Sierra Leone's asset recovery tsar denies unfair advantage in timber export trade

Foday Rado Rokie, timber company owner
After a cross-country helicopter flyover, former president Ernest Koroma told officials at a 2008 opening ceremony for customs and border officials that he noticed a huge swathe of Sierra Leone’s forest had disappeared.

During the 2018 presidential campaign, Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) candidate Julius Maada Bio said that there was no accountability in the country’s timber trade. Immediately after he assumed power on April 4th, President Bio issued an executive order suspending the export of timber logs.

Since the resumption of timber exports took effect a few weeks ago, information reaching Sewa News indicates that a major stakeholder is Foday Rado Yokie, a former Member of Parliament who President Bio appointed to head a taskforce responsible for recovering government vehicles.

Yokie, who represented a constituency in Bo district, Sierra Leone's second largest city, is a principal partner in Spring Wood & Furniture Company, the firm given the concession to oversee the trade.

To many, this seems to be a conflict of interest.

One of the things the timber association complained about during the last administration was that it was mainly cronies of former president Koroma that benefited from the lucrative timber export trade.

Whilst Rado Yokie was not available for comment on his involvement in the renewed timber export trade, a close aide maintained that there is nothing wrong or criminal in Yokie's action,  who before venturing into politics was a businessman in the timber export trade.

The aide stated that the constitution of Sierra Leone only bars the president and vice president of the country from engaging in any profit-making enterprise whilst in office.

The aide said Yokie's partners are a Chinese businessman, Yining Yong, a resident of Freetown, and Babadie Kamara, a Sierra Leonean national.

However, a lot of people have asked whether Yokie’s close association with political leadership has helped position the wood and furniture company as overseer of the export of sawn logs, totaling an estimated 13, 000 containers.

The unregulated harvesting of timber in community-owned forests and in state forest reserves, both for the home building and furniture industry and in the last decade for export, is one of the main causes of deforestation, which environmentalists note has had a devastating impact on the country’s precious flora and fauna.

Environmentalists decry the indiscriminate felling of valuable woods, that take at least three decades to reach maturity, without the government and the Ministry of Agriculture, and Forestry seeing the wisdom of setting up nurseries to supply the logging communities with seedlings for replacing the lost forests.

Since 2009, Sierra Leone’s export timber trade has been controlled by a shadowy Chinese group that is supplied logs by a few select local timber middlemen.

Astonishingly, the trade is done without any official record of trees felled, amount of logs exported, or any revenue that accrued from the trade to the National Revenue Authority.

Whilst the trade in unprocessed Sierra Leone timber is estimated to be worth a few hundred million dollars annually, investigation shows that the principal beneficiaries are the Chinese merchants who buy the sawn logs in highly devalued Leones and sell them abroad in dollars at an unimaginable profit.

In the 2010 debate on banning of the trade, Member of Parliament Chernor Maju Bah called for a plan to sustain the forest stating that the levying of a higher export tariff might be of use.

“But to what extent?” he asked. He also stated that at $120 per cubic meter, Sierra Leone’s timber was cheapest in the sub-region.

Like diamonds which have been mined extensively since the 1930s in many parts of south-east Sierra Leone, with little economic benefit to the communities where they are mined and to the government and people of Sierra Leone, many people think that the decade-old Chinese controlled export timber trade has benefitted very little the provincial communities where the logs from.

The people who benefit from the trade in terms of fees and bribes paid to them by the middlemen who buy the timber from local sawyers include:

  • Politicians connected with the trade as shareholders and facilitators, 
  • Ministry of Agriculture Forestry department officials at central and district headquarters, 
  • Foresters supposed to protect the forests from encroachment, 
  • Police and inspectors at the Mile 38 certification checkpoint where the logs pass from the bush to Freetown for export, 
  • Paramount chiefs, local chiefs, community elders and landowning family heads 

Tambakha chiefdom in Kambia district revealed that like with diamonds, the money timber logging enticed many children to abandon school and engage in the trade.

Motorists, commercial bike riders, traders and passengers report that the heavy tonnage trailers, trucks and vehicles that transport the logs to Freetown have damaged roads and bridges, making travel difficult and expensive.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in an article on Sierra Leone titled "Foresty sector in 2020 - State of Forests and Plantations on the issue of Deforestation Pressure" notes that over the next two decades, the area of legally constituted forest estates will continue to decrease due to urban and agricultural expansion.

