Illegal logging and poverty fuel local tensions in southern Senegal

Lamine Gueye sits on a log from the tree that his younger brother Mustapha was killed over in April. (James Courtright)
Kolda, Senegal

In the early hours of 6 April 2018 Mustapha Gueye awoke to the buzz of a chainsaw outside his home in Sam Yero Gueye, a small village in the scrublands of Kolda Region on the Senegalese border with Gambia. Mustapha got up to investigate; 300 metres outside his village he was ambushed by loggers who broke both his legs, one of his arms, and then killed him with a blow to his skull.

“He hated people cutting down the trees,” explains Lamine Gueye, Mustapha’s older brother. “They knew if they cut down a tree close to the village, he would come. That’s why the murderers brought the machete and murdered my brother.”

Over the last decade the forests of southern Senegal have been steadily depleted of rosewood and other slow-growth tropical hardwood species. Loggers, taking advantage of the lack of regulation in nearby Gambia and the porous border between the two countries, sell to Gambian middlemen who then export the wood to Asia. While the trade has diminished since its peak a few years ago, the plunder continues to this day, dividing communities and thrusting already vulnerable people into a more precarious future.

Senegal sits on the western edge of the Sahel, the savanna that forms the boundary between the Sahara Desert and the lush tropical forests of western and central Africa. However, as global temperatures have risen, the region’s seasonal rains have become more erratic. In order to feed a growing population, land is regularly cleared for agriculture. What was once forest has become savanna, and what was once savanna is now desert. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2001 and 2016 Senegal’s forests shrunk by around 6.9 per cent.

In the last decade another threat to Senegal’s remaining forests has emerged: illegal logging. Behind this plunder is a demand for hardwood and redwood timber in Asia.

Between 2009 and 2014 the value of China’s imports of rosewood (pterocarpus erinaceus) from west Africa shot up from US$12,000 to US$180 million. None of this timber was officially from Senegal; instead neighbouring Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland, served as one of the largest west African exporters to China.

According to a 2015 report on the Chinese rosewood trade, around 95 per cent of Gambian rosewood exported to China is sourced from southern Senegal. Under former Gambian strongman Yahya Jammeh one company, WestWood Company Ltd., had an exclusive license to export timber. Evidence has emerged that in addition to padding Jammeh’s private coffers, rebels in the Ziguinchor region of Senegal were also using proceeds from the illegal timber trade to finance their struggle for independence from the Senegalese government.

In 2015 Senegal’s President Macky Sall ordered the army to start patrolling the border area in a bid to clamp down on smugglers. Soon afterwards, rosewood was added to a list of species for enhanced international regulation by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Despite the ouster of Jammeh in Gambia in early 2017, the efforts of the Senegalese government, and the recognition by CITES, illegal logging in southern Senegal continues today.

“It’s dangerous – but the money makes it worth it”

Thirty-four-year-old Bamba Balde (not his real name) was born and raised in Niaming, a large village of 1,800 people down the dusty path from Sam Yero Gueye and less than ten kilometres from the Gambian border. For the last three years he and other young men in the village have periodically travelled deep into the forest for two-week stints to log rosewood trees. Trusted associates transport the timber up to the border with horse and donkey carts under the cover of darkness.

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“It’s intense out there,” Balde tells Equal Times. “The work is hard and dangerous; sometimes the trees fall, injuring people. But the money makes it worthwhile.”

In one week, Balde says they can log around 20 trees, which will bring in around a total of US$5,000. By contrast four months of farming in the rainy season, if everything goes well, earns just US$800.

Other loggers, like Amadou Diakite (also not his real name), from the small village of Kibasa, also in the Kolda Region close to the Gambian border, stick to day trips to harvest the trees around their village. But Diakite, 33, says this year he hasn’t been logging because the rosewood has been depleted in his area.

“There is no more rosewood near the village. To get it now you must go far, but the further from the village, the more likely you will be caught by the forestry agents. So that’s why I stopped for the moment,” he explains.

