JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - A cursory Google search for 'rosewood furniture China' brings up plenty of sites selling the luxury item, but most buyers are likely unaware that their treasured table or chair could be the product of a rampant illegal trade in the protected tree species - one which is decimating forests in West Africa, facilitating elephant poaching, and even aiding jihadi groups.
Between May 2020 and March 2022, China imported from Mali 220,000 trees' worth -148,000 tons - of a type of rosewood known as kosso despite a ban on its harvest and trade in the troubled West Africa nation, a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found.
The dark wood is used to make expensive antique-style furniture. It is so popular in China, where it is known as 'hongmu,' or 'red wood,' that some 90% of the world's exports end up there, according to Haibing Ma, EIA's Asia policy specialist. Vietnam is also a key buyer of the wood.
'Rosewood is a species traditionally and culturally valued by the Chinese, so there's almost like an insatiable demand there,' he told VOA.
From 2017-22, China imported half a million kosso trees, worth about $220 million, from Mali, the agency found, with Ma noting that the trade 'has already caused tremendous negative ecological, economic and social impacts in the sourcing countries.'
Rosewood used to be sourced mainly from Southeast Asia, but with those forests now over-logged, Chinese traders have turned to West Africa, notably Mali, a chronically unstable nation that has suffered two coups since 2020 and is battling a jihadi insurgency.
Mali regulations and trade
Mali had declared a rosewood harvesting ban in 2020, but that was lifted the next year. Since then, a 'log export ban' has been in effect, but exports to China have continued, EIA investigators found, estimating that more than 5,500 shipping containers of kosso were exported to China from May 2020 to March 2022.
Most of the logging is occurring in protected areas such as forest reserves, in violation of Mali's forest code.
According to the EIA report, both the illegal trade in kosso and an export monopoly granted to Generale Industrie du Bois SARL, a company run by a Malian entrepreneur, allegedly rely on 'deeply entrenched corruption' that includes using invalid permits to ship the wood. EIA investigators also learned of civil servants receiving bribes to ignore logging and trafficking, the report said.
Trucks move the logs from Bamako, Mali's capital, to the port of Dakar in Senegal. From there, they are shipped to China.
Cutting and timber extraction from the southern forests of Mali. (Courtesy Environmental Investigation Agency)
Emailed requests for comment to the Chinese Embassy in Bamako and to Mamadou Gackou, secretary-general of Mali's Ministry of Environment, Sanitation and Sustainable Development, went unanswered.
Rosewood, ivory and jihadis
Rosewood trafficking is also a conduit for the smuggling of other goods, EIA found. Illegal ivory, including some from Mali's nearly annihilated Gourma desert elephant, has been found inside the logs.
'It appears that the Chinese trader known locally as 'Frank' and his business partner, who carry out the largest rosewood trading operation in the country, have also been involved in ivory smuggling between Mali and China, starting in 2017 until at least 2020,' the report said. As of a couple of months ago, when EIA investigators spoke to Frank's businesses partners, 'they were still busy figuring out how to get a maximum of the kosso logs they had in the depot out of the country,' said Raphael Edou, Africa Program Manager at EIA.
Jihadis in Mali are using the timber trafficking issue as a means of propaganda, saying only they can stop the logging of the country's precious forests, the EIA found.
'Supporters of the rebels have exploited the forest crisis and the frustration among the population in the Southern provinces as a way to promote their cause. They frequently allege that only the strict discipline of the jihadist can put an end to the rosewood crisis and the circles of grand corruption it has fueled,' the report said.
Responses to the logging problem
Beijing, Ma notes, has stipulated that all its foreign investment under its Belt and Road Initiative 'should stick to the principle and the directions laid out in the Paris Agreement,' and that President Xi Jinping has stressed 'China and Africa cooperation will never be at the cost of the interests of African people.'
The country must now walk the talk and stop the export of illegal timber from Mali, Ma said, adding, 'As a responsible great power, China should make efforts to clean up these trade lines.'
China has taken action to stop logging in Gabon, where Chinese companies were linked to the illegal trafficking of timber in 2019. At that time, Beijing signed an agreement with the West African state to help fight illegal logging and develop forest management in Gabon. Since the two countries began cooperating, Gabon has seen a dramatic fall in illegal logging, according to Lee White, Gabon's minister of water, forests, the sea and environment, as reported by the South China Morning Post.
Asked about what would happen to the loggers if the rosewood trade was shut down, EIA's Edou said that they usually come from neighboring countries and that Malian communities resent their presence.
'According to our investigation, most of the forest communities in Mali have suffered and not benefited from the rosewood crisis. ... Timber is commonly stolen from the communities' forest area. Local leaders have raised on multiple occasions the problem: Others make money, they pay the price,' he said. Local residents end up losing their forests and receiving no money for the wood. Some communities even patrol their forests in hopes of catching the loggers themselves.
The EIA's investigation comes as the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), described as 'an international agreement between governments' that aims to protect the survival of species traded globally, is deliberating a regional trade ban. In March, in response to West African countries' request, a CITES meeting gave states until April 27 to demonstrate their exports were legal or declare a zero-export quota. If they failed to do so, they would face a trade suspension.
'The CITES secretariat is analyzing all information received. ... It's expected this will be completed by the end of this month,' CITES spokesperson David Whitbourn told VOA in an email response.
'When the analysis is complete, a recommendation to suspend commercial trade for Pterocarpus erinaceus (Rosewood) will be set in place for those Parties that have not responded or have not provided a satisfactory justification,' he added.