Kosso, an endangered type of rosewood that grows in West Africa, is under threat because of high demand in China, where its timber is used to make luxury furniture. The harvest and export of kosso wood is supposed to be strictly controlled as it is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (or CITES). This is not the case in Mali, however, where companies exploit legal loopholes to export large quantities of the precious wood.

Every day, the Générale Industrie du Bois (GIB), or General Timber Manufacturing – the only company in Mali authorised to export wood – exports tons of kosso wood on behalf of Chinese companies.

The scientific name for kosso wood is "pterocarpus erinaceus". This type of rosewood is known by many names. In China, they call it “hongmu", while in Mali, it is known locally as "n’guénou". In other areas, it is known as barwood or vène wood.

Kosso wood, which grows in several countries in the arid Sahel region in Western Africa, is one of several types of richly-hued rosewood that is turned into luxury furniture in China. In 2016, kosso wood was added to the CITES Appendix II, meaning that all trade in the wood is subject to international regulation.

This video, filmed in early 2020, shows GIB workers loading kosso wood onto a truck.
      
An employee of the Chinese company buying the kosso wood supervises as it is loaded onto the trucks. (Our Observer took this photo in 2019).

The extraction and export of this wood should be subject to strict regulation. But our Observer, who works for a Chinese company that buys kosso wood in Mali and has asked to remain anonymous, says the wood is being over-harvested in the West African state.
 
The export of kosso wood is highly regulated internationally. But in the Kayes region in Mali, trees are being chopped down with no effective oversight because of the Chinese. This is leading to deforestation. Already, we are suffering the effects of climate change. We shouldn’t be just chopping down trees without thought.

But even though kosso is classified as an endangered species, the Directorate of Forestry and Water continues to grant the Générale Industrie du Bois a permit for extracting and exporting this wood. This needs to stop.

Mali has 12 million hectares of forest, but according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, it is disappearing fast: The country loses roughly 100,000 hectares each year because of the overexploitation of wood.

"Rosewood is the timber that is most widely sold illegally in the world”

In 2014, Mali announced an interministerial decree banning the exportation of all raw wood, including kosso wood. The decree has not prevented exports, however. According to the database on the CITES website, more than 52,000 cubic metres of kosso wood was exported from Mali to China in 2017. In 2018, Mali adopted another decree allowing the exportation of wood that had been "transformed" from its raw state.

Naomi Basik Treanor, an expert in governance with the American NGO Forest Trends, told our team that there has been a real rise in demand for rosewood in China.
 
Rosewood is the forest product that is most widely sold illegally in the world. There’s a larger illegal market for rosewood than ivory, rhino horn or pangolin. This precious wood is used to make luxury furniture and the demand for it has risen in China with the growth of the middle class. In the past, China sourced this wood in southeast Asia. But with the high demand in China, rosewood has practically disappeared from that part of the world. As a result, those countries have increased legal protections for rosewood and China has had to seek out other markets in West Africa.

This tweet posted by a furniture store in Singapore features examples of luxury furniture made with rosewood.

In 2015, Interpol seized the equivalent of $216 million in kosso wood (€230 million or 15 billion CFA francs) illegally harvested in nine countries in West Africa including Benin, Ivory Coast and Mali.

Licencing illegal exportation?

China imported more than 155,000 cubic metres of kosso wood from Mali between 2017 and 2019, for a total value of $125 million (€114 million, or 75 billion CFA francs), according to numbers published by Forest Trends. It is a lucrative business for GIB, formerly a government-owned enterprise, that has the only exploitation permit granted by the National Directorate of Waters and Forests.

Our team examined permits granted to the company by the directorate in January 2017 and January 2019. The 2017 permit grants the company the right to export 87 cubic metres of “sawn” kosso wood for a Chinese partner. The 2019 licence authorises the exportation of 513 cubic metres of "processed wood" for another Chinese company.
 
 
 
Our team spoke to a former high-ranking official within the Directorate of Water and Forests, who said these licences should never have been granted:
 
These permits are illegal. First of all, they use vague, undefined terms. “Sawn wood” and “processed wood” are not the same thing as “transformed wood,” which is the only commodity that can be exported legally. This language is just a way to exploit a loophole and make it seem as if the wood being exported has been processed here in Mali.  

