One man reveals how he helped expose a link between illegal logging and expensive guitars in new documentary

Madagascar, Lemurs and Spies: One man reveals how he helped expose a link between illegal logging and expensive guitars in new documentary

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UPDATED:

21:18 GMT, 13 March 2012

As we headed upriver into the rain forest of Madagascar, I knew something was wrong. Every so often, a small boat slid past us in the opposite direction, the trunks of huge trees lashed to the side.

We saw more than 200 such boats as we travelled deep into the rain forest. The local men on board watched us closely as, silently, we headed upriver.

I shouldn’t have been there at all. I was working undercover, posing as a timber buyer, to infiltrate the ‘timber mafia’ of Madagascar where the rape of the rain forest has reached crisis level and is destroying the last existing habitat of the threatened white lemur, or silky sifaka. Illegal loggers are tearing the heart out of the forest.

As Sascha headed upriver into the rain forest of Madagascar, he knew something was wrong

As Sascha headed upriver into the rain forest of Madagascar, he knew something was wrong

To fight them, you need to tackle the international companies that pay for the wood, the people who create the demand. So, posing as wood traders, we had set up an undercover company, a website, business cards and good back-stories because you never know when it’s going to get tough.

The preparation for an undercover expedition has to be perfect. In the past, team members from my campaign group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, have been arrested or kidnapped. The EIA is an independent, international campaigning organisation committed to investigating and exposing environmental crime.

But it wasn’t until a colleague and I were on the small plane bringing us from the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo to the small northern town of Antalaha that we fully realised just how alert we were going to need to be. Among the other passengers on board my colleague recognised Roger Thunam – the biggest timber baron in Madagascar, one of the men who we had to stop.

But we needed hard evidence. If the logging was illegal, we needed to see it with our own eyes

What should have been a relaxed flight was suddenly tense and nervous. When the plane bumped to a stop at the tiny airport of Antalaha we watched as Thunam – a mixture of charm and menace – greeted virtually everyone in the terminal, shaking hands and slapping backs.

He went behind the bar and started handing out drinks to anyone who wanted one. In Antalaha, Thunam was the man. We made our way to our hotel to begin the wait. If you turn up as a timber trader you don’t have to approach anyone – they’ll find you. We sat down in the hotel restaurant, with a beautiful view of the humpbacked whales just beyond the reef, our hotel manager asked us what brought us to Madagascar and I told him: ‘We’re looking for good ebony’.

He said he knew just the person we needed to speak to. The next day we found ourselves sitting in Thunam’s office, with questions to answer. He asked us how big our company was, how much timber we would want and whether it would be worthwhile for him. Suddenly, things opened up for us – we had convinced him we were genuine.

Sascha says the people of Madagascar are not the only victims and certain species of lemur are also at risk

Sascha says the people of Madagascar are not the only victims and certain species of lemur are also at risk

Determined: Sascha is a Harvard Graduate and ex-Marine who runs the Environmental Investigation Agency

Determined: Sascha is a Harvard Graduate and ex-Marine who runs the Environmental Investigation Agency

Thunam told his men to look after us – that was all they needed to know. The boss had given us his approval. The
loggers began showing us the timber they had in the yard and, by
talking to them, it quickly became clear the logs were being brought out
of Masoala national park.

But we needed hard evidence. If the logging was illegal, we needed to see it with our own eyes. I told them we had to see the quality of the ebony on offer, so the cutters took us deep into the protected jungle. As we approached the site, I realised my companion and I were five days’ walk from safety among men whose livelihood depended illegal timber. We were on our own.

We were led by the chief illegal logger and were taken to stumps they had cut. We filmed with hidden cameras, fixed locations of logging on GPS navigation systems and detailed the impact the illegal loggers had on the wildlife in the park. The loggers hunt the red ruffed lemur for food. ‘The meat of the red ruffed lemur is the best,’ one of them told us.

They proudly showed us trees they were planning to cut, including the fine, towering ebony and rosewood trees of the purest quality which have the highest value for the musical instrument market in the west. It was extraordinary to see the forest but the logging was tearing it apart. We were watching the forest collapsing from the inside – it was heartbreaking. I hadn’t realised the scale on which the cutting was being done.

It is now impossible to find Madagascan ebony in guitars or other instruments (a Gibson Les Paul pictured)

It is now impossible to find Madagascan ebony in guitars or other instruments (a Gibson Les Paul pictured)

That was brought home to me in shocking
form when we returned to Antalaha and visited Thunam’s main sawmill. For
hundreds of yards around, ebony was stacked metres high. Hundreds and
hundreds of trees, cut despite the fact that logging in the national
park has been banned since 2006.

Against the background noise of
screaming wood saws, I saw thousands of pieces of rosewood – another
wood popular in the manufacture of guitars – being cut to size for
export. The workers were earning nothing more than a few dollars a day;
it was Thunam who reaped the big profits when the wood was sent abroad.

It was there that I found the most important piece of evidence – the one that would eventually lead me to a manufacturer who is a household name in the west. Parts of the sawmill were dedicated to ready-cut wood for musical instruments. One I picked up was the ebony fingerboard for a guitar – it’s considered the best wood in the world for the purpose, but it’s illegal to buy. The fingerboards were stacked in towers almost as tall as myself.

So who was buying it And where did it end up We took a long journey back to the US and began the second part of the investigation: the paper trail. While export documents showed that most of Thunam’s timber went to China but then I discovered some of it was coming to a very famous company: Gibson guitars, a firm with more than 100 years of history behind it.

Gibson is one of the greatest names in musical instruments and created probably the best-known guitar of all time, the Gibson Les Paul. After we published our findings, Gibson in Nashville, Tennessee was raided by federal authorities. Madagascan timber, guitars and paperwork were all seized.

The company’s chief executive, Henry Juszkiewicz, said the company didn’t know the origins of the wood. ‘We were buying through an intermediary in Germany,’ he said, adding that the company had stopped buying directly from Madagascar. Legal proceedings are still going on against Gibson, but since the raid in 2009 there has already been a sea change in the guitar and music industry.

It is now impossible to find Madagascan ebony in guitars or other instruments so that demand has gone. And guitar manufacturers are also avoiding Madagascan rosewood. The raid on Gibson has brought the whole issue of illegal wood to the fore and other companies are taking responsibility for the wood they use.

There are projects underway allowing the impoverished people of Madagascar to export wood in a way that is sustainable and beneficial for the local people. The money that goes to the illegal timber barons is sent overseas into bank accounts abroad. The workers get just $2 a day. It’s an extraordinarily unjust situation.

The people of Madagascar are not the only victims. One of the world’s most beautiful creatures, the white lemur, is dangerously at risk from this terrible despoilation of the forest, and needs all the help we can give it.

Madagascar, Lemurs and Spies, BBC2 March 15th 8pm, Environmental Investigation Agency www.eia-international.org