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Madagascar: The Undercover Investigations That Exposed Rosewood Trafficking from the Rain Forest

Technology for Transparency Network This post is part of the Technology for Transparency Network where we research technology that promotes accountability and transparency worldwide· All Posts

One of the consequences of the enduring political crisis in Madagascar is its punishing impact on the environment, especially on the rain forest that is being pillaged because of a lucrative illegal rosewood.  The combined work of activists and organizations specialized in conservation and protection, and investigative work in environmental crimes and exposing corruption in natural resource exploitation and trade was instrumental in documenting these environmental crimes. The investigation conducted by various independent environmental agencies showed that the illegal logging of rosewood was worth $460,000 USD/day. The reports also revealed that the illegal trafficking was sanctioned by the government of Madagascar who authorized the transportation of containers containing the rosewood logs.  The investigations were conducted for more than 2 years  and started when the previous administration were still in place.  The issue has only made its way into the political debate and the Malagasy mainstream media in the last few months partly because of the indisputable evidence collected and published by the agencies.

Village Scene in the vicinity of Masoala National Park – invaded by loggers (copyright Global Witness)

Many environmental and transparency organizations are to be credited for conducting the investigation in spite of the political turmoil, legal uncertainty and death threats. We interviewed Rhett A. Butler, creator of the environmental science and conservation website Mongabay and Reiner Tegtmeyer, member of the Global Witness team, an organization that exposes the corrupt exploitation of natural resources and international trade systems about the many challenges of protecting the environment in an embattled country and the role of technology in collecting data for their reports. The full reports on the extent of the traffic and the authorities involved can be found here (Global Witness) and  here (Mongabay).  Important  policy reports on the protection of environment were also published by the  Madagascar Wildlife Conservation and Jane Goodall Insitute and the International Resources Group, USAID and  Madagascar National Parks.  These investigations were mostly conducted independently of the others except for a few collaborations.

Mongabay team in Madagascar- Credits Benja R. at wildmadagascar.org

The Role of Technology and Cost of Investigative Report:

Rhett Butler explains that a team effort was needed to not only collect the evidence but also get the words out in the news and on social media platform:

Jeremy Hance, Rowan Gerety and the local anonymous tippers were instrumental in collecting and organizing the information. Tipsters took pictures with mobile phones and basic digital cameras, sent reports via email and text. Tipsters would monitor shipments at the port and passing tracks and report via mobile. The Missouri Botanical Garden financed the acquisition of high resolution imagery that was used to document where rosewood logs were being stored. This information was conveyed to local authorities (who did little), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (to investigate under the Lacey Act), the French delegation in Copenhagen, and media (which mostly ignored the story) [..] Satellite imagery from what I understand  is expensive and  Google Earth imagery is not good enough (resolution and frequency) in this case.  Mongabay itself did not have a set budget and mostly relied on voluntary and collaborative work.

Reiner Tegtmeyer also emphasized that many people ( from Global Witness and outside) were involved in the investigation and the production of reports. He breaks down the cost of conducting the investigation as follows:

a) the investigation’s scope (geographical, thematic), b) the target country’s transport conditions and flight fares to that country, c) number of stakeholders and persons/organisations affected by the investigation’s subject that need to be consulted, and d) whether local experts (technical experts, guides, translators) need to be contracted. The costs for a 4-week field investigation like the one in Madagascar would be of about USD $50- 80,000, including expenditures for backup and administrative support, insurance and production and publication of reports.

Sattelite image of rosewood containers courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Gardens

The Challenges in Protecting  the Environment

Madagascar is a remote place for the rest of the world and the rain forest is remote even for Malagasy people in the capital city. Yet Reiner Tegtmeyer does not think distance was the main issue but rather the lack of political will  to prevent more illegal logging:

The main challenge is to break the complicity of government official, in particular reportedly the Prime Minister, and the timber barons in the SAVA Region. Consequently, the Government issued again and again “exceptional” exportation authorizations for the timber barons operating in SAVA Region of precious wood officially recognized as being of illegal origin. But there are also the financial constraints the Interim Government is facing due to punitive sanctions against the country that makes it desperately searching for funds. A further challenge is insufficient staffing and provision of technical and logistics equipment of the National Parks management and the regional forest and environment administration which results in limited and inefficient control operations. Collaboration with law enforcement agencies can partly mitigate these problems but cannot be seen as a definite solution. Furthermore, reported and observed complicity of certain elements of the Gendarmerie jeopardizes effective law enforcement efforts.

