By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A surge in illegal logging is devastating native forests in coastal Tanzania's Rufiji district, despite efforts by authorities to curb forest losses, officials said.
Hundreds of tonnes of trees are being smuggled out of the district each month by timber traders to feed a lucrative construction market and furniture industries within the country and abroad, said district forest officials.
District records show loggers, who often invade forests at night, are targeting indigenous tree species, notably mninga, and mpodo, which are now on the verge of local extinction due to high demand for their wood.
“The loggers seem to be very well organized and armed. Unfortunately our local forest guards do not have the capacity to confront them,” said Shamte Mahawa Mangwi, village executive officer in Rufiji.
Forests play a critical role in the fight against global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which can hold down global temperature increases.
An assessment conducted by the Journalists Environmental Association of Tanzania (JET) in November said that illegal logging in the Rufiji forests is fueled by a growing demand for wood products and charcoal making as well as the district’s lack of effective strategies for monitoring forests.
Nurdeen Babu, a Rufiji district commissioner who doubles as chairman of the forest harvesting committee, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that illegal harvesting of logs in the district threatens the survival of natural forests, but said the government has taken measures to combat the problem.
“We have beefed up security by increasing the number of forests guards. Anyone who is found to be doing anything illegal in the forest will be arrested and charged," Babu stressed.
But catching the loggers is difficult. Despite frequent government directives to stop deforestation, illegal logging has been going on unabated, with most trees cut in the middle of the forest to dodge authorities, he said.
Rufiji forests have come under increasingly heavy pressure in the past decade due to increasing population, unsustainable timber harvesting elsewhere, expansion of farming and continuing use of firewood, conservation officials say.
Tanzania has 33 million hectares of forests and woodland, but the country has been losing more than 400,000 hectares of forest a year for two decades, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation’ 2010 Global Forests Resources Assessment.
In a bid to slow deforestation, the government in 2010 launched the Tanzania Forests Services Agency, an independent agency tasked with managing forests.
However, the agency has largely failed to stop illegal logging, said Felician Kilahama, retired head of the forestry and beekeeping department at the Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources.
96 PERCENT ILLEGALLY CUT
The country's controller and auditor general report in 2012 said that 96 percent of trees cut in Tanzania are illegally harvested. Illegal cutting is the result of poor planning and the government's inability to manage its forestry resources, it said.
According to the report, illegal logging, which has severely affected public revenues, has become a major concern for Tanzania.
The Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources, for instance, reported that the country had lost an estimated Tanzania shillings 23 billion ($13.5 million) in sales of forest products between 2011-2012 to illegal logging.
In Rufiji, district forest revenue records show more than 70 percent of the total volume of wood being harvested in the forest is unaccounted for, resulting in enormous losses of government revenue from levies, taxes and fees.
Residents accused some district forest officials of colluding with illegal loggers. They said officials sometimes secretly dole out permits or offer safe passage of illegal consignments of timber.
Deputy District Executive Director Adinad Mwenda, however, denied the allegations, saying local people have also played a role in cutting trees.
While government regulations require that tree harvesting in forests surrounding the district be closely monitored and the wood stamped after being verified as legally cut, residents said such measures are not always followed.
According to the residents, logs are ferried through unofficial routes assisted by a network of local police officers, who often pretend to be inspecting vehicles for smuggled timber when they are in fact helping them to flee.
"I don't have any trust with the police force. They sometimes arrest suspected criminals and release them without charge,” Justin Mfinanga, of Ikwiriri village, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Coast Regional Police Commander Ulrich Matei, however, dismissed the allegations, saying police officers are working according to regulations.
“I challenge you to bring forth the names of any officers who collude with suspected loggers. They will be punished,” he said.
One problem facing efforts to reduce illegal timber harvesting is that fines and penalties for dealers in illegal forest products are relatively low, conservation officials said.
An offender who is caught with a consignment of logs worth Tsh. 100 million ($59,000) would be fined Tsh. 500,000 ($294), they said.
"These low fines do not always deter illegal activities since the offenders can always afford them," said Athumani Lunduli, a forest conservation official at Chumbi village in Rufiji.
(Reporting by Kizito Makoye; editing by Laurie Goering)