Blood-red sawdust coats every surface in the small carpentry workshop, where Primo Jean Besy is at the lathe fashioning vases out of ruby-coloured logs.
Besy and his father are small-scale carpenters in Antalaha in north-east Madagascar, and are taking advantage of a recent resurgence in demand for wood from the bois de rose tree, prized for the extraordinary coloured streaks that weave through its centre.
“It’s easy to sell because the wood is so famous,” said Besy, whose skin glistens with red powder. “People from [the capital] Antananarivo come here [to buy goods]. They like it because they can sell it to foreigners.”
The father and son pair are just the tip of the booming trade in bois de rose, one of the world’s rarest trees, even though the logging and export of rosewood from Madagascar is banned.
The wood is being smuggled out of Madagascar at an alarming rate, said Randrianasolo Eliahevitra, regional director of the church-based development organisation SAF/FJKM.”People are afraid to talk [about who is behind the smuggling],” said Eliahevitra, adding that he feared for his life if he named any of those responsible.
He said continuing political instability in Madagascar, a country reeling in poverty after four years of military rule and crippling economic sanctions, allowed the multimillion-dollar industry to flourish.
“At this time we don’t have yet a legal government, so everyone is taking advantage of the situation and they are doing what they want,” Eliahevitra said.
In the village of Cap Est, a nine-hour journey from Antalaha along a sandy coastal track interrupted by wide rivers, which motorbikes and 4x4s have to cross by precariously straddling canoes, residents say the once tiny fishing community is almost unrecognisable. Deep muddy troughs made by the constant convoys of pick-up trucks line the sandy path that cuts through the smattering of small wooden houses; crates of beer, sacks of rice and mattresses stream in on a daily basis.
Anita, 22, who is too afraid to give her real name, moved here two months ago. “It’s all because of the bois de rose,” she said, sitting in front of a table laden with cigarettes, bottles of beer and batteries that she sells. Cap Est has become the unofficial smuggling capital, and thousands of people have descended on the village to take advantage of trading opportunities. “Business is booming here,” said Anita.
It is not hard to find men who have recently come back from bois de rose foraging expeditions in the forests.
“After I found out how much money you can get, that’s when I started logging,” said Randeen, 22, who also did not want to give his full name. He joined a logging team in April. He said he had to walk for two days deep into the forest before even seeing one tree big enough to cut, claiming there are at least “1,000 men” doing the same thing.
Jam Lamouche, 34, has been in the bois de rose trade for more than 10 years, and employs 20 loggers. “From October, the business has boomed,” he said, explaining each man gets 3,000 Malagasy ariary (£0.81) for every kilo of wood they log, while he gets 2,000 ariary. “Yes, we are making money,” he said with a smile.
Lorries weighed down with rosewood logs make their way to the port day and night, where they are loaded on to boats in full public view. “The final destination is China,” claimed Guy Suzon Ramangason, director general of Madagascar National Parks (MNP), the state body tasked with managing the country’s protected areas. He said the government was aware of the problem but had failed to intervene, allowing the illicit industry to flourish.
“There is a network of mafiosi of bois de rose,” he said. “Money in this type of network is very, very powerful.” He said the wood was first shipped to intermediary countries, where false papers were drawn up legalising the cargo. “But we have no proof,” he added.
The illegal logging and smuggling of bois de rose in the Masoala and Marojejy national parks in the country’s north-east exploded after the coup in 2009. An investigation by two non-governmental organisations, Global Witness and the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency, documented the illegal harvesting and trafficking of the wood, destined mainly for China. In addition, the US guitar manufacturer Gibson reached a settlement over claims it had used illegally sourced Madagascan bois de rose.
The transitional government reinstated a ban in early 2010 and all seemingly went quiet until the runu-p to the first round of presidential elections this October, when rumours spread of a bois de rose revival. An internal MNP report documenting the movement of bois de rose for November concluded that trafficking had almost returned to 2009 levels.