The government’s response to the problem has largely been spearheaded by the Forestry Service, a paramilitary force tasked with protecting Senegal’s forests and waters. Lieutenant Colonel Babacar Dione is the head of the regional Forestry Service for Kolda. He asserts that the service is pursuing a robust response including “joint patrols with the defense and security forces, revision of the forestry code to increase penalties, and joint meetings with Gambian forest authorities.” According to Dione, 821infractions were recorded in 2017.

However, forestry agents quietly complain they cannot watch all forested areas all of the time. Additionally, forestry agents, who are randomly assigned posts around the country, are largely unfamiliar with the areas they are sent and rarely speak the local language.

A new approach

Three years ago, the Forestry Service adopted a new approach to fight the loggers and traffickers. Piggy-backing on the informal community associations responsible for extinguishing periodic bushfires in the hot dry season, the Forestry Service established village-based ‘surveillance commissions’. The commission would watch the forest, inform agents of wrongdoing by community members, and conduct citizen arrests of people caught logging.

Fifty-four-year-old Samba Diao has been a farmer and a herder his whole life. Since 2015 he has worked with the surveillance commission in Niaming.

“Us in the commission, we go to the forest and we look for the people who are cutting down and taking away the trees,” he explains. “Then, we call the Forestry Service and tell them how the forest is being destroyed and who is doing it. They don’t know this area, so we show them around. Sometimes even we go into the forest at night and seize timber and horse carts ourselves and then call the Forestry Service.”

The creation of village-based surveillance commissions has not been popular in all communities. People in Sam Yero Gueye were eager to participate, but in Kibasa people refused to take part.

“No one here wanted to be in the commission,” says Diakite. “If one person was with the commission and they see their friend logging and they arrest him it would bring tension in the community.”

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In Niaming, Balde (the logger) and Diao (part of the surveillance commission) live less than 500 metres from each other and see each other on a daily basis.

“I’ve never fought with the loggers, but there has been tension,” says Diao. “I know the loggers, and they know me. We’re angry with each other. But even if they’re angry, I’m still going to be with the forest agents because I don’t want the forest to be destroyed.”

Increasing violence

The tension in Niaming hasn’t boiled over, but in other communities there have been episodes of violence. Near the town of Pata on the Gambian border members of the surveillance commission shot a transporter in the foot two years ago. Afterwards the Forestry Service told commission members that the service would not be held responsible for any violence. Many people dropped out after that – but not Mustapha Gueye in Sam Yero Gueye. This, his brother Lamine believes, made him a target and led to his murder two months ago.

Diakite in Kibasa concurs that Mustapha was killed for being outspoken, but he isn’t sympathetic. He says that after the transporter was shot near Pata in 2016 the loggers and transporters agreed that if they were intercepted in the forest “we should do to them what they do to us. And now you see this year, they killed a man [Mustapha]. He had caused many people to be arrested, so they killed him.”

Papa Faye is a researcher and forestry expert based in Dakar. He says he’s worried about the potential for communal conflict in the area. He points out that since areas near the border have been depleted of rosewood loggers are going further inland.

“Most of the wood that goes through those villages that they are trying to confiscate, it’s not even cut in their commune,” he says. “If the local people are going to another village to cut the forest, that has the high potential of conflict between the people. Not just between the people and foreigners, but between the local people themselves. “

In Sam Yero Gueye, Lamine says the rule of law is essentially non-existent: “We don’t even agree where the border is,” he says.

Last month, village residents protested on the Gambian border, demanding accountability for Mustapha’s murder and that Gambians stop farming on what they consider Senegalese land. A bitter shouting match with Gambian police ensued, but by the time the Senegalese authorities arrived from their base 80 kilometres away on a washed-out road, cooler heads prevailed and the villagers returned home. However, Lamine tells Equal Times that unless they see action, they will continue with their activism.

“The village is one family. If we don’t want something, we all don’t want it. If we want something, we’re all in. We’re not asking for pity. They killed one of us, and we’re not happy about it. If we meet [loggers] in the woods now, unless we’re careful, fighting will happen. Now that they’ve starting fighting with us, now that they’ve killed someone here, we cannot back down.”

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