Stocks of smuggled timber and the Gambian trucks that transported them are confiscated at a forestry depot in Digante, Senegal, November 2015. Photo: Reuters/Jean-Francois Huertas.
“In the years when logging was not happening, sometimes you did not see the sunlight in the bush because of the tree cover,” said Musa Mballo, a forest protection activist from Velingara in the Casamance region of southern Senegal.
After a decade of intensive illegal logging, endangered Pterocarpus erinaceus rosewood trees are becoming increasingly scarce in the Casamance. Observers told Mongabay this is driving trafficking further into remote rural communities, such as Mballo’s home in the northeast of the region, damaging the environment and livelihoods.
“Most of the community relies on agriculture, but now we have this trafficking, the edible fruits in the forest are not growing. Women, especially, don’t have enough resources to sell, some don’t go into the forest because they are afraid of the traffickers. A lot of people are negatively affected,” he told Mongabay.
The scale of the illegal harvesting and smuggling was recently revealed in a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which found that approximately 1.6 million rosewood trees were illegally logged in the Casamance and exported from the Gambia to China between June 2012 and April 2020.
Previous EIA investigations revealed how trafficking of protected rosewood in West Africa’s dry forests has become the largest in the world, supplying China’s rapacious billion-dollar market for hongmu, a type of rosewood used for traditional-style furniture.
A destructive, illicit industry
The Gambia is a small, narrow West African country surrounding the Gambia River and itself surrounded on three sides by Senegal. Despite logging its own rosewood to extinction years ago, the Gambia has become a major trading hub for rosewood and was China’s third-largest source of hongmu in 2019. According to EIA, the majority of rosewood imports from Gambia were smuggled from the Casamance, in breach of CITES, the endangered species trade convention under which P. erinaceus has been listed since 2017.
Since the end of the two-decade rule of strongman Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia in 2017, there has been much tough talk on ending the “Senegambia” rosewood crisis between his democratically elected successor, Adama Barrow, and President Macky Sall of Senegal. In 2018, they made a declaration on joint enforcement, with the Gambia joining Senegal in banning rosewood exports and implementing army patrols along the border to crack down on the smuggling.
Observers say the trafficking abated for a while, but EIA’s data show the rate of trafficking has in fact worsened over the past two years: between February 2017, when the Gambia suspended rosewood exports, and April 2020, China imported 329,351 tons of rosewood from the Gambia. This is more than China imported in 2015 and 2016 (241,254 tons), when the Gambia was still ruled by Jammeh. The former dictator, who has tribal connections with the Casamance, established rosewood trafficking as his fiefdom, reportedly making millions of dollars in exports through a parastatal company in Banjul, the capital.
“There is not much change in the scale of the trafficking, despite the measures. Sometimes the authorities arrest traffickers in the border area, but the trafficking is continuing,” said Paulin Maurice Toupane, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank based in Dakar, the Senegal capital.
“One of the main obstacles in the fight against trafficking is the continuing insecurity situation in the Casamance border with the Gambia,” he added.
On the edges of the forest near the Gambian border crossing, signboards warn of landmines. These are the still-lethal remnants of a more violent period during a three-decade campaign for independence by the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (which goes by the French acronym MFDC). Thousands of people have been killed during fighting between the rebels and the army and many more displaced. Rosewood trafficking has thrived in this environment of fear and secrecy, among communities that have been divided by the conflict.
Illegal logging took hold around 2010 in rebel-held forests in Ziguinchor district on the transit route to the Gambia. Although a fragile cease-fire has been in place since 2014, it remains “very difficult for the Senegalese authorities to enter the border areas because of landmines and the presence of rebels. This is why traffickers take advantage of the situation,” Toupane said.
The Senegalese government has classified rosewood as “conflict timber,” as the rebel group is estimated to have earned $19.5 million from the illicit trade between 2010 and 2014, according to a report by the U.S. environmental organization Forest Trends.
But Mongabay has learned that some breakaway factions have turned their backs on rosewood logging and the wider population is becoming increasingly involved in the illicit industry.
“In the early days, logging was into the easier to reach places and that was the rebels’ patch. As that’s become gutted of rosewood the trade has shifted east and the rebels are less involved now,” said a researcher who has worked on trafficking issues and did not want to be identified.
“They are still bringing out huge logs from Casamance, but they are going much further and deeper, more than a day’s walk, you’re getting onto the edges of Guinea-Bissau, but there wasn’t any need to go across the border [into Guinea-Bissau], as far as we are aware,” they added.
Logging is still happening in the Ziguinchor and Bignona areas of the Casamance, as can be seen in recent deforestation alerts on the Global Forest Watch platform. But it is also creeping further along the Gambian border. Observers say the communities of Medina Yoro Foula and Velingara in Kolda district have become recent targets for illegal logging.
“The deteriorating economic situation in the region caused by the conflict is one of the main factors in the trafficking continuing, the areas where trafficking is developing are the border areas where there is not so much socioeconomic investment,” Toupane said. “In fact, Ziguinchor and Kolda are among the poorest regions, so for a large part of the population illegal logging is a main source of revenue.”
No other options
With high levels of unemployment, especially among youths, Mballo said it is hard for people who eke out livelihoods from the forest to resist becoming involved in the extensive rosewood trafficking network. The traffickers are mostly Gambians and Senegalese who act as agents or middlemen on behalf of Chinese timber traders based primarily in the Gambia; locals in the Casamance are recruited to handle the logging and transportation of timber by donkey cart to the Gambian border. Once on the other side, the timber is stored in hidden depots and shipped from the port of Banjul to China.
“The natural resources belong to everybody,” Mballo said. “Those who are not benefiting from the trafficking, they are seeing those who are doing it making quick money and having a better life; therefore, it pushes others to join.”
Mballo added, “In some villages, even if it’s a few people, the destruction that they are causing is so big.”
Compared to the dusty Sahel conditions of the north, Senegal’s Casamance region is an expansive subtropical landscape. Women traditionally harvest oysters in the mangrove-swaddled canals, or bolongs, of its namesake river, and imposing rare hardwood species grow in tangled forests. But rampant deforestation has changed the area, with the country losing around 10% of its scant forest cover between 2001 and 2019, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland. Nearly all of that loss — 93% — occurred in Ziguinchor, which abuts the ocean at the end of the Casamance and contains much of Senegal’s last tracts of primary forest.
Researchers say the region’s deforestation has started to affect fragile ecosystems.
“Pterocarpus erinaceus is one of the few species that can survive in these conditions and wildlife depends on it. If you remove it then you are exposing the forests to instability,” said conservationist William Dumenu at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana. He said the disappearance of rosewood is having knock-on impacts on local bee populations, which feed on the trees’ bright flowers.
Some say this deforestation is affecting local weather patterns, as well.
“If you speak with farmers, they talk about how rainfall patterns have changed since the exploitation began, crops are exposed to severe temperatures, sources of water for domestic and farm irrigation is quite affected by the depletion of river bodies,” Dumenu said.
“Aerial images of southern Senegal show a large landscape has been depleted,” he added. “It’s quite a dry, savanna atmosphere, people are going to experience rising temperature from loss of tree cover.”
Sources say the illegal logging is creating a feedback loop as poor crop yields compel residents to log yet more timber to trade for food. One observer told Mongabay that harvests are not lasting the entire season, and people are swapping timber for bags of rice out of desperation.
“The socioeconomic challenge is the main problem; the Senegalese authorities need to put in more measures to improve the situation,” Toupane said.
A lack of political will
Some communities, including Mballo’s in Velingara, are trying to find alternatives to rosewood trafficking by participating in a three-year forest protection program run by the U.K. NGO United Purpose.
The partners establish a forest management committee and, with the cooperation of the local mayor, a formal agreement is made to recognize that the forest belongs to the community and no one can enter the forest without their authorization, said Khady Tendeng, project manager for United Purpose in the Casamance.
“We build the capacity of the committee to know how to harvest their forest, and we help them to create green jobs,” Tendeng said. “For example, they can develop beekeeping and make charcoal briquettes from dried leaves for cooking fuel.”
Partners are also encouraged to use an anonymous reporting platform if they see trafficking. “The community laws help a lot because there will be signs saying ‘you cannot enter.’ If someone sees a trafficker, they can report directly to the community management,” Tendeng said.
However, Tendeng added that the increased community surveillance has driven the felling even deeper underground. “The traffickers are logging at night. It is very difficult to see them; even in the community they have people informing them. The civil society has to be very strong to report,” she said. “The idea is that if the community is strong, they can try to stop it. I think they have taken a big step; now, most of them, they understand the environmental damage of logging, but the level of poverty is the problem.”
Tendeng called on Senegalese authorities to take more action against illegal loggers.
“Sometimes [officials] interview the traffickers, but they don’t jail them,” she said. “We need strong advocacy regarding the authorities and good governance, including the mayors, because some are into the trafficking; the president [Macky Sall] must follow up on the laws.”
Toupane agreed: “The first solution is the political will of the Gambian and Senegalese authorities. The two countries need to find a way to stop the trafficking.”
Many suspect political will is lacking on both sides of the border.
EIA’s “Cashing in on Chaos” report, and a BBC documentary, The Trees that Bleed, which was broadcast in March and used some of EIA’s undercover footage, exposed the inner workings of the Senegambia rosewood trafficking network.
Investigators found that trafficking peaked during periods when Gambia’s export ban was temporarily lifted to allow the re-export of stockpiles of contraband timber harvested from Senegal. Observers said this also enabled freshly harvested logs to be smuggled into the mix.
According to traffickers who spoke with EIA investigators, the transport and smuggling between Senegal and the Gambia has been enabled by the complicity of Senegalese forces stationed in the Casamance.
Over in the Gambia, the investigators found the timber was being exported through a parastatal scheme, similar to the one established by ex-dictator Jammeh. Corrupt Gambian authorities were facilitating permits for rosewood export, in breach of CITES requirements, EIA alleged.
“The permits are being illegally issued or not issued at all, but the timber is still being exported,” said Kidan Araya, Africa program campaigner at EIA Global, based in Washington, D.C.
A lull — for now
EIA’s sources also alleged that international shipping lines operating out of the port of Banjul were aware of the illegal status of rosewood consignments.
“The country-level export ban is an important step, but it’s not working in Gambia at this point,” Araya said. “Combined with the fact that the systems set up under Jammeh’s rule still exist, corruption is overpowering any political will to try to ban the export of rosewood.”
The Gambian government denied the allegations of complicity in rosewood trafficking in the BBC documentary. Requests for comment sent by Mongabay to the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Natural Resources were not answered.
After the publication of EIA’s report in June, $5.4 million worth of rosewood was imported by China from the Gambia in July and August 2020, according to the latest data obtained by EIA. However, there are signs of change. In July, one of the main shipping lines sailing from Banjul, French-based CMA CGM, announced that it was suspending timber exports from the Gambia “due to suspected trafficking of rosewood.” It has also drawn up a blacklist of exporters suspected of involvement in illegal trafficking.
“EIA understands that other shipping lines operating in the Gambia are taking similar actions to suspend exports of timber at this time,” Araya told Mongabay in October.
“It is too early for us to tell if the moratorium initiated by the shipping lines has made an impact,” she added, explaining that it takes on average six weeks for timber to be transported from West Africa to Asia, and the latest import data reflect that time lag.
According to Gambian activist Seeku Janko, trafficking activity has “significantly reduced” since the shipping moratorium. Janko, who is national chair of the All Gambia Forestry Platform that is campaigning against rosewood trafficking in the Gambia, said he had recently spoken to contacts at checkpoints and visited the port. “Sites where you would usually see timber are empty now,” he said.
Following the EIA and BBC reports, “the government is very much careful now, and they are warning timber dealers that if they are caught, they will be dealt with,” Janko said.
But stockpiles of sawn rosewood remain scattered in wilderness on the Gambian side of the border, as shown in photos taken in October by Konyagi Kanyi, a regional chair of the forestry platform, who is based in the Gambia’s Lower River Region. Satellite data from the University of Maryland show little difference between tree cover loss during July-October 2020 and previous years. One source familiar with the situation said that in the past, traffickers have encouraged harvesters to keep cutting during export bans so that stockpiles can be used to negotiate the lifting of export bans.
Whether this is the end of the line for the Senegambia rosewood trafficking route remains to be seen. “I think the illegal activity will continue,” Toupane said. “As long as there are Chinese companies in Gambia and insecurity in the border areas, there are opportunities for traffickers.”
It has been suggested that diplomatic ties with China — both countries are recipients of its Belt and Road Initiative to fund large-scale infrastructure projects — can make governments hesitant to stick their necks out against Chinese businesses in the country lest they jeopardize investments. As one observer, who did not want to be named, said: “No one wants to upset China.”
EIA and other environmental organizations are hoping that China’s forest law, which was revised last July to outlaw the use of illegally sourced timber in its supply chains, will include regulations for imported timber in its implementation decree, which is due to be released in spring 2021.
“We hope more enforcement on the Chinese side will end this trade for good,” Araya said. “If rosewood is coming from Gambia or Senegal, they’re within their right to seize the containers because they are illegal; that would be a tremendous first step.”
This article was originally published on Mongabay and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.