Illegal logging is a growing feature of transnational organized crime in Africa, often facilitated by the collusion of senior officials, with far-reaching security and environmental implications
for the countries affected.
African countries are estimated to lose $17 billion to illegal logging each year. This is part of a global market with an economic value of $30 to $150 billion. The net profit from the illegal charcoal trade alone in Africa is estimated to be as much as $9 billion, “compared to the [$]2.65 billion worth of street value heroin and cocaine in the region.”
High-value timber species are in immense global demand, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reporting that Africa’s share of rosewood exports to China rose from 40 percent in 2008 to 90 percent in 2018.
Illegal logging also amplifies the effects of climate change by worsening deforestation and reducing biodiversity. This is especially apparent in the Congo Basin and peatlands, comprising one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. If disturbed, it could release the equivalent of 20 years of U.S. fossil fuel emissions.
Timber trafficking has also fueled security threats from organized criminal groups and violent extremist organizations. Trafficking networks based in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo linked to the Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama and other militant groups in Mozambique, for example, were making an estimated $2 million per month from illegal logging in 2019.
Illegal logging also accelerates corruption. In the Republic of the Congo, national legislation limits the export of certain rare hardwoods to just 15 percent of a logging company’s annual production. However, collusion between political and business actors has led to the rule often being flouted. Not only does this cost Congolese citizens the benefits of their natural resource wealth, the degradation of the forest also deprives local communities of a sustainable source for their economic livelihoods.
Illegal logging is part of a vicious cycle of opaque governance, exploitation, and insecurity that privileges the profit-seeking of select state officials and foreign actors. These patterns reduce the legitimacy of the government overall, further contributing to instability and violence.
Illegal logging is most prevalent in the tropical rainforests of Africa, where demand by foreign actors for rare hardwoods has dramatically increased. The most significant driver of illegal logging in Africa is the Chinese market for teak, redwood, and mahogany. China’s trade with West African countries for high-quality hardwood soared between 1995 and 2010. After exhausting that market, demand extended to Central and East Africa, and countries like Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo became major exporters.
Currently, Uganda is a transit hub for approximately 80 percent of illegal timber from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that passes through East Africa.
Illegal logging in Africa happens through both small-scale and commercial operations. The actors involved correspond to the four types of organized criminal actors tracked in the ENACT Organized Crime Index: criminal networks, state-embedded actors, foreign actors, and “mafia style groups” with well-known organizational identities and coercive control over territory.
Criminal networks are often aided and abetted by high-level state actors who use their positions to facilitate the illicit timber trade.
Criminal networks may, for example, secure control of and profits from the artisanal trade by purchasing commercial concessions through their government connections, acquiring fake permits, or reusing
Organized criminal activity can happen at any stage of the supply chain, during extraction, milling, transportation, marketing, or profit laundering. Artisanal or small-scale loggers are typically the extractors of high-value wood that supply trafficking groups, as their operations are more informal and have lighter regulations and oversight than those for commercial loggers.
Porous borders help traffickers to launder illegal timber across borders where they falsely declare the tree species to pass it off as legal.
Political elites collude with foreign actors, enabling illegal logging, and using the international financial system to move the profits they make out of their countries and into private bank accounts. This contributes to the public losing out on an estimated $88 billion in illicit financial flows that leave the African continent yearly.
Why Illegal Logging Matters for Security
First, the illicit timber trade can fuel conflict and instability by providing resources for violent actors and spreading corruption. During the civil war in Liberia, timber trafficking was one of warlord Charles Taylor’s prime means of financing. It also facilitated Taylor’s support to the Revolutionary United Front in neighboring Sierra Leone.
When the Seleka rebel coalition took over in Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013-14, international timber traders paid them at least 3.4 million euros in protection fees to continue their harvesting and exporting operations. This reinforced the rebels’ presence and also facilitated arms trafficking. After the Seleka lost power, Anti-Balaka militias were also reportedly paid to provide protection.
In the DRC, the Allied Democratic Forces and several other militant groups in the east have been involved in the illegal timber trade, which serves as a conflict financing mechanism.
In Senegal, where there has been a low-level insurgency since 1982, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) has sustained its operations almost entirely through profits from illicit logging of rosewood. The Gambia’s former dictator, Yahya Jammeh, used parastatal companies to illegally traffic timber from both the Casamance and Guinea-Bissau, supporting an insurgency in the former and bolstering political allies in the latter.
Second, government corruption and illegal logging are mutually reinforcing. Given that logging involves heavy equipment and networks of forest roads, illegal logging relies on high-level government collusion to persist. Illicit financial flows from timber trafficking, in turn, further entrench these senior officials as well as provide ongoing incentives to abuse public power for private gain. The illicit flows represent lost tax revenue that could have been used for public services. This creates a vicious cycle that threatens the rule of law and fosters mistrust between governments and citizens.
Illegal logging, therefore, should be considered both an outcome and driver of government corruption. For example, in Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of President Obiang, profited immensely from the transport and export of rare hardwoods. As the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, he not only sold some of his country’s forests to private companies but also used a shell company linked to the ministry to charge fees for processing, loading, and transporting timber.
In Guinea-Bissau in 2013, crackdowns on security sector officials involved in drug trafficking—including the head of the armed forces and the navy chief—led other military officials who had been trafficking narcotics to deal in timber instead. In 2019, Gabon’s Vice President and Minister of Forestry were part of a rosewood trafficking scandal that allegedly led to their sacking.
In 2021, the Zambian Anti-Corruption Commission seized 47 trucks illegally laden with rosewood bound for the Namibian and Zimbabwean borders. This seizure is just one of the latest high-profile instances of illegal logging that has allegedly been facilitated by certain ministers and family members of former President Edgar Lungu.
Third, illegal logging diminishes livelihood opportunities for ordinary citizens. For instance, illegal logging contributes to deforestation, which exposes communities to environmental degradation and economic hardship. Without viable legal options to earn a living, communities may face stronger incentives to engage in illegal logging. Furthermore, the clandestine nature of illegal logging operations at the local level can increase vulnerability to human trafficking, systems of debt bondage, sexual exploitation, and child labor. Excerpts – (Photo: 123rf.com)
C. Browne, Catherine Lena Kelly, and Carl Pilgram
Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.