Rosewood (hongmu) furniture on display in a store in China. Photo: EIA

A preliminary Internet search of the word “rosewood” would inevitably come across its connection to a Hong Kong luxury hotel brand, steeped in opulence and boasting a boutique quality customer experience, fit for the business traveler and international entrepreneur, a rare global symbol of status and wealth.

Search “rosewood tree” or “hongmu” – which refers to a specific range of richly hued durable tropical hardwoods – and one would find it is the most trafficked wildlife species in the world, more than elephant ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales combined.

People call it the “ivory of the forest.” The main markets are all in Asia, mainly China and Vietnam, where hongmu is used to make luxurious replicas of antique furniture, musical instruments, and traditional Chinese medicine products.

It is at the same time a highly coveted status symbol among the growing Asian middle class and also lies at the heart of an intricate web of corruption, violence, forest crimes, and dirty supply chains that wreak havoc on ecosystems around the globe. 

Traditionally, only royalty and elites in China were privileged to own hongmu, with materials sourced from China, Southeast Asia and India. During the Cultural Revolution in China, the “bourgeois and pretentious” carved antique rosewood furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasty was confiscated, stored away, or even burned.

As the country progressively opened up in the late 1970s, the remaining antique rosewood furniture made its way back into the market, spiking rejuvenated interest, and triggering an insatiable demand that has not stopped since then.

In fact, as China’s economy reached double-digit growth, hongmu furniture became a status symbol for the rising middle class, a quintessential addition to any nouveau riche family looking to “show face.” As the middle class in China grew rapidly, so did the demand for hongmu.

Hongmu traders historically focused on the two species native to China. As standing stocks declined and reached commercial extinction, traders diversified to species with similar qualities in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.

The proximity of these countries to China, weak forest governance, and the presence of high-value hongmu species made them prime targets for the criminal networks that underpin much of the booming hongmu trade. 

Rosewood (hongmu) logs in Nigeria. Photo: EIA

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) consistently exposed massive illegal logging operations that shuttled stolen logs across unmarked roads of Cambodia, Laos, VietnamMyanmar and Thailand over land boundaries, and out through ports.

As reported, Asian hongmu species became commercially extinct. Governments started to enforce national laws to protect them and leverage the multilateral treaty that regulates the international trade in endangered species, known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The demand was still growing steadily. Traffickers had to find new options for rosewood. 

To satisfy an unchecked demand and a manufacturing sector that became one of the fastest growing in China’s timber industry, criminal networks that were de facto in charge of the vast majority of the hongmu supply turned their eyes to Africa. Since 2010, the continent has become a significant source region, quickly surpassing Asia in volume.

Trading networks have replicated their business as usual approach, anchored in rapid illegal over-exploitation, smuggling, tax evasion and corruption. Boom-and-bust cycles have taken place all over the region, hitting The Gambia, Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, The Gambia (again), and Mali.

Forest communities have relentlessly voiced their anger at the chaos driven by rosewood logging, including the rising conflicts caused by fast-money offered to the youth, the threats and bribes to traditional rulers, destruction of the forest, and the acceleration of desertification in many instances. 

Following Asian governments’ approach, African nations who found themselves unable to match hongmu-trafficking networks’ resources and adaptability, joined forces and worked through CITES to control the international trade in endangered species and get demand-side countries, in particular China, to be part of the solution and not the problem any more.

Certain West African countries decided to regulate drastically or even stop their export of rosewood and compelled China to enforce these rules through their implementation of the Convention.

A timber depot in Bamako loads rosewood into a container. Photo: EIA

In these cases, international illegal trade vanished. Other countries, such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and Mali, went the other way. Despite being signatories of the multilateral treaty, certain officials in key administrations and ministries, such as forestry and commerce, actively pressured and bribed by traffickers, found ways to allow illegal and unsustainable trade to grow, and to be covered by invalid CITES permits. 

The EIA’s investigations have revealed the scams and violations of the international convention in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia and Mali. According to the EIA’s analysis, as of April, this represents a total of more than 3 million tons and more than US$2 billion of illegally traded hongmu between West Africa and China.

This is arguably the most brazen violation of CITES. The EIA’s new findings from Mali, presented in the Poached Timber report, highlight the importance and urgency of a regional solution to the rosewood crisis.   

In an unprecedented move on June 8, a decision by the CITES Secretariat was officially announced immediately to suspend international trade in the hongmu species Pterocarpus erinaceus from West Africa under the Convention.

The landmark move to ban trade in what has become the world’s most trafficked wildlife commodity applies to all 16 source countries, including current top exporters Sierra Leone, Ghana, The Gambia and Mali. The decision is binding for all 184 member states of the Convention, including importing countries such as China, which won’t be able to accept shipments of illegal P erinaceus any more. 

This historic breakthrough was primarily moved forward by a number of West African nations that have shown the world that despite the huge socio-economic challenges they are currently facing, they are serious about protecting the livelihoods of their people, vulnerable forests, and our common future.

Their leadership and the EIA’s exposés have driven unprecedented response from the corporate world. After the EIA’s investigation on Mali, the largest shipping line in the world, AP-Maersk committed to immediately stopping the trade in rosewood from the country and deploying new measures to support the potential regional suspension.

The immediate suspension in trade of P erinaceus by the CITES Secretariat will effectively regulate a trade that has caused massive destruction, while supporting courageous African governments and communities, leading global companies, and determined civil society. 

The EIA also looks forward to seeing China emerge as a responsible global forest-commodities consumer and manufacturing hub. The hongmu crisis demonstrates that supply chains rooted in overexploitation, illegalities, and corruption are short-lived. They cannot sustain a growing and maturing demand nor be the sole supply an entire industry depends upon.

It appears that China has recently taken important, although largely symbolic, steps in the right direction. In its recently renewed Forest Law, China has officially banned trade of illegally sourced wood.

In November 2021, in addition to signing on to a global agreement to halt and reverse deforestation at the United Nations’ COP26, China and the US signed a joint declaration with specific goals to eliminate illegal deforestation through effectively enforcing laws on banning illegal imports.

Denise M Stilley is head of communications for the Environmental Investigation Agency US. She is also a filmmaker covering the intersection of environmental crime and human-rights injustice across the globe.

Raphael Edou is Africa program manager for the Environmental Investigation Agency US. He monitors preparations and implementation of projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon, and the Republic of the Congo to tackle illegal logging.