After putting up a fight at CITES, will India be able to provide an alternative trade regime to rosewood artisans of the country?
CALL IT a failed attempt to assuage the handicraft industry’s growing hunger for priceless wood or the government’s own myopic vision, India’s rosewood products are fast losing sheen among foreign admirers. Export market of this thriving sector has nearly crashed since an international agreement came into effect on January 2, regulating the trade in all the 250 rosewood species (under Dalbergia genus). The wood is prized for its unique, blood-hued lusture, intricate grain, durability and fine finish. Due to its acoustic properties, it is also sought-after for making guitars.
The agreement, aimed at protecting the species, was made at the 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17) to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) held at Johannes- burg during September-October 2016. Several African and Latin American countries had raised concerns over a “considerable rise in interest in the wood of Dalbergia on international markets, primarily in China”. This is fuelling an illegal trade, which is decimating Dalbergia populations throughout its range, they had said. Although, CITES focuses on the protection of individual species, COP 17 put the entire genus under Appendix II, which regulates trade in species. Though most of the 182 member countries agreed to the proposal, India for the first time has entered a reservation concerning the inclusion of all rosewood in Appendix II.
Since all species of Dalbergia are not threatened, India has suggested that CITES should regulate the trade of individual species based on their conservation status. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies D latifolia (Indian rosewood), native to southeast India, as “vulnerable”, while considers D sissoo, also called sheesham or North Indian rosewood, a species of least concern. Listing of Dalbergia genus may create unnecessary complications in the trade of common species like D sissoo, which are being managed and monitored through the management plans of forest areas and are protected under the forest laws of India, Indian representatives had said at COP 17.
Shooting itself in the foot?
In all probability, India entered the reser vation following lobbies from the wood- work industry. Documents with Down To Earth show that just a few months before COP 17, the Network for Certification and Conservation of Forests, an industry group, wrote to the government, urging it to oppose regulations of the trade in Dalber gia as “its species receive enough protection under the Indian Forest Act, 1927”, and are economically important for “a large numb er of workers, medium-scale exporters and farmers”. Two months later, Kerala-based Wood Products Exporters Association (WPEA) also urged the CITES Management Authority of India, the body responsible for implementing rules of the convention, to oppose the inclusion of Dalbergia in Appendix II. This shortsightedness has now come back to haunt the industry.
After entering a reservation, India is no longer “a Party” to the Convention as far as species of Dalbergia is concerned. Since no species listed in CITES appendices can be traded internationally without a CITES permit, this paved the way for an uncertain future of the woodwork industry. To circumvent the debacle, India made a declaration to the Depositary Government that the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) under the Union Ministry of Textiles would issue compara ble certificates according to Article X of CITES. “Union environment ministry, which is the nodal authority under CITES, entrusted the responsibility on EPCH as it is understaffed. But EPCH is now using the authority to make money. It has increased its annual membership fee from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.25 lakh since CITES rules came into effect,” says a highly-placed source in the environment ministry. Industry insiders say the certificate only adds to their woes.
The certificate VRIKSH was originally introduced in 2013 to ensure “legal origin of wood and wooden products”. “Only big players can afford this certificate,” says Somya Sharma, a handicrafts exporter in Jaipur. “Apart from the annual fee of Rs 1.25 lakh, we pay upwards of Rs 6,000 for every consignment exported.” By comparison, one pays next to nothing for CITES permit.
The disruption was palpable at the Indian Handicrafts and Gift Fair (IHGF) organised by EPCH in Greater Noida near Delhi from October 12 to 16. IHGF is among Asia’s largest such trade fairs and attracts buyers and importers from worldwide. “Last year, 90 per cent of my trade was in sheesham products. This time, they account for only 30 per cent of the business. Traders from abroad are mostly buying acacia and mango wood products,” says Gautam Vaswani, handicraft exporter from Jodhpur. “A prime reason for this is VRIKSH, which is delaying the shipment by at least six months,” he adds. Mounting paperwork is another dissuading factor. Isami Hayashi, a wood product trader from Japan who was at IHGF, says sheesham products have not only increased in price, importing those into Japan would now require a certificate from the Japanese authorities. “I will buy acacia products instead,” he says.
The mood is reflected in the data available with the Union Ministry of Commerce, which shows that the handicrafts export plummeted from Rs 14.32 crore in 2015-16 to just Rs 2.64 crore this year.
Guitar strikes an odd note
Being a non-handicraft commodity, guitar is not covered under VRIKSH. And, this has badly hit the trade of semi-finished guitars. According to the commerce ministry, the export of musical instruments like guitar, violins and harps have fallen by 40 per cent in 2016-17 as compared to the previous year. In September, the government intro duced non-detrimental findings as a CITES comparable certificate for guitar. But the problem persists. “No one is yet to receive the certificate,” says Varsha of Kerala-based Atheena Exports that supplies semi-finished guitars to the US, EU and Korea.
“Semi-finished guitars from South India are imported by guitar giants like Gibson Guitars, Martin Guitars and Fender Guitars,” says Gopalakrishnan of WPEA. But following implementation of the CITES rules, they are unwilling to buy rosewood guitars. In 2015-2016, 4,000-5,000 cubic metres of rosewood logs were auctioned from across South India. This year, hardly 1,000 cu m have been auctioned, he says. “Had the government agreed for trade rest rictions on rosewood, we could have obtained CITES permit and continued to export our goods,” he adds.
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