* Government accused of encouraging hardwood plunder
* Government denies legitimising plundering of forests
* Species under threat, conservationists say
By Richard Lough
ANTANANARIVO, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Madagascar’s cash-strapped government has opened the door for criminal syndicates to plunder the Indian Ocean island’s precious natural resources, conservation groups said on Saturday.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation International and Wild life Conservation Society said an inter-ministerial order issued last month granted an exceptional authorisation to export raw and semi-processed hard wood.
"It legalises the sale of illegally cut and collected wood onto the market; allows for the potential embezzlement of funds in the name of environmental protection and constitutes a legal incentive for further corruption in the forestry sector," the statement signed by the three groups said.
Eco-tourism is the backbone of Madagascar’s $390 million-a-year tourism industry, which has been wrecked by months of political turmoil this year.
Conservationists say its biodiversity is being wiped out on a shocking level as gangs take advantage of a security vacuum to pillage rosewood and ebony from supposedly protected forests and trap exotic animals, mainly for Asia’s pet market.
Isolated from land masses for more than 160 million years, the world’s fourth largest island is a biodiversity "hotspot" home to hundreds of exotic species found only there.
Prime Minister Monja Roindefo denied the government was legitimising the plundering of forests, but refused to rule out issuing future licences.
"We have brought the logging under control. For the moment we don’t foresee another order being issued," he told Reuters.
The Sept. 21 government order authorised 13 operators to export 325 containers of timber, with the authorities taking a 72 million ariary ($36,054) tax on each container.
The donor-dependent country has seen its reserves dwindle after key donors branded Andry Rajoelina’s March power-grab a coup and froze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
According to a Global Witness report seen by WWF, criminal syndicates have felled 7,000 cubic metres of rosewood a month since Madagascar’s political crisis erupted in January.
The conservation groups estimate the wood would sell in Asia at about $5,000 a cubic metre.
WWF said it was pushing for rosewood to be registered as an endangered species according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Environment protection groups say illegal logging continues in Madagascar’s northeast and fear more licences might be granted as the government looks for ways to generate cash.
"Preliminary research shows rosewood is under extreme pressure. If it was registered as endangered then much tighter regulation would be required for both export and import," said Niall O’Connor, head of WWF’s Indian Ocean region office based in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo.
Ousted leader Marc Ravalomanana was credited with increasing the number of national parks and protected areas, backed by donors including the World Bank and the United States.
But decades of logging, mining and slash-and-burn farming have destroyed up to 90 percent of the ecology on the island, home to scores of endangered lemur species. [ID:nLL504335]
"It’s a tragedy, we just don’t know how many species are being impacted," O’Connor said. (Editing by David Clarke)