Soaring demand for luxury furniture in Asia is decimating Ghana’s forests while creating a lucrative but environmentally destructive industry.
MOLE NATIONAL PARK, Ghana — Mbaaba Kaper stood in the middle of the illegal timber trafficking warehouse where he’d worked as a watchman for nearly six years. Grasping the edge of a graying trunk that reached his shoulders, Kaper said with a smile, “This one is rosewood.”
He was accomplished at identifying rosewood—the world’s most threatened hardwood. Rosewood exports have been banned in Ghana since 2019, but the vast Chinese-run trafficking network in which Kaper worked in Yipala, northern Ghana, was shut down by Ghanaian police only nine months before we visited in June. The immense trees logged during its operation remained on the ground as far as the eye could see.
Kaper still lived in the gated compound with his trusty hunting dog, on alert for thieves and waiting for his Chinese bosses to return. Kaper, who is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, said they had promised to send him a little money as salary. He did not know how much or at least did not want to tell me.
Rosewood is the world’s most widely traded illegal wild product—trafficked far more than elephant ivory, rhino horns, or pangolin scales, according to Interpol, fetching up to $50,000 per cubic meter and increasing in value 700 times from the logger to the end buyer. China imports almost all African rosewood trafficked across West Africa.
Ghana had little interest in the endangered African rosewood tree, but it is extremely sought after in China, where the interior red of the wood is used in classical-style luxury hongmufurniture—once crafted for Ming emperors and elites but violently confiscated during the Cultural Revolution as the Chinese Communist Party railed against “bourgeois” wealth.
The style has regained popularity among China’s middle class as a status symbol and long-term investment, fueling a nearly $26 billion market mainly in China and Vietnam. As much of Southeast Asia’s rosewood species are already depleted, loggers are plundering Africa. Since 2010, China’s import of rosewood from across East, West, and Central Africa has increased 700 percent.
In November 2021, more than $2 million worth of rosewood was imported from Ghana into China, when imports should have been zero because it is banned, according to the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). In 2018, African rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus) was added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
In 2019, a Chinese national, Helena Huang—known to Ghanaians as the “Rosewood Queen”—was arrested for transporting several containers of rosewood to Tema, Ghana’s largest port, under the operation at Yipala, trading as a company named BrivyWelss. Huang jumped bail, was rearrested, and then deported instead of being prosecuted. The Yipala operation was shut down in May 2019, but illegal logging operations have continuously resurfaced, prompting further shutdowns. Many environmental defenders complain that too often criminals evade prosecution.
“Even the [rose]wood that was found we don’t know where it ended up. We have to say it as it is. It is corruption,” said Suweidu Abdulai, a monitoring and research officer for Ghana Developing Communities Association, which works to build skills in northern communities.
“The rosewood [issue] has become a demon for us,” he said. Northern Ghana is arid and prone to desertification. “This is a part of the country that lacks trees, but rosewood is mostly found here,” he added. Due to logging, “in the next few years, we will not have rosewood any longer.”
China’s involvement in the rosewood trade in Ghana began in 2010. The African Development Bank in part financed the construction of a nearly 100-mile road linking Fufulso and Sawla through to Mole National Park in Ghana’s Northern region. Two state-owned Chinese contractors were awarded the $166 million project: China International Water & Electric Corp. and China Harbour Engineering Co.
Salvage permits were issued to legally log and export timber during construction of the road, which routed through protected forests. “Some people took advantage of that to go beyond the area they were allotted to cut,” said Faisal Elias, a policy and advocacy officer at Ghana Wildlife Society.
The rosewood trade was largely dormant prior to the boom fueled by Chinese infrastructure projects. “They realized that it was such a viable economic venture. Then the plundering began,” said Clement Aapengnuo, the director of the Center for Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies in Damongo, northern Ghana. Chinese businessmen came through Ghana’s rural north offering what seemed like vast sums of cash for illegally logged rosewood. “Today, you won’t find a tree that is of a size of 25 centimeters [in girth]. All have been cut.” Using the proceeds of laundered rosewood sales, “people started building houses that they never would have dreamt of building, so it became very difficult even for the chiefs and the environmentalists to stop,” Aapengnuo said.
An independent report in 2020 by the African Development Bank acknowledged that “construction of the road facilitated Rosewood logging within the project’s enclave—a phenomenon that continues to threaten the Mole National Park.”
“If you go into a poverty-stricken area and you give 5,000 cedis [about $415] to a chief, he is going to be very excited,” Aapengnuo said. “The local people are the ones sent into the forest. They cut down the trees … but people didn’t have an idea about what a container load of rosewood will cost in China.”
