Illegal logging, charcoal burning destroying East Africa’s forests

Tuesday July 15 2014

Illegal logging has depleted East Africa’s natural resources. AFP

The United Nations Environment Assembly convened in Nairobi recently pointed out that East Africa’s natural resources are being rapidly depleted. The meeting held at the Unep headquarters, warned that the region’s forests are shrinking under the pressure of human activities, among them illegal logging and the charcoal trade.

Illegal logging in East Africa constitutes part of the total illegitimate global trade in timber products, which Unep says is worth between $30 billion and $100 billion — between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of the total global timber trade.

The illegal charcoal trade, on the other hand, mainly in protected areas, is also taking a toll of East Africa’s flora. In Africa, estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, put charcoal production at $30.6 million tonnes, worth between $9.2 billion and $24.5 billion annually.

According to the State of East Africa Report 2012, the region has lost more than 22 million hectares of forest cover in the past two decades, partly due to illegal logging and charcoal burning.

The report says East Africa’s 107 million hectares of forest shrank by more than 9 per cent to 98 million hectares between 1990 and 2000, and a further 13 per cent to 85 million hectares in 2010 due to rampant deforestation.

READ: Illegal trade in wildlife, timber funding militias


Though Tanzania still has the lion’s share of the region’s forest cover, with a total of 45 million hectares (53 per cent), it had the largest share of deforestation, accounting for 67 per cent, followed by Kenya at 33 per cent, in the period under review.

In the past two decades, Tanzania’s forested land has reduced by 15 million hectares. Kenya’s forest area in 2010 was 32 million hectares (38 per cent), which was almost 18 per cent less than in 1990. Burundi also lost 117,000 hectares of forest in the same period.

It is the reason why Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania announced their intention to work together, along with Interpol and UN agencies, under the East Africa Initiative on Illegal Timber Trade to curb environmental crimes.

According to Unep, the initiative represents an innovative cross-border, multi-sectoral effort that will create a powerful deterrent to Africa’s illegal timber trade and other environmental crimes. The three countries will be required to share information on the illegal trade tighten border patrols and ensure those involved in the trade are arrested and charged in court.

“We cannot afford, economically or environmentally, to allow the continued wholesale destruction of one of our planet’s most valuable resources,” Unep executive director, Achim Steiner said.

Kenya’s Environment Cabinet Secretary Prof Judi Wakhungu said the EAC member states had agreed to work together under the initiative to combat the illegal trade in forest products.

“We can only succeed if we work together in the region because such trade knows no boundaries. We have already started collaborating under the East African Community umbrella and the initiative will help us further strengthen our surveillance network and sharing of intelligence information to effectively tackle the illegal trade in flora,” Prof Wakhungu said.

The minister added that Kenya and other East African countries were being used as transit points. “Kenya is a transit point for illegal timber and forest products; we must reinforce our intelligence and surveillance,” she said.

Illegal logging and charcoal burning has degraded East Africa’s forests, caused economic loss to member countries, destroyed biodiversity and livelihoods, promoting corruption, and funding armed conflict in the region.

In addition to facing the challenges of illegal logging and charcoal burning, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda are also used as transit countries for timber illegally logged in other countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

READ: Kenya-Tanzania popular route for illegal loggers

But conservationists argue that to fight the two environmental crimes in the region it will need more than commitments on paper and tough talk. This is because environment protection and conservation in the region still continues to take a backseat in the region.

“Though Unep means well, the problem is with the member countries. We have heard of these initiatives in the past but little has been achieved in terms of implementation as loggers and charcoal burners continue to destroy our remaining forests. We need to be serious this time around,” said environment consultant James Kilango.

Michael Gachanja, executive director of the East African Wildlife Society, said illegal timber trade is rampant in the region.

“Illegal timber that comes into Kenya, for example, comes from Tanzania, Congo and Malawi. Kenya is a net importer of timber and in order to fill the gap the three countries provide the products,” said Mr Gachanja.

In East Africa as in other parts of the world, illegal trade in flora takes place in four main forms:
1) The illegal exploitation of high-value endangered wood species, for example African cherry.
2) Illegal logging of timber for sawn wood, building material and furniture.
3) Illegal logging and laundering of wood through plantation and agricultural front companies to supply pulp for the paper industry.
4) Utilisation of the vastly unregulated wood fuel and charcoal trade to conceal illegal logging in and outside protected areas, conduct extensive tax evasion and fraud, and supply fuel through the informal sector.

