Some of the latest and most robust cutters and saws are frantically found in forest reserves across the country as hundreds—if not thousands—of the tallest and most prized trees in Malawi disappear virtually every day.
Only environmental experts and some patriotic Malawians flinch at the thud produced by every tree as it tumbles to the ground.
The experts and the patriots deeply regret that Malawi is recklessly turning itself—with each thud—into a desert.
Reality and fairness may demand that those plundering the forests be challenged, admonished and stopped in their tracks. No, perhaps they need to be arrested altogether for their impunity in destroying natural resources they never plan to replace.
But these reckless workers are only ‘small boys’ and, indeed, a few daring ‘small girls’ camped rough-shod in the forest reserves. Many are excited, if not infatuated, by the exotic efficiency of their glittering machinery.
For some, the glee they derive from their dramatic tree-felling and sawing feats is rewarding job satisfaction. To such, it seems a bonus that ‘the Boss’ will even pay them a few kwacha for their sweat.
The real culprits in this ‘game’ of destroying Malawi’s environment—tree by tree—are untouchable. They are in air-conditioned offices and houses and bear long and plump professional and political titles.
That is why and how most of their so-called businesses, particularly in their lucrative timber peddling, is illegal. Nonetheless, their clout forces law-enforcers to wave ‘play on’ to them, where they must brandish the powerful red card.
Investigations by The Nation this week established that the greedy intentions of each of the powerful people may, for a change, start to come tumbling down with a band, not a thud, in the near future.
This may be a result of an unprecedented determination by the newly formed Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment to reinforce, challenge, admonish and stop the illegal environment destroyers in their tracks.
According to the committee, some Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament (MPs) as well as some civil servants who have allegedly manoeuvred to loot Malawi, by illegally exporting the nation’s prized and protected round wood through local and international syndicates, will soon be named and shamed in an investigative report to be tabled in Parliament.
The Nation investigation shows that the matter may snowball into a shocking international ‘Timbergate’ that may eventually eclipse the smouldering Cashgate that saw politicians, public officers and private sector businesses in Malawi looting tens of billions from government coffers since 2005.
“We shall name all the suspected culprits and their companies in the report we are finalising, after intensive investigations. The beans will be spilt right in Parliament, hopefully during its next sitting this February,” announced the committee’s vice-chairperson Alex Major who is also Kasungu West MP, during an exclusive interview in Lilongwe.
He said soon after its formation during the last sitting of Parliament, the committee—comprising 20 members—hit the ground running by quickly noticing that a lucrative export market in the Republic of China was enticing Malawian businesspersons in the know to frantically harvest the prized round wood from forest reserves.
Major added that his committee is closely collaborating with the police, Immigration and forestry officials in stepping up efforts to impound trucks carrying the banned round wood within the country or at border points.
The move has seen more than 140 container-laden trucks impounded at some regional and district forestry offices, some Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) centres and some police stations in Lilongwe, Mchinji, Mwanza and Karonga, among other places.
The Zambia connection
Some of the timber ‘stranded’ in these trucks is said to have been harvested in neighbouring Zambia, an indication that Malawi is a preferred transit route for timber sharks who are trying to take advantage of the export craze China seems to have fuelled in southern Africa recently.
Round wood species, indigenous timber known in Malawi as tsanya, is protected by government. Trading in the timber was banned in 2008.
Ironically, Zambia also frowns upon the trading in the round wood, particularly the mukula species. Government suspended timber licences in November, 2012 in a bid to protect the forests in the country which are being depleted at a fast rate. However, the ban does not apply to exotic timber plantations.
But the business sharks are smuggling the banned timber across the borders, anyway—with law enforcement agencies seemingly turning a blind eye to a booming trade that is illegal.
Documents we have seen indicate that one of the impounded trucks was released after MRA extracted duty and penalties amounting to more than K2 million from a Zambian truck owner shipping the banned cargo.
In their bid to make big and quick money, many Malawian politicians, civil servants and others who ought to have respected the ban went ahead depleting the timber and exporting the round wood to other countries, initially, before the China market beckoned in earnest.
Major noted: “The truth is that this resource depletion has been there for over 20 years, with some politicians and other privileged people quietly benefitting massively, partly by operating well beyond the limited authority of their business licences. We now want to put a stop to all that looting of the nation’s natural resources, whose value, easily, is billions of kwacha every year.”
He faulted government for not aggressively enforcing the timber ban and, thereby, officially exporting the soft wood, to boost the nation’s foreign exchange earnings.
Major explained that Chikangawa Forest Reserve in Mzimba is the hardest-hit when it comes to the illegal resource depletion. But a few other reserves in Mzimba and Thuma Forest, partly shared by Salima, Dedza and Lilongwe districts, were also ruthlessly targeted by the timber sharks, he added.
He said the greed of some of the timber businesspeople is seen in the fact that although many of them have secured big fortunes over the years, they are failing to act responsibly.
“In Chikangawa Forest Reserve alone, for example, the timber businesspeople, cumulatively, owe government a whopping K2 billion in fees and taxes. We want all of them to pay up and, moving forward, we need to review all forest reserve operations, which must include strong re-afforestation projects,” he added.
Coincidentally, soon after joining his deputy for the exclusive interview with The Nation, committee chairperson Werani Chilenga, who is Chitipa South MP, received a telephone call that engaged him for several minutes. He seemed at pains to end the interview without losing his temper.
Shaking his head after the call, Chilenga promptly announced, appearing shocked: “You see, that was one of the people [a transporter] with an impounded vehicle loaded with the round wood somewhere… He was trying to entice me with $15 000 [K7 million], so I can facilitate the onward movement of his cargo. He has hit a brick wall!
“What makes people believe that everyone will be willing to destroy this country over bribes? I told him my salary in Parliament suffices for me. Just why are some people so greedy and callous with this country’s natural resources?”
Chilenga commended the police for having reacted firmly and positively to his committee’s appeal that those trying to transport round wood out of Malawi should be stopped in their tracks.
“While all police officers have done a good job, I am constrained to single out the police at Kanengo Police Station, especially the officer-in-charge, Superintendent Ethel Chapita, for outstanding work and being above board in the operations. We can save this country from decay, including from corruption, if we had more of such dedicated and efficient public officers,” he said.
Over the past two years, the Republic of China modernised MRA’s border inspection system through the donation and placing of state-of-the-art scanning equipment that easily detects what is inside containers passing through key border posts. The machines are for the identification of goods and to ease the routine of charging duty and fees.
The MPs expressed worry that if such goods in transit are wrongly labelled, this may be a deliberate ploy to secure safe passage for goods that are not supposed to be exported anywhere from Malawi.
Last Saturday, The Nation sent a questionnaire to MRA to react to the allegations and some apparent irregularities, including that of charging duty on a banned product.
Although MRA promptly acknowledged receipt of the questionnaire, and despite a plea for responses in the face of a production deadline yesterday, the organisation is yet to respond.
Malawi Forestry Department officials say government auctioned some of its wood in Mzimba in November last year. Just before this, the Zambia government is said to have also auctioned its wood—but from the Malawian border town of Mchinji—after Malawian authorities foiled a smuggling move and had tipped off their Zambian colleagues.
During the Malawi Government auctioning, a log—measuring two metres is sold at K500 each. But some Chinese buyers reportedly pay up to 80 times more (K40 000) for each two-metre log in a container that takes it to China.
“The standard container has 230 logs. As you can see, Malawians in this business make a fortune [some K9.2 million] per container. This is obviously why they are willing to plunder the mkuna with impunity. But our committee is saying ‘no’ to such destruction,” Major stated.
Zambia High Commission first secretary (press) Chansa Kabwela pointed out that the problem of illegal timber trade is of concern in Zambia as well and government there is actively working towards curbing it.
She noted that the people involved in the smuggling of mukula and other hard-wood timber species use Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania as transit routes to the Far East.
Meanwhile, Major stated that his committee members also went to the headquarters of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining and took on senior officials there on how some irregularities, like signing for an export permit for the alleged Zambian wood consignment from Malawi, were allowed.
“The top civil servants in the ministry admitted that they originated the export licence and signed for it because of the pressure they received from some politicians. I will not divulge names, at this point,” the parliamentarian added.
The Nation crafted a short questionnaire to the concerned officials in the ministry, asking them to confirm or deny the allegations or to explain the matter from their standpoint. More than a day later, and after pointing to a production deadline yesterday, no feedback was given.
After being briefed on the developments, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) national coordinator Chris Chisoni commended the parliamentary committee for its boldness in trying to put a stop to the smuggling that should have been arrested much sooner.
He stated: “This [the ineffective action in the past] was one of the examples of watching, being unconcerned and passive citizenry. It also entails weak governance structures that are malleable to corruption and bribery at the expense of the nation’s economic growth. It entirely smacks of a limited spirit of patriotism, as our forests are being wiped out and yet no one seems to care.”
On the way forward, Chisoni offered: “It is important for the Ministry of Natural Resources to wake up to the new and complex challenges the sector is facing. The ministry must adopt new strategies. It must lobby for more funding.
“Cooperating partners must be brought in. Communities must be engaged and new laws must be put into place, or else our forests will continue vanishing at a faster rate than we can replenish them, making Malawi the greatest loser.”