Environmentalists and the international community are trying to find ways of limiting the damage caused by an explosion in the illegal logging of precious hardwoods in Madagascar since a major political crisis began there nearly three years ago.
Following the 2009 coup d’état which brought current Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina to power, donors suspended most aid, including for environmental funding, and timber traders took advantage of the chaos to invade forests world-renowned for their unique flora and fauna.
A September 2009 government decree legalizing the export of unprocessed rosewood, an endangered hardwood, further fuelled the trade and caused a wave of international criticism.
A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Global Witness (GW) in 2010 found that collusion between timber traders and government officials was contributing to the felling of more than 200 rare hardwood trees a day in the months following the coup.
The Malagasy government has since reverted to banning all exports of precious wood and Andrea Johnson of the EIA said there had been some instances of the ban actually being enforced. In July 2011, for example, authorities confiscated six containers of rosewood logs worth up to US$600,000 from a port in the northwest of the country.
The government also turned to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to help regulate 91 species of rosewood and ebony.
The World Bank recently approved a one-off US$52 million loan to help finance conservation efforts in Madagascar, emphasizing that the financing did not represent a re-engagement with the Malagasy authorities, but a recognition of the importance of Madagascar’s environment.
These measures have eased the immediate crisis, but not solved the problem. “We believe that exports have diminished, and there have been some good examples of enforcement activity, but we believe timber is still going out," said Johnson.
Christopher Holmes, country director of the Conservation Society, an international NGO which has been working in Madagascar for over 20 years, described the current system as having many holes. “It is legal to cut wood in concessions, so traders can obtain a license by saying that their wood came from such a place.”
Most of the illegally cut wood is exported to China to supply the growing demand for hardwood furniture. A smaller quantity is shipped to Europe and the USA where it is turned into musical instruments. The US guitar maker Gibson is under investigation for the use of illegal wood from Madagascar.
The issue of what to do with existing stockpiles of illegally-logged timber continues to be debated, with the government in favour of selling the wood and environmentalists pointing out that this would only encourage more illegal logging.
Recently President Rajoelina told the BBC that the Malagasy “do not need rosewood, they need funding”. In the interview Rajoelina scorned the idea of developing value-added industries for rosewood within Madagascar, saying that this would take too long, and stated his support for exporting the illegally-cut wood.
The international community is exploring ways of helping Madagascar to sell its existing timber stockpiles and then using the proceeds to finance conservation efforts, but some conservationists argue that a better approach would be to sell the timber off slowly, over time.
Preserving what remains of the forests has become more important than ever. Marie Helene Kam Hyo, a pharmacist based in Antalaha, a small town in the east of Madagascar next to the Masoala National Park, is attempting to recreate the fast disappearing rainforest on a hillside she owns.
Since 2003, she has planted 30,000 trees and introduced many of the other plants that grow in Masoala, one of Madagascar's largest natural reserves and one of the areas most affected by illegal rosewood logging.
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“Those who cut rosewood tell me that it will grow back, but that’s not true. Sure, the stumps will grow new shoots, but it will never be a tree. Rosewood takes up to 50 years to grow. I will not see the ones that we have planted now as grown trees,” she told IRIN.
Kam Hyo has discovered new, unnamed plants and nocturnal lemurs living high in the trees on her terrain and has created a seed bank for the plants that grow in Masoala.
While it is forbidden to replant in a protected area like Masoala itself, there are several other initiatives to replant in the surrounding area. For example, the Malagasy singer Razia Said organized an international concert in the area and used the proceeds to plant trees. Many people in Antalaha, however, are critical of such events. After the media have covered the planting, no one takes care of the saplings, and the plants usually die.
“You need to know how to prepare the soil and then wait for the first rains," said Kam Hyo, who wants to extend her project so that others in the area can benefit. "The Malagasy have this habit of harvesting, but not planting. If we can make a fruit and arts and crafts market across the road, they will see how nature can help them.”
Standard of living
The country's political turmoil has scared off most of the tourists who were a major source of income for people in Antalaha, and environmentalists agree that Masoala can only be saved if the standard of living in the area around the park improves. “The inhabitants of these villages here all cut wood. Before, they used to work as tour guides or in the hotels. What are they supposed to do, now that the tourists have gone?” said one local guide.
Holmes of the Conservation Society sees economic development as the only lasting solution to the problem of illegal logging in the area. “As long as people can earn money by cutting wood, they will do so," he said.
"The inhabitants of Masoala need to see that there is more value to the forest than just the price of timber. A rainforest attracts tourists, but it also protects from erosion and provides drinking water. You can’t protect nature by building a fence around it and keeping everybody out. You need to address the needs of the people."