Madagascar's Ministry of Environment is heralding the success of a crackdown on illegal logging, notably in the country's northeast where vast protected areas have been the focus of huge trafficking scandals. The ministry says more than 1,000 precious rosewood logs have been seized in the last two weeks of policing, and that members of a so-called "logging mafia" will face trial. Conservationists welcome the move, but worry it may be temporary after recent warnings to the World Bank about the unchecked plunder of protected areas.
The head of forests at the ministry of environment, Julien Rakotoarisoa, says the 30-day mission to crack down on illegal logging in northeast Madagascar is aimed at weakening a large trafficking network.
Rakotoarisoa said that “after just a few days, over a thousand pieces of precious wood have been seized”, including highly lucrative but slow-growing rosewood and palisander logs.
In an area held tightly in the grip of what he called a "logging mafia," Rakotoarisoa said 100 members of the security forces were brought from the capital city to help with surveillance and to avoid any further corruption.
He said seven arrests have been made and he said officials were trying to "accelerate the judicial process" so trials could be held.
Judicial proceedings in the town of Antalaha were marked by protests on the streets and outside the courtroom, with the refusal for bail leading to calls for the district judge to be fired.
Local newspapers say protests have been orchestrated by a network, which includes major transport companies, that is lobbying for the suspects, who are charged with illegal transport of logs.
Ndranto Razakamanarina, president of the Alliance of 27 conservation groups in Madagascar, says these kinds of protests are an example of how mafia networks threaten to defy and destabilize the government. But he says they must not be allowed to win.
“They were caused by mafia barons but it’s for sure that they have many people behind them," said Razakamanarina. "But it’s not a reason to stop what we should do, because everyone, even those people in these areas know that what they are doing is not sustainable.”
He said ultimatums from the "mafia" led to two decrees under Madagascar's former and current governments in 2009 that allowed certain people to log and export precious woods.
But another decree banning all transportation and logging of woods was made in April 2010 after an international outcry on deforestation in Madagascar and legal action against the government by the conservation alliance.
“Most of these woods were taken in the national parks which is a crime," added Razakamanarina. "And the exportation officially stopped, but the logging was spread all the way all over the island, because this mafia, this is what they did for years that. Even though they are not authorized, they cut the woods and they store that somewhere.”
Razakamanarina thinks the recent government crackdown is partly due to a recent annual statement from the alliance, warning the World Bank to support Madagascar’s national parks and biodiversity only if the government shows a willingness to allow the country's natural resources to be protected rather than plundered.
Razakamanarina is positive about the current efforts by the government. But he thinks that local communities and civil society groups must be given incentives and be properly equipped to be able to tackle such organized crime networks or the plunder of the forests will continue.