The government of Mozambique has sought to regulate its forestry sector by encouraging sustainable development, preventing unfettered logging and encouraging local enterprise. The measures are having some impact but demand for the country’s valuable hardwoods remains high and the gangs that oversee illegal felling are becoming more sophisticated.
Maputo has steadily tightened forestry regulation over the past decade, in order to protect environmentally sensitive areas and to ensure that the country benefits from its natural resources as much as possible by boosting tax collection. Maputo generated US$20 million in taxes in 2016, already a substantial figure, but expects this figure to rise to US$140 million by 2021 as more and more forestry is brought within the regulated system.
A complete ban on the export of any type of unprocessed timber was introduced in December 2016, for an initial period of two years. Only selected hardwoods may be cut for export and even these must be processed within Mozambique, a policy which Maputo expects to create more employment. According to official figures, Mozambique exported 5 billion meticais (US$85 million) in processed hardwood last year.
In March, the Ministry of Land, Environment and Rural Development (MITADER) banned the logging and use of three species: Nkula, ironwood and Mondzo; while another three, Chanfuta, Umbila and Jambire, can only be felled for domestic use and not exported. This distinction will place yet more pressure on the port authorities.
Only MITADER approved loggers, which must provide an annual export plan and other details, will be allowed to cut such tress. MITADER recorded big falls in the incidence of all six species in its most recent forestry survey, which found that there were “no commercial volumes” of Nkula at all. The ban could affect the operations of some licensed operators. Obtala Ltd said that it will review the implications of the new rules for its investment plans in Mozambique.
The big challenge is tackling illegal felling. In one of the most comprehensive studies carried out in recent years, an environmental NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency, calculated that 93% of all of the timber taken in 2013 was illegally felled. Illegal logging is worst in Tete, Zambézia and Sofala provinces, with the timber shipped out of the ports of Nacala, Beira and Maputo, as well as smaller harbours that are not generally considered international ports. Estimates vary, but it is clear that about half of the illicit timber ends up in China, with most of the rest shipped to Southeast Asia. China also accounted for 90% of Mozambique’s licit timber exports last year.
Maputo wants to stabilise the level of tree cover in the country but illegal forestry makes that difficult. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, Mozambique loses about 0.5% of its forest cover every year. About 50% of the country is forested, although – contrary to some reports – none of that area comprises primary forest.
The most comprehensive research into the trade carried out in recent years was undertaken by the United Nations and the African Union at the start of 2015. Their joint report calculated that 260,000 cubic metres of logs were recorded by Mozambican ports as having been exported to China, yet Chinese ports registered about double that figure as being imported. The investigation, which was undertaken by a team headed by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, did not name the companies involved but Mbeki said: “Large commercial corporations are by far the biggest culprits of illicit outflows, followed by organised crime.”
The Minister of Land, Environment and Rural Development, Celso Correia, said: “Even after the announcement of zero tolerance on illegal logging, illegal operators do not respect the Mozambican authorities and insist on the clandestine devastation of timber, including protected species. Trucks reveal the quantities of wood that still leave the forest conservation areas. This wood is illegally cut, passes through many inspection posts and exported to China through Mozambican ports, without observing the criteria established by law.”
Some of the finds have been enormous. During one inspection at the Port of Nacala in December 2009, 543 containers full of unprocessed hardwood were found at the port: 333 of them were returned to exporters for the timber to be processed; while 210 were retained by the authorities. Criminal investigations were launched and eight Chinese firms fined a total of US$500,000.
An international problem
This is not a peculiarly Mozambican problem. Chinese demand for timber has boomed since the turn of the millennium, with imports of both illicit and regulated timber from the east coast of Africa and Southeast Asia rising in response. The only variable is the level of regulation and inspection, plus the effectiveness of law enforcement and the judicial authorities. Fines are set at a level in Mozambique, for instance, that could be considered a business cost by those involved in the trade. Fines totalling US$2.1 million were levied for illicit timber offences in the country in 2016.
There are indications that the illegal timber trade in Mozambique could be spreading into neighbouring states. A gang comprising dozens of illegal loggers was arrested in Malawi’s Lengwe National Park last year. The equipment they used was brought in on an illegal logging road from Mozambique and the timber appears to be exported via Beira and Nacala. Park rangers found that about 1 million protected mopane trees had been cut in the area where the gang was working. While the Mozambican courts have handed out fines, those in Malawi have opted for prison terms of more than a year with hard labour.
