Timber Pirates Raid Zambia's Forest Treasures

By Singy Hanyona

LUSAKA, Zambia, January 18, 2002 (ENS) - The lack of political will for sustainability in developing Zambia's forestry resources has led to sabotage of the forest sector, according to a new report by the African Friendship Fund. The grassroots nonprofit organization, works towards promotion of sustainable forest industries and conservation.

A few weeks after the country's elections last December 27, the country's 481 protected forest areas, 181 national forests and 300 local forest reserves are at risk of neglect by the new government.


President of Zambia Levy Mwanawasa (Photo courtesy Office of the President)
Announcing his cabinet, newly elected Republican President Levy Mwanawasa merged the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources with the Tourism ministry. The new cabinet body will be called Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources and is headed by Minister Levison Mumba.

The danger of this political decision is that focus may be more on tourism that on environmental conservation. Private business interests may overide those of environmental protection, the African Friendship Fund (AFF) predicts.

The new adminstration says the merger of the two ministries is aimed at reducing government spending in a country whose poverty levels among its are skyrocketing. Now an estimated 80 percent of Zambia's 10.3 million people now lives below the poverty level.

AFF Zambia Country Director Saviour Chishimba says unscrupulous foreign investors have come into the country to exploit timber, and have managed to evade paying taxes.

Gambling that the government is sleeping, they come to do business without registering their companies. They enter Zambia as tourists and manipulate local timber merchants with pitsaw licences, said Chishimba.


Giraffe in a Zambian forest (Photo courtesy Zambia National Tourist Board)
More than 60 percent of Zambia's land forested, about 44.6 million hectares of native forest. With the country facing shortages and escalating prices of the staple maize meal, the consumption of forestry resources is escalating too.

The forests provide habitat for wildlife which attracts tourists from around the world, and vital products for rural and urban dwellers - fuel wood, timber for construction and food. Marketing of charcoal and timber plays an important role in boosting the rural incomes, with charcoal burners exporting products to as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite the Forest Act of 1998, enacted to protect forests, uncontrolled exploitation of forest products, illegal settlements and conversion of forests to farms now strips forested land at the rate of over 250,000 hectares (965 square miles) annually.

AFF cites weak forest regulations in Zambia, saying local people have lost out to foreigners in three forest rich provinces.


African blackwood, known as mpingo, is in demand for musical instruments such as clarinets and oboes. (Photo courtesy African Blackwood Conservation Project)
The AFF report accuses foreign commercial traders of dealing in Mukwa, resewood, teak, blackwood and other softwood, without certifying their products with the country's Export Board or the Bureau of Standards.

They simply bribe Zambia Revenue Authority Officers at border check points and export canted timber, Chishimba alleged.

According to AFF records, a cubic meter of timber costs US$500 and these monies are not deposited into local banks. This is tantamount to money laundering, he said.

Consultations are currently going on between AFF and the Timber Producers Association of Zambia. Together they are looking at the best options for achieving transparency and accountability in the forest sector.

AFF says, "As an environmentally friendly organization, we shall ensure that timber dealers are made to comply with forestry regulations."

The Environmental Council of Zambia is being compelled to ask all timber traders to pay a fee, and plant trees to restore deforested, degraded land.


View across the canopy of miombo woodland on Kalahari Sand at Zambia's Kataba Forest Reserve. (Photo courtesy NASA)
In 2000, the Commonwealth Forestry Association Zambia Branch reported that though there seem to be good prospects for commercial timber production of eucalyptus, especially in higher rainfall areas of Zambia, poor management has hindered the sector.

According to CFA-Zambia, termites are considered the most common cause of failure and that success for eucalyptus plantations depends on finding the right species, a favorable planting season and good timing.

As yet, few Zambian farmers have taken the trouble to find out how eucalyptus is grown with prescribed management regimes.

Like deforestation, many of the other environmental problems besieging Zambia today are induced by such human activities as population growth, urbanization and industrialization, according to the latest State of the Environment Report, published by the Environmental Council of Zambia.