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Inside China’s Black Box: Antique Furniture Fuels Rosewood Crisis

West African Rosewood - one of the rarest timber species on earth is in short supply as Chinese traders export more than 3 million tons of timber by all means possible.


Sun 19 May 24

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Over three million tons of West African Rosewood have been shipped to China since 2017. The logs are manufactured into high-end Chinese furniture and exported worldwide as part of a multi-billion dollar furniture industry. 

That includes Mozambique, where the trade, worth US $23m from the country’s ancient forests, is helping to fund a brutal Islamic insurgency, as well as a sophisticated criminal network in the country’s north.

Trade in rare and precious timbers has surged over the past decade following a resurgence in demand for Ming dynasty-era classical furniture, which functions as a “cultural fix” for excess wealth. That is, despite the species officially being classified as “on the brink of extinction” in several African countries, including Mozambique, The Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

In November, Wood Central reported that CITES had banned the felling, transportation, and exportation of West African Rosewood in response to Chinese traders’ “industrial-scale” exploitation of the timbers. That move, according to environmental watchdog forest-trends, is an acknowledgment that past measures to protect the species, known as P. erinaceus, have “not worked and that CITES Parties (who are responsible for the measures to verify the legality and sustainability of trade, have not been able to eradicate illegal trade alone.”

Now, a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency alleges that the multi-billion dollar trade is showing no signs of slowing, despite CITES and the Gambian government’s both introducing outright bans on the harvest and distribution of the timbers.

In 2020, BBC News reported that Chinese traders are turning to West Africa, especially southern Senegal, where trees are cut down and smuggled into neighbouring Gambia and then onto China – footage courtesy of @BBCAfrica.

Speaking to an undercover Al Jazeera reporter, local traffickers claim that more than 200 containers loaded with 80-90 logs are shipped to China weekly, with a full container fetching US $15,000 – with local traffickers making up to $1,000 per container shipped.

And despite export permits being difficult to obtain, and with private shipping lines – previously the primary transport method- ceasing timber trade in 2020, traffickers are now using corrupt officials at the port authority and local police to facilitate the exchange.

“There is no way at the seaport yet,” according to one of the traffickers, “but if you are getting into timber trafficking, you are supposed to have proper contacts in place.” The key is to find well-placed contacts in the port authority, which they said can facilitate export procedures, “including permits and the deposit of containers,” whilst police can wave through containers in exchange for “tips.”  

“You need to know people in the system, a backup in case you get caught, suggesting that authorities are heavily involved in the trafficking.”

China’s Manufacturing Black Box

The trade from Gambia to China is part of a process known as “China’s manufacturing black box”, where logs enter China from the African Bason before being processed into high-value products in China, Malaysia and Thailand and exported to global markets.

According to the EIA, which published a report on trade in October 2023, the 2022 regional ban has slowed trade but not completely stopped it. 

The report noted that the ban “appeared to trigger a rush for exports, in violation of the provisional suspension that had already been in force for three months before this notification.” It pointed out that in July and August of that year, China imported more than 15,000 metric tonnes of Rosewood from The Gambia.

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In November 2023, a groundbreaking report by EIA uncovered the supply chain of 1.2 million timber doors from Equatorial Guinea into US-based hardware stores via China’s manufacturing black box. Wood Central understands luxury furniture is sold into global markets using a similar processing and manufacturing model. (Photo Credit: EIA)

Romain Taravella, an investigator with the EIA, was part of a team whose research on rosewood trafficking in The Gambia prompted CITES to adopt the regional ban — the strictest so far.

 The EIA investigation reported that from 2012 to 2020, 1.6 million trees were illegally harvested in Casamance and smuggled into The Gambia.

“[The Gambia has] never been a supporter of this regional ban nor a country that was acknowledging the need to have a ban,” Mr Taravella told Al Jazeera.  The EIA report also accused senior officials in the government of having been involved with trafficking during that time.

