The fight to protect the world’s most trafficked wild commodity

Chinese demand for rosewood—trafficked more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales—is fueling a crisis in Guatemala's forests.

Photograph by Carlos Duarte
Read Caption

Durable, fragrant rosewood, used to make furniture and musical instruments, is the world’s most trafficked wild product by value and volume.

Photograph by Carlos Duarte

The fight to protect the world’s most trafficked wild commodity

Chinese demand for rosewood—trafficked more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales—is fueling a crisis in Guatemala's forests.

Update: On August 26, 2019, the Conference of the Parties at the CITES summit in Geneva approved the proposal to grant certain exemptions for rosewood regulations, including for finished musical instruments made with rosewood and for small finished rosewood products, such as handicrafts, weighing less than 10 kilograms per shipment.

Jose Baudillo leans over a thin rosewood log lying on a bed of dark red wood chips and wraps a tape measure around one end. “This one is young”—less than 16 inches, he says to his boss, Eddy Ottoniel Palencia.


© NGP, Content may not reflect National Geographic's current map policy.

The log had been cut illegally in Izabal, one of Guatemala’s 22 departments. Prized for its durability, rich color, and fragrant scent, rosewood is a dense tropical hardwood used to make musical instruments, from guitars and marimbas to violins, as well as high-end, furniture, mainly in China.

So coveted is rosewood that it’s now the world’s most trafficked wild product by value or volume—more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales combined. According to the Global Environment Facility, an international partnership among governments, civil society, and the private sector to support conservation, the illegal wild animal trade is worth between $5 billion and $20 billion a year; it’s often ranked as the world’s fourth most lucrative black market business after narcotics, human trafficking, and the weapons trade.

According to Interpol, timber trafficking is valued at between $30 billion and $100 billion a year and accounts for 15 percent to 30 percent of the global timber trade. Sam Lawson, the director of Earthsight, a London-based nonprofit that investigates global environmental crime, estimates that the annual value of smuggled rosewood could exceed a billion dollars.

Palencia and Baudillo work for the Foundation for Economic Development and Conservation (Fundaeco), a Guatemalan environmental nonprofit that administers 18 national protected areas in partnership with the government. The rosewood log they’re measuring was cut in a patch of forest on a private ranch near the protected Rio Sarstún Multiple Use Area, whose remaining rosewood trees have become a target for smugglers. Tipped off by the landowner, Fundaeco's men have been waging a months-long cat-and-mouse effort to catch the illegal loggers in action.

“To cut a tree this small,” Palencia says, shaking his head, “suggests that there really aren’t any trees left.”

View Images

Timber trafficking is valued at between $30 billion and $100 billion a year, according to Interpol. These leavings are from a rosewood tree felled illegally in Guatemala's Izabal department.

The first time Guatemalan forest officials realized they had a rosewood problem was in 2011, according to documents submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife, including rare timber. That’s when three shipping containers of the precious hardwood were discovered at Puerto Santo Tomas de Castilla, one of Guatemala’s two commercial shipping ports.

The next year, more containers—labeled as resin, recycling materials, cardboard, and other wood products—were intercepted there and at Puerto Quetzal, says César Beltetón, forestry director of the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP). CONAP is the government agency that administers Guatemala’s 338 protected areas, which cover almost a third of the country.

The emergence of Guatemala's illegal rosewood trade has been driven largely by demand among China’s nouveau riche for traditional Ming and Qing dynasty-style rosewood furniture. Between 2009 and 2014, customs data analyzed by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K.-based nonprofit, show a 14-fold increase in rosewood imports to China from around the world. This expansion coincided with (and contributed to) the decimation of preferred Southeast Asian rosewoods, which earlier had replaced depleted native rosewoods in southern China. Buyers searched for new sources, and Guatemala, which has at least four commercially desirable species, was one.