Media censorship in China means most Chinese citizens are unaware of how big a problem it has become across West and Central African countries. “There is no genuine coverage from the Chinese side,” said Haibing Ma, an Asia policy specialist at the EIA. Until 2010, Ghanaian usage of rosewood was minimal and limited to the production of xylophones, firewood, and as a textile dye. But as the political ecologist Annah Lake Zhu noted, “rosewood has in its own small way come to represent what it means to be Chinese in history and Chinese in the world.”
Few state-protected forests were safe from the plunder. A logging frenzy intensified during the 2010-13 construction of Ghana’s second-largest hydropower plant, the Bui Dam, built by the Chinese state-owned Sinohydro and which cost $622 million. Salvage permits were again issued, but uncontrolled logging ensued throughout Bui National Park.
Ghana has since 2012 issued, lifted, and reissued bans intermittently on rosewood harvesting and exports. A further ban was announced in 2014, with authorities citing the “abuse of permits granted” within the Bui Dam area. Then, in 2017, more than 20 companies were approved to “salvage” abandoned or already logged rosewood. This allowed traffickers to claim their wood was harvested within a permitted area or during an exemption period.
The latest outright ban was enacted in 2019, but according to the EIA report, smugglers are able to circumvent bans through bribery. Transporting timber in Ghana requires a conveyance certificate, issued by local Forestry Commission offices. However, the EIA’s undercover investigators found that these certificates, which were supposed to have been stopped after the most recent ban, are still being issued illegally, through bribes paid to officials.
More than 50 percent of rosewood exports by volume in Ghana occur while a ban is in place, according to the EIA. Rosewood species are under trade restrictions within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that criminals cannot pass off illegally logged timber as legitimate.
At the port in Tema, a half-hour drive from the capital of Accra, traffickers can pay a “penalty” of between 1,500 and 1,700 cedis (approximately $123-$140) for their seized logs along with CITES permits and conveyance certificates.
Locals told Foreign Policy that law enforcement officers also allow traffickers to pay fines to have their logs released. “Rosewood logs are often hidden as containers of charcoal and transported by road through Ghana, and officials are bribed to certify cargo,” one senior official in Ghana’s Forestry Commission, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “The lack of prosecution is largely because many of those involved in the trade have deep pockets or are well connected to the political class,” Clement Apaak, Ghana’s member of Parliament for Builsa South, told local media in February.
The EIA report found that Nana Kofi Adu-Nsiah, the former executive director of the Forestry Commission’s wildlife division, signed a CITES permit in 2019, after the ban, for a shipment of four containers of rosewood that had already been unloaded in the port of Ningbo in China’s Zhejiang province, and traffickers alleged that a percentage of sales from illegally exported rosewood was paid to Adu-Nsiah.
In a statement to Foreign Policy, Adu-Nsiah denied any wrongdoing and said his division was not responsible for issuing licenses in the first instance. “In Ghana, the Timber Industry Development Division handles timber and their products. They give export permits to timber exporters. When they give their export permits, the exporters then take CITES permits from Wildlife Division,” he said.
Following publication of the EIA report, Ghanaian authorities set up a seven-member committee to investigate allegations of corruption in August 2019 and in February 2020 found no evidence of wrongdoing by any Ghanaian official. But Jeremiah Seidu, who was part of the seven-member committee, said the details they submitted were rejected by top government officials. “We found all of them culpable,” he told Foreign Policy. Seidu is the program coordinator for the Jaksally Development Organization, which has been fighting the billion-dollar trade for years.
In one case in 2020, having investigated rosewood logging, Seidu and his then-driver Yusuf were passing through the forest in Damongo when their car was shot at by unknown assailants. Yusuf, whose full name we are not publishing because he remains terrified by the incident, believes it was to intimidate Seidu.
“I have realized the investigations are on a dangerous path, and they are not yielding results … so I’ve stopped, and I am looking and thinking through meditating on how to empower the communities,” Seidu told Foreign Policy. He continues to advocate against logging and charcoal burning.
Members of Ghana’s committee of inquiry told Foreign Policy that information in the officially released report was redacted through coercion and that they were blocked by local governments from investigating in certain communities—only three of the seven members on the panel were not federal employees. The committee found “multiple instances” of high-level corruption, one member told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Under Ghana’s former lands and natural resources minister, Kwaku Asomah-Cheremeh, who is now the country’s high commissioner to India, an estimated 147,000 kilograms (about 325,000 pounds) of illegally logged rosewood was smuggled out of Ghana to China—but without a single prosecution.
