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Informality, global capital, rural development and the environment: Mukula (rosewood) trade between China and Zambia

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Informal economic activities across much of sub-Saharan Africa provide crucial cash income and employment for both rural and urban populations. Governing the informal economy is recognised as a key policy challenge due to its contribution to local livelihoods and its common association with illegality, tax evasion and negative environmental impacts. In addition, because of the increasingly globalised trade in commodities, parts of the informal economy can also be supported by global sources of capital.

This report focuses on the international mukula (or rosewood) trade in Zambia, interrogating the role of global capital (in particular that of Chinese origin) and its impacts on rural livelihoods and the environment. We find that rural villagers are increasingly forging direct links with foreign investors, producing innovative business models that accelerate the rate of small-scale production and extraction of resources.

This ‘globalised’ rural informal economy urgently calls for innovative policies, which maximise the benefits of global capital flowing directly to rural populations, while minimising the negative impacts associated with the environment, revenue losses and resource governance.

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  • Passion first, research later? A case study of Zambia’s mukula tree

Passion first, research later? A case study of Zambia’s mukula tree

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Clearing land for farming is one factor, but logging for timber and cutting trees for firewood and charcoal production are also drivers for deforestation in Zambia. Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
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Abandoned mukula (rosewood) logs in the yard of a now-defunct company in Zambia. Photo: Paolo Cerutti/CIFOR

By Paolo Cerutti, Davison Gumbo, Robert Nasi, Xiaoxue Weng, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

Once you have gone through the scientific publication process and your article is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it is often a good idea to write a blog post to increase its visibility and reach more readers across diverse disciplines.

This process is encouraged at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and indeed – as a policy-oriented research center – a short non-technical document can convey useful information to a broader audience, including government officials and policymakers who are unlikely to read an entire published scientific article. Hopefully, better and more informed policy decisions will also ensue.

Yet, after a recent trip along the Luapula River, which cuts across the beautiful, unique and fragile south African miombo forests, and for a long stretch materializes the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia, we came home with a sense of urgency to write this blog. This is not ordinary procedure, as the scientific article about our research there is currently in its embryonic stage. So we beg the pardon of the academic world in advance for our impatience.


To explain our sense of urgency, we need to make a short reference to CIFOR and our partners’ research. For more than a decade now, we have roamed the dense humid forests that stretch from Liberia to the DRC, trying to bring a novel and broader look at what is generally considered the “timber sector” in those countries’ political circles.

Clearing land for farming is one factor, but logging for timber and cutting trees for firewood and charcoal production are also drivers for deforestation in Zambia. Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Long story short, while historically, the focus of forest policies has been on large-scale, export-oriented forest operations (i.e. logging concessions), in recent years, domestic timber markets, which are largely supplied by small-scale operations, have gained prominence. Be it large or small-scale operations, when conducting our research and thinking about potential policy options, two commonalities are often taken for granted.

First, one of our priority audiences are state officials from national and local governments. We incorporate them into our research from its inception; working with them on the ground and sharing problematic issues with them, such as corruption, over and over again until sooner or later, they can rapidly act on forest operations and become part of the solution.

Second, both logging companies and smallholders are linked to a specific jurisdiction (or a forest), connecting them to the related sovereign government that has the power to regulate (and sanction if need be) their behavior.

Or so we thought before visiting the Luapula region.

We were conducting research on the largely illegal harvesting of one of its magnificent tree species, Pterocarpus tinctorius. Locally known as mukula, it is internationally sold under the general name of rosewood. In the 18 months since our research began there, we have witnessed the number of rosewood trees cut skyrocketing by the day, and have felt worried about the looming negative environmental and social consequences.

And this brings us back to our sense of urgency, because in this case (and in many others across Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond), there seems to be neither a single government, nor companies or individuals fitting solely under one jurisdiction that can be targeted with the classic solution of improved national policies.


In this sense, the story of mukula is very telling. From 2012-2013, when mukula was not even listed as a commercial species recognized by the Zambian government, the demand (particularly by the Chinese market) was so high and harvesting so widespread, that a ban on the conveyance and export of mukula was issued. While the ban did not seem to reach the intended results (our preliminary results indicate that harvesting continued unabated, albeit a bit more hidden), it did send a message to traders that the Zambian government was taking serious decisions about it.

As a result, many traders decided to simply move across the border to DRC, Malawi and Mozambique, or to the more distant Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere, to apply the same business model (“cut and run”). Across the border in DRC, the harvesting (of a similar species of trees) became so widespread and environmentally destructive, that even the highest religious authorities in the region issued warnings and requests for help.

In several countries in West Africa, the negative environmental impact became so evident that the local species of rosewood was elevated to Appendix II status in the CITES convention in September 2016.

But not the Zambian mukula. In fact, the government of Zambia lifted the ban in mid-2016. Harvesting and trade became less controlled, demand for mukula rose, and people started chopping trees down wherever they could find them. Only this past January was a new ban issued.


So, coming back to the urgency of our blog, and to a question: In a sector where business models seem to be more and more disconnected from national borders and local jurisdictions, what innovative set of policies and institutions (or alternative solutions) are needed to tackle current negative social, financial and environmental impacts?

Regional bodies might provide answers, but they don’t seem as effective as they could be- at least for now. What new powers, responsibilities and capacities do they need in order to be more effective in tackling such evidently supra-national problems?

We think these and other similar questions are becoming urgent, and scientific research should contribute some of the answers. If we continue to operate only by the classic approach of national regulations – even if they are improved through the knowledge that our research can bring- by the time these regulations are implemented, the local populations will have lost many livelihoods opportunities. What’s more, the forest and some of its most ecologically-valuable species like the mukula may long be gone.

*This research is conducted in collaboration with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

For more information on this topic, please contact Paolo Cerutti at

This research was supported by Department of International Development and Economic and Social Research Council of the U.K.

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