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Humans · Economy

Illegal Chinese timber business is devastating Africa's forests

September 05th, 2018
in:Humans, Economy
by:Bob Koigi
located in:China, Nigeria, Mozambique, South Africa
tags:Africa, China, CITES, EIA, environment, Environmental Investigation Agency, forest, logging, timber

Every year Africa loses an approximate $17 billion to illegal logging activities with the demand for timber now at an all-time high, exacerbated by an international smuggling racket with China at the heart of this trade. This, despite millions of livelihoods in Africa that rely on forests having been displaced and endangered species now facing extinction.

China is the number one importer of logs globally to sate a burgeoning demand for luxury furniture among its middle class. Antique-style furniture manufactured in China also find their way to Europe and North America. And with commercial timber stocks in the country depleting, the country has been looking for cheaper alternatives. This has led it to Africa, home to some of the most globally sought after tree species. Africa exports up to 75 per cent of its timber to China yearly, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development.

But while this trade may seem genuine at face value, numerous investigations have pointed to a well-oiled international network that has been circumventing local and international laws to fell trees at unsustainable rates and evade taxes with complacent African government officials facilitating this illegal trade.

“One of the reason this trade has flourished for so long is because Chinese businessmen have identified legal gaps in protection of forests and timber trade in many African countries and capitalised on that lacuna. This has also been aided by corrupt government officials, some of them in very senior positions that authorise wanton destruction of African forests,” said Dr. Mohammed Faizan, an environmental lawyer based in Nairobi Kenya.

From Nigeria in West Africa, Congo basin to Mozambique in South Africa, the rapacious Chinese appetite for unprocessed timber has left a trail of destruction and even death, yet the trade continues unabated.

In one of the most elaborate investigations that lifted the lid on the undercover trade, dubbed ‘the rosewood racket,’ the Environmental Investigation Agency, EIA, late last year revealed how 1.4 million illegally harvested logs in Nigeria with a market value of $300 million were laundered into China. This, while using irregularly acquired Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, permits. More than $1 million in bribes was paid to Nigerian government officials.

The African Rosewood, also known as Kosso in Nigeria, is one of the most endangered species and is protected by CITES. But due to its unique traits and international demand, smugglers have always mis-declared and falsified official documents to smuggle the timber. In West Africa, the Chinese traders exploited the rosewood in Benin and Gambia leaving the country with no single tree before moving to Nigeria.

“Even the CITES convention on protecting endangered species is increasingly becoming difficult to enforce as these international rackets beat the system and with no political will to implement the law, bringing the culprits to book becomes complicated,” Dr. Faizan said.

Rosewood trade has surpassed wildlife crime as the most lucrative illegal trade according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Between 2005 and 2014, the cumulative value of seized illegal rosewood was higher than the seized rhinos, parrots, marine turtles and pangolins combined, the institution said.

“The opaque kosso supply chain connects the remote forests of north eastern Nigeria to chic boutiques in Shanghai. It relies on well-defined roles between actors and a domino effect financing system that has its roots in the government-led fiscal policies in support of the largest importing companies,” the EIA report reads in part.

Further South in Mozambique, by 2013, up to 93 per cent of all logging was illegal before the government decided to tighten the legal framework as once lush forests were reduced to deserts. But enforcement is still a challenge and deforestation still goes on despite an export ban on all raw timber logs.

In Gile National Reserve, one of the most preserved gems of biodiversity in the Mozambique and home to a host of endangered species, there are more loggers than tourists with the illegally logged timber being sneaked out of the country undetected as organised rackets increasingly perfect their game.

In Congo Basin that spans six countries including Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Gabon and Cameroon, up to three million cubic meters of timber are exported to China with a big percentage being illegally logged according to a report by environmental NGO Greenpeace.

The impacts of the logging to the Congo rainforest, dubbed the second lungs of the earth, and the second largest forest in size after Amazon are severe in a region that is still recovering from decades of war.

As China’ demand for timber and products balloons, with the imports estimated to hit 60 million cubic meters by 2025, it is likely to sustain its obsession with African forests. This, even as Africa remains the continent that will be hit the hardest by climate change with its fall back being an elaborate forest cover. “Protecting Africa’s forest cover should be a matter of utmost importance actively driven by governments. It is only political will that will save these forests especially because the demand for African timber by the Chinese is at an all-time high, and they will do anything to get it,” Dr. Faizan added.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
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Embed from Getty Images
China is the number one importer of logs globally to sate a burgeoning demand for luxury furniture among its middle class.
Embed from Getty Images
numerous investigations have pointed to a well-oiled international network that has been circumventing local and international laws to fell trees at unsustainable rates.
Embed from Getty Images
One of the reason this trade has flourished for so long is because Chinese businessmen have identified legal gaps in protection of forests and timber trade in many African countries

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