Investigation: Dodgy wood trafficking continues on Facebook

An open-data investigation into Facebook reveals how wood traders use the platform unchecked to traffick large quantities of logs from Africa to Vietnam, some violating national export rules or breaching treaties for endangered wildlife. Despite pledges to curb illegal wildlife trade, Facebook’s blind spot is a boon for timber traffickers and a curse for the environment.

Investigation finds that Facebook allows Vietnamese timber log smugglers to traffick wood from Africa with impunity

For the Vietnamese Facebook user Trần Mạnh the past year meant big business. He worked tireless, often nights, to sell wood. He described in one post in late March when he laments: “Another night, not sleepy. Around, still one thing $$$$$”.

Trần Mạnh sells wood logs on Facebook, often by the container. Most come straight from a ship delivered from African deforestation sites. Some may breach established log export bans, we find.

Trần Mạnh’s operation, which may have really kicked off in June 2019 when his WhatsApp number changed, is by no means an isolated case.

At least two dozen other Vietnamese Facebook accounts we reviewed hawkishly advertise wood of all sorts, mainly from Africa with high risks for biodiversity loss and documents obtained via corrupt means.

The trades on Facebook are only possible because the Silicon Valley giant won't intervene. Despite it condemning illegal wildlife in general, Facebook allows its billions of social network users to self-regulate.

Unlike other wildlife trafficking genres — such as elephant ivory — we found these Asian wood traffickers don't see much of a need to use code-words to keep their dealings secret — though outright mentioning of the protected Kosso wood species, an endangered type of rosewood, has somewhat declined. Other kinds proliferated, often not yet included in international conservation treaties but still illegally exported and remorseless deforested.

Facebook praises its AI-supported curation approach. It’s allegedly able to find and curb illegal trades. Giving the complexity of calling illegality and export laws, that’s highly unlikely. Yet, if our simple in-platform searches expose two dozen accounts offering questionably sourced timber, it raises questions if Facebook does enough and what may happen in closed groups and communication between private accounts.

In 2019 Facebook banned all illegal wildlife trade from its communities that fall under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) rules. However, researchers think the trade has only continued as if nothing changed.

More recently, Facebook bowed to some public pressure and launched a wave of account removals last year, signalling it is willing to make some serious inroads into curbing criminals. But, the focus still mainly lies on cute-cuddly living animals or animal parts, not the full spectrum of illegal wildlife trade which includes illegal timber trades or the illegal trade of cacti, as the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism writes.

Facebook may also have severe blind spots when it comes to non-English speaking trafficking ads, this analysis finds.

Without a doubt, Facebook constitutes to be a boon for the illegal wood trafficking sector, especially between poor African nations and its traders who want to make a quick buck during hard times, and Asian importers and their clients in Vietnam’s wood processing sector. It’s concerning news for border authorities, governments, conservation and climate change activists, yet, a gift for the sprawling criminal timber trade.

Experts estimate that illegal logging accounts for between 15 and 30 per cent of the global timber trade (which is between half and nine-tenths in tropical countries). The EU thinks it could be as high as 20 to 40 per cent. Especially Africa has features outliers. Timber logs cut from Gabon have a whopping 70 per cent chance to comes from illegal sources. It’s where Facebook comes in. Accounts frequently post about such ‘high risk’ wood, leaving little doubt that some of the timber comes from questionable sources.

Globally, experts think that the crime-ridden domain adds to market losses of around US$10bn annually from illegal logging and make governments miss out on US$5bn in revenue.

Post by one Vietnamese Facebook account who imports wood in a big fashion. Since 2010, the African nation of Gabon maintains a ban on log exports (source)

To understand how Vietnamese Facebook accounts, like Trần Mạnh and others, fit into the bigger picture of log trafficking, it helps to understand Vietnam’s larger national ambition for its wood processing sector.

Thomas Chung, a forests campaigner at London-based analysis outfit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), explains that Vietnam is becoming a regional powerhouse for wood processing. It’s even mentioned in the government’s five-year strategy. “They’re well on track”, Chung says.

Though Vietnam itself placed a log export ban on sawn timber from natural forests (probably more a measure of protectionism), Vietnam has now surpassed Poland, Germany, and Italy in the ranks as the world’s second-largest wood and wooden product exporter, behind China.

Huge foreign direct investments into Vietnam’s wood processing sector also plays a role, especially since 2018 according to the Việt Nam Timber and Forest Product Association.

Previous findings show that Vietnamese traders import vast quantities of timber from neighbouring Cambodia. Our findings add to this and presenting evidence on how a new wave of Vietnamese wood traffickers is organised via Facebook. The African-Vietnam angle is news to experts at the EIA, we are told.

Facebook as a facilitator only came into play recently. When in 2018 EIA researchers contacted various Vietnamese Facebook accounts who advertised freshly imported Cambodian timber to Vietnam on a prominent Facebook group, accounts offered two prices depending on whether buyers wanted ‘official papers issued by Vietnam Customs and the Forest Protection Department’ (often implying forgery of such) or not.

Wood trafficking between Africa and Vietnam isn't new, but Facebook has helped to build stronger ties to exploited countries but also the sales into the legal local wood processing market.

Most of the billion of dollars’ worth of wood exported from Nigeria over the past four years was illegal, data suggests. This investigation followed the activities of a number of Vietnamese Facebook accounts who posted images of containers that allowed to track down the export and import location, from ports in Nigeria and other African nations to Ho Chi Minh City and other destinations. In Nigeria, it’s possible wood is illegally deforested or/and exported in contravention with state or federal laws. The rosewood trade may have benefited the terrorist group Boko Haram, a report by EIA states. EIA said that almost all the Kosso wood coming from and through Nigeria for the past three years has been illegal. Taraba, the primary producer state has prohibited all felling of Kosso. All exports of logs occur in contravention of the long-standing federal log export ban, researchers say.
Tracking the trade of logs from Nigeria to Vietnam, a typical export route for timber smugglers
Part of Tran Manh’s track record of posts on Facebook, often offering a larger quantity of mostly African wood logs to buyers in Vietnam. EIA campaigner Thomas Chung says: “This list is a good example of the hundreds if not thousands of traders on social media. The ones picked [by Tran Manh] seem quite careless as they are very open about their goods — normally, these offers are much more subtle”.

The size of trades matters, conservation experts say. Thomas Chung at EIA encountered various examples of timber offered via beauty salons or restaurant pages. “The question is scale”.

“It is quite common to have small scale traders trying to make some money on the side. Whether the individuals on [this investigation’s] list are retailers of timber imported by the big players or if they import themselves, I do not know”. For Tran Manh’s example, the trader has to supply the required documents along the chain of custody in order to trade legally, he says.

From a previous investigation, EIA findings point to shipping documents routinely forged by Nigerian exporters.

Chung says Tran Manh’s trades is a good example of the hundreds if not thousands of traders on social media. “The ones picked seem quite careless”. We found a number of Nigerian and Vietnamese wood trading accounts that posted openly about logs protected under international wildlife treaties.

A Vietnamese trader who advertised nice containers of Kosso wood from Taraba in 2016, an illegal act under export and CITES regulation. The post is still live.

As the accounts such as Trần Mạnh and others prove, individuals can post ads on their own walls, often receiving open replies of business interest (“usually asking about prices”). This may often be enough to attract buyers. Alternatively, they can post African wood for sale on large open Facebook groups targeted at larger or medium-sized local Vietnamese wood processors.

Open groups: ‘Vietnam Wood Market’

Vietnam Wood Market includes a number of open groups where trades take place. Unsurprisingly ads for one or multiple containers filled with African logs make a frequent appearance. One of such groups was identified by EAI as a trading hub where forged papers were offered. The group ‘ Vietnam wood — Forum buyer and sales’ with 5,000 members features a number of posts by Vietnam’s log traders.

