Yipala is nestled among flat grassland sparsely dotted with towering aged trees. Every few miles, mounds of shea nuts are drying in the early morning sun. And in the depths of the community, a rogue timber factory waits to resume operations.
The factory, whose activities are entirely illegal, has been shuttered at least twice. Since its last government shutdown in 2022, none of the factory’s machines have been destroyed nor its vast logs of rosewood burned as a deterrent. Giant cuts of rosewood in the hundreds are stacked high in the backyard. Heavy machinery with labels and instructions written in Mandarin lay waiting to begin slicing and dicing.
It epitomizes the battle underway to protect Ghana’s portion of the threatened Upper Guinean forests – one of the world’s most biodiverse tropical rainforests—a battle in which the agency chiefly responsible for protecting forests finds itself increasingly at the center of trafficking activities.
Industrial logging in Ghana is rife with corruption and lucrative licenses have been handed out by political figures, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nongovernmental group. Those involved in smuggling rosewood are rarely prosecuted.
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In 2019, a Chinese national, Helena Huang—known to Ghanaians as the “Rosewood Queen” and different from Aisha Huang who was jailed for illegal mining last December —was arrested, skipped bail, was rearrested, and sent back to China instead of being prosecuted for transporting rosewood through the Yipala factory, trading as a company named BrivyWelss.
Most of those who worked at BrivyWelss, which later changed its name to Zagos New Style Company, were Ghanaian locals and a few Nigerians, the factory’s gatekeeper Mbaaba Kaper said. The manager and funding came from China.
“It is not uncommon to see the Chinese around in rural areas working with the local people,” said Takal Silas Uwumborge, a doctoral student at the University for Development Studies in Tamale, northern Ghana. Uwumborge has been researching rosewood deforestation in the community.
“Ghana has a very fragile ecosystem. If we unsustainably harvest what is there we might never get these trees back because of the issues of climate change,” he added.
Rosewood Trade Restrictions, Corruption
Rosewood species are under trade restrictions within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning sold timber must have been legally sourced.
Ghanaian authorities set up a seven-member committee to investigate allegations of corruption in rosewood trading in 2019 and 2020 and found no evidence of wrongdoing by any government official. But those who were part of the committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they found “multiple instances” in which government officials were linked to illegal rosewood logging.
Some members of Ghana’s committee of inquiry told CGSP that those instances were redacted from the officially published report.
Jeremiah Abubakari Seidu, who was part of the committee and agreed to be named, said, “We did the investigation. We found all of them culpable”. In one case in 2020, having investigated rosewood logging and impounded a container full of rosewood, Seidu’s car was shot at by unknown assailants while passing through the forest.
Different governments in Ghana over the years have announced trade bans on rosewood, lifted and re-introduced them several times. Even when a total ban is in place, Ghana’s timber and forestry ministers are accused of illegally issuing permits to log.
More than 50% of the 540,000 tons of rosewood exports by volume in Ghana occurred during the bans between 2012 and 2019. From January 2015 to June 2019, $300 million worth of rosewood was illegally logged.
Ghanaian traffickers who asked not to be named said that fees from sales of illegally exported rosewood are often paid to ministers.
The World’s Most Lucrative Crime
Such is the desire for rosewood that it’s the world’s most trafficked wild product —more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales combined. The United Nations ranks it as the world’s fourth most lucrative illicit business after narcotics, human trafficking, and the weapons trade. Almost all African rosewood demand comes from China.
Jerry Akanaanwie lives in Sandema, a town in Builsa in the Upper East Region of Ghana bordering Burkina Faso. His community’s forests were quickly depleted by continued rosewood logging. In one incident they caught loggers and brought them to West Sandema police station. According to Akanaanwie, the police seized the rosewood logs, but a few days later, the criminals were released. “We heard that they paid the police for the case to be resolved.”
Sometimes, loggers presented permits for salvaging wood and trees that have fallen naturally or have been cleared to make way for roads and infrastructure projects that can be legally sold and exported. But “it was not salvage, it was logging, they were cutting illegally… government officials were involved,” said Akanaanwie.
When asked to comment on the allegation, the Forestry Commission predictably did not respond to CGSP’s inquiries.
One of the major rosewood deforestation threats is to Mole, Ghana’s largest national park, which began in 2010 after the government issued salvage permits for a road project being built by Chinese-state-owned construction companies.
From road to port, bribes can be paid to Ghana’s officers and forestry agents.
Locals in Tamale said police officers allow traffickers to pay fines to have seized logs released. Traffickers often paid a fine of between $123 and $166 to regain their seized logs from police along with CITES permits and conveyance certificates issued by Ghana’s Forestry Commission.
“90% of the cases end with the police where money exchanges hands,” said Uwumborge, adding that seized logs are often released in less than two days.
Illegal Logging on the Rise Across West Africa
Traffickers told CGSP that rosewood can be transported either to Ghana’s largest port – Tema – on the eastern coast of the country, hidden behind other legal timber, or to towns bordering neighboring Togo.
Due to the free movement of people from member countries within the Economic Community of West African States, “our borders are porous… Most of the illegal activities go through Togo,” said Uwumborge. (Goods often leave through Togo’s Port of Lomé, where operations are handled by private companies, reducing government oversight. Togo introduced a 10-year moratorium until 2026 on rosewood logging to protect its own depleted forests.)
When one West African country enforces a permit ban, criminals seemingly find ways to circumvent it. Nigeria’s enforcement of laws in 2018 – to combat Boko Haram fighters earning from rosewood sales – prompted an increase in Ghana, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Mali from 2019 to 2022. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted in 2020 that Nigeria was one of the few African nations not exporting rosewood.
Despite a full CITES suspension of West African rosewood trade implemented in June 2022, exports continue from West Africa to China.
“In [African] countries, people cannot speak out against the government; they will be arrested. What is happening in Africa is because of corruption,” said Raphael Edou, the Africa program manager at the EIA and a former minister of climate change and forest, and former minister of land use and local governance in Benin.
He added, “Our report shows that in Ghana the officials are the cause of the problem …
[We cannot end deforestation] when the big driving force is corruption and illegal trade.”
Experts believe a full ban can only be achieved when all West African countries work together with their Chinese counterparts.
“The Chinese should not just be interested in buying the wood. They should be interested in how the wood gets out of the country. They have that moral obligation even if our politicians are not morally upright,” lamented Uwumborge – a sentiment widely shared across Ghana.
Political ecologist Annah Lake Zhu suggests a provocative solution in her book Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and The Rise of Global China. According to Zhu, the West African rosewood trade should be made legal to remove the backroom corruption.
China is simultaneously the world’s largest deforester of other nations and regenerator of its own forests. China allows commercial logging only in forests that are replanted. The Chinese example of mass rosewood planting offers African countries a realistic option than the strict bans favored by international NGOs, Zhu explained.
According to Zhu, anti-corruption laws introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping also inadvertently reduced wildlife crime. Corruption in China often involved businessmen bribing political figures with fancy banquets of shark fin soup or other rare and endangered species. “All of those acts of corruption – everyone was very afraid to do it within that political climate – so they stopped or reduced it drastically. And this had an impact on species of rosewood and shark fin,” said Zhu.
The scale of rampant illegal logging of West Africa’s rapidly shrinking rainforests will continue unabated until the people charged with protecting woodlands in both Ghana and China stop turning a blind eye and tackle the corruption that fuels it.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is an independent journalist who reports climate change stories from different West African countries.