Thursday, 6 March 2014

In search of Madagascar's 'rosewood mafia'

My search for the famed bois de rose - something I had only ever seen in pictures - begins in a beautiful old cafe in Antananarivo - the capital.

I am waiting for a Malagasy blogger I had met on Twitter.

"We cannot sit here," he tells me when he arrives.

"This restaurant was bought in cash… with bois de rose mafia money," he says, looking behind and around him as he speaks, worried someone may overhear him. This is my first introduction to bois de rose - just mention the name and it is clear it elicits fear.

The city has changed dramatically since my last visit more than five years ago. Skips, overflowing with rank, rain-sodden waste, fester next to street lamps that rarely turn on - the uncollected muck seeping into the cavernous potholes that were a rarity before the military coup in 2009.

I take a plane to Antalaha along the coast on the north-east of the island - near the Atsinanana rainforests - a Unesco World Heritage site.  I check into a hotel and within minutes I see a hefty, dark red table with legs the size of tree trunks standing before me - incredible claret-coloured streaks run through its centre.

Is this bois de rose, I ask the hotel owner?

He looks nervous, says "Yes", but clarifies it was made before the numerous laws banning the use and exportation of the wood came into force more than 10 years ago. I look around the hotel. Everything, it seems, is made from bois de rose - the tables, chairs, wooden beams, knick-knacks on every shelf.

I pick up a bowler hat, also made from bois de rose. "That is not mine," he says. "Someone came here yesterday trying to sell it."

To read the rest of this article, please click on this link to the BBC's website.
If you want to listen to my BBC's From Our Own Correspondent report, please click on this link.
If you want to listen the BBC Radio 4 World Tonight report, please click on this link.

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