Illegal timber trade persists in The Gambia's Upper River Region

One of the trees illicitly felled in Kundam, Tumana District of The Gambia's Upper River Region. Image by The Alkamba Times

This post written by Foday Manneh first appeared in The Alkamaba Times on June 13, 2022. This edited version is being republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

On May 6, a large number of trees harvested for timber were found felled in Kundam, a village in the Tumana District in The Gambia's Upper River Region (URR). In this community forest reserve, it is illegal to fell trees without a license. 

Illegal logging with the involvement of powerful individuals or well-connected government officials has been in existence in The Gambia due to the widespread global market demand for forest products. The timber trade gained momentum in The Gambia around 2014 during the dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh who was actively involved in the trade. As most of these timbers and logs are generated from the Northern part of Senegal, a portion was largely taken by the Cassamance separatists who were more or less supported by Jammeh at the time. They used the trade as a source of generating income to sponsor their operations through The Gambia, argues Martin Evans, an agroecologist at the United Kingdom's Coventry University.

However, in 2017, when President Adama Barrow took over office as the new President of The Gambia from the dictatorial rule, he banned the timber trade following several findings that implicated his predecessor in the illegal activity.

The 2018 Forestry Act provides for the maintenance and development of the forest resources of The Gambia to enhance the contribution of Forestry to the socio-economic development of The Gambia and makes it a crime for illegal felling of trees in the country.

Despite this move and some other amendments made in the Forest Act, which criminalizes the export of timber out of the country, many individuals and well-connected government officials are still involved in the trade at the expense of poor communities on either their preserved forests or farmlands for agriculture purpose resulting in constant illegal logging.

Engaging actively in this lucrative trade are small operators along with big players working underground – being either business operators or government officials – all of whom feed their self-interests while ignoring or unconcerned about the legality or otherwise of the way the forest products involved are acquired.

‘Unknown culprits’

Villagers alleged that the “unknown culprits” engaged in the illicit act were working with URR's Forestry Department officials.

“I was informed by one of the farmers in our village about this massive illegal activity happening on their farmland in Makubeh Jawo. The Forest Guard in Tumana was informed, but he never took action at the time,” Alhagie Fofana, a native Tumana explained.

“It happened last year around the swamps of the village where a large number of trees were cut down. So when it happened again this year, the villagers were frustrated and wanted to take drastic action. I pleaded with them and went to the Forestry Office in Basse where they said that they are not aware of the trees being felled in that area,” Fofana said.

In URR, it is easy to find small groups of individuals felling three to four trees a day in the most vulnerable areas, mostly on farmlands and preserved forests. Many such groups operate daily, usually in the middle of the night. This illegal timber is later exported by dealers without documents or with improper documentation.

Rural communities like Kundam that are victims of these practices depend on the forest products for some of their needs and for survival such as food, fuel wood, housing, and fencing, materials which are all obtained from the forest. 

Consequently, they are pushed into difficult survival situations when, for instance, their sources of firewood for cooking from the forest are affected by constant illegal logging.

Then questions arise: How did such massive cutting of large numbers of trees for timbers be carried out without knowing the “criminals”? When logs are confiscated, who are the people involved and working behind the scenes?

Who is behind the illegal act?

 “Two of the trees were fallen on my farm. I slept for two days at the farm, but I could not catch the culprits. I later took a tractor and took the logs to my home,” Kajang Balisah, a farmer alleged. “But to be honest, the Forestry Department is enriching themselves in this trade. They will send these people to fell the trees and then turn round and pretend that they are not aware, then take the logs away and sell them,” Balisah noted in an interview.

In response to this claim, the Forestry Officer (RFO) in URR, Yankuba Bajo said:

It was at the later part of the activity when two people from Tumana informed us about it. Then, I sent my officers to monitor the situation. We came to understand that it was happening on the farmlands of Kundam where we found about 29 logs. We engaged the Alkalo of the village, but he told us he was not aware of it. Then we confiscated the logs.

Bajo also stated that often people claim that it is the Forestry Department that gave them a permit, and he advised the public to be vigilant and report any person found felling trees with false documents.

From January to May 2022, the RFO revealed that his office has issued only one permit to authorize the felling of trees, which was given for a single tree. And that had to go through a process involving the Alkalo, Chief, Forest Guard of the area, Regional Forest Officer, Governor, Director of Forestry, and finally to the Ministry, he explained. Then if it is approved, the individual has to pay based on the type of tree he or she wants to cut down.

What happens when the logs are seized?

According to the Forest Act, any Forest Officer, Divisional Commissioner, or Police officer not below the rank of a Sergeant may himself or by any person acting under his directions, seize any forest product suspected of having been unlawfully obtained or being unlawfully removed and any instrument or thing reasonably suspected of having been used in the commission of any offense under the Act.

“Where the forest product is abandoned or where the person suspected of having committed the offense has absconded after the seizure, the forest produce should be handed over to the Divisional Forest Officer who, after obtaining an order of a Magistrate, may – sell such forest produce and pay the proceeds to the state as specified in section 8 of the Act after deducting the expenses of the sale or allocate such forest produce to the use of the Government; or destroy such forest produce when necessary,” the Forest Act further stipulates.

“When we seized the logs, we monitor the place for a week, but when we could not find the culprits, then we open a bid and sell the logs. The proceeds are deposited into the National Forestry Fund at the Central Bank of The Gambia. The logs were sold for D12,200 ($222 USD),’’ Bajo revealed.

Despite this buyer being given a movement permitted by the Forestry Office in URR, which is a document prepared to freely transport the logs from Kundam to its final destination without any hindrance, an eye-witness in Kundam still claimed that the logs were smuggled by covering them with bags of groundnut hay.

“The Forest Guard with his boss came with a truck to pick the logs. I saw the logs which were more than 30. They bought about 240 bags of groundnut hay and used them to cover the logs. I am sure they were smuggling the logs to transport them to Kombo,” he alleged, as he explained what could be a trick used by some timber transporters.

However, the RFO refuted this allegation and claimed that where such a thing happens then it is at the discretion of the driver transporting the logs to add and carry other materials like bags of groundnut hay to make additional money.

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