The Bloody African Redwood and the Chinese Market

Author: Xiao Nan

Translated by: Zimo Zhu, Yifei Zhu

Walking into the timber market in Africa, it is not hard to observe that as soon ass the local merchants see an Asian-face customer, they would come up to them and excitedly shout out: “redwood! redwood!”

In Chinese culture, the appreciation of redwood furniture can be dated back to ancient China when in the classic “Dream of Red Mansions”, the writer Cao Xueqin specifically pointed out that many of the furniture in Jia Mansion were made of redwood for the purpose of highlighting the luxury and wealth of the family.

Since 2010, with the resurgence of aesthetics in Qing Dynasty and the increase of people’s income, the demand for redwood has grow exponentially. When customers are shopping for furniture, it is hard for them to associate the exquisite furniture with the illegal trade in Africa. 

In fact, what behind the market is the illegal trades and crimes as well as the irrational development and destruction of the ecological environment. 

The Rainforest in Senegal: The Disregarded Deitie

A large number of endanger redwood species are growing in the border rainforest between Senegal and Gambia. To conserve biodiversity and endangered tree species, the government of Senegal has promulgated stringent measures that prohibit felling and exporting redwood. However, the lucrative profits drive a sheer number of villagers to take risks.

At the night, the villagers sneak into the forest and start to cut a large number of towering trees. In order to transport lumber easily, villagers fell the logs equally into 2-meter parts. 

“At the beginning, none of us dared to enter the forest because we thought there were deities living there. But now people are no longer afraid” the villagers who stole redwood at night admitted frankly. 

The indigenous people in the Casamance region of Senegal believe that forest not only provide them with necessities but also preserve the souls and spirits of their past ancestors. When the leader of a local tribe sees people recklessly cutting down trees, he lamented that “if we don’t want the future generation  die in hunger, and them to have the “sacred forest” that can bless us, they must stop cutting trees.”

The appeal of the tribal leader did not seem effective — his words did not provoke any reactions from villagers who take advantage of nature. People still recklessly cut down forest. As trading of redwood is considered illegal within the border of Senegal, people transfer it to their neighbor country Gambia for export.

The border between Gambia and Senegal is rather special. Except for one side facing the ocean, Gambia is bordered by Senegal. There are countless of redwood warehouses along the borderlines. 

While the incumbent government of Gambia promised to regulate redwood smuggling with the Senegal, the government of Gambia did not take any concrete step. 

The Gambia has exhausted its redwood resources several years ago, but now it is the fifth largest exporter of redwood in the world with half of the exports are illegally felled timber. Redwood exports account for 10% of Gambia’s GDP. 

There is a well-established routine of redwood smuggling, and quite a few high-level officials are involved. Under the undercover investigation conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a number of stakeholders had been exposed. Smugglers pay high bribes to government officials for export permits, and some officials might even engage in the process of smuggling for more personal gains.

Some smugglers refer to redwood as “the ivory in the forest”, not only because of high values but the numbers of smuggled redwood furniture that flow into the Chinese market like ivory.

The Bloody Redwood: The Brutality and Sin Behind Redwood Smuggling 

Smuggling redwood has brought not only the local environmental loss but also a series of criminal activities.

In the rainforest, in order to search for previous tree species, the “middleman” often hire villagers to explore the forest, looking for certain high-valued species, and then contact buyers or trader networks to do illegal business. 

The middlemen might offer remunerations which are much higher than the traditional agricultural activities. As a result, the lucrative profits has driven a great number of poor villagers into the illegal activities. Conflicts break out when local law enforcement officials encounter these illegal activities, which leads to deaths of forest rangers (polices) and loggers.  Nevertheless, with the political and economic momentums supporting behind the scenes, the middlemen engaged in illegal felling and trades were seldomly targeted by law enforcement actions.

In Gambia and Senegal, redwood smuggling is often associated with the local-armed conflicts. In recent years, redwood smuggling has become a primary source of financial supports for MDFC in the Casamance region of Senegal

The prolonged armed conflicts have caused countless people to be displaced or even lost their lives, and the source of the tragedy has to do with the redwood trade related to China. 

China Market: How to Avoid Illegal Redwood Entering into the Market?

A worker is sawing redwood from Africa at a furniture factory in Zhejiang province

Among the various species of redwood, a tree species called Hedgehog Pterocarpus” is the most precious one, and this species is almost extinct in the Gambia. In 2017, the “Hedgehog Pterocarpus” was listed as a endangered species managed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora but it failed to play a protective role for redwood.

According to the findings of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), in Gambia, the CITES export license used to prove that the timber coming from a legal and sustainable source was either issued by false means or not issued at all. 

The Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Natural Resources (MECCNAR) Lamin Dibba (Lamin Dibba) was accused by multiple smugglers of his involvement in the smuggling process.

Based on this severe situation, environmental protection experts have called for a complete ban on the trade of redwood in many African countries. But this initiative involves the interests of too many stakeholders and therefore difficulty to move along in Africa.  In contrary, China, as the largest importer, can play an important role in curbing illegal trade.

In the world’s trade and environmental chains, each part of the chain is closely linked. Sometimes a choice or a habit of the Chinese consumers might have a huge impact on the lives of people on another continent. It is precisely because of this that everyone must be aware sometimes it is not that we choose to become a global citizen, but that we live in an era where everyone has an obligation to assume the responsibility of a global citizen.


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