Senegal: Corruption and poverty hinder fight to save forests (Trust)

| January 4, 2016

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Idrissa Balde blew the whistle on illegal logging in a forest reserve near his town.

Mr. Balde is mayor of the small community of Dabo in southern Senegal, near the border with the Gambia. He says a government agent responsible for protecting the forest reserve proposed a deal to keep him quiet.

According to Mr. Balde, the forestry official offered to change the wording on the official paperwork to show that trees were felled outside the Dabo national reserve. In exchange, the mayor’s office would receive a cut of the proceeds.

Mr. Balde sits on a pile of logs in a clearing where, until September, rare African mahogany trees had grown. He says, “I want those responsible to be arrested and punished, with their permits taken away.”

The forest ministry in the southern region of Casamance has rejected Mr. Balde’s version of events. Colonel Aly Seck is the ministry’s regional representative. He denies any attempt to illegally involve Mr. Balde, and blames the mayor for the destruction in the Dabo forest.

African timber often ends up as furniture or flooring in wealthier countries, and many African governments, including Senegal, have introduced export bans. But the dilemmas faced by officials like Mr. Balde who take a stand against corruption show the limitations of such measures.

Senegal has led the call to improve natural resources management in Africa. Senegal’s forests are concentrated in the area surrounding the Casamance River in the southern part of the country. The forests act as a bulwark against desertification.

The country plans to create a natural forest barrier against the southward expansion of the Sahara Desert. President Macky Sall claims that the country has already restored 25,000 hectares of degraded land under the project.

But ecologists say that a combination of logging and shifting rainfall patterns linked to climate change removes almost double that acreage every year in the country. The result is bare savannah in places where dense forests once ruled.

China is a major recipient of African timber. While African governments have tried to curb illicit logging over the last decade, Chinese customs data show that the annual value of timber imports from West and Central Africa has increased more than fourfold to US$1.9 billion.

Hua Chunying is a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. She says China strictly regulates timber imports and requires companies to act in accordance with local laws and regulations.

Local people in the Dabo region claim that local wood is simply transported to the Gambia, which allows wood harvested in neighbouring nations to be exported through its port. Haidar El Ali is a former environment minister in Senegal. He says, “Everyone pretends to follow official procedures, but it’s all a sham.”

A man who gives only his first name as Diediou is carrying two tree trunks on a small donkey-drawn cart through the Tanghory state forest. He explains, “There’s no work here. That’s why we cut the trees.” Youth unemployment in the area is estimated at around 60 per cent.

Forestry agents in Casamance complain that the dangerous job of stopping illegal timber shipments is hampered by a lack of human and financial resources.

But some officials are trying to make positive changes. Mayor Balde has filed a legal complaint with the prosecutor’s office because he is dissatisfied with the 1.5 million Central African franc [US$2,500] fine paid by a man charged with illegal logging in Dabo.

Mr. Balde says, “We can’t let this go on. Otherwise, it is us who will lose out and lose the rainfall while others get rich.”

To read the full article on which this story is based, Corruption, poverty hinder fight to save Africa’s forests, go to:

Photo: Stocks of smuggled timber and the Gambian trucks that transported them are confiscated at a forestry depot in Digante, Senegal, November 18, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Jean-François Huertas