The report also says that about 10% of the country’s land area (government controlled estates and salvage areas) comprising of closed forests would have been deforested at the rate of about 1.5% - 2.0% per annum thereby increasing the area under forest re-growth currently occupying 60% of the country’s total land area.

In 1985, Sierra Leone responded to the FAO call to celebrate World Forestry Day by inaugurating an annual National Tree Planting Day that resulted in the planting of millions of trees. The trees suffered from the effects of annual wildfires; real estate development; war-related urbanization pressure; lack of incentives for maintenance; the need for firewood, charcoal, and electric poles.

The accelerating rate of deforestation in Sierra Leone is not only threatening biodiversity and ecosystem balance in the country but is contributing to global climate change.

The GHG emissions from deforestation in developing countries were estimated in 2008 to contribute approximately 20% of the world’s carbon dioxide.

Mining, agriculture, felling of trees for timber, road construction, particularly logging roads, which open up inaccessible forested areas to fuelwood and wildlife exploitation, and clearing for new settlements in fast-growing urban areas, also contribute the most to deforestation, linked to risks such as the loss of tree cover over water supply sources, destruction of plants and animals used as food and medicines, strong winds that damage houses, climate change, and unpredictable weather patterns.

Nonetheless, there is an argument that banning the timber trade will not be enough to salvage the country’s remaining rain-forests.

In order for the forest to be preserved, the underlying reasons for deforestation must be recognized and addressed. Reforestation and restoration projects should be encouraged if the country is to prevent serious, long-term consequences.

The creation of multi-use reserves that promote sustainable development and education of local people would be a good place to start.

Sierra Leone is a signatory to several international agreements on conservation and environmental management. What is noticeably lacking is the implementation of the terms of these agreements and especially follow-up actions to agreements and conclusions taking at the Conferences of Parties and other interim meetings. 

To date the country is at various stages in the implementation of the following agreements:

  • Convention on the Conservation of Biodiversity 
  • UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered  Species
  • UN Convention to Combat Desertification
  • Convention covering World Cultural Heritage
  • African Convention on  Nature and Natural Resources
  • Coastal Environment for West Central Africa Region

Implemented, they will make Sierra Leone a big beneficiary of the UN-REDD project.

However, action has been lukewarm because the Forestry Division is under-funded, marginalized and located in a Ministry with a heavy bias towards food security despite its impact on the environment in general and to the forest sector in particular.

The role of forests in enhancing food production is mostly unrecognized despite the obvious impacts of climate change on our agricultural productivity.

Importantly, non-timber forest products play a key role in sustenance and livelihood support for rural communities; provision of construction materials; handicrafts; support in food security and healthcare delivery; sources of proteins and essential vitamins, gums and resins, wrapping materials, beverages (‘poyo’, ‘duvui’, etc.

A sustainable forestry policy could make a good entry point to the introduction of community forest management because the communities have a vested interest in these products.  Since the majority of forests lie on communal lands, only the introduction of community forestry practices can effectively stall deforestation, especially in areas where communities realize substantial benefits from forest and other natural resources management.

There is a need for the development of an incentive scheme for tree planting.

 Along this line of thinking, forestry experts believe that with the right legislation, policies and actions on the ground that guide how timber harvesting can be done prudently and reforestation programs undertaken, in spite of the extensive deforestation that has taken place in especially in the last ten years across the length and breadth of the once heavily wooded country, the situation can be salvaged and turned into huge employment and revenue opportunities for local communities and the government.

Citing Sweden and the Scandinavian countries where millions of hectares of land have been replanted with trees since the 1960s, forestry experts recommend a policy of replacement of lost forests with plantations of fast-growing timber species.

The forestry experts this reporter spoke to maintained that with the right legal, institutional and infrastructural framework and adequate financial and logistic support, within a medium and long-term time frame the required silviculture knowledge and technical expertise can be acquired for nursing and planting on a large scale many of the lost indigenous high value timber species such as African pinewood, mahogany, iroko that are highly priced in the international timber market.


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