For hundreds of years, it grew in the bushes of Zambia like any other tree.
Standing more than 18 meters tall and taking probably the entire lifetime of most humans to grow, 80 years to reach full growth and maturity, locals treated it like any other tree; till Asians discovered that what grows among many other trees that produce Zambians’ hard wood timber is no ordinary tree.
It is the Pterocarpus chrysothrix, locally known as the Mkula tree, a rare and slow growing specie, which is now threatened with extinction due to indiscriminate harvesting for its valuable properties.
It is believed to produce one of the best hard wood timbers on earth.
Illegal cutting and suspension of licenses
Till the surge in the demand of Mkula logs in 2014, it was not a crime to cut down the tree.
For many years, villagers used it in constructing their mad houses, farmers used it to cure their tobacco, and railway companies used it as slippers.
The rampart growth in the Mkula trade awoke interests in monitoring how the timber industry has been operating and how the country’s precious timber is being exported. This had not been the case for a very long time, as the timber industry in Zambia, had for many years, been going on with relative silence and disinterest from many Zambians, apart from those already into it.
The sudden increase in demand of Mkula logs forced government to suspend the issuance of licensees on harvesting the specie and suddenly, being found with a piece of the tree became a serious crime.
Despite the barn in cutting down and trading in Mkula logs, smuggling and illegal export of the tree has continued, with Zambia losing billions of Kwacha.
Eastern Province, bordering Malawi and Mozambique, is one of the regions where the Mkula grows in abundance.
The smugglers devised methods of exporting the Mkula, through neighboring countries such as Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, for onwards transportation to the sea, where they are shipped to Asia, with investigations showing mostly China and Thailand as the main markets.
The Asians, who buy the Mkula and many other timber products, have devised complicated methods with an aim of not only exporting Mkula illegally, but also evading or pay less tax on other species.
Eugine Sibote, who is regional police commissioner for Eastern Province, has described this as complicated syndicates.
“Dealing with these Mkula traders is not easy because they have formed complicated syndicates, with a very long chain of people involved. Each Individual has a specific responsibility. There are people, who just cut down the trees and pile them at one place, others buy from the villagers who cut the Mkula, others just transport up to crossing the border. When the Mkula crosses the border, it is sold to another group who are mostly foreigners and at that point, another crew of transporters comes into the system to take the logs to the ports for shipping” said Mr. Sibote.
About 94 per cent of the land in Zambia is customary, meaning it falls directly under the chiefs, mostly in rural area and this is where the Mkula thrives.
In recent past, reports have emerged of chiefs, who hold immense powers and control of matters that in their lands, being involved in the illegal trade of the Mkula. Many of these reports have been refuted as up to now, there has not been a single chief, who has been arrested or dragged to court for being involved in this lucrative, yet risk business.
Eastern Province Permanent secretary, Chanda Kasolo, was recently quoted by some sections of the media, complaining of the continued illegal exportation of the Mkula tree, with chiefs being involved. Mr. Kasolo’s complaint brought a lot of discomfort among traditionalists, who felt his mentioning of chief’s involvement in the Mkula trade was an act of disrespect.
However, others have defended Mr. Kasolo, saying the fact that no chief has been arrested or taken to court does not necessarily mean they are not involved. But it is also a known fact that some Chiefs such as the late Chief Jumbe of Mambwe district play a big part in trying to end the trade.
The high demand of Mkula forced government to suspend the issuance of licenses on harvesting the tree.
Provincial Forestry Officer, Sylvester Siyame, explained that this was done to protect the species from extinction. And this is not the first time the Zambian government was issuing a ban on harvesting of forestry products. November, 2013, then Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Minister, Wylbur Simuusa, in a ministerial statement to parliament, announced that government had suspended all timber licenses to protect the depleting forests in Zambia.
According to FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization 66.5 per cent or about 49,468,000 hectors of Zambia is forested. However FAO’s study shows that in total, between 1990 and 2010, Zambia lost 6.3 per cent of its forest cover, or around 3,332,000 hectors.