According to investigations by Unep and other UN agencies, one of the species most sought after by illegal loggers is Prunus africana, commonly known in East Africa as the African cherry.

“It is harvested for its bark, which has medicinal properties and for timber,” says Unep in its Environment Crimes Crisis Report released recently.

In fact, in July 2006, a CITES Plants Committee categorised the populations of Prunus Africana from Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Cong, Equatorial Guinea and Madagascar as “of urgent concern”.

Rosewood is another species that is being harvested illegally on a large scale, in Madagascar and East Africa. The trade, according to Interpol, involves organised crime in both harvesting and distribution through large transoceanic shipments.

In May the Kenya Wildlife Service seized a multimillion-shilling consignment of the endangered rosewood from Madagascar enroute Hong Kong at the Mombasa Port. The 640 tonnes of prized timber, packed in 34 containers had a market value of about $12.8 million.

READ: Kenya seizes Hong Kong-bound rosewood from Madagascar's threatened forests

According to KWS, though the copies of the cargo manifest showed the loading of the cargo was done in Zanzibar, the consignment had originated from Madagascar. The illegal rosewood smuggled from East Africa to Asia is used for making furniture, guitars, luxury floorings and marimbas among others.

According to Unep, the price of high-end rosewood has been on the rise since 2006. In 2005, for example, D. odorifera, one of the species of rosewood, was available on the ordinary market at a price below at $15,000 per cubic metres. The price, however, rose to over $100,000 in 2006, $500,000 in 2007 and is now around $1.5 million per cubic metre.

“The 2012 price of D. cochinchinensis (another species of Rrosewood) $15,000, was 15 times higher than its price in 2005,” says the environment organisation.

The East African ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam have been used in the past as transit points for the smuggled rosewood. The general pattern shows that illegal wood resources have considerably more monetary value than wildlife. This is because, according to conservationists, the trade carries much lower risk, as the wood is often not considered contraband.

“It is easily mixed with legal products during transport, transported in the open, and there is virtually no frontline protection or Customs risk – but very high profit,” says Unep.

Studies by Unep, Interpol and other conservation organisations show that China is one of the main destinations for illegal timber from Africa. China’s wood industry depends on imports for almost 50 per cent of its timber supply.

Apart from China, the European Union and the US are also major consumers of tropical timber, some of which originate in Eastern Africa.
Data from the European Union Statistics Agency, Food and Agriculture Organisation and International Tropical Timber Organisation shows that the EU imports between 133 million and 385 million cubic metres round wood equivalent of wood products, every year, while the US buys an average of 72 million cubic metres.

Apart from illegal logging, charcoal burning is another business depleting East Africa’s forests, though in most cases confined within local borders.

According to Unep data, 90 per cent of wood consumed in Africa is used for wood fuel and charcoal. Africa produced 30.6 million tonnes of charcoal in 2012, worth between $6.1 billion and $24.5 billion annually at the point of sale.

Charcoal in Kenya

“The total export number for Africa is only 1.4 per cent of production. Such a low figure is unrealistically small, considering key importance of charcoal in African local energy consumption and its related widespread trade,” the Environment Crimes report adds.

In Kenya, for example, charcoal provides energy for 82 per cent of urban and 34 per cent of rural households. Official data from Unep shows the annual consumption is between 1 million and 1.6 million tonnes for 40 million citizens.

There are about 18.4 million consumers in the country who use 70 kg charcoal each per year. This figure is higher than in Madagascar, where 85 per cent of the 22.3 million population rely on charcoal, consuming 63 kg each per year, of the 1.19 million tonnes produced annually.

The above figures are worrying, given the fact that East Africa’s population is expected to continue increasing, meaning that demand for charcoal will not decline anytime in the near future.

While official exports from East Africa amount to only a few truckloads annually, observations by Rapid Response Unit team in the region revealed a high number of trucks are used to gather charcoal bags near protected areas at night, as well as cross-border points such as Tanzania-Kenya and previously between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Safeguarding the world’s forests is not just the most cost-effective way to mitigate climate change: well-managed forests also generate multitrillion dollar services such as reliable water flow, clean air, sustainable timber products, soil stabilisation and nutrient recycling,” said Mr Steiner.