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Billion Dollar International Corruption Spreading to Vanuatu

The most sought after illegal species export around the world is not Shark fin or Rhino horn, it’s surprisingly something that Vanuatu has been illegally exporting in vast quantities over the last few years. The extremely lucrative trade in Rosewood has created an industry of smugglers, corrupt leaders, and environmental disasters of epic proportions all around the world. Ancient forest in Nigeria, PNG, the Solomon Islands, North Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, and now Vanuatu are being decimated. Billions of dollars’ worth of illegal activities are dangerously affecting the delicate balances of nature by destroying habitats for hundreds of species, and making rosewood itself in peril of disappearing forever.

In Vanuatu the global pattern has recently been exposed by daring investigations in the quiet protected forests of Santo. It was discovered that hundreds of containers of “Bluwota” the common name for the Vanuatu species of rosewood, have allegedly been shipped illegally to China from Luganville.

In all of the other countries involved in supplying China’s voracious appetite for this wood, the prohibited trade is rarely possible without a standard aspect of all illegal trafficking, payoffs to those who are meant to be enforcing the law. It must be considered that this is imminent in Vanuatu.

This worldwide problem, affecting environmental protections, and all human advancement, was prioritized at the United Nations Seventy-second Session, High-level Debate,  23 May 2018 “The battle against corruption is vital to the success of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák, told delegates. “Corruption,” he said, “stifles growth and development.”

“Those who can least afford corruption suffer the most,” he pointed out as he described its negative impact on economic development, entrepreneurship and foreign investment.  “When public officials enriched themselves instead of performing their duties with integrity, crimes such as human trafficking and illicit financial flows flourished while schools and hospitals suffered” He concluded.

According to researchers for the UN International Anti-corruption day, “every year bribes totaling $1 trillion are paid, with $2.6 trillion stolen through corruption. This is especially the case in terms of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 15, which seeks to protect terrestrial ecosystems including forests and to halt biodiversity loss. With the value of environmental crime estimated at up to $258 billion a year, plenty of money is available to criminal syndicates engaged in illegal logging or wildlife trafficking to pay-off government officials and politicians to turn a blind eye.”

This includes smuggling our trees! Glorious one hundred year old trees. The roots of our forest and all the life they support. Our backyard in this green tropical paradise where so many species thrive, intertwined in nature’s magic dance. It’s shocking to learn that our trees are becoming a criminal trade more valuable than drug trafficking. Destroying our environment for money is a habit we all know must end.

One international watch dog for our precious planet, the CITES (UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has declared hundreds of species of Rosewood under, including bluwota, and has enacted trade legislation which requires registration and certification of all rosewood exports and imports across the planet. The prosecution of officials in a wide range of countries is beginning to have an impact and it is time for a hard look into what is happening in Vanuatu.

Vanuatu is rapidly becoming a leader in the South Pacific region for protecting its environment. We must set examples for other countries suffering from the criminal rosewood business by finding practical ways of stopping it from gaining a stronger hold here.

This involves taking a hard look at ourselves, and understanding how we can make sure that those we put in the positions to protect our resources are serving our wishes.

With incredible amounts of money involved, we are not only losing irreplaceable trees, hurting our precious paradise, but also a very valuable income stream for the people of Vanuatu. There are legal avenues for trading in Rosewood. . It’s a commodity that can be sustainably managed to both maintain the integrity of our forest and generate income for landowners. We need integrity among our leaders to help block the illicit rosewood trade, which enriches criminals and few others.

A recent C4J investigation in Vanuatu has shown that those high profits are going to just a few. This is achieved in many countries by writing into law processes for registration and permit requirements which only allow select businesses or persons to be involved in the exports or harvesting of this resource. Many investigations by international justice organizations have shown that this is how it works everywhere. Recent changes in the laws pertaining to rosewood in Vanuatu reflect these trends.

The “public servants” which enact these requirements are often rewarded well by those who wind up with the permits and reap tremendous personal profits. The regulatory changes to the protection of Bluewater laws in Vanuatu, which looked at in this light could be suspect. The unfortunate truth is that very few of the perpetrators are coming to justice.

There are numerous journalistic investigations by prominent media sources about this global criminal activity. The lack of ability to change the corruption or the market driven aspects of many of our environmental issues, not just rosewood, is at the heart of solving the very human problem of species depletion on this planet.

Eileen Guo of National Geographic says, “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.” According to a 2014 Environmental Investigation Agency report, from 2000 to 2013, China imported a total of 3.5 million cu m of hongmu furniture timber worth $2.4 billion. The Chinese use rosewood for this highly valued furniture.

“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. At the UN meeting the representative of the United States said, “The United Nations remains too willing to ignore corruption as simply ‘the cost of doing business’ in many countries.”

Charlie Campbell of Time Magazine uses the headline, “Chinese Demand for Rosewood Has Turned Thailand’s Forests into Virtual War Zones” “Unless they do much, much more to regulate the demand side, they’re not going to stop the trade,” says Tom Johnson, head of research at environmental investigations NGO Earthsight. Instead, he says, smugglers will “just kill more people.”

Before such a fate befalls Vanuatu, action is needed to prevent what seems to be the most important ingredient for this criminal activity to flourish, corruption.

Aside from a reputation of environmental protection, Vanuatu is also recognized for its battle against corruption. The recent conviction of 16 ministers is proof that the people of Vanuatu will no longer stand for their public servants to deceive them for personal profit. Now this battle includes protecting our vital natural resources and the very forest we live in.

The creation of C4J, Cause for Justice, is just one example of the grass roots movement towards accountability in our leadership. What they are discovering about the process of law and the prosecution of criminal activity in Vanuatu is important for all citizens of Vanuatu to consider. The facts about long delays in investigating and prosecuting crimes, especially in the realm of environmental crime are an indicator that the system needs work.

We only need look at our roads, schools, and hospitals, to agree with UN president Miroslav and see the need to honestly and realistically begin to find solutions for transparency about the huge sums of money placed in the trust of our appointed leaders. Carefully investigating the rosewood issue is an important step in that direction. C4J is committed to this effort and ask all citizens of Vanuatu to consider the same.

This will start a discussion about the ways to effectively change the root causes for the destruction of our environment and the integrity of our society. We must review market based solutions and try to curb the demand for our endangered species. We must create transparency about regulations and companies involved in the export trade to unscrupulous dealers. We must have effective systems for enforcing the restrictions put on trade for endangered species. We must facilitate the investigation and prosecution of those who choose to break those restrictions.

These reasonable ideas are imperative to prevent our countries resources from becoming ruled by gangs and outlaws from the international front and creating criminal activity on our shores. Again, this is about our trees. Trees have no voice. We are their caretakers. They provide us with the very breath of life. We must search for the roots in our societies that allow them harm. Vanuatu can set the stage for actions across the Pacific region, and all of humanity, by binging the realities of “how things work” into the light of day, and creating local solutions for a global problem.

In the next article we will explore the way the corruption is initiated and take a look at the Chinese furniture industry. We are moving towards showing how your personal actions are critical to the changes needed.

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