Especially during the height of the pandemic, Facebook seemed to be a lifeline for traders who discovered Facebook an easy tool to reach out to new clients. Self-regulated Facebook makes it fairly uncomplicated to communicate with new potential buyers, openly or in private. Accounts garner intert openly and then take it to a private location, often a WhatsApp conversation, to organise details — that may include forged paperwork (EIA’s report).

Via Facebook likes, Trần Mạnh links to other Vietnamese wood importers

Our review of Vietnamese trader Trần Mạnh also exposes the scale of the problem. A single account can offer potentially hundreds of containers in a short amount of time without facing any scrutiny by the platform operator.

For Trần Mạnh alone, we counted at least 34 shipments advertised since September 13, last year. Tree trunks on offer are often massive, raising questions of the impact on local biodiversity and carbon capture that these ginormous trees account for in Africa.

Visual means are key. The account posts hundreds of photos and videos. We analysed container tracking numbers that show most of the recent containers left African ports. This offers a unique insight into the supply chain.

Trần Mạnh ads included shipments from places like Apapa Nigeria, container tracking platforms like Track-trace reveals (see illustration). Frequently wood left export port Apapa in Nigeria and ended up in Vietnam. Nigeria enforced an export ban on rough and sawn timber via its blanket prohibition list.

The ban is in place since 1976. More recently, control requirements increased under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

As accounts have been fairly open in describing what wood they sell and where it comes from, posts’ descriptions added important details to cross-check them with export and container records.

Rarely did account lie about timber’s origins. Instead, it seems to signal credibility to buyers as various African countries feature different levels of quality for various species. Accounts for instance namedropped countries like Cameroon (with a partial log export ban) or Zambia (with a log export ban-and-lift cycle since 2010).

A blanket ban of all tree species was enacted by Zambia, Reuters reports. Growing international demand for timber and high prices most Zambian harvesters are felling the forests without a license and exporting them illegally to Asia, experts say. Zambia now only gives export permits for processed or sawn wood, saying it wants to boost the country’s timber manufacturing sector: The image shows an ad from July, 2021, reading: “Super cheap Zambia[n] flavour. Expected to dock ”. The container number suggests the shipment arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam. The ad was posted on a large Facebook group ‘Vietnam Wood Market’ on July 19, 2021

Accounts usually use species’ colloquial names, local tradenames, when advertising wood, such as Doussie, Movingui, Tali, Kosso, Mukala etc.

Protected wood exports should be tightly regulated. That’s often not the case. A recent example shows where companies exploited loopholes to export large quantities of Kosso wood from the African nation Mail to China, according to an investigation by France24 The Observers from last year.
An offering from a Nigerian wood trader who posted on Trần Mạnh’s Facebook wall. This investigation reached out to the account and asked questions about what it takes to illegally traffick African Kosso wood to Vietnam

This investigation reached out to a Facebook account under the name Stephen Obawale, a wood log merchant in Nigeria (with a local Nigerian WhatsApp number), very active on the platform, on walls of Vietnamese wood traders and Vietnamese wood trading groups.

We expressed interest in the wood log trade from Nigeria and Vietnam. We wondered if it’s illegal to trade logs between the countries. The account said it’s not: “They stopped exports but now no problem [anymore] for wood [logs to be] exported”.

Photo message from Nigerian wood trader Obawale on Facebook. Kosso (rosewood) tree trunks were cut down for export trade and offered to an investigative journalist producing this story. The UN says that after Kosso was listed under CITES, more rosewood was exported from Africa than ever before, but this time with CITES documentation — presumably, including forged papers. “Nigeria alone exported some 750,000 cubic metres of rosewood in 2017, which is equivalent to about four million trees, or over 30,000 shipping containers, an average of almost 100 container loads exported per day (across 2017)”, the UN report states. Nigeria’s inability to bring scientific non-detriment findings a recommendation by CITES followed to suspend trade from the country in October of 2018, sources say.