A report following an Integrated Land Use Assessment, ILUA, in 2014 estimated that deforestation rates range from 250,000 hectors per year while FAO in 2005 put the country’s deforestation rate at 444,800 hectors per year, with some others even setting these at above 850,000 hectors per year.
A study done by forestry and agricultural experts in 2009, showed that Zambia has the second highest per capita deforestation rate in Africa and the fifth highest in the world, with illegal timber production, charcoal production, agricultural, and human settlement expansion being the main drivers.
Lack of monitoring and weak laws
Zambia is still using the Forest Act of 1973, which many times, has proved ineffective in dealing with challenges faced by the forestry sector in the country.
The Auditor General’s report of 2012, says that the act has failed to address pertinent issues such as monitoring, types of forest licenses, climate change, global warming and the role of forests in mitigating negative impacts. The report also showed that the licensing currently being used is not in conformity with the act.
Other stakeholders in the industry have argued that Zambia lost the chance to control illegal trade of timber products, including the Mkula tree, when government decided to do away with forestry rangers in 1997. Timber Producers Association of Zambia, TPAZ president, Charles Masange, feels the country needs to move quickly to start implementing the 1999 forest act. The act has remained nonfunctional because government has no money to pay workers who were retrenched in 1997, which would have paved way for the formation of the Forestry Commission. He also said that government has not been consistent in its policy implementation in the forestry sector.
“We are totally in a messy now. The biggest problem we have is the failure to properly regulate the forestry sector. It’s a very sad situation because as long as we do not have officers on the ground to monitor those cutting down trees for timber, as a country, we will keep losing our precious trees” he said.
His concerns are echoed by the Zambia National Association of Sawmillers, ZNAS president, William Bwalya who just came back from China for meeting looking at timber trade and said “The wood transaction is in disorder, many intermediate formalities during issuance of concessions and round wood allocations and lack of proper monitoring of activities”.
Provincial Forestry officer, Sylvester Siayame, also acknowledged that monitoring has been one of the biggest challenges, mainly due to shortage of forestry officers, with the long porous borders with Malawi and Mozambique not helping matters.
A good example is in Mambwe district, where acting district officer, Christopher Gondwe, is the only officer and on his shoulders, lays a responsibility protect all forests in the area.
“It’s crazy, it’s simply impossible, Mambwe district is about 481,490 hectors and is too vast to be managed by one person. These Mkula traders have so many routes and at times they trick us. It’s also very dangerous because they carry weapons such as guns. Like this other day, we were chasing a truck loaded with Mkula logs around 01 hours at night. When we reached Mphomwa hills, they suddenly stopped the truck. Before we realized it, they were firing at us. We were using my personal vehicle and it was sheld. Just have a look at it” said Mr. Gondwe, as he pointed at his damaged vehicle.
Collaboration with neighboring Malawi seems to be slowly yielding positive results, but still, this has not stopped the illegal logging of Mkula.
Loss of Revenue
Many Zambians seem to worry more on how much the country earns or loses through copper. Very few seem to realize that other sectors such as the timber industry have huge potential to contribute to our Gross Domestic Product, GDP.
Some people have described the running of the timber industry in Zambia as trial and error, where in a hasty effort to end the illegal trade, the country has ended up losing huge sums of money.
A former forestry officer, whose name has been withheld, revealed an embarrassing scenario, where the department does not even have full understanding of what really happens in the actual markets where Zambian timber is exported too.
“To be honest, all these years I worked in the department, there was never a time when I knew exactly how much our timber costs on international market because we have not undertaken a study. It is true that if the country is to fully benefit, at times, timber taxes should be reviewed according to international markets”, the former forestry officer said.
This was confirmed by Mr. Siyame, the provincial forestry officer.
