Jade Saunders
Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources
New controls on rosewood and an agreement by CITES parties on legal acquisition findings could fill the gap that allows illegal trade of endangered timber species to flourish.
Dalbergia nigra. Photo by Mauricio Mercadante. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0The most controversial Dalbergias in trade currently are those that make up the commercial group known as rosewood. Photo by Mauricio Mercadante. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is generally synonymous with heroic long-term efforts to protect wild elephants, but the 17th conference of the parties, which was held in Johannesburg this month, closed with a number of ground-breaking agreements that could have a significant effect on the trade in the world’s threatened tree species.

First, the parties agreed to new trade controls for the entire Dalbergia genus, a group of approximately 300 species that grow across the tropical regions of Central and South America, Africa, Madagascar and southern Asia. The most controversial Dalbergias in trade currently are those that make up the commercial group known as rosewood, or in Chinese, hongmu. And the Chinese name is key here, because China is, by some distance, the largest global importer of these species thanks to the growth in middle class consumers and their desire for luxury goods. This increasing wealth and fashion for rosewood furniture has seen the volume of Chinese imports increase 1,250 per cent since 2000, reaching a peak in 2014, the most recent year for which detailed data is available. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, the value of imported rosewood nearly doubled, hitting $2.6 billion.

Booming Chinese rosewood consumption is recognized as a problem in Beijing. While not necessarily given the environmental attention it deserves, a recent government edict aiming to reduce excessive public spending included a ban on office furniture made from ‘precious woods’, which include ‘hongmu’ rosewood species.

Nonetheless, consumer demand continues; $2.6 billion represents an awful lot of trees, and it is unlikely that this figure captures the full picture, since NGOs have consistently documented rosewood being illegally smuggled into China from its Mekong neighbors and west Africa. A UN Office on Drug and Crime report noted that, based on seizures made during the decade 2005–14, rosewood was the most valuable wildlife product traded illegally, greater than elephant ivory, lions, tigers, pangolins and rhino horn combined.

It was therefore telling that the issue of illegal trade in CITES species was where the parties made their second breakthrough. The group took two critical but rather technical steps in a long journey towards mutual recognition between CITES and new ‘good governance’ principles emerging in the field of natural resource governance and trade, which also affects the global stewardship of forests and commercially-traded tree species.

CITES parties use government-issued certificates to control trade. The export of any Appendix II or III specimen requires a scientific non-detriment finding (NDF) and confirmation by the national management authority that the specimen has been legally acquired, increasingly known as a legal acquisition finding (LAF). In the decades since CITES was inaugurated, the parties have focused their efforts on building consensus on the process of making an NDF, which resulted in an agreement in 2014 on guidance for this process.

By contrast, the need to establish whether an individual specimen was legally harvested/caught has been given less attention, despite consistent evidence from NGOs and international organizations that illegality in the forest sector is systemic in a number of range states.

In light of this, in 2015 the US-based Centre for International Environmental Law reviewed more than a dozen parties’ existing legal frameworks and found that there were no clear regulations for making an assessment of legal acquisition in many countries issuing CITES export permits and that their management authorities applied widely different procedures in assessing and determining legality. This gap placed an impossible burden on authorities in many countries of import who had neither the resources nor a mandate to determine whether they were allowing in illegal specimens.

The problem was exacerbated by a decision by the European Union to include CITES species in a ‘green lane’ into the European timber market, which is otherwise regulated by a piece of legislation called the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). The regulation prohibits the import of illegally-harvested timber, and requires companies to have systems in place to exclude illegal wood from their supply chains. The exemption granted to CITES timber means that it is de facto considered to be legal despite the increasingly well-documented weaknesses in the CITES system.

Chatham House has followed this debate since the EUTR came into force in early 2013, convening a number of meetings of CITES and other officials with civil society, in an effort to highlight the opportunity for the two legal regimes to be made mutually-supportive, rather than undermining each other.

This serious gap has now been recognized and a pathway to tackling it proposed, with a decision in Johannesburg that directs parties, the standing committee and the secretariat to share information and to develop ‘further actions’ regarding legal acquisition findings, and a proposal by the secretariat for an international workshop on guiding principles, methodologies, and other legal resources needed by management authorities.

These developments mark an important step, although action will be needed fast if they are to help bring the illegal trade under control, particularly for the many Dalbergia species that are currently under impossible pressure from the burgeoning legal and illegal trade.

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