Clear regulations put in place could make the export of all kinds of wood easier to call out. For Kosso it’s an illegal act. For other species, illegal logging and sale on Facebook continue because regulations remain complex.

Nonetheless, the account tells us via Facebook chat, he has “lots of Kosso wood for sale in Nigeria”.

The account is only after serious buyers which he hopes to find on Facebook: “Serious genuine buyer[s] to start [to] buy[ing] Kosso wood in Nigeria”.

Kosso wood from Taraba state (Facebook)

Later, the account reveals where his Kosso is sourced: “a lot of Kosso wood from cutting in Taraba state”.

Nigeria's Taraba state in the northeast of the country is a central target for illegal deforestation of rosewood families, which Kosso is a part of.

EIA’s investigation five years ago found that most of the logs exported from Nigeria in 2016 came from Taraba state. A study published in 2019 recommends an extensive local public awareness campaign by the government through various media platforms that would educate the public on the dire consequences of deforestation to people and society at large. Paradoxically, this is where Facebook could actually be of great help.

Still, the exchange with accounts like above proves two things: illegal trade of Kosso continues in 2021 and accounts are increasingly willing to cross borders digitally with the help of platforms like Facebook.

The account was hesitant to speak about how to obtain the necessary paperwork for the Nigeria-Vietnam trade route.

Instead, we are advised to come to Nigeria and organise it ourselves: “If you really serious [about] buying Kosso for your client, you come to Nigeria for starting buying and loading”, he writes in a Facebook message.

After years of illegal trade and biodiversity loss, Kosso wood — scientifically ‘pterocarpus erinaceus’ — was finally included as a wood species into CITES Appendix III, as of May 9, 2016. All 300 rosewood species landed under trade restrictions. Kosso is used for furniture manufacturing. It’s is said to be somewhat prolific and easy to cultivate with some reforestation efforts showing some level of success, some say. But years of overexploitation, environmental degradation, and climatic changes suggest there is no end to the monumental risks timber species face. In 2017, it was also added to Appendix II.

CITES should have increased pressure and responsibility on consumer countries, “especially on China and Vietnam”, analysts say. CITES is aimed at curbing imports of illegally sourced Kosso.

But, loopholes and caveats make it hard to enforce rules. One problem is identifying Kosso from afar. For example, Kosso looks very similar to Muninga wood, a species not listed under CITES. On Facebook, curators and even experts are hesitant to call what species accounts advertise. This makes it hard to crack down on illegal behaviour.

Another problem is the strong links to licit markets. A UN report says that a big share of illegally acquired rosewood is ultimately processed and sold into the legal sector. In practice this means logs arrive illegally in Vietnam, as previous reports found, then, are processed and often end up in third countries, including China, one of the largest buyers of processed goods.

Vietnam plays a key role as a trade and processing hub with imports of Dalbergia and Pterocarpus logs and sawn wood surpassing 300,000 cubic meters in 2014 and 2015, with exports of these species to China reaching similar levels during the same period.

“Unless you want to go through Vietnam, you need to pay extra money to get a real [certificate]”, a trader spills the beans on how the rosewood trade between Africa and Asia works (EIA report)
LEFT: Kosso for sale posted by a Vietnamese Facebook account (a hair salon) with a number of Vietnamese users expressing interest. RIGHT: Kosso offered by a Vietnamese account posing as a ‘building material’ business
A professional account offering ‘Gỗ Hương Kosso’, among other species
Company Londonwood.vn still advertises Kosso, above a post from July 2020 (the post is still up). The account has 1,013 followers. In July, 2021, this investigation reached out to Londonwood via a provided Whatsapp number. The account explains that over the past two years, trades of Kosso had been banned for both export and import. Yet, the firm’s post remains live.
What is Kosso and how to spot it? This Facebook account offers detailed information on the appearance of the type of Rosewood and says it's a rising star in Vietnam’s wood processing sector

Nigerian and Vietnamese Facebook account offers different types of wood. One account we reached out to offers us “Doussie , Tali , Bubinga , lroko , Mahogany , Eku and Teak”. Nearly all of these types are also found in ads posted by Trần Mạnh and in Vietnamese wood trading groups. Most of them are not listed under CITES but are somewhat rare and valuable.

