The race for rosewood in China – and its toll on West Africa’s forests

In China, the demand for rosewood luxury products like furniture and musical instruments is having far-reaching impacts in Africa. The market is massive – in 2014, China imported rosewood logs to the value of $2.5bn, and at least one tree was logged every minute. West African countries, particularly Ghana and Nigeria, are currently bearing the brunt of this demand for rosewood.

ClientEarth forests lawyer Jozef Weyns compares the trend to the Dutch tulipmania of the 17th century. “It’s a bubble,” he says. “The commodity is getting increasingly scarce. People are hoarding it in their backyards in Ghana, waiting for the value to rise.”

Rosewood refers to several different hardwood species, known collectively as hongmu on the Chinese market. At first, Chinese suppliers were sourcing this timber primarily from other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Cambodia, and Burma. However, as resources became increasingly depleted, they looked further afield, including to West Africa.

West African rosewood species are generally found in the savanna – a fragile ecosystem. Cattle and soil fertility rely on these trees, and their rapid decline is degrading habitats and making way for the desert to expand.

Using the law to combat illegal logging

Like other countries in the region, Ghana has, since 2014, tried to ban all movement of rosewood – including its harvest, export, trade and transport. But attempts to regulate this issue have not worked so far.

Currently, most – if not all – rosewood harvested in Ghana is done so using a permit called a ‘salvage permit’. Salvage permits allow for trees to be cut down for development projects (building roads, schools or dams), and subsequently ‘salvaged’ to take and make use of these felled trees that would otherwise go to waste.

Clement Akapame, consultant and in-country lawyer for ClientEarth, explained to Ghana’s Starr FM:

“Instead of allowing logs to lie and rot, the law allows a certain number of companies to lift these logs… If they are holding a salvage permit, they need to prove to us that logging… is within areas earmarked for some sort of development – a dam, a road, a school or a market.”

However, the demand for rosewood is greater than what can be obtained via legitimised systems (like these legitimate salvage permits), giving rise to illegal logging. Clement goes on to say:

“Now, what is happening is people are lifting [salvaging] and there are fresh loggings [non-salvaged logging]. That’s where the issue currently is – we need to find a way of dealing with it.

“The legal basis of these permits being granted becomes questionable – and so does the legality of the logs harvested with them. Because why are you giving salvage permits when there’s nothing to salvage in the first place?”

To help address this issue, ClientEarth provides legal training on different types of logging permits in Ghana. We support our partners in their work to ensure that the laws to regulate logging and salvaging – and local communities’ roles in managing forest resources – are improved.

Strong laws, and citizens who know how to use them, are central to addressing this local, national and international issue.

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Yi Chen

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