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What will you do when the trees are gone?

At risk: Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar Tomas de Mul/IRIN
Madagascar's transitional government is allowing the export of illegally harvested precious hardwoods as a source of revenue to keep itself afloat. Conservationists say the cost is incalculable, and the huge Indian Ocean Island stands to lose its status as one of the world's biological hotspots.

Groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Conservation International (CI) say illegal logging in Madagascar exploded in the aftermath of a political crisis that replaced President Marc Ravalomanana with Andre Rajoelina, current leader of the Transitional Authority, in March 2009. 

The international community condemned the coup-style change of leadership and shut off foreign aid. The island's civil service, including its nature conservation management system, all but collapsed. According to the International Monetary Fund, donor assistance accounted for about 50 percent of the Malagasy budget.

"It is clear that the government needs the money from the export of wood that we know has been cut illegally," Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, director of conservation at the WWF in Madagascar, told IRIN.

In the absence of rangers to patrol protected areas, and with corruption rife at major ports, the export of precious hardwoods has gone unchecked for months. Armed criminal logging gangs effectively have free rein in Madagascar's national parks.

A government decree in September 2009 legalized the export of unprocessed rosewood, an endangered hardwood, which had previously been illegal. Prime Minister Colonel Camille Vital extended the decree on 31 December 2009.

His decision has been strongly condemned by conservationists. "It takes a very short-term view that does not take into account the long-term sustainability of their actions. The result is the loss of Madagascar's natural heritage," said Ratsifandrihamanana.

The government has denied profiting from the sale of already scarce rosewood and said the money from timber exports would be used to help protect Madagascar's natural environment in future.

Critics say it is unclear where the funds from timber exports are going. In a joint statement released in September 2009, WWF, CI and the Wildlife Conservation Society said the decree "allows for the potential embezzlement of funds in the name of environmental protection and constitutes a legal incentive for further corruption in the forestry sector."

''It is highly unlikely that the logging will stop while the message being sent from the highest level of government is that there will probably be another chance to export illegal wood in future''
James MacKinnon, technical director of CI in Madagascar, told IRIN that extending the decree had already allowed a further 200 containers of timber to leave Madagascar so far this year, which would encourage more trees to be felled in anticipation of similar government decisions in future.

"It is highly unlikely that the logging will stop while the message being sent from the highest level of government is that there will probably be another chance to export illegal wood in future," he said.

Future at stake

Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, lies in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of southern Africa and is renowned for its unique flora and fauna: it is home to five percent of the world's plant and animal species, 80 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

With financial and technical support from foreign donors and conservation NGOs, Madagascar had made significant progress in the past decade, and the protection of wildlife enjoyed significant political backing.

In 2003 Ravalomanana committed to setting aside 10 percent of the island as a wildlife sanctuary, yet MacKinnon noted: "We know that most of this wood is coming from protected areas."

An investigation by EIA and Global Witness (GW), which monitors illegal exploitation and trade of natural resources, found that in the months following the coup, rosewood, palissander and ebony - all exotic tropical hardwoods - worth between US$88,000 and $460,000 was being harvested daily from national parks and protected areas.

Their report, published at the end of 2009, noted a "serious breakdown in the rule of law - if not the active collusion of law enforcement authorities with illegal timber traffickers."

WFF's Ratsifandrihamanana said local communities received scant benefit from the trade, while a small group – known as the "timber mafia" - controlled the industry, coercing local authorities and residents.

"What the local communities gain from the timber trade simply does not compare with what the people who export the wood are earning. In addition, local people are subjected to threats and intimidation from logging gangs," she said.

Environmental degradation. 2008061928
Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
Slash and burn agriculture is a major threat to Madagascar's forests
Malagasy men earn just a few dollars a day for the back-breaking work of locating and removing trees from the forest. According to GW, a day's wage for a wood-cutter is around $4, while one cubic metre of rosewood can fetch up to $5,000 on Asian markets.

The extraction of logs threatens more than just precious trees: loggers hunt endangered lemurs for food, while clearing pathways through the forest encourages the settlement of once-pristine habitats, opening them up to destructive practices like charcoal burning and slash-and-burn agriculture. The cumulative effect could ultimately put Madagascar's ecotourism industry, worth $390 million a year, at stake.

GW noted that the demand for rosewood furniture in China was a major driver of the illegal timber trade; smaller quantities of precious woods were shipped to Europe and the United States for use in high-end musical instruments.

Left with little recourse in Madagascar, conservationists believe that targeting overseas buyers may now be the only way to help fight illegal logging in the island. "International buyers should be careful," said MacKinnon. "Anything containing Malagasy rosewood should be considered illegal, even if you are just transporting it."

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