July 4, 2005

Loggers cut Madagascan rainforest with impunity

By Tim Cocks

ANKALONTANY, Madagascar (Reuters) - When loggers came tohack up centuries-old ebony trees from their sacred forest, thepeople of Ankalontany village knew something was wrong.

They just didn't know how to stop it.

"Some strangers from outside our village came here. Theystarted cutting ebony and they clearly had no right," saidvillage chief Justin Zara, gesturing toward dead branches andfreshly-cut tree stumps deep in the Madagascan rainforest.

"We asked for their authorization but they said they didn'thave to show us papers. They said they had police clearance andwe can't stop them. They just took what they wanted."

Environmentalists say such scenes are common in Madagascar,a huge Indian Ocean island whose dwindling rainforests sheltersome of the world's most treasured wildlife.

Last month police seized 520 tonnes of illegally loggedhardwood from two ports in the northeastern Sava region afterreceiving tip-offs from local leaders in Ankalontany andelsewhere. Madagascan authorities suspect a major operation bya logging cartel seeking to export the wood.

Campaigners had hoped the scourge of illegal logging wouldbe high on the agenda in this month's G8 summit.

But the Group of Eight rich nations have failed to heedcalls for tough moves on illegal logging and will issue only amild call for action at their meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland,according to a leaked draft.

G8 president Britain had been pushing for concerted action-- including new international laws -- to curb an illicit tradeworth $15 billion annually.

But under pressure from the United States, the summit willsimply commit the group to voluntary actions "with each countryacting where it can contribute most effectively."


The stakes are high for Madagascar.

Illegal logging, charcoal burning, and traditional"slash-and-burn" agriculture threaten to wipe out the thousandsof plant and animal species found only in its rainforests.

The island's treasures include hundreds of birds, insects,chameleons and lemurs -- a cuddly primate found only inMadagascar and a distant relative of humans.

In an effort to halt the retreat of Madagascar'swilderness, President Marc Ravalomanana pledged to increaseprotected nature reserves to six million hectares (14.83million acres) from 1.7 million (4.20 million acres) at a WorldParks Congress in South Africa in 2003.

Last year, he slapped a ban on all logging for exportpending the creation of the new protected zones. However,conservationists say little has been done to enforce the ban.

"There are a number of current rules disallowing loggingconcessions in Madagascar," said Frank Hawkins, country head ofConservation International.

"(But) it is taking a long time to get these rules(enforced). In many places the capacity for control ismissing."

Ankalontany's villagers said they felt powerless to stoploggers. Laurent Tutu, president of the forest association ofAnkalontany, said the cutting of ebony is taboo in traditionalSakalava culture.

"It is sacred wood. We don't even use it for buildinghouses. Nobody cuts it except the priests who conducttraditional ceremonies with staffs made of ebony," he said.

"It hurts us to see our trees cut like this. The forestloses its personality."

But conservation groups say locals sometimes facilitatelogging, sorely tempted by pay-offs. Poverty is severe in ruralMadagascar and extra money is often essential for food.

"(Logging) benefits very few people. The local people whoare employed earn little money. Ninety percent of the revenuedoesn't stay in the community," said Hawkins.

Hawkins said logging opens up the canopy to invasivespecies, fires and human pressure.

"The secondary impacts of logging are much more importantthan the logging," he said. "The forest dries out and isvulnerable to fire. People come in and hunt the animals. Veryoften the forest ends up disappearing completely."


Madagascan authorities say the recently-seized wood was onits way to China, the second largest maker of industrial timberand a major destination for illicit hardwood.

"We do not know the companies nor the people (involved),but we can see from the documents obtained by customs officialsthat (it) is destined for China," Sava regional head Paulin(only name) told Reuters.

The Environment Ministry says traffic in the region isbeing monitored more closely in an effort to crack down onloggers.

But with much of the island's rainforest already gone,environmental groups say time is running out.