Rare Namibian hardwood trees face the chop

Efforts to curb deforestation in Namibia are facing opposition from influential politicians with vested interests in the local forestry industry.

The Namibian government is coming under heavy pressure from influential politicians in north-eastern Namibia to allow the increased harvesting of rare hardwood trees – at the risk of accelerating already rampant deforestation in the country.

The government banned the felling and transportation of timber in November last year, citing concerns over unprocedural logging and its environmental impact in the Caprivi Strip (now called Zambezi), and the Kavango East and West regions.

The Namibian understands that Swapo leaders in Kavango East are leaning heavily on the environment ministry to lift the ban on grounds that the ruling party risks losing votes in the area in national elections later this year.

Among those who have publicly criticised the ban is the governor of Kavango East, Samuel Mbambo.

A leaked government document shows that Mbambo has a personal interest. It lists him as one of 231 politicians, traditional leaders, MPs, business people, church leaders and others who, after the ban was imposed, applied for clearance from the environment ministry to cut down nearly 200 000 trees over five years.

The trees stand on 2 500 hectare plots in the north-east recently handed out by the government on 99-year leases.

A confidential document compiled by Environment Minister Pohamba Shifeta for Cabinet discussion reveals that the environment and agriculture ministries are at odds over the issue.

In it, Shifeta says that 142 of the applications were “supported and recommended” by the agriculture ministry – despite the fact “no public consultations were undertaken regarding the cutting down of the trees [and] no remedial measures were proposed to address the effects … on the environment”.

He said that the applications for an environmental clearance certificate require the conduct of environmental impact assessments to determine the potential effects and risks associated with the harvesting activities. “In all 231 applications, this was not done.”

A further concern was that no value was added locally to the cut timber. Neither Shifeta nor the agriculture minister, Alpheus Naruseb, would comment.

Deforestation is a very real threat in Namibia and the wider region. The environmental news service, Oxpeckers, reported in 2017 that traders including a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur linked to contraband wildlife trafficking are exploiting a loophole that allows rural Namibians to harvest slow-growing hardwood trees for their own use.

Raw Namibian logs, together with smuggled logs from Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are leaving the “back door” of Walvis Bay at the rate of thousands a month, wrote veteran Namibian investigator John Grobler.

“The Chinese and their local friends are clearing a minimum of N$200 000 per container of hardwood from our last standing teak forest in Namibia [Katima State Forest],” Grobler reported.

Most of Namibia’s rosewood ends up in China, which, according to media reports, turns it into traditional furniture. The trees can take up to a century to reach maturity.

The documents in The Namibian’s possession show that the agriculture ministry has recommended that Mbambo, Namibia’s former High Commissioner to India, should be allowed to cut down 1 230 trees over five years.

Mbambo has never publicly declared that he intends harvesting trees on his newly acquired land. He was, however, notably vocal in his public criticism of the decision to stop the harvesting and transportation of timber.

According to a report in the Namibian Sun, he said that the ban was not well received by local farmers, who should be consulted. He said there were financial, social, political and legal implications to the government’s action, as farmers had invested heavily in logging operations.

Mbambo confirmed to The Namibian last week that he had applied to the government for permission to cut down trees on his land, saying that he and others are struggling to find the money to develop their properties. “The question is, where will we get the funds to develop the farms that we received from the state?” he said.

He said the agriculture ministry studied the farms and found three species of timber trees growing on them that could be felled and sold, with the proceeds being used to install infrastructure such as boreholes and fences.

Mbambo insisted that the plan to cut down the trees was approved by the ministry, which also promised to train them in how to do it.

He claimed the ministry told the farmers each of them could cut down 1 800 trees, limited to 600 per species.

He insisted that ban on the trade in timber will stifle economic growth in the region.

Asked if he is worried by reports that Namibians are selling timber to traders of questionable background, Mbambo said he had no proof of this. “I hear about these things. Whether they are criminals, I don’t know. I don’t have the facts or evidence,” he said.

Among those who have publicly criticised the ban is the governor of Kavango East, Samuel Mbambo. (Photo supplied).

The documents seen by The Namibian show that Isak Kandingu, the new mayor of Rundu, is another top politician in the region who has applied for official clearance to fell timber trees.

“We applied to the ministry to cut so that we can get the funds to develop from standard to commercialised farms,” Kandingu said. He added that as most of the people on his land are unemployed, harvesting benefits them as well.

The list seen by The Namibian indicates that Kandingu’s application was rejected. However, he insisted that he has been approved to cut down 600 trees.

He urged the environment ministry to supervise the harvesting and conduct research on different farmers to see if they could fell more trees. He said he followed the ministry’s instructions on harvesting.

