Juan Carlos Cantu, Mexico Program Manager
Whenever you buy tropical hardwoods, chances are that it comes with a far higher cost than you know. Tropical tree species in Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America are being logged out of existence, and precious endangered tropical woods like rosewood and ebony are the target of one of the largest growing economies in the world: China.
About 90 percent of all tropical timber harvested is illegal and has many negative effects. Valuable natural resources are ransacked, habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife is lost, and foreign criminals enter local communities and national parks, creating an environment of violence and corruption. In addition to all this, the terrible reality of illegal logging is that it is one of the bloodiest industries in the international wildlife and plant trade. People die – loggers, forest owners trying to defend the trees, and law enforcement officials fighting loggers and crime syndicates. All of this is why the recent victory for tropical trees at the latest meeting of the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was a fantastic step towards halting this vicious cycle.
In Cambodia, the high profits earned from illegal rosewood have led loggers to cut down most of their country’s rosewood trees. Now they are focusing their criminal activities on Thailand, crossing the border to log forests and national parks. Thailand has lost 70 percent of their rosewood population to illegal logging in just six years. The same thing is happening in Laos and Vietnam, which have seen their forests dwindle by 50 to 60 percent and are serving as points of entry for illegal logs destined for China. Belize has also been the focus of illegal loggers, which in the past five years have cut down 30 percent of the country’s rosewood trees for export to China.
Earlier this year, in an action reminiscent of Kenya’s burning of illegal ivory, Belize’s Environment Ministry burned 700 logs of confiscated rosewood to send a message to illegal loggers that enough is enough, Belize will not let them profit from their crime. And they aren’t the only ones fed up with seeing their native forests plundered. In October of 2012, Mexico seized a shipping container in the port of Manzanillo filled with illegal rosewood logs headed for China. In Nicaragua, eco-battalions have been formed to defend the forests from illegal loggers. And Guatemala has announced a crackdown on illegal logging and confiscated several shipments destined for China.
If CITES deals with regulated trade, and the biggest problem here is with illegal trade, then how can CITES help? As boring as it initially might sound, it all comes down to paperwork. When a CITES trade authorization permit is not required (they are issued only for CITES-listed species), customs officers generally have to accept any document accompanying a given shipment. These documents can come in many languages and forms, which customs officers generally are forced to accept either because they can’t read them, or, if they are forged, because they have absolutely no way of determining their validity on the ground. When species are listed under CITES, however, every single shipment needs to be accompanied by the exact same paperwork in order to be traded: a valid CITES export permit. All importing countries, including China, will have to reject any shipment that has not been validated by CITES authorities, and the customs officers in all 178 member countries will be able to readily identify illegal shipments if they try to enter their country without a CITES permit. Chinese customs officers will not be able to play dumb anymore when faced with an illegal shipment of ebony or rosewood.
This year at the CITES Conference of the Parties, several countries presented proposals to list tree species in Appendix II of CITES. Madagascar presented proposals for all their endemic species of ebony and rosewood (a total of 121 species!); Thailand and Vietnam presented a proposal to list the Siamese rosewood, which also inhabits Cambodia and Laos; and Belize presented a proposal for another three species of rosewood from Central America.
As chair of the Tree Working Group of the Species Survival Network, I coordinated the effort of Defenders and several other NGOs to lobby for support for these proposals before and during the CITES conference. Everyone worked unbelievably hard, and it helped to achieve a historic result: ALL of the tree proposals were adopted by consensus! In fact, it was the largest number of tree species entering Appendix II during any CITES meeting since its creation. While the proposals were presented and discussed during the Conference, China’s delegation observed quietly. When the vote came, China didn’t support the proposals, but for the first time they did not oppose them. Their silence spoke volumes, and we believe it signaled a hopeful change for the future of these endangered tree species and the wildlife that rely on them in their native forests.