From the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Gambia to Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar and Namibia, recent ENACT research has highlighted that illicit logging operations are exposing the continent’s communities to environments marred by serious labour and sexual exploitation. Young people are particularly affected.
Africa’s forestry sector is notoriously under-regulated. Leading UK think tank, Chatham House has estimated that in most forested countries in Africa, 80% to 100% of all trees felled could be done so illicitly.
This is due to a combination of factors, including highly limited state capacity for forestry governance and contestation between federal, local and traditional authorities over land ownership and usage. Limited awareness and weaknesses in law enforcement and customs also contribute to the problem, as do corruption and bureaucratic systems of issuing permits and licenses.
As a consequence, illicit interests and criminal actors have infiltrated logging supply chains across the continent, further diverting efforts for legitimate oversight. These dynamics are examined in an upcoming ENACT research paper.
Timber extraction, by its nature, is a hazardous occupation. But with illicit, unregulated and informal logging, safety risks increase – often with fatal consequences.
A TRAFFIC report examining the illicit logging industry in Madagascar, for example, estimated that three out of every 10 loggers in the industry die in workplace-related accidents. Madagascar is currently under a complete logging moratorium, so all aspects of the trade are illicit and shrouded in secrecy. A local Malagasy politician confirmed to ENACT researchers that high mortality rates at logging sites have become a major issue, because most of the wood cutters and transporters are not from local populations.
‘Bosses recruit them from other villages or other districts because it is easy to have control over them,’ explained the president of a local conservation NGO, adding that when workplace deaths occur at logging sites, timber fellers and transporters often have to bury their fallen colleagues in the forest to avoid detection.
The Namibian charcoal market, where approximately 6 000 people are employed, is characterised as ‘informal and fragmented, mired with the exploitation of workers and preventable environmental degradation.’ The subcontractors are remunerated according to the quantity of charcoal they produce. The financials are structured in a way that makes it impossible for these subcontractors to turn a profit, let alone to harvest within the law.
Charcoal workers often come from Namibia’s poorest region, Kavango, and find themselves caught in systems of debt bondage – whereby their payments can never repay the ‘debts’ they accumulate to their employer.
Landowners procure charcoal production and transport permits and provide the equipment needed to log, but then offset these costs against the worker’s production. In this region, entire families often live on site and become reliant on charcoal production. This pattern is replicated on logging sites across the continent. In many instances, foreign firms have aggressively infiltrated artisanal supply chains; capturing licenses and concessions intended for small-scale community use and forcing locals into exploitative contractual arrangements.
The illicit logging sector has also become rife with child labour, which can be viewed as a form of human trafficking. The prospect of quick earnings in unstable economic climates often incentivises families to take children out of school during timber harvests.
Profits from the logging industry may at first seem appealing and offer a greater promise of a future than education. However, scores of young men who are recruited into log transport operations have lost limbs, faced extended hospitalisation or been fatally injured on the job. Young girls are equally at risk. Community health officers in a logging community have commented on spikes in pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections during logging season, along with widespread sexual abuse.
ENACT research indicates that that sex work is pervasive across informal and illicit timber sites across the continent, as it is in other informal and under- or unregulated industries. Loggers in Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and the Gambia have confirmed allegations that under-age girls from as far away as Nigeria are often forcibly trafficked to logging sites in these regions for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
Trafficking groups provide false identification, claiming that the girls are local residents and legal adults. If police or law enforcement unit asks about the girls, traffickers may attempt to evade law enforcement action by claiming that the girls are consenting adults. Our research in logging sites, however, suggests a very different reality. Girls are trafficked against their will, under false pretences, and are held in situations where they are sexually exploited and brutally abused.
While much has been written about the negative impact of illicit logging, the focus is usually on the environmental damage and financial losses caused by the increasingly criminal practice. The human cost – in terms of the degradation of human rights, quality of living and prospects for communities living and working in and around illegal logging sites – is often overlooked. Yet the exploitation and abuse on Africa’s youth may have long-lasting negative consequences for the continent’s development.
Initiatives to promote Africa’s forestry sector, which is frequently highlighted as a potential engine for economic growth, must go beyond simply maximising trade. They must also guarantee safe, viable and sustainable livelihoods for those employed in the sector.
Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director, Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime and Riana Raymonde Randrianarisoa, ENACT consultant and independent journalist
The results of the ENACT research will soon be published in a forthcoming research paper.