LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost half the timber Chinese companies exported from Mozambique last year was not supposed to leave the southeast African country, nor even the forest in some cases. Now both countries are stepping up efforts to crack down on the illegal logging that costs Mozambique millions of dollars a year and put its forests at risk.
Chinese companies already hold about 20 percent of forest concessions in Mozambique, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) says. But they exported an additional 190,000 to 216,000 cubic meters of illegal timber in 2012 alone, according to estimates by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO. The EIA calculated that Chinese companies avoided more than $29 million in direct taxes on these unlicensed exports and the exploration of certain species of timber.
“It seems companies are doing business as usual,” said Julian Newman, campaigns director at the EIA. “But there also seems to be some will in Mozambique to take care of this."
Renewed cooperation between Mozambique and China’s forestry departments comes in the wake of several investigations by the EIA, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and others, revealing ongoing illegal activities by Chinese timber corporations. The EIA demonstrated in its most recent report how corruption on the part of government officials and wood smugglers has exacerbated the problem.
In response, efforts to tackle graft in the forestry sector are being ramped up. Mozambique’s anti-corruption body began an investigation of several government officials named in the EIA’s reports in July, and representatives from China’s State Forestry Administration visited Mozambique’s Directorate of Lands and Forests in May, for example.
Most recently, the two countries began crafting a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for cooperation in the forest sector, which should be completed by the end of the year.
But this may not be enough. “While dialogue has commenced between China and Mozambique, and enforcement in north Mozambique has improved, Chinese-lined firms are still willing to operate illegally,” Newman said.
Mozambican authorities caught Chinese company Mozambique First International Development (MOFID) trying to export 20 containers of illegally harvested wood in July. The company is a repeat offender, according to an EIA case study, which gives three examples from 2007-2011 when MOFID was implicated in attempted log smuggling.
MOFID’s license to harvest its forest concessions has been suspended for a year.
“It is quite unusual for such a suspension to occur,” Newman said. “(It) is good in principle, but effectiveness depends on how it is enforced.” The suspension only seems to apply to forest managed by MOFID, but it also has a saw mill and may have options for sourcing timber from other concessions, he added.
None of the timber companies mentioned in the EIA reports, nor the Chinese Timber and Wood Products Distribution Association (CTWPDA), could be reached for comment.
FORESTS, JOBS AT STAKE
Illegal logging isn’t just harmful to the country’s forests - which will largely be exhausted of commercial log species within 10 years at the current rate of extraction, according to traders who spoke to the EIA.
Economic impacts, both local and national, are also a significant concern. When high-value timber is over-extracted, it limits the ability of communities to manage and benefit from forests themselves. Companies are also exporting this timber in its raw form, taking processing jobs from Mozambique.
Tackling the issue is complicated, researchers say. “There’s no silver bullet,” said Catherine MacKenzie, a fellow in environmental law at the University of Cambridge in Britain. “So we’ll likely end up with a portfolio of solutions – economic, legal and regulatory – involving a range of actors.”
The upcoming MoU between China and Mozambique could address not only illegal logging, but also aspects like community forest management and preparation for the United Nations’ REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programme. But experts remain cautious, as similar MoUs have been weak.
As for regulating timber extraction, “it is up to the Mozambican government to sort out the chaotic management of the country’s forests,” Newman said.
The permanent secretary of Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture, Daniel Clemente, said in May the country has 500 forest officers tasked with enforcing the forest management system, only a quarter of the number needed for proper implementation.
The EIA points out that the tax revenues lost from illegal logging in 2012 could have covered the costs for expanded law enforcement, as well as zoning and inventory, three times over.
Government and corporate transparency must also be increased, said MacKenzie from the University of Cambridge. “You need to know who is involved, what they’re doing, to whom they are accountable, (and) what happens if it all goes wrong,” she said. “Mistakes are inevitable, but what happens when mistakes are made?”
For now, bribery, fraud and plain old denial among government officials and timber agents continue to thwart steps to address illegal logging, Newman said.
Preliminary research from Sheila Wertz-Kanounnikoff of the Center for International Forestry Research, who visited the Mozambican timber hub of Cabo Delgado Province, points to greater leniency in authorisation for timber harvesting licenses there.
In a process Wertz-Kanounnikoff called “illicit formalisation”, a company might use powerful connections and pay extra money, so that even if it does not comply with all the regulations to obtain a forest concession, its application is still approved. The researcher has heard many claims of high-level “friendships” between timber agents and politicians, which help facilitate the export of illegal timber.
Evidence also suggests Chinese operators might be more willing to operate in this way outside the legal sphere, she said, emphasising that more research is necessary before drawing conclusions.
Meanwhile, the EIA has called for a temporary ban on all logging exports while stronger control measures are put in place. “We really believe there needs to be a pause in the industry,” Newman said.
Researchers also underlined the need to consider the timber’s end destination. “It’s easy to blame this all on Mozambique, but we are equally guilty,” MacKenzie said.
China is the biggest importer of illegal timber in the world, but Mozambique is just one supplier, Newman noted. Ultimately China must put in place laws prohibiting imports of illegally sourced wood, he added.
The recent introduction of such legislation in the European Union, following in the footsteps of the United States’ 2008 Lacey Act amendments, could act as an extra push for China. “I think China is now feeling that it must show willingness to tackle imports of illegal timber,” Newman said.
Experts called for action on the retail side too. The market for certified sustainable timber remains small due to its price premium.
“As long as there are customers demanding timber at the lowest price, as speedily as possible, the problem is likely to be very difficult indeed to solve,” MacKenzie said.
Erin Berger is a journalism student at Northwestern University in the United States. She recently worked as an AlertNet Climate intern in London.