Zambia fighting to save Mukula tree from savvy smugglers
By Jeff Kapembwa
Lusaka – The Southern African Development Community is losing an estimated $16-million per month through the rampant smuggling of the Pterocarpus Chrysothrix trees, used for fine timber and medicine mostly in the Far East Asia.
This financial loss and threat posed to the slow growing species has prompted Zambian President Edgar Lungu to institute a ban on the harvesting and sale of the Mukula tree as it is commonly known in the country.
Official data shows that shows that Zambia alone is losing an average 276,000 hectares of land due to deforestation per, including the endangered tree species, Mukula.
Regional countries affected by the illegal exports include Zambia, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Namibia are now seeking to enact laws to stop the practice.
The continued smuggling of the precious tree, which takes over 80 years to mature, has raised eyebrows among the leadership, in the SADC community, prompting the affected countries to seek to halt the illegal trade of the tree, exported in raw logs with an ultimate destination being China, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in the Far East.
In Zambia, authorities have expressed concern over indiscriminate cutting of the trees, chiefly grown in Muchinga province, in the north, near the border with Tanzania and DRC. President Lungu has order security forces including the military to join hands and stop the illegal exports of the logs.
Muchinga province minister Malozo Sichone, whose area were the smuggling of Mukula is rampant estimates that the tree species is depleting at a fast rate with Zambia losing an average 276,000 hectares of land every year.
“President Lungu has found it necessary to call in the army and other defence and security forces to save the Mukula tree before it is completely wiped out by illegal traders,” he said in an interview last week.
The Ministry of Lands, Environment and Natural Resources and other interest groups have also raised concern over the decimation of the Mukula trees – that is being transported to Asia via the Port of Walvis Bay in Namibia.
Recent efforts to arrest and impound various Namibian trucks laden with the Mukula logs have not yielded desired results with the practice said to continuing unabated.
Sichone said many traders have in recent months been arrested in Muchinga with police seizing the logs, as illegal traders resort to using fake permits to side-step the moratorium.
Zambia is not alone in this predicament. The trees are being harvested as logs in south-eastern Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the ban being in place.
Smugglers have devised methods of exporting the logs through among other countries Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.
They are later shipped to Asia, with China and Thailand being the major destinations.
Another exit point is Walvis Bay in Namibia, where trees smuggled from countries where exports of the raw logs are in place are transported.
Reports indicated that Namibia is one of the countries being used as a transit where raw logs are exported from the region at a rate of thousands every month.
It is estimated that 250-300 containers of raw timber are leaving Walvis Bay for China every month, representing a region-wide decimation of a resource valued for its medicinal and nutritional properties.
Reports claims that that at around US$35,000 to $40,000 per container, this illegal trade of the 18-metres tall tree and probably taking 80 years to reach full maturity is worth between $8.75-million and $16-million per month. It is believed the species produce one of the best hard wood timbers on earth.
Eugine Sibote, who is regional police commissioner for Eastern Province in Zambia, has described this as complicated syndicates noting that there were many syndicates involving a chain of various groups including traditional leaders, who are in charge of customary land where much of the tracts of land where the trees are grown are housed.
About 94 per cent of the land in Zambia is customary, meaning it falls directly under the traditional chiefs, mostly in rural area and this is where the Mkula thrives.
Eastern Province Permanent Secretary, Chanda Kasolo, attributes the scourge to laxity by traditional leaders to assist in monitoring the smuggling of the logs. This is one of the reasons which have forced Zambia to suspend and later ban the issuance of licenses on harvesting the tree, according to Provincial Forestry Officer, Sylvester Siame.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organistion (FAO), 66.5 per cent or about 49,468,000 hectors of Zambia is forested. However FAO’s study shows that in total, between 1990 and 2010, Zambia lost 6.3 per cent of its forest cover, or around 3,332,000 hectors.
A report following an Integrated Land Use Assessment in 2016 estimated that deforestation rates range from 250,000 hectors per year while FAO in its report put the country’s deforestation rate at 444,800 hectors per year, with some others even setting these at above 850,000 hectors per year.
A study done by forestry and agricultural experts in 2009, showed that Zambia has the second highest per capita deforestation rate in Africa and the fifth highest in the world, with illegal timber production, charcoal production, agricultural, and human settlement expansion being the main drivers.
Zambia is still using the Forest Act of 1973, which many times, has proved ineffective in dealing with challenges faced by the forestry sector in the country.
According to the Zambia’s Auditor General’s report, the act has failed to address pertinent issues such as monitoring, types of forest licenses, climate change, global warming and the role of forests in mitigating negative impacts. The licensing currently being used is not in conformity with the act.