As reports warning of the scope of illegal logging in Mozambique grow more serious, local environmental groups are attempting to raise public consciousness of the issue and pressure the government to act, but this will be no easy task in a country where poverty reduction and HIV/AIDS usually take centre stage.
A newly formed coalition, called Amigos da Floresta (Friends of the Forest), has organised a march through downtown Maputo, the capital, this Saturday, the country's first public demonstration related to deforestation.
"We need to get civil society more active," said Daniel Ribeiro, project officer for Justiça Ambiental (Environmental Justice), a local nongovernmental organisation (NGO). "Every once in a while it gets in the news and filters through, but it is not regularly featured in the media." Organisers expect about 500 people to take part in the march.
That something has to be done, and quickly, became abundantly clear last year, said local activists. The first major indicator was a widely distributed report that documented large discrepancies between various official statistics on deforestation in the central province of Zambezia, and also alleged the existence of a "timber mafia" carrying out extensive unsustainable resource exploitation.
"Asian timber buyers, local business people and members of the government of Mozambique and their forest services are colluding to strip precious tropical hardwoods from these slow-growing, semi-arid and dry tropical forests, at a rate that could see the resource exhausted in five to 10 years."
This projection was made by Catherine MacKenzie, author of a report commissioned by Fongza, a coalition of NGOs in Zambezia, titled: ‘Forest governance in Zambezia, Mozambique: Chinese Takeaway!’ in reference to the large number of Asian buyers who have flocked to buy truckloads of logs at wholesale prices.
In December 2006, media reports of some 40 containers of illegal timber seized at the port city of Quelimane, Zambezia's capital, indicated the scale of criminal activity in the destruction of forests. An environmental activist estimated that the amount of contraband wood in that one seizure represented more than twice the annual amount of timber the province allowed to be harvested legally.
Government officials disputed the estimate, and the common official response has been to characterise assessments of illegal logging as 'out of date'.
To mobilise the public, environmentalists have pointed out that illegal logging is not just an environmental issue, but also has economic and social implications. Government regulations should ensure that most wood harvested locally is also processed locally, but environmentalists say those rules are being flouted and raw timber goes directly to ships waiting offshore.
The result is that local communities get nothing: no jobs in sawmills, no logging-related local enterprises, and, because it happens outside legal channels, no money from local taxes coming into the community.
"It leads to unsustainable management and exploitation of the forest, huge losses in added value, and no poverty alleviation," said Jan de Meer, who works for an NGO that sets up sustainable cooperatives in Zambezia. De Meer estimates that communities where logging concessions are sited reap only one percent of the proceeds rather than the promised 20 percent.
Environmentalists say these communities are also exploited in other ways. Small concessionaires, for instance, require the consent of the community for a logging license and have to bargain with community leaders to obtain it.
"Many times the promises are not kept," said Ribeiro, of Justiça Ambiental. "They come to the community, cut down the trees, and do not return. Or many times the loggers do very little, like give away some clothes or clear a football field."
About 400 officers, spread over the entire country, monitor traffic in timber, which is not enough, said Mauricio Sulila, programme officer for Livaningo, one of Mozambique's oldest environmental organisations.
Ribeiro commented that it was "very cheap to corrupt a public officer". Last year he visited the main timber checkpoint outside Beira, where he witnessed truckers routinely passing through without showing paperwork.
But organising the affected communities to pressure government authorities has proven difficult. The capital is far from Quelimane, so a major obstacle is distance from the seat of power. De Meer said he and his colleagues attempted to get two busloads of community members from Zambezia to Maputo for Saturday's march. "They are interested, but we don't have the money, you know?" he says. "You need money to transport people over 2,000km."
Silula, of Livaningo, which recently started a programme to build the capacity of NGOs in the central and northern regions of the country, said, "The problem is, the people in the provinces [where deforestation is taking place] are not as strong as the NGOs in Maputo. There are groups there [in Zambezia], but they are weak."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions