Sierra Leone’s Unregulated Export Timber Trade

Sierra Leone’s rapidly disappearing tropical forests are home to soft and hardwood, including herbs and plants and many common and exotic flora and fauna.

Significantly, most biodiversity hot spots in Sierra Leone are contained in what is supposed to be protected areas: forest reserves; community forests, national parks; game sanctuaries and other proposed protected areas.

Alarmingly, because of lax government and community controls, these areas are being devastated at a rapid pace by widespread illegal logging.

Unknown to the majority of its citizens, Sierra Leone has for decades exported timber that provides material for logs, panels, boards, doors, windows, furniture, decking, plywood, sawn timber, planed wood and timber, laminated wood, flooring, packing and pallet wood, and soft and hardwood veneers.

 With Sierra Leone’s forests and woodlands being a significant source of construction wood, timber and furniture, Chinese timber merchants have increasingly targeted the country for the supply.

This investigation discovered depots at Hastings airfield, another behind the Hastings Police Training School, Jui, and Korea Compound in Allen Town, where the Chinese buy logs. There is no National Revenue Authority or Environmental Protection Agency presence. 

An Al Jazeera program, ‘Sierra Leone: Timber! A story of corruption that is stripping the West African country bare’  noted that illegal logging is laying waste to Sierra Leone’s endangered forests.

Despite years of laws and bans, precious timber is still being exported abroad and unless something is done the country’s woodlands will be gone within a decade. Logging for export is a challenge to the sustainability of Sierra Leone’s environment.

During the administration of former President Ernest Bai Koroma, unregulated export of timber logs was the order of the day.

Sierra Leonean journalist Sorious Samura in an Al Jazeera documentary says timber has become the new diamonds in his country.

With an undercover team, he discovered an illegal multi-million dollar timber trade flourishing under the nose of the government, and that associates of one of the most powerful politicians in the country are involved.

Many Sierra Leoneans in the forested areas of Kailahun, Kenema and Kono in the Eastern province, Pujehun, Bo and Moyamba in the Southern province, and Kambia, Karena, Bombali, Koinadugu, and Falaba in the Northern Province have over the years engaged in the lucrative business.

With the Chinese trade, trees are felled that are not replaced with replanting. Forests have almost all been cleared. Particularly around Tambakha, Bramaia and Tonko Limba chiefdoms in Kambia district and parts in the north, where the Pterocarpus Erinaceus (African Rosewood) wanted so badly by the Chinese merchants who export to Asia, is plentiful,

African Rosewood is used locally in the making of a musical instrument called Balanji after the timber has lain some months on the ground. In the drier parts of the country, it is a useful tree for house-building. It seeds readily and is usually found in large quantities. 

Concerned about the damage to the environment due to indiscriminate felling of trees for export,  the new government of President Julius Maada Bio issued Executive Order No 1 on Monday, 9 April 2018, declaring that, "the export of timber logs is suspended with immediate effect" in the country.

When the timber export trade started in the country in 2008 on a small scale, it was done legitimately until one of the local merchants, Alie Suma, reportedly took it to the State House.

Suma involved the then chief of staff and other government officials leading to scandals, forging of documents and defrauding the state of Sierra Leone millions of Leones.

Thus, whilst the recent timber export trade has been a lucrative source of income for the government officials who issue the license to export, it has brought very little financial gain to the state and the communities where the logs come from.

Significantly, as the trade boomed under former President Koroma, it became characterized by unethical deals between the companies that bought the timber, the government, and the Chinese export company.

This led to the government imposing a ban on the timber export trade.

When the chairman of Timber Association of Sierra Leone, Mr. Abass Janneh made an appeal in 2014 to president Koroma to allow the timber that had been put on hold to be exported, promising to honor all the bills, he said they are a registered legal business operating in Sierra Leone. 

Janneh added that the association, which he said had been doing business in Sierra Leone for over 23 years, had provided jobs for over 90,000 youths nationwide and had over $4 billion to invest in the timber business with 2,000 containers waiting to be exported.

He pointed out that despite the ban on timber export, it was with the consent of the government that Alie Suma was given the green light to export in order to enable him to settle his bills, noting that State House or the Ministry never copied the association.

Smuggling to neighboring countries

To discourage the smuggling of timber to neighboring countries, the Koroma government issued a clearance certificate to the China Friendship Society for the export of five thousand, twenty-foot semi-processed logs. The China Friendship Society has been exporting logs for eight years, not adding any value to them.

The acting director of forestry at the Ministry of Agriculture, William Bangura, suggested that the best option for the government to mitigate the smuggling of timber was to issue licenses to exporters so that government will regain the lost revenue in the sector.

Previously, the government had issued a license solely to Patrick Koroma, chief executive officer of the China Friendship Society and brother of President Koroma, denying three other companies the privilege.

Chinese nationals engaging in what many saw as illegal criminal timber trading was attributed to government complicity.

As the trade became engulfed in scandals, many of the timber traders called for a Timber Consultancy and Regulatory Body to be established that will manage the affairs of the timber business in the country in collaboration with National Revenue Authority (NRA), Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Ministry of Trade and Enterprises.

After suspending the export of timber, citing irregularities and lack of proper accountability, the new government of President Julius Maada Bio decided to lift the ban last week.  