Mole National Park, created in 1958 within the heartland of what is now the Savannah region, is Ghana’s first and largest protected reserve. This sprawling wilderness of towering trees is home to endangered forest elephants and a haven for birds. On a rainy Thursday afternoon, I trekked through the forest on the tail of roaming elephants. A broad-billed roller nesting on the tallest branch of a rosewood tree created a ruckus.
John Munaba has worked as a park ranger in Mole for 12 years. “We have arrested about almost 20 people in three years,” he said. In March 2020, as China implemented a harsh COVID-19 lockdown strategy, illegal exports of rosewood from Ghana to China dropped 90 percent compared with the previous year and have continued to spike and then drop as restrictions have been eased and reimposed in China.
According to Munaba, loggers operate at night when there are fewer rangers about. Currently, 150 rangers patrol the vast 1,767-square-mile reserve. Six months ago, a truck filled with rosewood was impounded and remains parked outside Mole’s headquarters. Ghana’s Forestry Commission, which manages Mole, declined to speak to Foreign Policy on what happens to seized rosewood.
The road to Mole from Tamale, Ghana’s third-largest city, is mile upon mile of flat grasslands. Along the main highways in the Savannah region, small mounds of shea nuts dry in the midday sun. They have been roasted and parboiled to be beaten into shea butter, after which they’ll end up all over the world in soaps and moisturizers.
Women here live off the land, trading in shea nuts. But shea trees are being cut down and used to disguise shipments of rosewood. Traffickers told Foreign Policy that cheaper wood cuts are often packed with rosewood hidden behind.
Ghana Wildlife Society created an app called Timby, which allows for anonymous reporting of illegal logging of all tree species. Residents can send pictures or videos to the NGO and record the location. An upload comes in as I talk to Elias, the policy and advocacy officer, in his office in Accra.
A community member has sent images of people he saw loading a truck full of rosewood within Mole. The citizen has included the truck’s registration details, which, he writes, he took while hiding in the bushes. All details are sent on to law enforcement, Elias told Foreign Policy.
Rosewood logging is creating problems that go beyond the depletion of rare species. Large trees hold water, stop a forest from drying out, and protect communities from wind.
The loss of forest cover has been incalculable to Ghana’s agricultural sector, which contributes over half of Ghana’s GDP. Farmers have experienced extreme drought followed by flooding. The World Bank Group forecasts that those weather events, along with longer, hotter periods, will increase significantly within the northern Savannah belt as a result of climate change, impacting the yields of cocoa, a major export and Ghana’s second-biggest foreign exchange earner.
At the height of the pandemic, Ghana’s then-environment minister, Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, considered COVID-19 a “wake-up call to us as Ghanaians on self-sufficiency” in adapting to extreme weather events caused by climate change. To incorporate climate projections in government planning, Ghana launched its National Adaptation Plan, a $2.97 million project funded by a United Nations program called the Green Climate Fund.
Residents told Foreign Policy that they believed the deforestation caused severe winds to rip the roofs off buildings in villages in Damango as well as flooding in some places and fickle rains in others that led dams in the area to dry up.
A driving force behind community campaigns against Chinese-backed logging has been the Gonjaland Youth Association, which has targeted young Ghanaians involved in logging in particular. The group has tried to educate people to understand the harm caused by illegal logging, said its spokesperson Borejinkpr Habibu Muftawu, “but the change in our climate system is one that has drawn their attention.”
Communities in Salaga, a town in East Gonja in the Savannah region, did not benefit from the Chinese road construction, but rosewood logging has spread there, Muftawu told Foreign Policy. People have started to complain, he said. “In the past, it is not common for us to have a storm that rips off the roofs of houses,” he explained. “When we had the trees, these weren’t happening. Now that the trees have gone, they see what is happening.”
Even if Ghana implements its laws, it has become clear that organized gangs will circumvent any rule where high profits can be made. Kidan Araya is an environmental strategist who testified before the U.S. Congress last year on illegal rosewood trading. “This is not necessarily just Ghana’s issue. All this rosewood trade in Ghana is being driven by demand in China for this particular wood,” she said.
When one West African country enforces a permit ban, the problem moves to its neighbors. Araya believes regional coordination is needed. “We’ve seen time and time again how traffickers are relentless at keeping the illicit trade alive and skilled at morphing their activities to evade the law,” she said.
In Nigeria, billions of dollars’ worth of rosewood sourced from dense forests under the control of Boko Haram is illegally exported to China. In Gambia, where rosewood has been pillaged to near extinction, the exported logs are smuggled in from separatist rebels in neighboring Senegal’s Casamance region.
