Last week, in response to rosewood crisis in West Africa, the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) informed its 183-member countries the need for exceptional control measures into Nigeria-China timber trafficking. TAIWO HASSAN reports
Corruption by local officials and sharp practices by Chinese businessmen is driving a thriving illegal trade in timber from Nigeria and other parts of West Africa with grave consequences.
The nefarious activities are jeopardising the country’s manufacturing sector amid scarcity of raw materials for furniture making.
Smart Chinese businessmen are exploiting a lax regulatory and enforcement environment, loopholes in existing laws, lack of government policy and direction as well as corruption by the government officials to drive an illegal trade in export of the country’s forestry resources.
In states such as Kogi, Ekiti, Ondo, Ogun, Taraba, Kaduna, Adamawa and Cross River, a rapacious demand by China for an ornate species of wood, rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus), locally known as Kosso, has, since late 2013, fuelled an unprecedented frenzy of illegal logging of wood that is fast depleting the nation’s natural forestry resources.
Timber merchants working for Chinese businessmen are moving from one state to another, depleting the rosewood resources in their forests, leaving blighted and raped landscapes without minding the enduring effects of unrestrained harvesting of the product on the environment.
Forestry experts are worried that the unrestrained and uncontrolled harvesting of the special type of timber across the states will have devastating impact on the environment and contribute immensely to global warming, which is currently threatening the world.
Apart from the effect on the environment, the experts fear that the illegal activities of local and Chinese merchants will also have telling economic implications in the near future on many communities where the forests that are being violated are located.
The Chinese connection
The unprecedented demand for rosewood in Nigeria is driven by a rapacious need by China to feed a taste for ornate and luxury furniture by the country’s burgeoning middle and upper class.
The Pterocarpus family of which rosewood is a part belongs to the Hongmu (meaning red wood in Chinese) wood family, which refer to range of exotic, high worth hardwood highly sought after by the elite and royalty in China and is used in making furniture, floorings and art works.
Ownership of such exotic furniture and art works are considered as worthy investments by the very rich in Chinese.
A spike in demand in Asia and locally in China has created a boom and the Chinese government has supported the growth and expansion of the Hongmu wood industry in order to generate employment and tax revenue.
According to the report on the probe, the Secretariat of the Convention and a special CITES noted that it would verify all the authenticity of rosewood permits issued by the Federal Government soon when it visits Nigeria.
“Going forward, all “kosso” rosewood permits issued by Nigeria, the world’s largest exporter of rosewood over the past years, will have to be verified by the Secretariat of the Convention and a special CITES mission will soon be sent to the country,” the report stated.
In November 2017, the Washington, DC-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released the Rosewood Racket report, the result of a two-year undercover investigation following the corrupt timber trade from the fragile forests of Nigeria to high-end furniture boutiques in China.
Triggered by skyrocketing Chinese demand, over a billion U.S. dollar worth of rosewood has been illegally exported from Nigeria between 2015 and 2017.
Part of it had been laundered by traffickers through a sophisticated scheme that involved approximately 3,000 questionable CITES permits officially issued by the Federal authorities.
With these permits in hand, traffickers smuggled over 1.5 million logs to the Chinese market – the equivalent of three Empire State buildings.
This happened despite environmental protection policies adopted by Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment.
Alerted by EIA’s report and evidence, the CITES Standing Committee discussed the Nigerian rosewood trafficking crisis during its meeting in Geneva last month.
It was at the meeting that the committee took a decision that was validated by the secretariat and officially communicated to all parties of the convention – including almost all member states of the United Nations – on January 15, 2018.
While acknowledging the mechanism of cooperation established between Nigeria and China, the official notification formally requests that the parties to the CITES Convention “not accept any CITES permit or certificate for Pterocarpus erinaceus issued by Nigeria unless its authenticity has been confirmed by the Secretariat.”
Indeed, this represents a remarkable step under the convention in order to better control the trade in this commercially threatened species and avoid massive fraud.
Furthermore, in response to Nigeria’s invitation, the CITES Secretariat will conduct an official inquiry – a “technical mission” – in the country.
The investigation will focus on the key elements of what has been a monumental laundering machine for illegally harvested or exported rosewood logs: suspect issuance of thousands of CITES permits, lack of coordination between the Ministry of Environment and Customs, and the general opacity of the process.
In his remark to the rosewood probe, EIA Executive Director, Alexander von Bismarck, said: “Now that the problem of the illegal rosewood trade between Nigeria and China has been formally acknowledged under CITES and exceptional measures have been agreed, we hope that all the parties involved will come together to end what is most likely one of the largest forest crimes of this century.”
The report of the international probe revealed that millions of rosewood logs were harvested and exported illegally from Nigeria when Amina J. Mohammed, the current Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nation, was Minister of Environment.
For industry stakeholders, the inability of the current administration to tame the volatility in the illegal export of timbers outside the shore of Nigeria is causing the economy trillions of naira in revenue loss.
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