In search of Madagascar's 'rosewood mafia'

Bois de Rose at workshop

The illicit trade of a rare tree has resurfaced in Madagascar, a country reeling from corrupt military rule. Rosewood, prized for its ruby red colour, is being smuggled out of the island at a rate that, some say, could put its survival under threat.

My search for the famed bois de rose - something I had only ever seen in pictures - begins in a beautiful old cafe in Antananarivo - the capital.

I am waiting for a Malagasy blogger I had met on Twitter.

"We cannot sit here," he tells me when he arrives.

"This restaurant was bought in cash… with bois de rose mafia money," he says, looking behind and around him as he speaks, worried someone may overhear him.

This is my first introduction to bois de rose - just mention the name and it is clear it elicits fear.

The city has changed dramatically since my last visit more than five years ago.

Start Quote

There are at least a thousand people in the forest looking for the trees”

End Quote Madagascan logger

Skips, overflowing with rank, rain-sodden waste, fester next to street lamps that rarely turn on - the uncollected muck seeping into the cavernous potholes that were a rarity before the military coup in 2009.

I take a plane to Antalaha along the coast on the north-east of the island - near the Atsinanana rainforests - a Unesco World Heritage site.

I check into a hotel and within minutes I see a hefty, dark red table with legs the size of tree trunks standing before me - incredible claret-coloured streaks run through its centre.

Is this bois de rose, I ask the hotel owner?

He looks nervous, says "Yes", but clarifies it was made before the numerous laws banning the use and exportation of the wood came into force more than 10 years ago.

I look around the hotel. Everything, it seems, is made from bois de rose - the tables, chairs, wooden beams, knick-knacks on every shelf.

I pick up a bowler hat, also made from bois de rose. "That is not mine," he says. "Someone came here yesterday trying to sell it."

The following day, I take a walk around the market.

A woman tries to sell me a lamp, made from bois de rose. "Only $3," she says with a smile.

I move into the backstreets and come across a young carpenter with his father. They are both glistening with a strange, red powder glued to their skin.

As I reach their workshop, I see it is the blood-red sawdust from the bois de rose. It is plastered over every surface.

But these market sellers and carpenters are just a microcosm of the booming illegal trade - estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

I am told if I want to see evidence of the wood being transported and smuggled out of the country, I need to go to a place called Cap Est - a small coastal village that is now the unofficial export hub of bois de rose.

Cap Est Pulling Bois de Rose
Bois de rose stockpile in Antalaha
Bois de rose at carpenter Primo Jean Besy workshop

It is a nine-hour motorbike taxi ride along a sandy, coastal path - interrupted by wide rivers where we precariously balance the motorbike on a canoe.

We pass processions of trucks and 4x4s piled high with mattresses, bags of rice and crates of beer.

"Where are they all heading?" I ask. "Cap Est," says a man beside me. "Everyone is going there because of the bois de rose."

I clamber out of the canoe after the final river crossing, wading through the warm, muddy water. The sound of noisy generators and blaring music systems hit me before I reach the shore.

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Bois de rose sawdust
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I feel like I have turned up to a party, uninvited. I keep my head down, glad of the night sky - aware that a snooping journalist may not be welcome.

But I take it all in. The hordes of men drinking cheap liquor lining the one street. The flat-screen TVs sitting on makeshift tables. The prostitutes touting for business.

It is clear money is being made here. - and lots of it.

It is not long before I start seeing the trucks, weighed down with the rare, precious wood, making their way to the port. Once there, they are loaded on to boats, in full view of anyone who is interested.

I start chatting to a young guy - it turns out he is a logger. There are at least 1,000 people in the forest looking for the trees, he says.

But it is hard work. "You have to walk for at least two days before even seeing one tree big enough to cut," he says. Much of it was pillaged during the chaos after the 2009 coup.

Bois de Rose goods at workshop
Bois de Rose sawdust at workshop

I have a restless five hours of sleep before making the return slog back to Antalaha.

My eyewitness account of Cap Est comes as no surprise to the authorities. Everyone knows what is going on. They keep their eyes and their mouths shut, a man from the ministry of environment tells me.

The future of this unique wood hangs on the former finance minister - Hery Rajaonarimampianina - who has been declared president-elect this month.

Will he too keep his mouth and eyes shut? Or is he ready to tackle the bois de rose mafia?

Pictures taken by Tamasin Ford, unless otherwise indicated

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