Ghanaian environmental activists told Foreign Policy that China should make sure that what it imports is clean. Given that Beijing is heading the South-South climate cooperation initiative, with a pledge to financially help other developing countries—particularly in Africa—address climate change, it ought to champion forest management.
Under international pressure, China revised its laws in July 2020 to better protect threatened forests. The new law stipulated that “no operator or individual may knowingly purchase, process, or transport timber of illegal sources.” But many felt it lacked clarity and allowed for loopholes where buyers could claim a lack of knowledge.
The EIA’s Ma told Foreign Policy that the problem needed to be raised as a policy emergency during the annual China-Africa summit. “Timber trade overall occupies a tiny proportion of Chinese overall trade,” he said. However, the Chinese government is keen on promoting its close ties with African countries. “Once you elevate that and frame it as a kind of relationship between the African friends and China, then that will become a political issue, and that will spur the Chinese government to improve its policies,” Ma said.
There have been improvements in international legislation. This June, CITES announced the immediate suspension of trade and export in threatened West African rosewood until source countries could prove that their trade can be legal and sustainable. The decision is binding for all 184 CITES member states, including the 16 countries within the West African region, particularly top exporters Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Mali.
Adhering to the rule, Ghana’s current minister for lands and natural resources, Samuel Abu Jinapor, announced a ban on issuing CITES permits for rosewood logging. According to Jinapor, the local Forestry Commission “is collaborating with other security agencies to enforce the strict ban and clamp down on all illegal logging activities.”
But members of the committee investigating alleged government corruption in rosewood trading said they are doubtful this is happening because they made five recommendations to the local CITES secretariat and not a single one of them had been implemented, committee members told Foreign Policy. This included a tracking system for all permits issued in Ghana to trace those obtained fraudulently.
The committee recommended that corruption allegations against Adu-Nsiah be investigated by the police as well as the overhaul of staff in charge of overseeing Ghana’s CITES administration. “The staff are responsible for inspecting the shipment of logs, but nobody inspected. Anyone could walk into the office with money and pick a certificate,” the anonymous committee member told Foreign Policy. Data on permit expiration dates seen by Foreign Policy showed permits had been issued to companies more than a year in advance of shipments to China. (Permits for exports of protected species are meant to be valid for no more than six months.)
In an email response, Adu-Nsiah reiterated that the committee report “did not find any wrongdoing” and that the report “recommended further investigations by relevant security agencies if they wish. As to why the recommendations were never implemented, I do not know.”
“The CITES bans in themselves don’t work,” the committee member said. “You have a system of elite capture where a lot of the people responsible for the regulation were in the pockets of the elite.”
Unilateral solutions through CITES bans that restrict the supply side only inflate the price of rosewood, locals and industry experts told Foreign Policy. This is because China is still creating the demand. Indeed, when CITES restrictions first came into force in 2016, the price of rosewood soared.
At 8:30 a.m. on an overcast Friday in June, hundreds of schoolchildren in starched white T-shirts firmly clutching tiny pots of teak seedlings zigzagged across a field. It was Green Ghana Day, a government directive to encourage every Ghanaian citizen to plant a tree. The goal was to plant at least 20 million trees to combat deforestation due to farming, mining, and logging.
But those on the ground such as Seidu say the wrong types of measures are being rolled out to reforest because the species being planted are not native trees and there isn’t the economic incentive for locals to nurture them. Many seedlings die of simple neglect. Experts say more emphasis is needed to replant indigenous species such as rosewood, which takes 100 years to mature, and more importantly shea trees, which can take 20 years to fruit but produce nuts for up to 200 years. Currently, both trees are not actively cultivated.
“When there was a total ban, we met a vehicle. We stopped it and handed it over to police. Then a call came from the highest office of the land that the car should be released. … People in different offices benefit,” said Gonjaland Youth Association’s Muftawu, referring to the seat of power in Accra. In communities that Foreign Policy visited, there was a perception that there was little political will to act against illegal logging, which has angered locals. “We stopped one vehicle, offloaded it, sold the wood out, and used the money to buy mattresses for the clinic and health facility around that area,” Muftawu added.
More broadly, campaigners propose community approaches to job creation that incentivize conservation. “Whenever there is an election, the environment is a key campaign promise but without any clear goals. … One of the things making people go into the forest is the poverty, especially those in the north,” said Elias of Ghana Wildlife Society.
For those with scant employment opportunities in the north, the need for income far outweighs environmental concerns. The criminal operation in Yipala had once employed between 40 and 50 locals, including some Nigerians, said Kaper, the watchman. Ghanaian women were also employed to package timber cut into small blocks.
“When the Chinese came, we got work and money,” Kaper said. “Now lots of people don’t have work.”