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China Spurring Illegal Timber Trade in Tanzania

Eliza Barclay in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
for National Geographic News
December 21, 2007
 
China's growing hunger for timber may wipe out much of Tanzania's commercially valuable forests in two decades, scientists warn.

The Asian powerhouse is the fastest growing importer of Tanzania's indigenous hardwood products, both unprocessed and semiprocessed.

Chinese carpentry companies transform much of the wood into furniture and other wood products for export to the United States and Europe.

In one week in October 2007, officials with Tanzania's Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism confiscated two shipments totaling 73 containers of logs.

Both loads of timber were set to be exported to China by a Dar es Salaam-based company, according to the ministry.

Agency minister Juma Maghembe vowed to take legal action against the export company and the customs officials who oversaw the shipment.

"China is a market that is impossible to satisfy," said Rogers Malimbwi, a professor of natural resources assessment at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania. "They will stay in Tanzania unless they get other alternatives."

(Related news: "Chopsticks Tax to Target China's Hunger for Timber" [March 22, 2006].)

Skyrocketing Value

Tanzania is only one of many African suppliers of timber to China, which include Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique. But the country's contribution has skyrocketed in recent years.

Between 1997 and 2005 Tanzania's timber export market increased by almost 1,400 percent in value.

China accounted for all indigenous hardwood logs and three-quarters of sawn wood and raw material exported between July 2005 and January 2006, according to a report released in May by TRAFFIC International, a joint program of the conservation nonprofit WWF and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The report also found that Tanzania lost 58 million U.S. dollars annually during 2004 and 2005 in timber revenue due to poor governance and corruption in the forestry sector.

"For a less-developed country like Tanzania, the opportunities for China coming online are just massive," Simon Milledge, deputy director for TRAFFIC's East/Southern Africa division, told National Geographic News.

"But long-term strategies on trade are needed to ensure the benefits are sustainable."

The illegal activity includes logging without documentation, logging in unauthorized areas, and the use of invalid export documentation.

The report cited the "chronic nature of petty corruption whereby even timber trade activities involving legally-harvested timber products were affected by bribery."

Other observers have noted that the government's regulatory bodies have not been able to keep up with the swift growth of the timber sector.

"The government ha[s] no capacity to monitor the logging taking place in different forests," said Charles Meshack, executive director of the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group, an organization that monitors forest issues.

Meshack also noted that the corruption is evident in the discrepancies between Tanzania's export data and China's import data.

"These Chinese companies are not using proper channels," he said, adding that there is far more timber arriving in Chinese ports than has been registered at the Tanzanian ports.

(Related photos: "African Forests Falling Faster to Loggers" [June 7, 2007].)

Environmental Devastation

In addition to the lost revenue, environmental groups are concerned about the effects of the rampant harvesting on ecosystem health.

Deforestation is already impacting water resources and causing soil erosion. It's also spurring fire outbreaks and decreasing biodiversity in many parts of the country, the groups say. Much of the timber comes from the southeastern coastal forests, which harbor the most diverse species.

Forests and woodlands cover around 40 percent of Tanzania's total land area, and about 87 percent of the country's rural poor depend on forest products like charcoal for their livelihoods.

Tanzania's southern coastal forests, among the top ten global biodiversity "hotspots," are seriously threatened by habitat loss and species extinction.

Forest inventories conducted by the Tanzanian government in 2005 showed that most southern forests "are degraded" or "heavily degraded," and that 224, 865 to 242, 163 acres (91,000 to 98,000 hectares) are lost annually. (Related news: "African Logging Decimating Pristine Forests, Report Warns" [June 7, 2007].)

TRAFFIC predicts that most commercially valuable trees in two southern districts may be gone within 20 years.

Key Development

A key decision in accessing the forests came in August 2003, when the government completed the Mkapa Bridge over the Rufiji River in southern Tanzania.

It is the largest bridge of its kind in east and southern Africa.

"The southern forests have been opened up, and it's now much easier to transport timber and charcoal out of them," said Malimbwi of Sokoine University.

To rein in illegal logging, the government has banned the exportation of logs and sandalwood and suspended tree harvesting in protected natural forest areas on and off since 2004.

TRAFFIC's Milledge said the timber business should not be stopped entirely, however, because it offers poor rural communities rare access to investment and trade opportunities.

While the Tanzanian government must do more to establish accountability for their forests, Milledge said, American and European consumers who buy the finished wood products should also be informed.

"Everyone who consumes these products should be doing more to verify the legality of the trade chain."

Eliza Barclay traveled to Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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