He explained that the responsibility of the department has a limit and other issues are handled by other departments such as ZRA, the Zambia Revenue Authority for taxes and the Zambia Burial of Standards, to check that the timber being exported is in conformity with international standards.
Timber Producers Association of Zambia president, Charles Masange, feels Zambia’s week laws and inconsistences in government policies, is the worst enemy to Zambia’s ability to generate money through timber.
“These foreign companies are very clever. They don’t just wake up and come to Zambia and open up businesses in the timber industry. Before they come, they take time to study our taxation system, licensing, laws, transportation, money transfers, as well as the political situation. So by the time they come, they already know exactly whom to contact, how they will avoid paying tax or how they will minimize it”, he lamented.
So then, it’s not always that the foreign investors are breaking the laws, sometimes; they are working within the laws, but finding ways of ensuring that they ‘legally’ pay less.
Mr. Masange observed that at times, it is governments policies that aides the loss of revenue.
For example, in 2008, Mr. Masange says an assessment carried out by his association revealed that Zambia lost about 80 billion Kwacha (un rebased) in uncollected taxes, when government banned the exportation of timber to other countries in the Southern African Development Community, SADC region, with South Africa, having been the major consumer of the country’s timber. That’s Zambia could have easily constructed three full-fledged secondary schools from that amount.
Further reports by TPAZ showed that Zambia lost 42 billion Kwacha (un rebased) due to poor management, with foreign investors taking advantage of the weak laws to avoid paying tax. This amount can easily build a min-hospital in a remote district.
Maxson Nkhoma, Civic Participation and Advocacy Programme Officer under the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction, CSPR, a nongovernmental organization, says that studies confirm that in the last two years, Zambia lost about 3.5 million dollars through illicit trade of Mkula logs and other exotic species.
“This is unacceptable. We need to tighten our taxation systems in the timber industry. We cannot afford to allow the country to continue loosing such huge sums of money. Our forestry department needs to be well equipped in order to deal with this injustice. Our officers lack capacity to monitor international prices of timber, hence cannot give real value of the timber. They depend on prices given to them by timber traders but in most cases, the multinational companies have not been honest enough to provide accurate market information to government officials for fear of being charged more money in taxes and levies” he explained.
Mr. Nkhoma’s sentiments are also shared by TPAZ president, Charles Masange, whose organization does a lot of market research for its members.
“These guys are getting rich while our people, who take care of these trees in villages, continue to live in poverty. The so called investors, buy our timber at 1, 500 Kwacha per ton, (about 150 US dollars at current exchange rate) in Zambia and go to China, sale the same timber at between 2, 500 to 3000 dollars because right now, if you go to China, that’s the price. Have you seen the huge difference? This should raise a red flag that there is something wrong. So I feel sad when I hear of anyone negotiating for tax exemptions because it is not fair. What is more frustrating is that they externalize all their profits, capital flights are there, in this case, our timber is gone,” said Mr. Masange.
He said that the foreign investors are taking advantage of the current loopholes in the laws and the inconsistences in the policies, were individuals are allowed to export timber. Mr. Masange says that the big companies in China and other markets have the money to buy timber directly from Zambia, but instead, they use middle men. And these middle men also want to remain with something in their pockets. So they either corruptly get access to the Zambian forests, or engage local villagers, who in turn sale the timber to local business people, until the timber finds it’s self in the hands of wrong people. And wrong people usually don’t like paying taxes.
So they export the Mkula and other timber products illegally to avoid paying taxes. He feels as long as the big companies have constant supply of timber, they may not feel the need to come all the way to Zambia themselves. After all, when the timber is mixed, it’s all the same, no difference in the quality for both the legal and illegal.
Mr. Masange feels banning the exportation of Mkula is not the solution.
He says that government should instead, open auction markets. He feels this way, big companies will have no option but to follow the timber in Zambia and that way, the country will be dealing with real companies rather than individuals or so called investors or ‘harvesters’. This will be a sure way of making Zambia get full taxes from the timber.
According to UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program, the value of Illegal logging and forest crimes are estimated at about 30 to 100 billion annually or 10 to 30 per cent of the total global timber trade and in certain countries, 50-90 percent of the wood is harvested or traded illegally. This illegal logging results in a loss of 10 billion to the global economy, and a loss of 5 billion dollars in government revenue.
In comparison to neighboring countries, a report launched by TRAFFIC on 25 May 2007, said that Tanzania, which is also the main export route of Zambian timber especially the Mkula, lost timber royalties, amounting 58 million US dollars during 2004 and 2005. China imported ten times more timber from Tanzania than is documented by Tanzania’s export records, implying a 90 per cent loss of revenue from this source. Up to 96 per cent of potential timber royalties were lost by central and district governments due to under-collection – entire District Council budgets could have been increased several times over.
Further east a study by the Tanzania Natural Resource Forum and East African Wild Life Society said Kenya loses roughly 10 million per year from illegal cross-border trade between Tanzania and Kenya, while Tanzania loses around 8.33 million annually from such trade, according to a similar government report.
The question is if investigations in other countries such as Tanzania show that China imported ten times more than shown by the records, what’s the situation in Zambia, where we are still using a 42 years old act or piece of legislation, which has proven ineffective in dealing with various challenges the timber industry is facing as shown in the Auditor General’s report of 2012? Could we be losing more money through timber trade than accounted for? It is a known fact that country’s in the SADC region face similar challenges. TRAFFIC reports that its findings also showed that more than half of the 28 logging companies studied in Tanzania had close links to senior forest or government officials. In some rural areas, the involvement of village leaders in the timber trade has led to an unfair distribution of profits, and at higher levels, there are many examples of self-dealing, nepotism and cronyism.
Similar reports have emerged in Zambia before. In fact regional police commissioner for Eastern Province, Eugine Sibote, said it could be possible that junior officers are intimidated by someone’s status or position and connections in society. He however said that the police will deal with everyone in accordance with law, regardless of his or status.
Data supplied by Zambia National Association of Sawmillers, ZNAS president, William Bwalya shows that licensed volume of trees per annum is 3.2 million cubic meters, but emphasized that there are no clear records that show what is exported.
The Auditor General’s report also revealed that at the time audit, there was no documentation produced to show that regular monitoring of harvesting operations were being undertaken by the concessioners’ holders to ensure that the information about harvesting operations and actual cuts were accurate. The irregular monitoring of harvesting activities had contributed to over harvesting of forest.
Illicit timber trade is usually a cross border business. The fact that huge sums of money are lost across borders should be a call for more collaborative efforts between countries were the timber comes from and the countries that provide markers.
In January 2003 Muhammed Prakosa, then Indonesian Forest Minister said, “Expecting or asking one country to combat illegal logging while at the same time, receiving or importing illegal logs does not support the efforts to combat these forest crimes. In fact, allowing the import and trade of illegal timber products could be considered as an act to assist or even to conduct forest crime”.
Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Madagascar and Mozambique on September 9, 2015 signed a historic declaration to jointly combat illegal timber trade in Eastern and Southern Africa, in the famous Zanzibar Declaration on Illegal Trade of Timber and Forestry Products.
Zambia was part of collaborative workshop on forest management and timber trade in Namibia, which also attracted Angola. But with all these revelations, it’s clear that there are more questions than answers in the timber industry.
Perhaps this is the time Zambians wake up from the slumber and begin to realize how much potential the timber industry has in contributing to the GDP and improving people’s live sustainably. A recent study by UNEP revealed that the economy-wide contribution of forests was estimated to be at least 6.3% of GDP, or 1,277 million US dollars.
It is incumbent on all those charged with the responsibility of ensuring that they look after our forestry resources and indeed on all of us to take to interest and be the watchdogs if our country is to fully benefit from the precious Mkula and other tree species.