By: Foday Manneh
Illegal logging with the involvement of powerful individuals or well-connected government officials has been in existence in The Gambia due to the widespread global market demand for forest products.
Engaging actively in this lucrative trade are small operators along with big players working underground – being either business operators or government officials – all of whom feed their self-interests while ignoring or unconcerned about the legality or otherwise of the way the forest products involved are acquired.
Recently, a large number of trees harvested for timber were found felled in Kundam, a village in Tumana District in the Upper River Region, where villagers alleged that the “unknown culprits” were working with officials of the Forestry Department in URR in the illicit act.
“I was informed by one of the farmers in our village about this massive illegal activity happening on their farmland, wherein Makubeh Jawo, the Forest Guard in Tumana was informed, but he never took action at the time.
“It happened last year (2021) around the swamps of the village where a large number of trees were cut down. So when it happened again this year (2022) the villagers were frustrated and wanted to take drastic action.
“I pleaded with them and went to the Forestry Office in Basse where they said that they are not aware of the trees being felled in that area,” Alhagie Fofana, a native Tumana explained.
In URR, it is easy to find small groups of individuals felling three to four trees a day in the most vulnerable areas. Mostly, on farmlands and preserved forests.
Many such groups operate daily, usually in the middle of the night. This illegal timber is later exported by dealers without or with improper documentation.
Now, rural communities like Kundam which are victims of these practices do depend on the forest products for some of their needs and for survival such as food, fuel wood, housing, and fencing, materials which are all obtained from the forest.
Consequently, they are pushed into difficult survival situations when for instance their sources of firewood for cooking from the forest are affected by constant illegal logging.
Then the obvious question arises – how did such massive cutting of large numbers of trees for timbers is being carried out without knowing the ‘criminals’? And when logs are confiscated, who are the people involved and working behind the scenes?
Who is behind the illegal act?
“Two of the trees were fallen on my farm. I slept for two days at the farm, but I could not catch the culprits. I later took a tractor and took the logs to my home.
“But to be honest, the Forestry Department is enriching themselves in this trade. They will send these people to fell the trees and then turn round and pretend that they are not aware, then take the logs away and sell them,” Kajang Balisah, a farmer alleged.
In response to this claim, the Forestry Officer (RFO) in URR, Yankuba Bajo, reacted as follows: “It was at the later part of the activity when two people from Tumana informed us about it. Then, I sent my officers to monitor the situation. We came to understand that it was happening on the farmlands of Kundam where we found about 29 logs.
“We engaged the Alkalo of the village, but he told us he was not aware of it. Then we confiscated the logs,’’ Bajo said.
He also stated that often people claim that it is the Forestry that gave them a permit, and he advised the public to be vigilant and report any person found felling trees with false documents.
From January to May 2022, the RFO revealed that his office has issued only one permit to authorize the felling of trees, which was given for a single tree. And that had to go through a process involving the Alkalo, Chief, Forest Guard of the area, Regional Forest Officer, Governor, Director of Forestry, and finally to the Ministry, he explained. Then if it is approved, the individual has to pay based on the type of tree he/she wants to cut down.
What happened when the logs are seized?
According to the Forest Act, any Forest Officer, Divisional Commissioner, or Police officer not below the rank of a Sergeant may himself or by any person acting under his directions, seize any forest product suspected of having been unlawfully obtained or being unlawfully removed and any instrument or thing reasonably suspected of having been used in the commission of any offense under the Act.
“Where the forest product is abandoned or where the person suspected of having committed the offense has absconded after the seizure, the forest produce should be handed over to the Divisional Forest Officer who, after obtaining an order of a Magistrate, may – sell such forest produce and pay the proceeds to the state as specified in section 8 of the Act after deducting the expenses of the sale or allocate such forest produce to the use of the Government; or destroy such forest produce when necessary,” the Forest Act further stipulates.
“When we seized the logs, we monitor the place for a week, but when we could not find the culprits, then we open a bid and sell the logs. The proceeds are deposited into the National Forestry Fund at the Central Bank of The Gambia. The logs were sold for D12,200’’, Bajo revealed.
Despite this buyer being given a movement permitted by the Forestry Office in URR, which is a document prepared to freely transport the logs from Kundam to its final destination without any hindrance, an eye-witness in Kundam still claimed that the logs were smuggled by covering them with bags of groundnut hay.
“The Forest Guard with his boss came with a truck to pick the logs. I saw the logs which were more than 30. They bought about 240 bags of groundnut hay and used them to cover the logs. I am sure they were smuggling the logs to transport them to Kombo,” he alleged, as he explained what could be a trick used by some timber transporters.
However, the RFO refuted this allegation and claimed that where such a thing happens then it is at the discretion of the driver transporting the logs to add and carry other materials like bags of groundnut hay to make additional money.