erinaceus variety and took the lead in requesting the Geneva-based Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, to list the tree as imperiled.
The government’s tough stance and soaring demand have spawned vibrant cross-border traffic, with Senegalese smugglers using horse carts to carry logs to warehouses in the Gambia, according to aerial images shown to reporters in May by conservationist and former environment minister Haidar el Ali, who used drones to film the evidence.
“The Casamance forests will be damaged irreparably within the next two years if the illegal trafficking toward Gambia continues at its current pace,” he said. “There’s a blatant ‘Who cares?’ attitude that is just mind-boggling.”
The permanent secretary of the Gambian Forestry Ministry, Ousman Sow, couldn’t immediately comment on allegations that the nation exports Senegalese rosewood, he said by phone. The media department of the Chinese embassy in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, didn’t answer calls.
In the Gambian village of Busumbala, 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the capital, Banjul, Tom Chen, a Chinese national, stood at a dust-covered sawmill where about 80 workers were sawing timber into planks and packing the wood in containers for export. Chen said he and his brother arrived in the county four years ago and obtained a license to purchase and ship timber, including rosewood and mahogany, to China.
Chen, who has a steady stream of suppliers and middlemen bringing logs to his mill, pays $1,150 to $1,400 for a truckload of timber. Asked what he would do if the Gambia decided to end to the trade, he said: “We will probably move to another country to continue our business.”