By Dieudonne Maganya (Published 8th June 2018)
On the 20th May 2018, I used the Atiak road as I headed to Lamwo district in northern Uganda to conduct interviews of candidates for a training that RLP was preparing. It was a Sunday like no other, mildly sunny with hints of the onset of a dry season ahead but still transitioning from a rainy one. As we turned off from the main Nimule road heading to Lamwo, about 30kms from the border between
Uganda and South Sudan, the green sceneries of a flat plain and later hilly with valleys enticed me to open the roof of the van I was travelling in. It was beautiful to watch.
However, this was short-lived because as we moved further along the road the trees became fewer and fewer. As the driver gained momentum on the murram road, I quickly noticed a huge pile of sizeable reddish tree trunks in a compound. Instinctively I asked the driver to stop so that I can confirm what I thought I had seen. Yes, my instincts were right. The trunks were for the Afzelia Africana, a tree locally known as Beyo. At that moment, I pulled out my camera to grab some photos of the heap while hoping and praying it was safe for me to do so, especially considering the information I had heard about the illegal trade in the tree.
As I took the photos, several thoughts were running through my head about this tree species that I had only read about and seen on TV but was quickly becoming extinct for the wrong reasons.
As I was leaving the scene 10 minutes later, a truck with a loader mounted on it appeared and attempted to turn in our direction. However, on seeing our van parked close to the heap of logs the truck suddenly stopped and, one after the other, men jumped out of the truck and began running off in different directions. The driver quickly reversed the truck for about 10 meters before he also jumped out and vanished into thin air, leaving the truck engine running.
We decided to drive towards the truck to take more photos, and, as we drew closer, a young man, part of the team that had jumped out, timidly came back and got closer to us too. Having watched us he had probably concluded that we were harmless. It seemed that he wanted to engage us in a conversation.
I told him that I was a buyer and wanted to know more about the business. However, the seemingly unconvinced but now confident young man told me that he could not give me any lead to the business because I was carrying a camera. Meanwhile, the rest of the team started coming back from the bush, well on guard, keeping aloof and watching from a distance.
Off we drove leaving them confused especially as we did not introduce ourselves, something we chose not to do for obvious reasons, safety!
About 7kms ahead, there was another heap, smaller but of the same commodity – the Beyo tree. I took more photos and started realizing that this was not just a rare business as I had thought. The further we moved the more heaps we came across.
The business chain
In the evening, as I had my supper in a restaurant in Palabek Kal, I met a man who looked to be in his mid-forties. I started engaging him in a conversation as a potential Beyo business dealer. Coincidentally, he was in the area for the same. He opened up with no fear and confirmed that he was trading in the very business. I quickly but secretly turned on my smartphone recorder so that I could record the conversation and connect the dots from the previous coincidental encounter.
From him, I sought to know what I needed to do in order to get the merchandise. He was generous with the information and told me that the market for the logs was assured as Chinese were ready to buy in Kampala. He told me that they leave Kampala with about UShs 8,000,000 (about $2,100) and pitch camp in Lamwo for about a week. He then contracts local dealers who will take care of buying individual trees from locals because they know the owners and the language.
Three million shillings (about US $800) is the amount you need to see your lorry loaded using local brokers. However almost double that amount is needed to ensure the merchandise get to its destination in Industrial Area in Kampala. He told me that UShs 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 is what one needs to reach Kampala as it’s used to bribe law enforcers like police officers, some local council authorities and - to my dismay - National Forestry Authority officers. These officers take advantage of the existing laws and presidential directive prohibiting the cutting of this tree to solicit bribes from the dealers.
“After you have given one, he calls another one and if you talk badly with them, then you get yourself arrested. If let’s say I am asked for UShs 1,000,000 and I negotiate to UShs 500,000 shillings, the officer takes it and alerts others to handle me well because I am cooperative”.
The other hurdle he says comes after loading. Armed with money for corruption on the way, he says you still aren’t sure of what awaits you on the road. And for that reason, he says they prefer travelling in the night to minimize the risks.
I asked him whether the market was there, and he said "Akatale ko wekali ka maanyi". That loosely translates as "The market is readily available".
From Industrial Area, the logs are taken straight to Mombasa port and then shipped to Asia he said. Afzelia Africana is known for its timber quality as highlighted below, and this attracts a big international market across Asia and Europe
Once you make it to Kampala and deliver the merchandise you are assured of a cash payment of UShs 32,000,000 ($8,500) for a well-loaded lorry, more than triple the amount you spent on buying and maneuvering around... If the lorry was not well loaded, then you might get around UShs 26,000,000 – 28,000,000 ($7000 - 7500).
When I asked him if I needed a “godfather” to back me to be able to engage in the business he said to me “that is not true, you only need to be smart and know how to manage the authorities”. Of course I did not need an interpreter to know what he meant. He went ahead to say that you need to know the right authorities, inform them early enough that you are going to load, tell them the truck’s registration number, then you are good to go. If by bad luck you are arrested, the higher authorities will instruct the arresting officers to let you go because they were aware of your presence.
"They [the higher authorities] will usually tell the arresting officer that you are not a bad person and that you should be let go because he will have had their cut. The boss will then request that I also give the arresting officer person something small.”
However, he further said that the local authorities do not like it when the district or high-security officers are involved. In those instances, they will try to act serious and want to be seen doing their job.
“If you are arrested and you say that the District Internal Security Officer (DISO) is behind me, then your truck will be impounded”. He gave an example of someone who was arrested and claimed to be working with the DISO and he was immediately arrested.
And who is benefiting?
As partly mentioned above, the chain of beneficiaries in this lucrative business includes the local poor population, brokers who buy from the impoverished population, local authorities, some officers from government institutions mandated to reinforce the law and a host of other individuals in power, including some security personnel.
But what is the Afzelia Africana?
Afzelia Africana - also referred to as the "Golden-tree" - is an indigenous tree found in some African countries, traditionally harvested for its exceptional hardwood used in building big ships. It is also used for domestic articles such as drums, boxes, bowls, spoons, mortars and masks. Because of its good resistance to many chemical products, and because of its great dimensional stability, it is often preferred to materials like metals and synthetics for vats and precision equipment in industrial applications. As early as 1998, the International Union for Conservation of Nature raised the red flag on the tree’s exploitation and categorized it as “Vulnerable” on its Red List of Threatened Species.
In Uganda, the species is only found in very specific parts of West Nile and the Acholi sub-region.
Section 29(3) of the [Uganda] National Forestry and Tree Planting Act (2003), lists Afzelia Africana among the reserved tree species. In addition, early this year the Ministry of Water and Environment issued a directive halting the harvesting to the tree. However, the logging continues unabated as the authorities supposed to enforce the laws are also benefiting from the illegal business.
Sadly, for a tree that takes on average 50 years to reach maturity, the dealers only pay the locals between UShs 20,000 - 50000 ($5 - $14). Of course, the dealers take advantage of the ignorance by the locals who do not know the true economic value of the tree and who in most cases want to solve immediate challenges like school fees and basic needs. Indeed, it is the lack of alternative economic opportunities with which to ensure the survival of the local population that puts Afzelia African at most risk.
Reforestation efforts are not commensurate to the rate of depletion of forest cover in general. For endangered species such as this, deliberate and extraordinary efforts need to be put in place to salvage the situation. As we celebrated the 46th World Environment Day on Tuesday 5th June, it is critical and urgent to have curb such illicit businesses that are greatly contributing to the extinction of various tree species, which in turn is affecting biodiversity and eventually having an impact on human existence world over.
So the question is - WHAT ARE YOU DOING to attempt to reverse the trend?
The writer works at RLP as Video Advocacy Assistant under the Media for Social Change Programme