Leading up to the ban, the EIA uncovered a well-organised system of “mis-declaring and under-declaring” timber at ports. Traffickers falsely labelled the containers as peanuts or metal scraps. However, once they entered China’s megaports, the timber was declared “Rosewood” on import data.

Private shipping lines previously moved the timber to China. When the companies ceased such deliveries, Mr Taravella noticed that the trade continued even after the ban, indicating that the traffickers quickly adapted and found alternative routes.

He said, “The system was well-oiled since before the ban.” Rosewood import data from China from 2018 to 2023 showed a 43% increase in rosewood imports from The Gambia in September last year compared with the same month of the previous year and a 58% increase from pre-pandemic levels for the same month.

According to Mr Taravella, this contradicts the CITES ban, which “specifically prohibits the exportation and importation of rosewood timber and bans China from accepting rosewood imports.” 

‘Conflict tinder’

The majority of trafficked Rosewood comes from the lush, green Casamance region. For the Indigenous peoples, the region’s trees — are considered sacred. Senegal’s former environment minister and one of Africa’s best-known conservationists, Haidar el Ali, has dedicated his retirement to preserving its forests.

“The traffic still happens in Gambia,” he said; however, “there was less rosewood than before,” with overharvesting leading to an increasingly shrinking remaining stock of the dwindling species.

For more than four decades, a low-intensity conflict between the Senegalese government and the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) has plagued the region, making it the longest-running conflict in Africa.

Like Ballen, border villages in The Gambia are full of refugees who fled Casamance decades ago. Most of these villages comprise Casamancese refugees and Gambian locals, who only differ by nationality but not by ethnicity or language.

According to Al Jazeera, the illegal trade of West African Rosewood is the principal source of income for the rebels, leading to EIA dubbing the trade in species “conflict tinder.”

China Needs to Beef up its Forest Law.

African Rosewood is vital to the timber trade between West Africa and China. According to forest trends, up to 2020, more than 79% of all hardwood logs imported from West Africa are reported as hongmu (Chinese for redwood), soaring from 34% in 2011, even as absolute trade in hongmu has dropped.

Fuelled by the Belt and Road Initiative, China has replaced Europe as the primary consumer of African forest products – with substantial interests across the continent.

However, as reported by Wood Central in October, the problem is that China does not have a legal mechanism to address imports that come from deforestation, “leaving an enormous loophole for Chinese importers to exploit,” according to a report by Global Witness.

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China now controls 30.5% of the world’s forests, 18% of the world’s consumption and 55% of the world’s total import of sawn wood, logs, pulp and paper. In 2019, Brookings looked at the forecast forest cover, loss and gain resulting from the Belt and Road Initiative.

“China is reluctant to address deforestation outside its borders,” Global Witness said. At a time when the EU, UK, and US are all looking to introduce regulations that ban products linked to deforestation, China is going in the opposite direction.

Instead, China should strengthen its Forest Law, last amended in 2019, and embrace measures like the EU Deforestation Regulation before excess logging leads to total habitat destruction. “The new investigation urges China to enact and enforce a clear legal prohibition against illegal timber imports – as well as the financing that drives this deforestation,” Global Witness said.

Last year, the EU became the first jurisdiction to criminalise timber trafficking as part of their beefed-up Green Deal. In the new legislation, environmental crimes like trafficking, deforestation, forest fires and pollution will be met with fines worth tens of millions of euros or up to five per cent of a company’s global turnover with orders to repair damage caused and the revocation of licences.

“Environmental crime is one of the world’s most profitable organised criminal activities and has a major impact not only on the environment but also on human health,” the European Council said in a statement.

“It is highly lucrative but hard to detect, prosecute and punish.”

In 2022 alone, more than 120 million tons of timber in Europe had no official certificate of origin, with much of the wood arriving in Europe from Russia via China and a block of nine countries, including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan.

Author

  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.

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