'Illegal import' of rosewood logs

Madagascar minister seeks AGC meet-up

He hopes to discuss case with officials here as AGC appeals against decision to throw it out

Madagascar's environment minister plans to meet officials here over a case involving US$50 million (S$71 million) worth of rosewood logs alleged to have been imported here illegally from the African country.

This comes after a district court here last month dismissed the case against a managing director and his company charged over the import. About 30,000 rosewood logs seized here last year on transit from Madagascar to Hong Kong are being held pending a High Court appeal to be fixed in due course.

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) is appealing against the earlier decision, a spokesman has confirmed with The Straits Times.

The Madagascar minister hopes to meet AGC officials. "I think we may need to coordinate and exchange information among ourselves to get a positive result for the outcome of the appeal," said Mr Ralava Beboarimisa, Madagascar's Minister of Environment, Ecology, Sea and Forests, in an e-mail to The Straits Times.

The case has drawn keen notice abroad: The Environmental Investigation Agency, which lobbies globally for the protection of endangered species and climate issues, has urged Mr Beboarimisa to probe how the cargo was cleared for export by Madagascar before it took off. It is understood that he was not the incumbent minister then.

Last month, a district court dismissed the case against managing director Wong Wee Keong and his company Kong Hoo for allegedly importing the logs without a permit, ruling that these were in transit here and bound for Hong Kong.

The goods acquired from Madagascar by Kong Hoo were seized in March last year when a cargo vessel carrying them berthed at Jurong Port. They were meant to be restuffed into containers and shipped to Hong Kong. It was then reported to be the largest amount of rosewood logs ever seized.

Rosewood - Dalbergia and Diospyros in this case - is a restricted item listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), to which Singapore is a signatory. A Cites listing means permits are required for the commercial import, export or re-export of a specified species.

But in this case, the Madagascar authorities had cleared the items for export. A delegation came to Singapore last December to look into the case. A month later, Madagascar's then environment minister, whose name was not given in the judgment, confirmed via e-mail the export documents were authentic, noted District Judge Jasvender Kaur.

She held that prosecutors had not made the case to justify the charge under the Endangered Species Act against Mr Wong and Kong Hoo.

But Mr Beboarimisa said: "I do not think that Madagascar can approve this sort of export.

"In any case, this export will be clarified by further investigations as soon as Madagascar has access to all exhibits produced during the current trial," he added.

He said Madagascar has now inventorised, marked, secured and recorded in a national database all seized or hidden logs scattered in the country's 11 regions. To complement this, "satellite and radar surveillance activities of Madagascar's north coast - the main area of illegal boarding - are ongoing with the support of the World Bank".

He said these measures are beginning to show results, citing the seizure of more than 1,000 tonnes of precious wood in Hong Kong on Oct 8 this year.

"We all need to understand that natural resources trafficking is part of international organised crime. It involves huge amounts of illegal funds. And the fact is those funds will be recycled for other illegal activities," he said.

Trafficking puts pressure on endangered species, which are part of our common legacy, he said. "The lessons are (that) this must be our common struggle and our common cause," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2015, with the headline 'Madagascar minister seeks AGC meet-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe