Africa Defense Forum
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Chinese Demand Drives Illegal Rosewood Logging in Ghana

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Ghana has become the first West African country to join an international call for banning the trade of rosewood. The move in July 2022 was the latest attempt to stanch the Chinese-driven flow of scarce timber out of the region.

The runaway harvesting of rosewood from Ghana’s forests promotes corruption, disrupts relations between farmers and herders, and creates erosion and flooding in forest communities.

Small-scale timber harvesters say the pace of harvesting by Chinese companies will leave Ghana with little to no rosewood in a few years. If that happens, Ghana will follow in the footsteps of The Gambia, where rosewood effectively disappeared soon after Chinese logging companies arrived in 2011.

“The Chinese are cutting fresh trees, we are not happy, but we can’t stop them. We even fear future generations will lose out as a result,” Illiasu Tafa, a farmer and assemblyman for an electoral area near Tumu, told Ghana Business News in 2019.

Since Chinese logging companies arrived in Ghana in 2009, the country has vacillated in its efforts to protect the slow-growing trees. It has imposed harvesting bans, then lifted them only to reimpose them. The most recent harvesting ban went into effect in 2019.

Through it all, rosewood has continued to flow out of the country. In November 2021, more than $2 million worth of rosewood moved from Ghana to China at a time when harvesting was banned. With the help of bribes and falsified documents, more than half of Ghana’s rosewood exports to China happened while bans were in place, according to the Environmental Information Agency.

In 2019, Ghana launched an investigation into corruption related to illegal rosewood harvesting. The final report found no wrongdoing by high-ranking officials. However, investigators told Foreign Policy that they were blocked from visiting certain communities.

Relentless demand from Chinese furniture manufacturers has turned rosewood into the most highly trafficked natural material in the world. Interpol estimates that rosewood is worth $50,000 per cubic meter. Rosewood is 700 times more valuable in the furniture showroom than on the forest floor.

China turned its attention to West Africa after depleting its own rosewood stocks.

China’s quest for rosewood in Ghana has disrupted the country’s agricultural communities, where many herders who once fed their cattle with rosewood leaves now must look for other forage.

“We walk for miles to find fodder for our livestock,” herder Yusif Kodimah told Ghana Business News.

In some cases, that forage turns out to be the maize crops of nearby farmers, leading to tension and conflict.

Illegal rosewood harvesting also is devastating Ghana’s shea butter industry as loggers cut down shea trees and use them to disguise rosewood shipments. Shea harvesting is an important source of income for women in the region.

Additionally, many farmers who own tractors now offer their services to logging companies, which pay more than 20 times the rate that farmers pay for tilling fields.

The loss of rosewood in Ghana’s northern communities, such as Tokali, has coincided with increased desertification and erosion. Residents report that rain has become more sporadic and, when it does come, it leads to destructive floods where it once nourished the landscape.

“Rainfall has become erratic, topsoil and nutrients in the soil are being washed away and gullies are developing on our farms as a result of the activities of loggers. Now one has to apply lots of fertilizer to crops,” Kodimah said.

As part of the fight to preserve Ghana’s vanishing rosewood, the Ghana Wildlife Society has created Timby, a smartphone app that lets users report illegal logging anonymously, complete with pictures and location data.

Even as Ghana clamps down on the rosewood trade, environmental advocates say the Chinese networks behind the illegal harvesting still will find ways to get what they want.

“All this rosewood trade is being driven by demand in China for this particular wood,” environmental advocate Kidan Araya told the U.S. House of Representatives in 2021. “We’ve seen time and time again how traffickers are relentless at keeping the illicit trade alive.”

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