Yet, they may still be illegally exported. Experts say that the only immediate straightforward identifiable illegality is the import of logs or timber products from a country with a complete log export prohibition.

Apart from CITES, which is less often causing problems these days, Chung says, there are other stipulations to determine what wood Vietnamese supply chains can use and can’t.

One is Vietnam’s timber legality assurance system (VNTLAS). The timber legality assurance system may soon make it easier for investigators, activists [and Facebook] to call out foul ads. VNTLAS lays out the conditions under which timber can be legally used in the Vietnamese supply chains which also covers African imports, Chung says.

By accounts simply stating where logs come from, and what kind of timber it is, it might already violate VNTLAS rules, he says.

Currently, still under implementation, it’s not fully up and running yet. Once it is, and under the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT), Chung hopes it might be a stronger tell-tail sign for authorities than CITES.

At the moment exposing illegality is also hard because some log export bans are also only issued for specific HS codes (Harmonized System). Certain timber products can be traded whilst others are banned. For Facebook’s curators to know and act upon illegal posts, therefore, seems highly unlikely, offering many traffickers impunity.

In terms of larger blanket bans, there are some in the making. The Congo Basin countries under the union of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC) is one example. Last year, CEMAC decided enough is enough. The club of nations, including Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Chad, agreed on a log export ban, starting next year. Once enacted, each country must figure out how to enforce it in their jurisdictions, an issue previous bans highlighted.

IDing wood is hard

Even if traders have obtained officially stamped and signed paperwork for timber imports — which may be the case for some of the examples by Vietnamese Facebook traders we reviewed — it is still possible to trade into Vietnam illegally, Chung says. Timber can comes from illicit sources but ads are still technically traded legally.

IDing species from mere images is tough: “It is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to identify timber species from a photograph”, Chung says.

Investigators increasingly use botanical forensics to identify wood on the fly. In practice however, there is no alternative from being in situ, for instance at a port site where containers arrive.

A little AI-powered and hand-held wood examination device, which is called the XyloTron — developed by data scientists with open source technology — helps researchers nowadays at the Center for Wood Anatomy Research to identify species in a scalable and affordable manner. But they always hold timber in their hands.

What can governments do?

Vietnamese authorities usually demand import paperwork that includes a customs declaration, trading invoice, sales contract, a bill of lading or equivalent, and a packing list of imported products. But these can be falsified.

Chung says that if any of these are misdeclared or missing a shipment should not be allowed into the country. But often papers are sourced through corruption. “It is possible that timber imported into Vietnam has the proper documents but these are worthless as they were acquired via illicit means”.

VNTLAS provides three routes into the country: a CITES license, a FLEGT license (only from Indonesia currently) or via self-declaration. For the latter, currently, all African countries (except South Africa) classify as high risk and therefore all imports require such additional documentation to be legally imported into Vietnam.

Hương đá

Trần Mạnh;s Facebook account frequent mentioned one particular class of wood: “Hương đá” which directly translates into “stone incense”.

It’s hard to tell what Hương đá really is to the individual trader. Our attempts to verify it with accounts fail. It might be an umbrella term for various species. It might be code-language for Kevazingo — one of the Guibourtia species also known as African rosewood, an EIA analyst says after checking some of the images this investigation provided.

Left, Kevazingo wood, right, image post by a Vietnamese trader advertising ‘Hương đá’

One wildlife trafficking activist, who says he wants his details kept undisclosed, is familiar with accounts trafficking timber between Africa and Vietnam. He says he thinks Hương đá could be code for Kosso: “They refer to it by lots of different names”. It could also be an umbrella term that may include Kosso masking its real nature after controls increased.

A BBC investigation last March revealed how vast quantities of protected West African rosewood is trafficked from The Gambia. Most ends up in China.

