By Nellie Peyton
GAMAMADU, Guinea-Bissau - Before the ban, Chinese loggers drove straight through Gamamadu village to harvest its most important resource: the rosewood forest.
"So many Chinese came here. We were praying for a means to stop it," said Braima Djassi, a small, white-haired farmer in the village in central Guinea-Bissau, a tiny country in West Africa.
Logging boomed after a 2012 coup plunged the country into chaos. For three years the wood, which is valued for furniture in China, was shipped off by the tens of thousands of tonnes - destroying farmland and livelihoods in the process, locals said.
The trade slowed when the state put a five-year moratorium on logging and exports in 2015. But with a presidential election coming up and the ban set to expire next year, farmers and activists said they fear a return to widespread plunder.
"People depend on the bush here, their daily living is in that place," said Djassi. Dirt paths cut through the forest behind the brick-and-straw houses of Gamamadu, traversed by women carrying firewood and men trekking to their rice paddies.
Rosewood, referred to in the former Portuguese colony as "blood wood" for its red sap, is used locally for furniture and firewood and its bark boiled for medicinal use.
At the peak in 2014, timber exports from Guinea-Bissau to China reached 98,000 tonnes - about 255,000 trees in one year - said the U.S.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Chinese customs data reviewed by EIA showed that over 7,000 tonnes of rosewood - more than 300 shipping containers full of logs - were imported from Guinea-Bissau this year through March.
Some of those may have left the country during a legal sale period late last year, but the timing suggests illegal exports continued after it was over, said an EIA investigator.
The Chinese embassy in Guinea-Bissau said in a statement that China strictly abides by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and does not import prohibited items. China's foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Guinea-Bissau's state spokesman said that the government has been hampered by an ongoing political crisis, but would take firm action against anyone found violating the logging ban.
The country has been in political deadlock since 2015 with seven changes of government. March's legislative elections are meant to be followed by a presidential poll later this year.
China, by far the world's largest rosewood consumer, used to harvest the wood in southeast Asia until forests shrunk and countries started banning logging, causing a shift to Africa around 2010, said Naomi Basik Treanor, manager of forest policy, trade and finance at U.S.-based charity Forest Trends.
The rosewood species native to West Africa was listed as endangered last year following a 15-fold increase in trade between 2009 and 2014, driven by Chinese demand, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Since the loss of rosewood trees locals said the soil is dryer, winds are stronger and big animals are gone.
"Everyone knows the tree is very valuable," said Marcos Imbunde, a teacher in the village of Malafu, who said he learned about rosewood bark's healing properties from his grandmother.
"To see big trees of that species is rare now," he said.
The loggers drove trucks over people's fields, felled trees onto crops and stirred up so much dust that it made people sick, said Imbunde.
"We don't have anything here. We're hungry," said farmer Nhima Sanha, sitting outside her house in Gamamadu's sunbaked dirt square.
The women make money by selling charcoal and firewood by the roadside, but now they have to walk farther and farther to find wood to burn, she said.
Crop yields have also declined, said farmers.
Climate change has made rain more scarce and irregular across West Africa, but locals said they suspect the dryness is also related to the loss of trees.
Studies have shown that forests play a key role in recycling moisture in the atmosphere. There is no data on the amount of forest lost in Guinea-Bissau.
"The rain always comes where the big trees are," said teacher Imbunde. "If they do not exist, the rain moves away."
Locals said they rarely see Chinese people in the forest now, but logging continues with locals doing most of the work.
Desperate for money, young men cut trees and sell them to traders for as little as $1 a log - unaware they are sold for more than $600 in China, one activist said. Some people told stories of villagers trading logs for bags of rice.
When the moratorium began in 2015, Guinea-Bissau had a stockpile of about 400,000 logs - one of the largest in Africa.
Seeking revenue, the government made an exception to the export ban last year to sell off the stockpile, with authorization from the CITES Secretariat. This fuelled new logging as traffickers mixed in freshly cut wood, said the EIA.
Although the sale period ended in December, Chinese customs data shows imports continuing through March - longer than it would take for the last shipments from December to arrive.
"There are investigations to see whether or not (the moratorium) is being respected," said state spokesman Agnelo Regalla, adding that anyone found guilty of defying the logging ban would be brought to justice.
The government will support tree re-planting efforts and create a sustainable forest management policy to protect rosewood when the ban expires in 2020, Regalla said.
Civil society members lacked confidence.
U.N. and Guinean officials have previously said that high-level military officers and politicians are complicit in the trade, which EIA investigators also reported.
"Right now in the country there is no post-moratorium plan," said Justino Sa, president of the advocacy group Our Resources.
Civil society is preparing for "the probable reinvasion of our forests in 2020," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Our Resources partnered with the National Guard and Forestry Department last year to test an invisible tracking technology for logs. It worked, but there is no money to scale up, said Sa.
Some villagers said they thought awareness would prevent deforestation from escalating again. Others said they feared it could be even worse than before when the moratorium lifts.
"Even the children will be crying. Our generation is finished, but now we are protecting it for them," said Djassi.