Forests Under Attack

More than a century of ecological mismanagement by colonial and Malagasy governments, a recent political crisis, the influence of foreign money and a failing economy in Madagascar have together posed a massive threat to one of earth’s most biodiverse regions. We’ll take a look here at one major aspect of Madagascar’s deforestation crisis – the rosewood trade – and unearth some surprisingly close links between Asia and Madagascar’s environmental problems.



Deforestation in Madagascar has a long history. The Malagasy have been slash-and-burn farmers for centuries, but runaway deforestations rates only truly set in when French colonial rule between 1896 and 1960 saw more than 70% of the island’s natural forest cover destroyed and replaced in many places with coffee crops.

Since independence, the exhaustion of major rosewood sources elsewhere in the world (such as China and Myanmar) has focused growing international demand for luxury wood on Madagascar, with little effective resistance from the Malagasy government – logging is now the main cause of deforestation in Madagascar.

Members of the Chinese business community (whose presence in Madagascar dates from the 18th century) provide links to manufacturers and retailers in China, and support logging with revenue from their legal import-export operations.

Almost all of the rosewood harvested in Madagascar is exported to China; Chinese laws regulating wood focus on protecting consumers rather than on wood sources.

In 2009, a military coup led by Andry Rajoelina removed president Marc Ravalomanana, ushering in a state of administrative chaos. Park rangers and police deserted their posts, and opportunistic poachers and loggers accelerated their looting of forests in defiance of previous government’ s already weak anti-logging stance.

The pieces of Madagascar’s ecological nightmare were falling into place.



In the aftermath of the political crisis, the international community largely withdrew foreign aid (which accounted for most of Madagascar’s public spending), and the US revoked substantial trade privileges.

Many industries collapsed, including tourism which suffered from travellers’ security concerns. This desperate economic situation coupled with coercion by armed gangs funded by logging businesses, pushed many unemployed locals into the timber trade.

Export of precious woods was banned by the government in 2000, but multiple amendments creating loopholes and government indecision on the issue turned the ban into a toothless, merely symbolic gesture by the time it was repealed in 2009. Timber barons, funded by advance payments from Chinese traders and buyers, took the repeal as a signal of government weakness. Subsequently, rosewood trade volume increased by 340% between 2009 and 2010.

The logging of Madagascar’s 47 species of rosewood trees seriously harms the island’s ecosystems. Over 100,000 precious wood trees have been illegally felled in protected areas, destroying more than 20,000 hectares of the world’s most diverse forests, and the collateral damage – an estimated half a million non-timber trees to float rosewood down rivers – has been massive.

Moreover, deforestation drastically decreases soil fertility, intensifies flooding and erosion, and removes ecotourism incomes, lowering local residents’ living standards and bringing on food and resource shortages. All this is already happening in Madagascar.

Perhaps the biggest price the world will pay is the loss of the island’s unique species – over 80% of which exist nowhere else in the world. In the past 10 years over 600 new species were discovered on Madagascar, some (like several new types of coffee plant) harbouring great pharmaceutical and economic potential.

Isolated from the rest of Africa, and split into two distinct biomes by a central mountain ridge, Madagascar’s bizarre and incredible life forms have been shaped over millennia, but could be wiped out in just a few more years by habitat destruction. The iconic silky sifaka, for instance, lives amongst rosewood trees and is now one of the world’s rarest mammals, with an estimated population of 100 remaining in the wild.



While the political and economic situation in Madagascar can only be solved by the Malagasy themselves, demand for precious woods is a crucial driver behind the problem, and it’s the one thing that we can change.

Rosewood is most commonly used in China for furniture, and smaller quantities end up in Europe and North America (recently, the headquarters of Gibson Guitar was raided and investigated for illegal wood use). Successful education programmes have decreased demand in Europe and North America, and if the Asian market shrinks too, a major force undermining conservation efforts might finally be tamed.

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