By Emma Farge
ZINGUINCHOR, Senegal (Reuters) - When Idrissa Balde, mayor of a small community in southern Senegal, blew the whistle on illegal logging in a nearby forest reserve, he says the government agent charged with protecting the trees proposed a deal to keep him quiet.
What Balde says was on offer typifies the problems many African countries face in enforcing high-minded policies supposed to counter deforestation and its effect on environments already vulnerable to climate change.
With a small change of wording, the forestry official said, the official paperwork could be made to show the trees were felled outside the Dabo national reserve in unprotected forest, allowing the mayor's office to take a cut of the proceeds.
"This was not my objective. I want those responsible to be arrested and punished, with their permits taken away," the Dabo mayor said, sitting on a pile of logs in a clearing where, until September, rare African mahogany trees had stood.
The forest ministry in the southern region of Casamance, whose main city is Zinguinchor, rejected Balde's version of events. Colonel Aly Seck, the ministry's regional representative, denied any corruption attempt and blamed Balde for the destruction in the Dabo forest.
Many African governments have introduced reforms such as export bans on timber, which often ends up as furniture or flooring in wealthier countries. However, the dilemmas faced by officials like Balde, many of whom are less inclined to take a stand against corruption, show the limitations of such measures.
Senegal has been a leading African voice for improving the management of natural resources. A planned "Great Green Wall" from its capital Dakar across the continent to Djibouti in East Africa aims to create a natural forest barrier against the southward expansion of the Sahara Desert.
President Macky Sall boasts that Senegal has already restored 25,000 hectares of degraded land under the project, and such efforts are helping to win billions of dollars in financing for the region at climate talks in Paris this month.
But ecologists say a combination of logging and shifting rainfall patterns linked to climate change mean that nearly double that acreage is lost in Senegal each year, leaving bald savannah where forests were once so dense they blotted out the sun.
"In many forest-rich countries the problem is entrenched corruption driven by strong demand from consumer countries," said Naomi Basik Treanor, of the U.S.-based non-profit organization Forest Trends. "It is hard for them to pass up these short-term benefits."
Chief among those consumer countries is China. Over the past decade, as African governments have tried to curb illicit logging, Chinese customs data show that annual imports of timber products from West and Central African countries have increased more than four-fold to $1.9 billion in 2014.
Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, said China strictly regulated timber imports and required its companies abroad to act in accordance with local laws and regulations.
In Gabon, Asian demand has caused a jump in the price of wood from the rare Kevazingo tree, which can take 500 years to grow to its full height of 40 meters (130 feet).
Gabon has made more than 30 arrests since October, according to Luc Mathot, a co-founder of the EAGLE Network conservation group. Among those arrested were a number of government agents.
"(Officials) do not close their eyes to this business for free," said Mathot. "Some of them have gone as far as organizing the exports themselves with the exploiters."
Even more worrying, he said, are the countries where there is little evidence that authorities are even trying to crack down on illegal practices.
Among them Mathot cites Democratic Republic of Congo, home to much of the Congo Basin, the world's second largest tropical forest after the Amazon. The government imposed a moratorium in 2002 on all new industrial logging licenses but campaign group Global Witness says the national laws are systematically violated.
While much smaller, Senegal's forests, concentrated in Casamance, serve as a bulwark against regional desertification and the government has therefore banned timber exports.
But local people claim wood from the region is simply sent into Gambia, a sliver of a country wedged inside Senegal which allows wood harvested in neighboring nations to be exported via its port.
Most of Gambia's own forests have been chopped down, but it shipped about $50 million worth of wood to China between January and October this year, up from $33 million in all of 2014.
Gambia's environment minister was not reachable for comment.
On a recent visit to Digante, a village on the Senegalese side of the border, residents said that a makeshift timber depot had been emptied that same day by Gambia-bound trucks.
A low-intensity conflict between the Senegalese government and Casamance rebels that has lasted four decades has helped to open the door to trafficking, observers say, by impeding forest surveillance.
Buyers, villagers said, typically pay 10,000 CFA francs ($16.50) per log and sometimes offer a motorcycle once a supplier has reached a fixed quota, princely rewards in a region where youth unemployment is estimated at around 60 percent.
"There's no work here. That's why we cut the trees," said Diediou who gave only his first name, carrying two trunks on a small donkey-drawn cart through the Tanghory state forest.
In a testament to the state's efforts to stop the illicit trade, nine seized trucks with Gambian license plates were parked in the local office of Senegal's forestry department.
Nonetheless, villagers and ecologists said much of the smuggling occurs under the noses or even with the complicity of government agents.
"Everyone pretends to follow official procedures but it's all a sham," said Haidar El Ali, a former Senegalese environment minister. One government agent involved in a scheme to smuggle timber concealed beneath a layer of legal firewood was arrested last month, said a senior forestry official.
Senegal's environment ministry declined a Reuters request for comment. Forestry agents in Casamance complained that the dangerous job of stopping illegal timber shipments was hobbled by a lack of resources, both human and financial.
Still, some officials are trying to make positive changes. Dissatisfied with the 1.5 million CFA franc ($2,507.19)fine paid by a man charged with illegal logging in Dabo, mayor Balde says he has filed a legal complaint with the prosecutor's office.
"We can't let this go on," said Balde. "Otherwise, it is us who will lose out and lose the rainfall while others get rich."
(Additional reporting by Gerauds Wilfried Obangome in Libreville, Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing and Diadie Ba in Dakar; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Joe Bavier and David Stamp)