Rhett Butler agrees that political will is critical. A task force was set up by the current government months ago but it ended with little impact and the members recently complained publicly that they never received their overdue salaries [fr].   Butler also mentions that cyber-attacks were launched against his site and that he received  the death threats  trying to expose the lucrative trafficking:

I'm still not confident however that illegal logging or shipments of rosewood will not resume again soon.  It's going to take political commitment to end the trade.  From my perspective, the situation is now at a point where engagement of other parties is going to be more useful in advancing the issue. It's also a problem that the press doesn't care that much about such issues and that most Americans don't know anything about Madagascar [..] I don't engage with politicians in Madagascar.  Both the Rajoelina camp and the Ravalomanana camp contacted me but I didn't respond because neither camp offered concrete solutions to end the trafficking.  In March 2010,  a cyber-attack was launched against my sites that corresponded with the peak of the activity around the Delmas shipment.  The attacks–which used two very different tactics, one fairly blunt, the other more nuanced–appeared to originate in China, although it's hard to say. I also got some threatening emails from people whom I assume were associated with the loggers (wanting to kill me and in some cases my family). But they never knew where I was and I also always made sure I protected the identity and anonymity of my sources and colleagues.

Manambolo River in Madagascar courtesy of Benja R. on wildmadagascar.org

Solutions for more Effective Environmental Policies

Rhett Butler refers to his article here:

An absolute moratorium on logging combined with amnesty from prosecution for traders and a reforestation program funded by sales of illegally logged timber. The moratorium would be effective immediately with violations punishable by a long prison sentence. Any rosewood logs currently awaiting shipment in Vohemar, Tamatave, and other specified towns would be marked with a counterfeit-proof code (required for export clearance) and recorded in a digital tracking system. The logs would be auctioned via a transparent market system — the price and the log code would be recorded and publicly available.

Reiner Tegtmeyer emphasizes the need for better trained policy makers that can overcome corruption, the legal recognition of tenure and usage rights of local populations and a combination of leverage with aid money with stringent penalties and sanctions:

Pressure in international media won’t have a big impact on states/governments that already have a bad/weak reputation (see Cambodia and Burma). Yet, there is a bit leverage through conditionalities (to be) attached to aid money. With respect to tenure and usage rights of local populations, studies have shown that traditional farming methods and small-holder farming has the least negative impact on forests; if land rights are acknowledged, farmers show a high interest in maintaining their environment for future benefits.[..] the fight against illegal logging, in combination with good governance, is high on the agenda of national and international political bodies and the international donor community: Lacey Act from the US Congress and  the “Due Diligence obligation” from the European Parliament. The suspension of aid as a sanction against pariah states is a tricky issue. Not only has it left the Malagasy government without funds to curb illegal activities through regular and targeted control activities but has also caused mass unemployment and a huge surge in child labour. This fact is one of the reasons the greedy timber barons can so easily get needy people to do the dirty and very hard work to cut and transport ebony, rosewood and pallisander for making a living. The international community (IC) should support, with financial and technical aid, semi-autonomous organisations such as Madagascar National Parks (MNP) to quell the illegal activities and book the responsible parties. [..] The Malagasy Government should generate funds to effectively control activities in the forests through the overdue confiscation and sale of the stocks of illegal precious wood. In addition to the official December 2008 inventory in the SAVA main towns,  all precious wood stored elsewhere must immediately be inventoried. However, all wood not being inventoried must be destroyed as the only effective deterrent for the continuation of cutting down trees.

Final thoughts:

Reth Butler

I've been warned that I cannot return to Madagascar under the current regime.  It's sad because Madagascar is my favorite country (in fact the name Mongabay originates from Nosy Mangabe in Madagascar) but a small price to pay for helping interrupt the destruction of the island's wonderful forests.

Reiner Tegtmeyer:

At Global Witness, our work in exposing corrupt exploitation of natural resources and international trade systems, resource-linked conflict, and human rights and environmental abuses does not so much address the broad public but rather national and international policy decision makers and the international community at large who are concerned with, or somehow involved in the policies or support of natural resources extraction.

Additional resources:

National Geographic article on the depletion of Madagascar's natural resources: ” Madagascar’s Pierced Heart
Interview in French with Hery Randriamalala, one of the lead researcher for the MWC and JGI report.

Mongabay in Madagascar

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