Deforestation and illegal Chinese logging in Angola

 

Protecting Angola’s forests

 

The government of Angola says that it is bringing illegal logging activity under control. Yet Chinese demand and difficulties surrounding inspection and enforcement may make it difficult to halt the crime or even to quantify its scale. It is important that the rate of deforestation is decreased as unconstrained logging allows forest soils that have taken millennia to build up to be washed away.

 

In December 2018, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry conceded that there had been a turbulent period of excessive logging, particularly in the southwest and east of Angola, which threatened forest sustainability, but said that this had now given way to a period of stability. The Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Marcos Nhunga, said: “The stability achieved is due to the consequent application of a set of measures designed by the executive aimed at improving disciplined management of forest resources.”

 

By the very nature of illegal logging – it is illicit and it generally takes place in more remote areas – it had been almost impossible to produce accurate figures on the scale of the problem. Earlier estimates of deforestation rates may have been too high because they were based on estimated forest cover around 1900. More recent academic research suggests that there has historically been less forest and more savannah than previously thought, so the pace of deforestation was probably lower during most of the Twentieth Century than most sources had calculated.

 

However, Google Earth has now made it relatively straightforward for the rate of logging to be assessed and images have revealed that illegal logging has been widespread in Angola. The two main problems in the country are illegal felling by logging companies who do not undertake any replanting and slash-and-burn farming on land where trees have been cut.

 

As a result of the civil war, too little effort has been put into exploring and documenting the flora and fauna of Angola’s woodlands. Surprisingly significant finds are still being made, such as the dwarf galago – a type of nocturnal primate – which was discovered in Kumbira Forest in north-western Angola by researchers from the UK’s Oxford Brookes University in 2016. Such finds are attracting international attention to efforts to protect Angolan forests.

 

Chinese involvement

 

In May, research by NGO Greenpeace stated that Chinese companies are the main culprits in illegal logging in the Congo Basin, including Angola. China is the main market for African timber, whether cut illegally or legally. An investigation by Namibian newspaper The Namibian in March found that Chinese businessmen were using a loophole that allows rural Namibians to use hardwood timber for their own use to harvest wood in big volumes.

 

The newspaper said that Namibian hardwood was mixed with wood from Angola, Zambia and other countries and then shipped out of the Port of Walvis Bay. Greenpeace estimates that about 75% of all timber exports from Africa are shipped to China, while Chinese citizens have been arrested by the Angolan police, including three people in the Province of Moxico last July.

 

However, the problem is not restricted to Chinese-led operations. According to Greenpeace, 3 million cubic metres of timber is felled both legally and illegally in the Congo Basin, including by gangs that work across international borders. The Angolan government has complained about illegal logging in Cabinda Province by citizens of Congo-Brazzaville. In addition, much of the high quality furniture produced in China using African wood is then exported to Europe and North America, so the industry has a global reach.

 

Government measures

 

New regulations introduced at the start of 2018 banned the felling of any trees below specific sizes to prevent the harvesting of immature trees. Extra protection has been given to rare, slow growing hardwoods, such as rosewood, which are highly prized in China. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the illicit rosewood trade generated more revenue than the any form of wildlife smuggling between 2005 and 2014.

 

Operators are now awarded forest exploration contracts with more regular inspections and all timber consignments, even those just transiting Angola, now require certificates of origin. Contracts are now awarded for a maximum of 25 years and the government expects that only 150-200 logging companies will be permitted to operate this year, down from 330 in 2017. The measures were signed off by President João Lourenço in November 2017, just weeks after he came to power.

 

All felling was banned for a few months from last January while the new inspection and enforcement regimes were introduced, and then phased in again at different times last year depending on the region. For example, licit logging was allowed from Cabinda from June 2018 but only three companies, including China’s Huafeng Group, were given contracts. In addition to imposing fines and issuing jail terms, the authorities are now also permitted to confiscate the vehicles and equipment used by illegal logging gangs. Licenses are also required to set fires, although this is particularly difficult to police.

 

In order to gain more control over the sector, the government ordered six warehouses for forest products to be set up in the provinces of Bengo, Benguela, Cabinda, Cuando Cubango, Luanda and Moxico. In addition, the Forestry Development Institute said last April that it would suspend the operations of any Angolan forestry companies that pass their timber licences on to foreign firms for up to six years. There have been allegations that officials sell logging licences outside the official system. Companies operating legally within the system sometimes find that their license areas have already been partly-logged.

 

André Moda, the Secretary of State for Forest Resources, said: “After the construction and start-up of the warehouses, no forest product intended for external sale may leave without first passing through one of these structures, for inspection and certification purposes by the Forestry Development Institute, General Tax Administration and Commerce and Fiscal Police.”

 

Sustainability

 

The industry can only work sustainably if trees are replaced at the same rate as they are cut. This means planting more trees than are cut because of natural losses and giving them time to re-grow. If this does not happen then both the size of the industry and range of forest cover will fall with dramatic environmental affects. Retaining an active and sustainable forest sector would allow the creation of furniture and paper industries, helping Angola to avoid expensive and unnecessary imports.

 

In late July, Macauhub reported that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had announced plans to reforest 200,000 hectares of land in Benguela, Huambo and Huíla provinces with eucalyptus and pine trees, including 120,000 hectares for logging where 20 timber contracts would be awarded and 80,000 hectares to expand existing public forest assets.

 

Under the new regulations, a letter of credit or proof of transfer issued by a bank abroad in favour of the exporter’s account must be presented at an Angolan bank before exports are sanctioned. According to Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry figures, US$9 million was received for 22,341 cubic metres of sawn timber exports in the last four months of last year. The Ministry said that before the Institute for Forestry Development took over state regulation of the industry, the state earned virtually nothing from the trade.

 

It will be interesting to see whether the state manages to exert more control over the industry. In its National Development Plan, the government predicted that 251,643 cubic metres of timber would be legally exported in financial year 2017-18 but the actual figure was just 22,012 cubic metres, down from 86,000 cubic metres the previous year. It is difficult to believe that the rate of tree felling declined so much and it seems more likely that unregulated exports made up a higher proportion of total timber exports that year.

 

More inspection needed

 

Better funded and enforced inspection regimes would go a long way towards tackling the problem and this could target the transport routes that the illegal loggers are using. Some forested areas were inaccessible to logging companies for many years because of the Angolan civil war but activity has ramped up over the past few years and particularly since the country’s three east-west railway lines – all ending at Atlantic Ocean ports – were rehabilitated.

 

There is some evidence to suggest that – as with the legal trade – illicit timber is being moved down the same railway lines to the coast for export, mainly to China. For instance, police have seized logs at railway stations on the Moçâmedes line. In one raid in February 2018, police seized more than 540 cubic metres of logs.

 

Although the government of Mozambique banned the export of any unprocessed hardwood logs from the start of 2017, illicit consignments are still discovered at the nation’s ports (https://clbrief.com/chinese-timber-and-fishing-in-africa/). Discoveries on the same scale have not been made in Angola, which could suggest that illegal logging is not such a problem there but the pace of deforestation suggests that the lack of finds is partly because of a lack of detection. At the same time, it seems that Angola exports substantially less timber overall – and specifically to China– than Mozambique.

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