It was “like a gold rush,” recalls Byron Renato Morales Gallen, one of two prosecutors with the Office of the Public Prosecutor’s Environmental Crimes Division who specialize in rosewood trafficking.

Once known as the lungs of Central America, Guatemala, a nation about the size of Tennessee, lost 17 percent of its forest cover between 2001 and 2017, according to Global Forest Watch, a website developed by the World Resources Institute to track forest data. Today, the country has the world’s fourth highest deforestation rate, with the eastern departments of Petén, Alta Verapaz, and Izabal—where much of the country's illegally logged rosewood grows—suffering the greatest losses.

View Images

At a logging camp in Madagascar, rosewood logs are bundled to be floated downstream. Because Guatemalan rosewoods grow less than half an inch a year and take up to a hundred years to reach full maturity, unregulated logging can devastate populations.

Even before landowners cut down swaths of forest for cattle ranches and plantations of rubber, bananas, and increasingly African oil palms, Guatemala—unlike African countries such as Madagascar and Nigeria, which have also fallen victim to the frenzy— didn’t have an abundance of rosewoods. That’s because the country has limited areas of the low-lying swampland that the local species of the tree prefer. Guatemalan rosewoods grow less than half an inch a year, and take up to a century to reach full maturity, so any unregulated logging jeopardizes the overall population.

Myrna Herrera Sosa, who heads the Laboratory for the Identification and Description of Wood at Guatemala’s San Carlos University, in Guatemala City, leads the effort to survey the country’s remaining rosewood stock. In a normal, healthy ecosystem, she says, there might be 150 to 200 rosewoods interspersed among thousands of trees. But these days when she and her teams go into forests, they find no more than a few widely scattered individual trees—perhaps no more than 10 at a single site. So few rosewoods, she says, that they “can’t even be called populations.”

Alarmed by its rosewood’s increasing vulnerability, in 2016 Guatemala led global efforts to have all 300 species upgraded to Appendix II of CITES, which put in place stricter regulations on rosewood exports: Every shipment must have a permit certifying the timber’s legal, and sustainable, provenance.

By the time the new CITES regulations went into effect, rosewood seizures in Guatemala had already begun declining, says CONAP’s Beltetón. Even as the trees were getting harder to find, however, the poachers were becoming more sophisticated at evading detection.

The rosewood thieves

Because rosewoods are naturally scarce in Guatemala, finding and logging them requires local knowledge and intensive labor. Impoverished villagers with little to lose head into the forests with their chain saws and, sometimes, donkeys to clear pathways; find and fell the trees; strip their bark and sapwood to expose the valuable heartwood; shape the logs; and drag the flitches—sawn planks—to roadsides for trucking to seaports.

When the trucks come, the illicit booty is sometimes hidden under other products to avoid detection—but as police reports and records from the public prosecutor’s office show, if the intermediary buyer or the person responsible for shipping has paid off police to guarantee safe passage through checkpoints, the wood is trucked undisguised.

The next stop is either of Guatemala’s two major seaports, where containers of rosewood are loaded into ships bound for Hong Kong and mainland China. According to Beltetón, some rosewood makes a longer truck journey overland to Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras. In China, the wood is sold from warehouses in ports on the coast and on the Yangtze River to furniture makers farther inland who turn flitches into fancy furnishings.

The rosewood log Palencia and Baudillo came across on the ranch in Izabal wasn’t the first case of illicit logging there. On a routine patrol a few months earlier, a forest ranger had discovered a pile of flitches waiting for pick-up in a clearing between the woods and the access road.

View Images

Guatemala, once thought of as the lungs of Central America, lost 17 percent of its forest cover between 2001 and 2017. The country now has the world's fourth highest deforestation rate.

These discoveries are indicative of increased rosewood poaching in Izabal during the past two years, says Oswaldo Calderón, the regional director of Fundaeco. Previously, he says, most rosewood came from Petén or from across the border in Belize. Indeed, according to data from the Office of the Public Prosecutor on Environmental Crime, 60 percent of the 19 active rosewood trafficking cases from 2017 through 2018 involved confiscations in Izabal.

