Why illegal logging, charcoal burning persist in the north

Sunday November 3 2019

Confiscated. Adjumani District forest officials

Confiscated. Adjumani District forest officials sit by a pile of Afzelia Africana logs that were confiscated from illegal loggers at Layibi Corner in Gulu District, last month. PHOTOS BY TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY 

By Tobbias Jolly Owiny

On a dusty evening of September 23, Ms Filda Oyella, a log dealer, is intercepted at Layibi Corner custom while aboard a truck. The truck is loaded with Afzelia Africana logs destined for Kampala.
Although National Forestry Authority (NFA) fines her Shs2.5 million, the logs are confiscated since she is possessing Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) clearance from Madiopei customs office whereas she claims she is bringing the logs from South Sudan through Elegu Border into Uganda. She could not equally produce a visa or any other personal travel documents for her entry into South Sudan, a primary requirement NFA tasks loggers from South Sudan to produce while getting clearance at Elegu Customs Office.
However, upon realising that her forest produce had been confiscated and the officers are not yielding to her pleas to have the truck released after she pulled the money, she declines to disclose the prospective buyer in Kampala.
A few minutes later while at the scene, another truck overloaded with charcoal from Paibona Sub-county in Gulu District is intercepted and the truck is impounded because owners possessed forged documents.
One of the men, who looks to be in his mid-forties that had earlier disembarked from the charcoal truck, rushes to identify himself as Brian Mugisha from Kamwenge District.
Coincidentally, he owns the confiscated charcoal. He says he successfully trades in charcoal business.
“The market here is very open. You either take on charcoal, which currently has a huge market at Busia Border, or stay poor. Uganda is currently supplying Kenya’s 65 per cent of charcoal after it slapped a ban on charcoal trade,” Mr Mugisha says.
He adds that the Chinese are also just waiting to buy in Kampala.
A fortnight ago, when Environment Police held an operation in Gulu District to weed out illegal loggers and charcoal dealers, the owners of the impounded trucks either possessed forged documents or did not have any travel or trading permits at all.
Mr Xavious Sekanabo, a former regional Environment Police commandant for Aswa, who led the operations, blames the persistent trade on ‘high-level’ connivance and conflict of interest among the stakeholders meant to fight against the vice.
“The trees on community and private land are being cut down indiscriminately. The vice is being promoted by the district forest officials. We found the district forest office illegally clearing loggers and charcoal dealers without assessing them,” he says.
The districts are hungry for resources and have turned timber and charcoal dealing into revenue sources.
Despite a government ban on cutting and trading in Afzelia logs, some corrupt officials in government have continued to weave their way through the business that has persisted in northern Uganda. However, Ms Gracious Aguti, the NFA’s forest supervisor for Amuru and Nwoya districts, names not only the army but also URA as units infiltrated by wrong people who she says now connive with loggers to facilitate the trade.
“The biggest problem is with URA, their system has been infiltrated by thugs who issue forged papers. At Elegu border point, the dealers avoid it because one is tasked to produce their visa or travel documents verified by South Sudanese authorities,” she says.
She adds that after securing the documents allegedly from URA officials at Madiopei Customs Office in Lamwo District, the dealers sneak the logs harvested into Kitgum Town in the night on their way to Kampala through Gulu Town using the documents that are recorded to be from South Sudan.
“The day we launched an operation with five armed police officers at Aliwara forests, 15 armed soldiers and at gunpoint forced us to release the suspects and their vehicles loaded with logs,” she says.
However, Mr Jamil Ssenyonjo, the URA spokesperson, says illegal dealers were dodging designated URA’s known checkpoints to avoid interception and confiscation.
“Once these trucks are crossing into our known territories, we enforce the ban by confiscating them because we do not condone these illegalities. But you find that there is much tendency by the dealers to avoid our gazetted checkpoints to avoid arrests because they don’t have the documents,” Mr Ssenyonjo says.
An investigation into the continuous illegal trade in the logs currently being carried out from West Nile and Acholi sub-regions, a total of 22 international companies reveal that are currently investing millions of dollars in the country to trade in logs from the precious tree species, Afzelia.
A source in URA says 80 per cent of Afzelia logs that are cleared as originating from South Sudan are cut from within Uganda in the districts of West Nile and Acholi sub-regions.
“These foreign companies have warehouses established in Kampala, as well as middlemen deployed in West Nile and northern Uganda sub-regions to scout and source areas with heavy concentration of Afzelia trees, which they then buy from the land owners cheaply,” the source says.
He shows three box files loaded with clearance records of each of the 22 companies.
The eight companies that this newspaper noted, he claimed to have received threats and warnings from its proprietors (some of whom included senior army and police officers as well as key political faces) over revealing their identity since he has access to the files. He says between May 13 and 24, no clearance for logs were done at Elegu border, although six trucks were intercepted between Atiak Sub-county in Amuru District and Layibi Corner checkpoints in Gulu Town with clearance documents bearing URA seals.
“The stamping and clearance is done from URA stop centres either in Adjumani District or from the other side of Lamwo District at Madiopei Customs Centre by URA officers who receive bribes from the illegal loggers,” he says.
He, however, declines to disclose the total quantity of logs exported by Uganda and those that cross through Uganda in the hands of URA on grounds that he does not have the ready figures. However, Ms Aguti says NFA’s biggest challenge now is insufficient manpower to enforce regulation.
“Our capacity on the ground right now is too low. The entire Lango and Acholi sub-regions only have three environmental police officer, who deploy and keep rotating in all the districts of Lango and Acholi,” she says.
Another source based at the URA customs office at Elegu border, who preferred anonymity, explains that the logs are exported through Malaba border while more containers are transported through Busia border.
“There are also warehouses at Kisaasi, Ntinda and Nakawa Industrial Area in Kampala. At Malaba border, 90 to 105 containers of Afzelia logs are cleared every month for export. The logs are also transported by railway to Mombasa through Tororo,” he says.
The demand for its hardwood is too high in Asian countries, including China, Taiwan, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia since it is highly prized for making gun butts, luxurious furniture pieces, as well as ship building, the source adds.
“This species is known to produce wood that is resistant to many chemical compounds and has great dimensional stability often preferred to materials like metals and synthetics for vats and precision equipment in industrial applications,” he adds.

The dirty chain
Several shea nut tree stumps welcome you as you reach the temporary sites where charcoal burners have pitched camp in Patiko and Palaro Sub Counties all in Gulu District.
While others are felling trees using power saws, axes, and machetes, others are bagging charcoal to be loaded onto waiting trucks. A bag of charcoal goes for between Shs35,000 and Shs40,000 in Gulu, while in Kampala or at Busia border where they are sold, it is between Shs80,000 and Shs100,000.
The chain of beneficiaries in illegal logging business includes local poor, brokers who buy from the impoverished, local authorities, some officers at institutions mandated to reinforce the law, including security personnel.
Ronald, a resident of Kiira Town in Jinja District, is another dealer who recently switched to logging. Records this reporter saw include a sales agreement which indicated that he (Mutebi) bought trees from 460 acres of land belonging to one Mr Wilson Obino at a cost of Shs16m on June 19.
Although he is yet to finish cutting trees from a quarter of the land, every month, Mr Mutebi transports two lorries of charcoal to Busia border where he pockets averagely Shs25 million per truck that loads 300 bags of charcoal.
“All you need to have is get approximately Shs10 million at hand to help you pitch camp in the village here. This is money you would use to buy the trees and hire workers to help in burning the charcoal, hire trucks and bribe officials along the way to the market,” he says.
He has been in the business since 2013. He says among the challenges is that they have to drive at night to dodge NFA officials because sometimes when they get you, they confiscate the stock and auction it even when you try to bribe them.
“At Busia border, the charcoal is poured down and re-bagged for the Kenyan market,” he adds.
Meanwhile, for logs, the dealers have continued to take advantage of the ignorance by the locals to buy the trees cheaply for logging since they do not know the true value of the trees.
In Adjumani District’s sub-counties of Itirikwa, Okusijoni and Dzaipi, for each Afzelia tree that is cut down, the owner earns not more than Shs55,000 from the dealers. He says although a truck packed with logs is sold to the companies at the warehouses in Kampala at between Shs35 million and Shs40 million, the same quantity of logs after it is processed, treated and shipped to Vietnam, sells at averagely $55,000 (approximately Shs220 million).
“Once you can bribe your way to Kampala successfully, you are assured of Shs35 million after spending less than Shs10 million in buying the trees, transporting and bribing law enforcement officers along the way for a well-loaded lorry,” Ronald says.
In February last year, government, in a circular signed by the State minister for Environment, Ms Mary Goretti Kitutu, banned any cutting, transportation and sale of Afzelia and shea nut tree logs and their products. It is, however, not the first time government is slapping a ban on the now rare species.
While still serving as minister for Trade and Industry, Prof George Kanyeihamba, three decades ago, declared a similar ban that was later upheld by the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act of 2003, which also prohibits export of raw timber.
Despite the directive by police to all its units across the country to enforce the ban, the cutting, transportation and trade in Afzelia logs have persisted.

Afzelia tree

The demand for its hardwood is too high in Asian countries, including China, Taiwan, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia since it is highly prized for making gun butts, luxurious furniture pieces, as well as ship building, the source adds.
“This species is known to produce wood that is resistant to many chemical compounds and has great dimensional stability often preferred to materials like metals and synthetics for vats and precision equipment in industrial applications,” a source from URA says.