The gangs sourcing, transporting and supplying the timber are adopting increasingly sophisticated methods. Timber seized in December had the required permits but these had previously been stolen from distributors in Zambezia and Sofala provinces. It was held in more than 100 containers at Inchope, where Mozambique’s first inland container terminal is being built, en route to the Port of Beira. Some of the timber, which was felled in Tete and Manica provinces, came from black chacate, mondzo and sandalwood trees.
A report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) titled Boosting governance in Mozambique’s forests: Options for more sustainable forestry among Chinese timber traders and Mozambican partners, which was published last year, found that the government lost US$146 million in potential revenue between 2007 and 2013 through illegal forestry operations. The IIED report made six recommendations to tackle the problem:
- Tightening law enforcement, such as through timber tracking and training of forest law enforcement officers, customs officers and judiciary.
- Setting up clear systems of legality assurance; in particular, by developing Sino–Mozambican timber legality verification systems and due diligence requirements.
- Introducing more stringent licensing and licence-renewal procedures; for example, by specifying the duration and requirements of different operator licences and increasing the inspection of management plans prior to approval.
- Insisting on certain minimum qualified staff or national staff quotas, such as proficiency in forest management and processing; and/or Mozambican nationality.
- Training of operators in sustainable forest management.
- Encouraging business associations and networking platforms. Best practice membership groups to improve market efficiencies and dialogue between the private sector and government.
The regulatory bodies and law enforcement agencies have already begun to step up their efforts in response to the problem. The discovery of illicit timber at Inchope was made during an inspection by members of a joint task force of police, customs officers, MITADER personnel and the National Quality Control Agency.
There are few logging inspectors to cover the many remote areas where trees are felled; so much of the responsibility for controlling the trade has been thrust on the port authorities. As a result, port operators have installed new container scanners, including at Maputo and Beira, in order to control the export and import of various illicit cargoes.
Electronic scanners quickly check the actual contents of a container or truck against the declared contents using x-ray imaging. They have become increasingly popular over the past few years as a means of uncovering everything from contraband such as illegal drugs, arms and ivory, to attempts to avoid customs’ duties by mis-declaring container contents.
Mozambican ports had no scanners until relatively recently, so officials had to rely on intelligence operations and random container searches to prevent illegal ivory and timber exports. Since they were installed, however, there here have been fewer reports of timber being seized at the coastal ports, although the number of inland seizures appears to have increased.
It is therefore difficult to determine whether the problem is getting worse or improving. It is likely that the scale of illegal logging is at least as big as previously but that the timber gangs have found other ways to get their timber out of the country: either avoiding the main ports or using fake or stolen permits.
In mid-April, the biggest seizure of ivory ever found in Mozambique was seized at the Port of Maputo. Between one and one and a half tonnes was uncovered en route to Cambodia during a routine inspection by the state tax authority – Autoridade Tributária de Moçambique (ATM). The six containers had been incorrectly marked as containing polypropylene resin.
The use of container scanners has another benefit: by cajoling traders to correctly document their contents, they ensure that the government captures a greater share of export and import duties. Illicit timber that is seized is now used to make school equipment for use within the country.
At present, ATM levies taxes on timber based on the value of the wood declared by exporters but the Authority will now use its own reference prices to determine values in all cases. The Association of Timber Operators of Cabo Delgado says that reference prices have risen markedly, including from 17,500 meticais (US$297) to 50,000 meticais per cubic metre of the hardwood umbila.
The role of the Ministry
Government targets are to be welcomed but the real difficulty is enforcement. MITADER has set a target of just 350,000 cubic metres of timber being felled this year, with exports capped at 436,000 cubic metres of timber and wood products, allowing for the export of wood products processed last year. However, 600,000 cubic metres was felled in the first quarter of this year alone.
At least a dozen Ministry officials have already been arrested in conjunction with illegal forestry this year, in some cases for illegally issuing logging licences. Minister Correia said that community leaders, MITADER officials and other “influential figures”, were all involved in harvesting and transporting wood out of the country.