Illegal Logging in Madagascar

Photographs and Text by Toby Smith

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This feature was shot in 2007 & 2008. A full edit of 108 images available on request. The following text was written by photographer Toby Smith, and is available with the images.

Madagascar hosts incredibly diverse geography, climate and some of the world's rarest wildlife within its primary forests. In February 2009, Madagascar’s coup d’état saw a new government take control. Cracks are quickly developing in infrastructure and corruption is on the rise. Madagascar as an island depends on the import and export of goods, but since the coup trade sanctions from the West have been applied, and foreign NGO’s have nearly all left. Massive slash and burn deforestation throughout the 20th century gave sufficient cause to apply UNESCO protective status to the remaining primary forests of Madagascar. However, within days of the recent political upheaval, park rangers at Marojejy National Park, popular with eco-tourists, were overrun by organized armed militia who quickly targeted its valuable rosewood.

Rosewood, genus Dalbergia, is close to being assigned CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) protective status, and is found only at 400-1000m altitude, in specific habitats. Trees between 100 and 300 years old have an incredibly dense core weighing 1.5 times more than oak per cubic metre, with great tensile strength. These structural qualities, and the beautifully dark pink to blood-red rose colouring, make it a premium material for Asian furniture and handicrafts. Its sonorous qualities and colouring also make it a very sought after material for exclusive musical instruments in Europe and the US.

Masoala National Park is an extensive remote area of forest in the North East of Madagascar. Much of its area is yet to be biologically researched, and infrastructure is almost non-existent. With the lure of cash wages beyond their normal means, local people have created logging camps along its rivers and valleys. Using the most basic of tools with zero mechanisation, precious timber is extracted by any means possible, before making the journey to the depots of the six traders that control this region.

Rice and provisions travel against the flow of timber. Each encampment is a scruffy Wild West exchange, with neighbouring small traditional villages often overrun by temporary stalls, tents, casinos and brothels. Makeshift pharmacies also sell counterfeit Chinese antibiotics to the new population of the forest.

Each tree is felled by hand axe, before being cut into 2.5m lengths and stripped to the valuable core. Teams of between two and six men arduously haul the lengths through the thick jungle and along streams, until deeper water is reached. Quickly sinking in water, rosewood logs require bamboo and lighter timber to be bound to them, before being rafted further downstream. Each rosewood log results in six or more other trees being felled, along with creepers to be used as rope to bind it all together. These makeshift rafts often disintegrate at bends in the river or rapids, requiring new timber to then be cut and tied together. This process therefore causes further deforestation.

In the shallow water each raft is dragged, pulled and steered for over 5 hours towards the Indian Ocean. Teams of young men wait at the worst cascades to help extract rafts and logs that become trapped or destroyed by the rapids. Such dangerous works results in many broken limbs and serious injuries.

At such point where the water becomes deep enough to be navigable, the rosewood is stripped of its raft and loaded onto traditional pirogue canoes. It is a further 4 hours downstream before the river meets a road along which tractors and trailers can drive. Rosewood also arrives from even more remote estuaries by small seafaring boats.

Once it has reached the Southerly town of Antalaha, rosewood is stockpiled within various depots, awaiting containerisation and international export from the tiny port of Vohemar. In May, containers destined for China were seized as a token gesture of control by the current government. Inevitably, after payment, these containers will find their way overseas to foreign markets, before the surrounding depots resupply the tiny port.

The local gendarmerie and officials are either corrupt or powerless to stop the flow of timber across the country, and beyond. Madagascar National Park employees that have attempted to stand against or document the logging have been subjected to intimidation and physical violence.

Chinese benefactors fund the local traders. Only a fraction of the wood is processed on Madagascan soil, ensuring that the price paid per length is rock bottom at export, and few locally really benefit from the industry. Only a fraction of the money makes its way to the Malagasy labourers, who are promised payment only when containers leave the port. The local people are therefore left exploited for their labour, and forced to destroy their own natural resources.

With a justice and enforcement system illicitly devoted to ensuring this trade continues, pressure from outside Madagascar must be exerted to deflate the market and stem the supply. Recent amendments to the Lacey Act in the US now, specifically relating to plants and plant products, enable international traders of endangered species to be prosecuted on US soil for the first time. Amendments of the CITES list to include rosewood could also see any connected EU business be recipients of fines and public pressure.

Photographer Toby Smith first visited Madagascar independently in May 2009 to produce a photographic essay depicting the nation in the shadow of a new regime. Upon travelling to the East coast, evidence of the coup remained in the persistent and growing traffic of rosewood. On August 8th, KFW bank, in conjunction with Madagascar National Parks, commissioned EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency) and Global Witness to produce an official report into illegal rosewood logging and trade. Toby accompanied the mission to provide photographic and video evidence of the findings. It also gave him the opportunity to explore the remote areas of Masoala peninsula, at the heart of the logging.

The subsequent documents, images and video produced from the investigation are at the evidential heart of US authority and Interpol investigation into the illicit global trade of Malagasy rosewood and ebony. The investigation revealed documents tracing rosewood to Germany, and ebony to US manufacturers. The combined gathering of evidence included financial statements from European-owned banks, shipping and cargo manifests and, critically, GPS images pinpointing the wood’s origin within National Parks.

Under pressure from these findings, shipments have been embargoed at the ports of Mauritius and La Reunion, and two of the key international shipping companies have washed their hands of shipments containing Malagasy timber. It does seem clear that this problem cannot be solved on Malagasy soil alone. Powerful traders, and corruption extending throughout the customs system, ensure that wood will continue to be felled and moved through Madagascar, with only small penalties applied.

It is therefore the intention and efforts of EIA to use evidence and video gathered to prosecute those responsible for creating the international market outside of Madagascar.

On a 3rd trip to Madagascar, a team consisting of Sascha Von Bismarck and Adam Khedouri (both of EIA) and photographer Toby Smith returned for the third time, substantiating the external evidence of illegal ebony entering the US market. This evidence was obtained by working from deep within the industry in Madagascar, posing undercover as timber traders seeking to establish new trading routes to Europe and the US. Subsequent secretly recorded footage, interviews, photographs of the logging yards and stock, and further evidence from within the National Park have been captured.

This evidence was presented to Federal Agents upon the return to Washington DC. The imminent landmark prosecution of major US and European traders of illegal timber will be the first such case brought under the new Lacey Act amendment in the US. Search warrants have already been served, and indictments are expected with the coming months.

Significantly, Gibson Guitars of Nashville, Tennessee, are now under Federal Investigation. Agents have seized stock and records to substantiate the evidence that Gibson imported its wood illegally from Madagascar via Germany.