Country-wide controversy was sparked last week in Belize when the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, Lisel Alamilla, burned a stockpile of illegally-extracted rosewood cargo. The rosewood was seized in the southern Toledo district of Belize and had been logged despite a moratorium on rosewood, which has been in place since March 2012.

Destroying the rosewood was, “not an easy decision to make,” said Hon. Senator Alamilla, “but I want to send an unmistakeable message to everybody in Belize: we have to manage our forest sustainably for the benefit of the Belizean people, and this government is going to stamp out the clandestine illegal logging of our natural resources.”

The minister, Lisel Alamilla, makes a statement. Credit: Gail Stott/Ya’axché Conservation Trust.

The minister, Lisel Alamilla, makes a statement. Credit: Gail Stott/Ya’axché Conservation Trust.


Belize saw an excessive amount of rosewood extraction activities throughout 2011 which led to Hon. Senator Alamilla imposing the moratorium. However, many people have chosen to ignore this, as the discovery of this and other rosewood cargo clearly indicates.

Selective harvesting of timber decimates the numbers of specific valuable tree species and eventually wipes them out completely. Past experience has shown that once one species has been totally eliminated, focus will shift towards other species, so continued defiance and disregard for moratoriums and Belizean forestry law would have a devastating impact on Belize’s natural resources. To make matters worse, logging activities require forest tracks to be cleared, causing wider damage to ecosystems and fragmentation of habitats.

The confiscated rosewood consisted of 212 beams, 500 posts and approximately 70 burls (large knotty tree trunk growths). It was estimated to be worth around US$400,000. The Minister burnt only the export quality beams, while the smaller posts were donated to communities in the district and the burls to carvers at a local foundation.

Confiscated rosewood was handed to the local community. Credit: Lee McLoughlin

Confiscated rosewood being handed over to the local community. Credit: Lee McLoughlin/Ya’axché Conservation Trust.

One of the drivers for the moratorium was to allow an assessment of the rosewood stocks across Belize, the results of which will be used to develop a long-term plan for the sustainable management of Belize’s forests. Rosewood is an extremely slow-growing hardwood, so the recovery of harvested timber stocks is a long term process. Without a full understanding of the current status of their rosewood stocks it is impossible for Belize to manage this natural resource effectively and accommodate sustainable use, with value added in country.

Outside pressure

Rosewood is typically used for high-end furniture production, with much of the demand coming from China, for both domestic consumption and global re-export. Exquisitely crafted pieces command very high prices, with a sofa and chairs set fetching up to $320,000.

According to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency published in November 2012, the demand for all types of timber and wood products in China has soared. In the case of rosewood, Chinese customs data “indicates a huge rise in demand in the past decade, from 66,000 cubic metres in 2005 to 565,000 cubic metres in 2011. The surge has been most pronounced in the past two years, with a six-fold increase between 2009-11.”

With the ever-increasing global demand for natural resources, China and other countries are going further afield to bridge their natural resource deficit. This demand has led to the prolific harvesting of rosewood in Belize and has catalysed the decline in rosewood species.

To counteract this pressure, the Government of Belize has used the information gathered from the rosewood assessment to propose that three species of rosewood (Dalbergia sp.) be listed on the CITES Appendix II (Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). If successful, international regulation will ensure that global trade of these species will not threaten their survival in Belize’s forests. The proposals will be discussed in March at the CITES Conference of Parties in Thailand (CoP16).

A clear message

The problems of illegal extraction and trade of rosewood are exacerbated by many other factors in Belize, including a prior history which lacked government policies to manage the issues, limited capacity to monitor and enforce protection in areas at risk, and high levels of poverty. Local communities with limited options for generating income may look to support their families through illegal extractive activities such as logging, and often simply through a lack of education, they are not aware of just how quickly forests can be destroyed through unsustainable harvesting activities.

Seized rosewood cargo. Credit: Gail Stott/Ya’axché Conservation Trust.

The seized rosewood cargo is set alight. Credit: Gail Stott/Ya’axché Conservation Trust.

The Minister’s action last week sends a clear message that the illegal logging has to stop, “This country needs to make the most of its valuable natural wealth. We cannot let a few people steal and enrich themselves while destroying our forest without any consideration for the long-term livelihood of Belizeans,” says the Minister. The Ministry aims to bring the situation on the ground under control, so that it can then focus on long-term benefits and development for the country. “Our rosewood is too precious for us to feel powerless in protecting it,” she added.

The decision to burn the illegally harvested rosewood parallels decisions made in Africa over recent years to burn ivory stockpiles in countries such as Gabon and Kenya. In these cases, as in Belize with rosewood, the drastic act followed spikes in illegal activities that took the situation to crisis levels.

In Belize, this decisive action has sent a clear message not only to those involved in the illegal trade, but also nationally and internationally. A no-tolerance attitude is conveyed – as Hon. Senator Alamilla says, “Enough is enough.”

As was to be expected, the rosewood burning has received a very mixed response. Although local NGOs such as The Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations (APAMO), the Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and Ya’axché Conservation Trust have publicly voiced their support, other Belize citizens have criticised the act as wasteful and destructive.

The Minister’s supporters argue that this one highly visible act draws attention to the far larger-scale waste and destruction of illegal logging, which passes unnoticed, seemingly invisible, every day. “Illegal extraction of rosewood has to stop – not only does it hurt our country environmentally, it also hurts it economically and socially,” says the PCSD.

What this act has successfully done is engage the nation in this critical conservation and development issue. Belize is now talking about rosewood, which in itself is a significant achievement and one that reflects the government’s commitment to tackling even the most challenging of conservation issues.