WASHINGTON–(BUSINESS WIRE) – One of the largest timber smuggling operations in history is revealed today by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in a report that shows how over 1.4 million illegal rosewood logs from Nigeria, worth US$300 million, were laundered into China. Multiple independent sources told EIA undercover investigators that over US$1 million was paid to top Nigerian officials to release the wood stopped by Chinese authorities. Thousands of permits were ultimately signed by the then Minister of Environment, Mrs. Amina J. Mohammed, who currently serves as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN).
The results of a two-year investigation by EIA, The Rosewood Racket details the journey of illegal African rosewood, also known as “kosso,” from the remote forests of Nigeria beset by illegal logging to luxury furniture boutiques in China, despite protections placed on this threatened tree species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Over the past five years, the exploding Chinese demand for kosso has triggered a series of “boom-and-bust” cycles that led to the depletion of forests across West African nations. In most of the countries, kosso has been illegally logged in violation of harvest and log export bans, including in protected areas. Precious trees have been laundered into the international market through regional smuggling routes, using mis-declaration and falsification of official documents. The boom began in Gambia and Benin, but as the supply in those countries was exhausted in just a few short years, the Chinese traders rapidly moved on through other countries in the region before settling on the one offering the largest untapped resources – Nigeria.
Since 2013, Nigeria has been transformed from a net importer into the world’s largest exporter of rosewood logs, and is to date one of the top wood exporters on the continent. The unprecedented and uncontrolled level of logging across the country is causing desertification, imperiling the livelihoods of millions of people, and threatening national parks and endangered emblematic species such as the most vulnerable chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) in the world.
Kosso was added to Appendix II of CITES in 2016, meaning that logging and trade must be strictly controlled and kept at sustainable levels. The results of the new EIA investigation show that the enforcement of the Convention faces serious challenges when dealing with transnational criminal networks. The report shows how Sino-Nigerian criminal networks took advantage of an obsolete and opaque permitting system to launder illegal wood using CITES paperwork.
Alexander von Bismarck, EIA Executive Director, explains “As a legally binding treaty ratified by nearly all members of the United Nations, CITES can play a critical role in protecting endangered trees and fragile forests. The international community needs to urgently bring transparency to the CITES permitting process in order to fight the organized criminals that profit from the extinction of endangered species.”
Mrs. Mohammed was reportedly supposed to start her new position as Deputy Secretary-General of the UN on January 1, 2017, but extended her time as Minister of Environment at the request of the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buari to complete important responsibilities. EIA investigators found that Mrs. Mohammed signed thousands of retroactive CITES permits in January 2017 as one of her last acts as Minister of Environment, and just before she was sworn in as the Deputy Secretary-General to the UN. The permits where used by Chinese importers to release over 1.4 million illegal logs that had been detained at the Chinese border for months, after having left Nigeria in violation of both Nigerian law and international CITES obligations.
Von Bismarck added that “The power and reach of organized timber criminals in forest rich countries is overwhelming if illegal wood is allowed to be sold overseas without consequences. This is why we urgently need regulatory changes in consuming countries to stop timber shipments based on evidence of being illegally logged, transported or traded. Such laws have already been passed in the US and the EU. This case shows that China has the ability to take action when it stopped thousands of containers of illegal rosewood. But the fact that the wood was ultimately released shows that China urgently needs domestic legislation to ban the import of illegally sourced wood.”
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