Under CITES, wood sold on the international market must be legally sourced. That means that there must be a forest land use allocation system with defined quotas. There must also be environmental impact reports.

To ensure that these standards are upheld, wood that is bound for export must have a certificate of origin from the forestry service. The reference numbers for this certificate should be listed on any exportation permit to ensure that the wood can be traced. But these permits don’t have a reference number for a certificate of origin. That's not strictly speaking legal.

"The wood that our company sells is transformed”

Aboubacrine Sidick Cissé, the director of GIB, rejects these allegations. He says that the resources his company exports are sourced legally.
 
As long as the wood is legally sourced, you can sell it anywhere in the world, even Washington. I operate in compliance with the law. My partners are in China so I have the right to export to China.

We don’t export raw wood, contrary to what certain people allege. The wood that this company exports is all transformed, which is what the law allows. After the trees are cut down, the wood is cut into logs. Then the sides are squared off. As soon as wood is cut into squared-off logs [Editor's note: known as cants], that’s already a form of processing.

How can you say that sawn wood or processed wood isn’t transformed wood? You don’t have to be a technician to understand that.

The director of GIB also told the France 24 Observers team that the logging firms his company works with have at least 50 management plans for the forested areas of Kayes, which is one of the most heavily forested regions in Mali. He didn’t respond to our enquiries as to how much wood his company exports annually.

Our team reached out to both Bouraima Camara and Mamadou Gakou, the two directors of the Directorate of Water and Forests who signed the exploitation permits granted to GIB in 2017 and 2019, but they did not respond to our questions about the legality of the documents.

Our team also tried to reach the Directorate of Water and Forests without success. We will update this article if they do respond.

Unclear laws

The CITES glossary distinguishes between “sawn wood” and “transformed wood”. However, the 2018 decree regulating the extraction of forest products and their sale in Mali does not define the degree to which wood must be “transformed” before it is exported. The Malian Forestry Code does not have a fixed definition either, which means that the law is open to interpretation.

So should wood that has been cut into cants, or squared-off logs, be considered “transformed wood”? We  showed the videos and photos of wood destined for export by GIB to a legal expert who specialises in international commerce:
 
The photos and videos show logs that have been squared off. That’s not “transformed wood”. That’s just wood that’s had a chainsaw hack off a bit of the edges. But it hasn’t been turned into wood planks, for example. There is not much of a difference between raw wood and squared-off logs. You just use a chainsaw to give the logs edges to make them stack more easily into a container.

“The extraction of kosso wood has major consequences on the entire ecosystem”

Basik Treanor, of Forest Trends, says that the laws around the export of endangered wood are not clear in many countries, which makes it easy to get around them.
 
It is a global problem. In many countries, information on what is allowed for export is unclear: The laws are hard to access, and the definitions of what can and cannot be exported are vague. It’s common to have a lack of clarity in the legislation. There can be a lack of coordination between the different ministries and the customs service, for instance.

Chinese demand for West African rosewood degrades the water supply for local communities. It’s changing the climate. The entire ecocystem is impacted. The trees that are cut are often large, old trees that capture a lot of CO2.
This photo shows the destruction caused by kosso wood extraction. It was taken in 2019 by a bailiff under the orders of Bailloh Bah, a local elected official in the town of Sagalo in the region of Kayes.
 
Bailloh Bah, an elected official in the town of Sagalo in the region of Kayes, has been fighting against the extraction of kosso wood in his area for years. He told the France 24 Observers about the consequences that the over-exploitation of this resource has had in his area:
 
It’s a very difficult fight. In my town, I'm the only one standing up for the trees. Here, there are hardly any forests left. I did everything I could but it is impossible.

Mali is an arid, desert country, yet we are letting people ravage the little forest that we have. It’s terrible. These trees are more than 300 years old and they get chopped down in a day. The consequences are extremely serious. It prevents us from getting rain. How are the animals going to live after all this?

Article written by Hermann Boko