In February 2019, authorities at the Owendo Port of Libreville in Gabon seized 392 containers of kevazingo, a precious rosewood also known as bubinga in Cameroon. Gabon outlawed the cutting of kevazingo trees in March 2018, although a loophole in the law permits the sale and export of fallen trees abandoned – left on the ground – for at least six months or seized from illegal loggers.
Kevazingo is used to manufacture high-end furniture that can sell for up to US$1 million in Asian markets such as China and Japan. The wood, worshipped by indigenous groups across Gabon, is also listed in Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). These include species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but whose trade must be controlled in order to ensure their survival.
The illegal cargo – worth an estimated US$252 million – was found at the depots of two Chinese-owned companies at the port. The scandal led to the suspension and replacement of the team responsible for checking cargo loading at ports, accused of complicity in timber smuggling.
But two months later, in April, 353 of the 392 containers disappeared while under the custody of the Ministry of Justice at the port. Although 200 containers were recovered a few days later on the properties of nearby shipping companies, the other 153 remain unaccounted for.
In late August, the Gabonese government announced that 135 containers amounting to 1 500m3 valued at US$69 million would be transferred to the wood park, transformed into legal wood authorised for sale and auctioned.
Bongo replaced Mapangou with Lee White, a British environmentalist and conservationist – and long-term Gabon resident – to the Ministry of Forests, Oceans, Environment and Climate Change in June 2019.
While investigations over kevazingo smuggling are ongoing, one of White’s first measures as newly appointed minister was to suspend exports of all wood products. He also banned the filling of containers with wood products outside of Owendo Port. This measure hit the Gabonese logging sector hard. For several months, warehouses overflowed with processed wood, and companies were forced to lay off workers.
Industry experts say it will take months for the sector to get back to normal operating conditions. This will also affect Gabon’s GDP. Most significantly, the scandal has caused reputational damage to Gabon’s logging industry, locally and internationally. Buyers’ confidence in Gabonese wood products has waned, with suspicions that all wood from Gabon originates from illegal logging.
The main suspect in the February scandal is Francois Wu, the Chinese owner of 3C Transit, a company known for labelling unprocessed wood as processed (unprocessed wood export is prohibited in Gabon) and labelling kevazingo as okoume, a less protected species. While Wu denied his involvement in the case, he left Gabon after the 392 containers were seized and hasn’t returned.
But Chinese involvement could also save the Gabonese forestry industry. The role of Chinese operators in the sector has increased exponentially over the years. Chinese companies now own over 25% of surface attributed to forest exploitation in Gabon. The country requires the processing of wood inside its borders, rather than the export of raw timber that would add value outside the country.
This has resulted in wood transformed in Gabon growing from 200 000m3 to 700 000m3 in under 10 years. Chinese companies are the main operators in this sector. In employment terms in Gabon, this represents an increase from 3 000 jobs in 2010 to 13 000 in 2017. Chinese operators also own 110 of the 155 wood transformation warehouses in Gabon. Internationally, China is the biggest importer of timber products from Gabon.
In the face of such significant stakes for China, the Forest Union of the Asian Industry in Gabon (UFIAG) reacted promptly to the kevazingo scandal. It took two major decisions in an attempt to clarify that a few bad eggs don’t represent the entire corporation. First it declared that any federation member found guilty of illegal activities would be expelled. Second it stated that forestry companies involved in illegal activities, regardless of their affiliation with UFIAG, would be reported.
Chinese authorities at the highest level have stepped in to collaborate with the Gabonese government to clean up the logging sector. White has adopted a pragmatic approach of engaging Chinese authorities and operators, while judicial investigations over kevazingo continue. Since his appointment, White has multiplied efforts to work directly with Chinese interlocutors.
On 4 September 2019 he met with the Chinese ambassador to Gabon, and a representative of China’s National Greening Commission. Together they signed a new partnership for the good governance of forests and protected areas.
In the week of 26 October 2019, he met with his Chinese counterpart Zhang Jianlong, Minister of National Forestry and Grassland Administration, and Gabon’s ambassador to China Baudelaire Ndong Ella. They discussed the reinforcement of China-Gabon cooperation in the wood sector, research and sustainable transformation of forest resources.
But the illegal trade of kevazingo in Gabon existed before the Chinese came to dominate the market. The first illegal trade appeared in 2012, and international criminal networks became more apparent in 2015.
Gabon is a country where ‘it is rare to find a logging company that is completely clean’, according to Luc Mathot of the non-governmental organisation Conservation Justice. Corruption among officials to cover up the fraudulent activities of some loggers is common, as a report by the British NGO Environmental Investigation Agency shows.
White’s strategy of direct and open engagement with China could well save Gabon’s logging sector. But it needs to be performed in conjunction with addressing graft in the public service.
Agnes Ebo’o, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa