Mozambique-China rosewood trade: The illicit business fuels an insurgency

Forests with valuable trees – not just rosewood – are divided up into chunks, or concessions. Anyone who wants to log these areas must pay a fee to the authorities. These are typically licensed to a Mozambican national – the middleman – and rented out to Chinese logging firms.

Trading sources who did not want to be named estimate that 30% of the timber logged in Cabo Delgado is at high risk of coming from emergency-occupied forests.

There are thought to be three main forested areas in Cabo Delgado where logging and timber sales take place: Nairoto; Muidumbe and Mueda, plus one more in Napai, in neighboring Nampula province.

While the Chinese authorities have made it illegal to log rosewood in their own country, huge quantities continue to be imported.

Rosewood is given a customs code for hongmu (meaning red wood in Chinese) on arrival in the country, which allows researchers to trace it.

Mozambique was China’s top African supplier of hongmu last year, providing over 20,000 tonnes worth $11.7m, according to Trade Data Monitor, a commercial company that tracks global trade.

It has overtaken other countries like Senegal, Nigeria and Madagascar as their rosewood species have been stripped or depleted, or laws banning exports have been more strictly enforced.

As part of its undercover investigation, the EIA tracked a huge rosewood shipment out of Mozambique.

Between October 2023 and March 2024, investigators traced around 300 containers of a type of rosewood known as pau preto from the port of Beira to China.

Pau preto rosewood, which is found in the north of Mozambique and in Tanzania, is classed as a threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.

These 300 containers were transporting 10,000 tonnes of rosewood. Trader estimates value per container at around $60,000, putting the value of the total shipment at around $18m.

EIA undercover footage seen by the BBC shows some of this specific shipment was also in raw log form – rather than plans that had been processed through sawmills. This breaks Mozambique’s own 2017 law on exporting any unprocessed timber.

The containers also held processed planks.