Rural departments in Guatemala with the highest incidents of rosewood trafficking—Izabal, Petén, and Alta Verapaz—also are among the country’s poorest. They’re riven by disputes between the national government and indigenous settlers over their right to be on the land, according to Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. The group, established by the nonprofit Norwegian Refuge Council, tracks internal displacement worldwide.

Often, landless settlers have been displaced repeatedly—by Guatemala’s civil war, which ended in 1996, by the conversion of land from small-scale farms to use by agribusinesses and extractive industries, and by climate change. They’ve been pushed onto the only land still available, which often is in protected areas that have restrictions on use and ownership.

In 2017, Guatemala’s per capita gross national income was roughly $4,060—a figure that’s significantly lower in these rural areas, where there’s a 79 percent poverty rate among indigenous populations and eight out of 10 children suffer from malnutrition, according to UNICEF.

Moises Cardona, a community leader in El Carrizal, an unauthorized settlement inside a protected area on Guatemala's porous border with Belize, says this explains why getting involved in lucrative illegal logging is appealing to some people. Since the peak of the rosewood boom, El Carrizal and neighboring villages have gained a reputation for rosewood smuggling—and for their opposition to the Guatemalan state.

In Cardona’s opinion, it’s unfair that the environmental impact of tree-cutting without the proper permits by poor, powerless Guatemalans is considered illegal—but not the "African palm and all those humongous ranches that destroy everything.” Cardona was referring in part to Guatemala’s Oil Palm Program, launched in 2009, to convert “unused" peasant lands—often within protected areas’ multiple use zones where some industry is allowed—into oil palm plantations. These businesses employ indigenous subsistence farmers as seasonal contract workers, and their environmental effects—water shortages, deforestation, and soil degradation—are well-documented.

CONAP’s Beltetón says “it’s terrible that [rosewood] is distributed in the poorest areas of Guatemala, and that that's where the trafficker goes, taking advantage of the poverty and ignorance of people who don't have other options.” He adds, “of course, the government also bears some responsibility”—for not providing state services and active law enforcement in the most contested and conflict-ridden areas, such as the Chiquibul Mayan Mountains Protected Area, where El Carrizal is located.

On the evening of July 1, 2018, acting on an anonymous tip about the illegal transport of rosewood, three environmental police agents made the two-and-a-half hour drive from their post in La Libertad, Petén, to El Barillal, an unincorporated village neighboring El Carrizal.

As they approached their destination, instead of encountering the suspect, they found themselves surrounded by at least 45 men, some armed, according to the report the police filed the next day. The report says the men prevented their vehicle from passing, threatened them, questioned them about their presence, detained them for over an hour, and fired their weapons, although no one was injured. In the end, the three policemen broke the standoff by returning to La Libertad empty-handed.

In the nine months since, the environmental police have not returned to El Barillal.

Disrupting the illegal trade

Most countries, including China, have no laws against importing illegally sourced timber—and thus have no legal framework giving port officials authority to turn back shipments. But CITES uplisting of rosewood in 2016 changed that.

Last year, Aura Marina López Cifuentes, Guatemala’s public prosecutor for environmental crimes, ordered the return from China of four shipping containers marked as rubber, recycling, and packing materials. She says her team had noticed certain “anomalies” with the paperwork, including that it had been signed by a known rosewood smuggler and that containers carrying the listed products were far heavier than they should have been.

"We prayed that it was rosewood, and when we opened it, it was,” López recalls.

View Images

Resembling an abandoned lumberyard, an open-air government warehouse in Guatemala holds some 350,000 cubic feet of confiscated timber, about 70 percent of which is rosewood.

That confiscated wood is now in CONAP’s custody in an open-air warehouse in Izabal, and cases against the traffickers are making their way through the courts. The storage facility, which resembles an abandoned lumberyard, holds about 350,000 cubic feet of confiscated timber, as well as tractor trailers, pickup trucks, and even a lone speedboat, balanced precariously on a pile of flitches. According to warehouse guards, 70 percent of the timber is rosewood.

Fighting forest crime in Guatemala is divided among a number of state agencies and civil society organizations. The National Institute of Forestry is responsible for overall forest management, but CONAP takes the lead when it comes to safeguarding the country’s protected areas and species.

In administering the protected areas, CONAP employs local staff, including rangers who conduct regular patrols, liaise with communities, and scout for illegal activity. The agency approves rosewood export permits, oversees local forest management plans in protected areas, and is responsible for identifying and inspecting forest products at ports and in law enforcement operations.

But CONAP is under-resourced. It has fewer than 400 officers who must monitor more than 800 million acres—nearly a third of the country—and an annual budget, often subject to cuts, of only about $13 million.

To make up some of the shortfall, CONAP relies on privately funded nonprofits such as Fundaeco, which employs its own rangers and technical staff, implements development programs, and is often the first to spot illicit activity.

Seeing is one thing, but being authorized to act is another. When rangers—working for CONAP, Fundaeco, or other partner nonprofits—come across evidence of a crime, they have neither the authority nor the resources to act. As Beltetón says, “Can you imagine a ranger who barely even carries a machete used to clear trees and comes up against traffickers with Kalishnakovs in hand? No, our rangers don’t go to the front lines.”

The rangers therefore pass information about criminal activity to Diprona, the environmental division of the national police, which is responsible for carrying out law enforcement operations.

Diprona’s officers may be joined by a technical specialist from CONAP or the nonprofit partner to identify the wood and interview the rangers who made the initial report. If an investigation takes them into particularly dangerous territory, the Guatemalan army may provide additional protection.

But Diprona too is under-resourced, with a budget for only 600 police officers covering the entire country. Because of the time it can take to mobilize thinly spread personnel, the remoteness of many illegal logging operations, and the need for officers to have a judicial order before they can step onto private land, criminals and their contraband may be long gone before enforcement actions begin.

The involvement of so many entities may seem to suggest Guatemala’s dedication to resolving the rosewood problem, but in reality, such a fragmented system leaves room for responsibilities to fall between the cracks. “There are solutions, of course, but first the government has to be inclined to actually implement them," says Myrna Herrera, of the Wood Laboratory. Guatemala may have CONAP, the public prosecutor for the environment, and Diprona, she adds, but "to start, they need clearly defined, strong laws against illegal logging and trafficking.” One example of such a law? Laying out a minimum diameter by which rosewood can be cut legally, a standard that already exists for other precious woods, such as mahogany, Herrera says.

When apprehensions are made and enough evidence gathered, the alleged crimes are investigated and handled by the Office of the Public Prosecutor’s Environmental Crimes Division. Cases typically go before the Court of Narco-Trafficking and Environmental Crimes, but other specialized courts, including those dedicated to organized crime and corruption, also play a role.

Criminal networks

What is known about rosewood criminal operations in Guatemala owes largely to the efforts of Public Prosecutor Aura López’s environmental crimes office. She says they’ve identified four distinct rosewood trafficking networks, or structures, as she and her colleagues call them. "We didn't want to call them criminal “groups” because that doesn't really reflect the level of involvement of government officials," she says.

These criminal networks are highly sophisticated and resemble drug smuggling operations. As Fundaeco’s Palencia put it, “The main difference between drug trafficking and tree trafficking is that they can always produce more drugs.”

After years of investigations, nearly all the leaders and members of one criminal network have been identified and prosecuted, López says. Only a single individual is still at large, who she suspects has fled the country. She says her team is now closing in on another of the four networks. Meanwhile, 68 additional cases, each involving a specific rosewood seizure, remain under active investigation or prosecution.

