The race to save rosewood

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Under the microscope

Once the decision enters into force in November 2019, both traders and importers will need CITES permits proving that the mukula trees have been harvested sustainably. This applies to all countries that export mukula – called ‘range states’ – including Angola, Burundi, DRC, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, and to all countries importing it.

As with kosso before it, the amount of paperwork, monitoring and verifications now required to trade mukula will be a major deterrent. In addition, CITES’ Plant Committee will conduct periodic reviews to detect abnormalities in trade patterns, and the UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre is establishing a database on P. tinctorius to monitor and flag suspicious activity.

Such close scrutiny will leave traders fewer places to hide, to be sure. But as long as the demand stays high, the temptation to sell kosso, mukula, or any other species that traders can sell under the rosewood banner will remain.

The CITES listing is great news, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to ramp up our efforts in order to outrace the market, because the demand for rosewood is becoming ever more voracious.

The trade in mukula, similarly to that of kosso in West Africa, operates under a ‘cut and run’ business model. Traders look for the trees, fell and debark them (or, in most cases, have local farmers do this grunt work for a ridiculously low fee), and sell the timber to exporters, pocketing huge profits. Then they seek out the next source of trees.

Until that timber is mostly depleted, that is. In which case traders simply look for other tree species that can be sold as rosewood – i.e. with a reddish-brown color – and start the same process all over. Kosso is finished in Senegal? Let’s move on to mukula in Southern Africa. Mukula finished in Zambia? Check the supply in Malawi. And so on.

There are no national boundaries and no national laws that seem capable of stopping this trend before it creates irreversible environmental degradation. Bans are adopted, trucks and containers are seized, sometimes a culprit is even arrested. Yet overall, traders evade national measures in one country by slipping across the border into another. Or they simply find another ‘good enough’ tree species that is not banned, and slip back into the shadows.

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