He also called on the government to set a fixed price for timber, saying that some traders, including the Chinese, buy it at knock-down rates.

Fellow Rundu councillor Matheus Wakudumo also said that he had applied to harvest timber to earn money to meet the operating costs of his farm.

“We face many challenges, such as constructing boreholes, fencing and buying farm supplies,” said Wakudumo, an opposition All People’s Party politician.

Timber harvesting had become an important source of cash for subsistence farmers, he added.

“We have been harvesting timber since colonial times, and those who are concerned should tell us the real reason behind their concern,” Wakudumo said.

“We have many big companies in the country that are polluting the environment, wherever you step there are bottles. So people concerned [about the environment] must start with them.”

Wakudumo said the ministries of environment and agriculture monitor harvesting to ensure that farmers only cut down the quota of trees allocated to them.

He said he only sells raw timber because he lacks the equipment to add value to it. The only sawmill used to cut the logs into lumber in the region formerly belonged to the ministry of agriculture, but was auctioned off many years ago.

Wakudumo complained that farmers are being “ripped off” by Chinese traders who are the sole buyers of timber in the region.

“We are making China great for many years, because all our timber is exported there cheaply,” he said.

He proposed that the government should come up with a scheme where loggers use some of the proceeds of logging to plant new trees

According to the leaked documents, Sebulon Chicalu, the chief of human capital at state-owned Namibia Wildlife Resorts, has been recommended for permission to fell 1 860 trees over five years.

In an interview, Chicalu said that in addition to improving his farm, he wants to exploit the timber commercially.

He said he is using the wood to make furniture and to sell to commercial buyers from South Africa, Namibia and China.

Chicalu said he had plenty of timber on his farm and that if the trees were not harvested, they would die without realising any commercial value.

He proposed that the ministry of agriculture should spearhead a campaign for people to plant a new tree for every one they cut down.

Namibian Broadcasting Corporation television producer Andreas Frai, another beneficiary of a 99-year lease from the state, said he had reached retirement age and wanted to venture into farming.

Although he received permission to harvest 1 845 trees, he only planned to cut down 208 to cover the costs of features such as fencing and water supply.

He said he was not so “irresponsible” as to cut them all down, as he appreciated the environmental impact of harvesting.

Frai said that farmers receive N$250 per log, meaning he would get N$52 000 from selling his trees. He added that he only sold to local agencies with buyers in South Africa.

Kavango East Farmers Union chairperson Rudolf Muremi said the timber harvesting plan emerged when farmers could not source loans from the state-owned Agricultural Bank of Namibia.

Farmers were using the proceeds of logging as operating capital to pay their workers, and for generators and daily farming expenses, Muremi said.

He said he had held discussions with members on how to increase the value of their timber.

This could be achieved if the the government would revisit its plan for a factory at Rundu to produce semi-finished or finished products such as planks.

Muremi said his union tried to raise conservation awareness among members. He called on the government not to draft a solution in Windhoek, but rather “on the ground” with the farmers.

“The environment ministry barely ever visits Kavango East farms to see what is going on. They only visit where the logs are collected and say the forest is depleted,” he said.

The leaked documents list a number of other senior politicians and government officials that the agriculture ministry recommended for permission to fell trees.

They include:

  • Swapo MP Sebastiaan Karupu who also served as Kavango governor between 1999 and 2004. Karupu’s application to cut down 1 230 trees over five years was recommended for acceptance.
  • Swapo member of the National Council Michael Shikongo, who was recommended for permission to fell 1 830 trees.
  • Reverend Ludwig Hausiku, special adviser to the youth minister, who was recommended for permission to fell 1 082 trees.
  • The Electoral Commission of Namibia’s regional coordinator for Kavango East, Protasius Ihemba, who was recommended for permission to fell 1 580 trees.

The Namibian Sun reported last year that local producers received between N$180 000 and N$270 000 for a consignment of 600 trees, but that the Chinese middlemen sold them on at Walvis Bay for N$3-million – a tenfold increase.

The Namibian has established that timber workers are typically paid N$20 to cut down a rosewood tree.

The executive director of the agriculture ministry, Percy Misika denied that his ministry is encouraging the trade in rare hardwoods in north-eastern Namibia.

“The heavy cutting of trees concerns the government,” he said, adding that his ministry is responsible for confiscating most illegally harvested timber.

Any licensing arrangement could be abused, he said. “But we have a rigorous surveillance system and campaigns. Whenever we hear of illegal logging we confiscate and report the culprits to the police.”

*This article was produced by The Namibian’s investigative unit. Send us story tips via secure email to investigations@namibian.com.na

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