Rosewood trafficking is destroying this Thai national park

Follow Thai rangers as they hunt rosewood traffickers through one of Thailand's national parks.

Prosecutor Morales Gallen adds that 50 individuals already have been sentenced and that proceedings against five government officials—including a customs officer, a member of the police force, and a senior CONAP security official—began in April.

But even as the environmental crimes office has been getting better at disrupting the traffickers, the criminals themselves have been evolving. “They’re a lot more careful with their identities,” Morales Gallen says. They “do everything with fake names and false information,” as well as prepaid SIM cards.

Guatemala's Protected Areas Act lays out mandatory sentencing for crimes against natural and cultural patrimony (often used to charge illegal loggers) and trafficking of flora and fauna. Penalties range from five to 10 years prison time, commutable by a fine of between roughly $1,300 and $2,600. Judges have the discretion to adjust fines based on the guilty party’s perceived financial ability to pay.

Such fines are “nothing for those that traffic,” Morales Gallen emphasizes. Of the 19 rosewood seizures prosecuted between 2017 and 2018, more than half were valued at more than $50,000, and the largest at $125,000.

Judges also have the discretionary authority to order reparations for environmental damage—500 trees to be planted in a protected area, for example, or, in one case in December 2017, an air conditioner to be donated to the judicial branch of the local CONAP office. When asked about this, the sentencing judge explained that “it’s hot in Petén, and CONAP needs an air conditioner. How can they do their jobs without it?”

Few convicted loggers go to prison. For crime fighters on the front lines, this seeming impunity is frustrating. “It costs us more to participate in operations than it does for them to [avoid] jail,” says Jorge Diaz, of Fundaeco’s Izabal branch.

At the same time, conservationists and enforcers of the law alike understand the dire circumstances that drive villagers to steal rosewood from the forests. As Oswaldo Calderon, Fundaeco’s regional director, puts it: “The protected areas are never going to be protected and sustainable while people are dying of hunger within them.”

Morales Gallen says the light punishments send a message that crimes such as rosewood poaching are considered inconsequential. "There’s a lack of conscience about environmental crimes. Guatemala’s a very violent country, with robberies, kidnappings, murders, so environmental crimes don’t seem as important. If you have a case about a kidnapping and a case about the environment, believe me, they’ll prioritize the kidnapping.”

López says the aim isn’t to go soft on rosewood crime but to tap local poachers for information that can point authorities toward smuggling bosses. She says that when the leaders of trafficking rings are caught, they often end up being charged with other crimes as well—falsification of documents, bribery of a public official, corruption—that carry more serious punishments, including jail time.

The fact that Guatemala is doing anything to combat rosewood trafficking is noteworthy, says Romain Taravella, a forestry specialist with the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Applying the law, in itself, in the world of rosewood is kind of more the exception than the rule,” he says.

As Guatemala grapples internally with preserving its rosewoods, an external threat looms. At the meeting of CITES this month in Geneva, the treaty’s 183 signatories will consider an amendment that would exempt finished musical instruments and their component parts containing rosewood, as well as finished rosewood products weighing less than 500 grams, from trade restrictions.

The musical instrument exemption was lobbied for by U.S. and European instrument companies, who argue that they were "collateral damage” in restrictions targeting "the furniture industry,” as the U.K.-based Music Industries Association put it, but the change could increase demand for the precious hardwood. It’s expected to pass, and if it does, says CONAP’s Beltetón, the burden would fall on instrument manufacturers outside Guatemala to ensure the sustainable origin of their rosewood.

In the meantime, the theft of Guatemala’s rosewoods will continue until stronger national laws are passed and enforcement and penalties are stepped up. Or the trees run out.

Eileen Guo is an independent magazine journalist and audio producer based in Los Angeles. Follow her work on Twitter and Instagram. This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Adelante Reporting Initiative.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
Editor's note: On August 19, this story was updated with additional information about the CITES amendment.