After conducting its own investigation, one of the world’s largest shipping lines, Compagnie Maritime d’Affrètement Compagnie Générale Maritime, announced a moratorium on the transport of any wood from The Gambia.

Facebook and others

Facebook is not the only western online media platform that seems supportive to wood traffickers from Vietnam and Africa. Several accounts were also seen to promote ads on the media streaming platform YouTube, while also linking to their company Facebook profiles. Others used the professional networking platform Linkedin to advertise their interest to buy Kosso rosewood (after it was listed under CITES).

The Facebook account shows
Source: Linkedin

We contacted Facebook, highlighted our key findings of this investigaton and asked about whether its community rules would permit the sales of trafficked wood breaching export laws and international wildlife conventions. We also asked about the company’s responsibility and measures when such breaches occur.

A Facebook company spokesperson responded via email and explained that advertising illegal goods are prohibited on Facebook: “We work with regulators around the world to remove content that breaks local laws”.

“We use a combination of technology, human review and reports from our community to find and remove violating content, including a global safety and security team of over 35,000 people, ” the spokesperson adds.

Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO), says that if she had a dollar for every time a Facebook spokesperson delivered this canned statement, she would be a rich woman. She heard Facebook’s line on how it finds violating content before: “whether the crime is human trafficking, poisonous counterfeit pills, child sex abuse content or the illegal wildlife trade”.

Peters who said that not only Facebook but also Instagram, and WeChat became ground zero for wildlife crime syndicates to connect with buyers, tells us that the world’s largest social media firm does precious little to reduce illegal activity on their platforms, especially when it’s not in English”, she says.

35,000 people are by far not enough, she adds. It’s insufficient for the platform’s billions of users, translating into one moderator for every 77-thousand people active on the platform.

“There is so much Facebook could do immediately to identify and block pages and groups moving illicit goods, and this doesn’t have to utilize fancy AI”, she adds.

Rowan Martin at the World Parrot Trust says Facebook is relying heavily on activists and NGOs fighting wildlife trafficking, to receive and act upon tip-offs.

While the detection of some of these require an understanding of wildlife trade networks many entities are found through simple text-based searches that anyone could perform. It raises the question of why Facebook is not doing more to proactively seek out and remove harmful prohibited content, he says.

This year, Facebook showed some initiative in South-East Asia. From January-May 2021, Facebook removed nearly 2,000 Facebook groups linked to prohibited wildlife sales operating in the Philippines and Indonesia. But the call for action only came after TRAFFIC — an NGO fighting trade of wild animals and plants for protecting biodiversity, conservation and sustainable development — offered its hard-earned monitoring data.

One risk is that if Facebook cracks down on traffickers, many accounts might simply change to other online social media networks. One EIA analyst says Facebook is certainly not the only kid on the block that is misused by Vietnamese and African timber traffickers.

Chung says he feels that any trader dabbling in potentially illegal timber should be shut down as this would ultimately create higher barriers. However, there is a chance that traders on the lower level may simply shift to other platforms or create multiple accounts to stay ahead of the game. It could only make it harder to crack down on the business.

“At least from our experience, a lot more is happening on Chinese platforms, including Weibo WeChat and Alibaba”, Alec Dawson says, an EIA forests campaigner. Compared to Facebook, traffic on these other [Chinese] platforms is probably much larger, he thinks.

Facebook and deforestation: Pressure from Facebook Marketplace

Facebook has come under pressure recently in its role as a facilitator for illegal deforestation in South America. In February, reporters spotted Facebook Marketplace ads selling plots of land in the Brazilian Amazon, without legal title to the land.

Selling the rainforest: Facebook Marketplace ad for a place in Brazil: ‘Terreno com 24200 m coberto de mata nativa para venda’ R$100,000 = 19,000 USD Area with 2,42 acres all formed in sterling wood, ideal for seed exploration, beekeeping, carbon credit, leisure in nature (link) — analysis: BH

Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice