BUBA, Guinea-Bissau (Reuters) - When middlemen for Chinese traders approached Yusuf Diallo to cut timber from his farm in Guinea-Bissau, he says he knew he had no choice. Soldiers had simply threatened his neighbors when they refused.
A clearing dotted with dozens of stumps now marks where lush tropical forest once stood outside his farmhouse. To one side, more than 300 logs were stacked, waiting to be removed.
“I was told that whether I accepted or not, they were going to do it anyway ... So I accepted,” said Diallo.
China’s hunger for rosewood has seen demand for African timber explode. The hardwood is used to make antique-style furniture, which is exported to North America and Europe and is popular in China with its growing middle class.
Forest products from Africa make up about 4 percent of China’s total imports. A report released on May 8 by the Africa Progress Panel, chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said Africa is losing about $17 billion every year because of illegal logging activities.
In Guinea-Bissau, a coup-prone West African nation, Chinese demand has fuelled illegal logging with the alleged complicity of senior military and politicians, according to present and former Guinean forestry officials, and a senior U.N. official.
The sources declined to publicly name the senior Guinean figures they said were involved in the logging trade.
They said private operators, government and military officials would typically obtain export licenses and form partnerships with Chinese middlemen. Attempts to track down Chinese companies the sources said were involved were not successful in China or Guinea Bissau.
A senior Guinean forestry official said his department could not prevent illegal logging because of the involvement of senior government officials and high-ranking military officers.
“The legislation says only sawn and processed timber can be exported but laws are violated because thousands of logs are exported to China in containers,” Seiti Gassama, deputy director of forestry, told Reuters.
Exporting logs without processing them in Guinea-Bissau means exporters do not have to invest in expensive machinery.
Spokesmen for the army and government declined to comment for this article.
The former Portuguese colony was already crucial as a transit point for South American cocaine into Europe before a military coup two years ago plunged it further into chaos. A weak transitional government, tasked with guiding Bissau to presidential elections, allowed logging to flourish.
Timber exports to China from Guinea-Bissau jumped from 80 cubic meters in 2008 to more than 15,000 cubic meters last year, according to data compiled from Chinese customs figures by Global Timber, a U.K. advocacy group.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to comment on Guinea-Bissau, but said China opposed illegal logging.
“We resolutely oppose illegally cutting down timber and related exports to China, and we support a regulation strategy for forestry resources that is mutually beneficial and contributes to sustainable development,” Hua said in Beijing.
Jose Ramos-Horta, the U.N. special representative in Guinea- Bissau, said the illegal logging boom was a consequence of a decline in cocaine trafficking after a U.S. sting operation last year that unsuccessfully targeted army chief Antonio Indjai.
Indjai escaped arrest by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration because he did not accompany other Guineans suspected of drug offences on board a yacht off the coast where the sting took place, sources familiar with the operation said. Indjai is accused by the DEA of conspiracy to smuggle drugs and supporting FARC, a Colombian rebel group. His spokesman last year denied any crime had been committed.
“The drug trade has reduced considerably and those who were behind it needed a new source of income,” Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, told Reuters. A presidential election on May 18 meant some politicians were in need of funds, he said.
Ramos-Horta said he had inquired into the logging business and visited localities where forests had been decimated.
“The last six months, just from this empty lot next to the U.N. Mission office in Bissau, hundreds of containers of logs were there and have all been shipped out,” he said.
Part of the problem is that, in one of Africa’s poorest and most turbulent countries, there is no administration capable of enforcing laws. In the last 20 years, Guinea-Bissau has witnessed a civil war, two coups, an attempted coup and the assassination of a president by the army.
In the run-up to the presidential vote last Sunday, both main parties traded accusations of illegal logging and denied involvement in the trade.
In the village of Sintchan Companhe, in the coastal province of Quinara south of the capital, a Reuters reporter watched men pack unprocessed logs into shipping containers on two trucks under the eye of a Chinese supervisor.
The Chinese man, whom the other workers identified as their boss, declined to comment on where the logs were being taken.
Gassama said 61 new logging licenses have been issued this year. In 2012-2013, 15 licenses were granted, according to a document from the Directorate General of Forests and Fauna seen by Reuters.
Forestry department documents seen by Reuters, one dated December 2013 and others undated, showed Chinese companies had partnered with local firms who claimed to be processing the wood locally in order to obtain export licenses. The Chinese companies were not named.
Mamadou Aliu Camara, governor of Quinara province, said Chinese operators, their local partners and middlemen were using various means to circumvent the ban on exporting raw timber.
“One company is using a license owned by a plywood company, FOLBI, that has not been operational for eight years, to export logs that are not even passing through the plant,” he said, without naming the company. “They take logs directly from the forest and ship them to China.”
The government documents seen by Reuters listed FOLBI and SOCOTRAM as two of five local companies subcontracting logging concessions to Chinese firms. Both firms, which ceased timber processing operations several years ago, declined to comment.
At its height, FOLBI employed 600 people. But the machinery that once produced plywood was in ruins, covered in cobwebs and dust.
Quennce Tchantchalan, 42, was formerly employed by FOLBI as a machinist. He and a group of friends now hang around the yard to guard what is left of the machines. FOLBI’s owner told him he was in business with Chinese middlemen, Tchantchalan told Reuters.
“The owner has a contract with the Chinese. They sometimes use the yard to stock wood before shipping them to China,” Tchantchalan said.
Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Giles Elgood