How illegal timber finds its way to the market

A police officer watches as people load timber that was impounded in Muhanji Forest Reserve in Kyenjojo District last week. Illegal logging continues to prosper, especially in the Tooro sub-region. PHOTO by M. Ssebuyira.

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Tracking the chain. Illegal logging is one of Uganda’s most profitable businesses. However, given the process through which licences are acquired, one wonders how loggers get fake documents to promote the vice. The Daily Monitor’s Martin Ssebuyira spoke to some officials to track the chain of the problem, especially in Tooro sub-region.

Yustus Ndyoyire has for years harvested timber in a number of forest reserves in Kyenjojo District. However, on June 28 he ran out of luck and was arrested by rangers from National Forests Authority assisted by police.

He is currently being held at Fort Portal Police Station in Kabarole District where he will be aligned before court to answer to charges of illegal logging for gazzetted forest reserves. But Ndyoyire dismisses claims of illegal logging, urging that people who obtain permits to cut trees in private forests assign him to sell the timber on their behalf. “I only charge them for the timber [Shs2,000 per piece]. I don’t know how they get it out of the forest,” he says

Usually, according to Ndyoyire, dealers pay casual labourers at least Shs1,000 for every piece to be ferried to trucks after obtaining permits from District Forest Officers. The recent state of environment report conducted by National Environment Management Authority indicates that Uganda’s forest cover continues to decline due to illegal logging.

Declining cover
According to the report, by about 1900 forests covered, 50 per cent of Uganda’s total land area; however, the 1995-2005 mapping showed that the forested area had reduced from 24 to 18 per cent at a deforestation rate of 1.8 per cent per year.

However, the report further indicates that some districts including Mayuge have lost all its forest cover followed by Wakiso with a deforestation rate of 86.7 per cent, Mubende 79 per cent, Mityana 59.6 per cent and Kibaale 48.9 per cent respectively.

Ms Paulina Tumuhaise, a resident of Itwara, says they formed a collaborative forest management group called Kajuma-Itwara Farmers and Environmental Conservation Association to monitor illegal activities in forests but people still present documents that permit them to harvest timber in forest reserves.

Anesty Busingye, the Kyarusozi Sub-county chairman says they have tried work with NFA to fight illegal logging but the vice continues with many people joining loggers every day.
“I have never signed any document pertaining to forest movement or timber cutting but I see permits from districts authorising harvesting in this sub-county without my knowledge,” he says.

Rigorous process
Licence issuance and timber harvesting is a completely rigorous process, but one wonders why there are many people in the business and why government forests are being depleted considering that district forest officers having no mandate to license harvesting of timber in government reserves.

Joint Efforts to Save the Environment, a non-government organisation that advocates for the protection of environment in the Tooro region recently organised a harmonisation meeting between district forest officers from Mubende, Kyegegwa and Kyenjojo and NFA to ascertain loopholes in the process as well as seeking for a way forward in the fight against illegal logging.

During the meeting, Robert Owinyi, the acting manager NFA Muzizi Range, acknowledged that the issuance of licences seeks to regulate timber harvesting, however, faulting set regulations is key in abusing licences.

We have never issued a licence for Kyankwazi, Kiboga, Mityana, Mubende, Kyegegwa, Kyenjojo, Kabarole, Ntoroko and Budibugyo but government through district forest services issues them which brings about the confusion, he says. “I recently impounded an illegal harvester. I contacted a district forest officer but he told me the harvester had documents in his office. I escorted the suspect but I realised the load on the truck had different specifics compared with the documents,” he says.

This, according to Owinyi, shows that illegal loggers connive with district officers which has made illegal logging to prosper. Amon Rutenta, the NFA surveillance and intelligence supervisor says timber must be stamped but some harvester connive and illegally acquire the stamps without authority.

Rutenta says he once found a timber harvester stamping six lorries of timber in Kyegegwa District on a Sunday, which made him suspect that no money had been paid to the authorities since it was not a working day.

“I confiscated the stamp [hammer] but police returned to the Kyegegwa District forest officer who gave it back to the harvester, which really shocked me,” he says. However, Kyegegwa District forest officer, Abbey Twinomujuni, says he gives the stamp [hammer] to harvest since he cannot climb on top of lorries to stamp the timber.

Am above that
“I cannot climb lorries to [stamp] hammer timber when there are drivers and turn boys. No, I am above that,” he told the Daily Monitor on phone. Asked how he ascertains the volumes of timber when dealer stamp the timber in his absence, Mr Twinomujuni says the decision was looked into by the district council and passed.

Badraa Onzima, the Kyenjojo District forest officer says understaffing has been another obstacle in the fight against illegal logging.

For instance, he says some districts have only one officer, who values, follows and marks the timber. This makes it difficult which perhaps explains the increase in illegal logging. “The whole country has 35 field stamps [hammers] covering 112 districts. This makes work had for field supervisors,” he says.

Ms Grace Tumulanzye, the Kyenjojo District vice chairperson, says they are lobbying for a road toll at Mubende to check unlicenced timber from reaching the market.

Issuing licences

Licencing timber cutting is done through a public bidding notice in accordance with the sections 41 and 42 of the NFA Act and Tree Planting Act 2003, where interested applicants agree with forest owners by filling a buyer form with details of location and species. The forms are endorsed by village and sub-county chairpersons, district forest officers, natural resources officers, chief administrative officers and district chairmen.

The applicant after obtains the sawmilling form from district forestry officers showing information about the tree owners, volume of trees and location of the trees by Geographical Positioning System points that are forwarded to the Commissioner, Forestry Sector Support Department with passport photos and Shs350,000 fees per year.

After the applicant has deposited his passport size photos and paid Shs350,000 for the licence, the forms are verified by the forestry commissioner and forwarded to the permanent secretary who issues a licence based on volumes, size and quality among other specifications.