This prompted the leader of one of the opposition parties in parliament, Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, the Member of Parliament representing Constituency 062 – Samu Chiefdom, Kambia District, to issue a statement. It reads:

 Reports reaching the NGC indicate that President Maada Bio has ordered the temporary lifting of the ban imposed some weeks ago on the export of timber from our country. When the President imposed the temporary ban, the NGC applauded his move because the Party believed that his move was an outward manifestation of the “New Direction’s” concern about the wanton destruction of our forests by foreign operators working in cahoots with unscrupulous citizens, and the urgent need to immediately intensify enforcement of existing forest conservation laws. Our optimism and faith in the determination of President Bio’s Government to move quickly to arrest the unbridled destruction of our county’s ecosystem was justified. The Speaker of Parliament confirmed our optimism a week ago, when he called on and encouraged Members of Parliament to view the film “Land That We Love” which chronicles the crisis of decades of deforestation in Sierra Leone. Thus encouraged, as the Leader of the NGC Parliamentary Group, I decided to visit the old Hastings Airport on Sunday, 24 June 2018. On the way, I discovered to my utter chagrin, several locations along the Wellington-Masiaka highway that serve as staging grounds for the illegal export of lumber from Sierra Leone. These are some of the many graveyards for our forests. I recorded the evidence.

  • Credible research on deforestation in Sierra Leone estimates that during the past few years, our country exported 3000-4000 containers every six months. This is equivalent to thousands of acres of forest cover that is lost.
  • Given that each container sells for USD 4,000 in Freetown and bought for USD 15,000 overseas, 1000 containers will fetch $15 million whilst 4000 containers will generate $60 million of economic value that is lost.

Some of this wealth could have been captured if our country had a clearly defined policy and strategies for local value-added by manufacturing furniture for export or domestic use.  
Moreover, the amount of lumber in this one location can feed a domestic furniture industry for years if sustainable forest protection and conservation measures are instituted to include replanting and seasonal harvesting. 
This could establish a commercially viable furniture industry for wealth and job creation.

The NGC would like to believe that this negative mindset of “quick riches” at the expense of the environment will change and that the New Direction Government is willing and ready to mitigate the current rate of deforestation.

The NGC, therefore, calls on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to:
  1. Introduce and enforce more stringent forest protection measures, 
  2. Accelerate the tree planting program, and 
  3. Teach our people to understand the nexus between sustainable forest management and the protection of ecosystems and water basins.

If these measures are not put in place, the current free-for-all and madness of lumber exports will lead to greater environmental calamity to the next generation.
The NGC estimates that the proposed temporary lifting of the ban to export 13,000 containers should yield about $195 million dollars.

We call on President Bio’s New Direction Government to ensure that a greater proportion of this amount accrues to government and the local communities concerned. 
The NGC also calls on the Government to assure the country that there is a sunset clause for the lifting of the ban and to indicate exactly when the final ban will come into force again.

Concerned about the loss to the country, the Executive Director of Green Scenery, Joseph Rahall,  called on the government to place a permanent ban on logging for export to rejuvenate the depleted forests and make concrete efforts to replace trees with local varieties.

He expressed disappoint that the environmental situation in the country was going beyond reparable measures, given that 'we have seen the scenarios of deforestation and land degradation in the country".

According to the Green Scenery boss, the spate of logging in recent times was unprecedented and alarming. He urged that logs that have already been processed be confiscated by the government and used locally in the country's market.

Apart from the massive deforestation in recent times, Mr. Rahall said: "we have seen where construction of roads, large scale investment and mining have taken their toll on the country and so all of this put together has a very telling effect on the condition of the Sierra Leone environment".

According to Rahall, those who are involved in timber for export could never engage in similar business activity in their own home countries because there are stringent measures to deter them from doing so.

"This is why they are coming to countries like Sierra Leone where there are weak laws and governance as well as policies to implement on deforestation, with the aim of exploiting the country's resources," he said.

He cautioned those involved in the business to understand that the world needs a cleaner environment, especially in view of climate change.

He added that if countries have been coming together to find solutions on how to reduce the impact of Climate Change in the world, Sierra Leone should not be undermining the process by allowing massive logging for export.

"The rate at which deforestation was done in recent years has taken this country backwards for another fifty years because Sierra Leone only has 5% of forest cover and it will take a lot of research to really know how much forest cover we presently have," Rahall said.

Mr. Rahall lamented that the former administration published a Government White Paper on the review of the country’s 1991 Constitution in which they failed to include recommendations suggested by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on issues of Land, the Environment and Natural Resources.

A poor country like Sierra Leone can benefit immensely from a well-structured forestry management scheme, starting with looking at the sector as a kind of 'Endowment Assurance' with returns which begins with existing forests, and with afforestation begun now.

The return is always sure, more especially now, with continually rising timber prices.

However, to maximize long term gains from the forestry sector, Sierra Leone needs to put resources, including manpower and money to work repairing the reckless mismanagement of the forests in the last quarter of the last century and the first two decades of this millennium.

Key elements of good forest governance include the existence of effective institutions, transparency, low levels of corruption, consistent and clear legislation, secure forest tenure and access rights, and political stability. The absence of these often lies at the root of illegal logging.

Internationally, there have also been a number of initiatives within the financial sector aimed at ensuring that investors are not supporting illegal practices, and in some cases, that they are actively promoting sustainable practices. For example, a growing number of investors are signatories to CDP’s forest program, which aims to improve corporate management of the risks associated with deforestation. CDP was formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project.

This report was filed by James (JB Roy ) Kajue and was done with information gleaned from:
Al Jazeera
Standard-Times Newspaper
Awoko Newspaper
The Democrat Newspaper
Trees Of Sierra Leone  (SS Avill B. So; & JED Fox Bsc., M.F;
Hardwoods Native to Northern Sierra Leone
Free Trade Agreements & wood export in West Africa – ITTO
FOSA Country Report – FAO, ‘Forestry Sector in 2020’
Timber & Lumber Companies from Sierra Leone Suppliers and Exporters from Large database provided by


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