Africa has emerged as critical for the future of global timber resources.
According to the FAO, Africa is home to 17% of the world’s forests, but only 9% of the forest area is “in use.” Forests contribute just 7% of total forest removals and 1.5% of the global industrial output of the world.
In some African countries, forest capital is already “rapidly depleted”, with forest resources underutilised to meet surging demand for timber in the region.
Last month, Wood Central reported that Kenya was lifting its six-year ban on harvesting, with President William Ruto claiming that the decision was “long overdue” and would create jobs.
Kenya is looking to lift forest production, balancing investment in plantation forests with reforestation. Under the “National Programme for Accelerated Forestry and Rangelands Restoration,” Kenya will plant 15 billion trees in urban and rural areas nationwide.
Now, foresters in the East African region are pushing to change policies to allow for freer trade of timber and “weed out” exploitative trade routes.
As reported in the East African Herald, the group argue that archaic laws are fuelling illegal harvesting and sale of trees which, in turn, is resulting in lost revenue for state agencies.
According to Dr Joshua Cheboiwo, a director of the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri), “informal operators drive cross-border trade between Kenya and Tanzania.
Dr Cheboiwo claims that these operators lack licensing for illegal activities involving quantities of goods at borders that do not meet declaration thresholds.
In addition, many use falsified documentation and target unregulated and unofficial border points resulting in considerable losses in forest resources and revenues.
Globally, the illegal trade of timber is between USD 30 Billion and USD 100 Billion annually, with African countries now required to demonstrate that forest products do not come from deforested areas.
“In East Africa, Kenya-Tanzania illegal trade resulted in the loss of 70,000 hectares of forests and $10 million in foregone revenue,” Dr Cheboiwo said.
Africa is a net importer of forest products, with cross-border exports accounting for less than 8% of global trading volumes.
“Africa boasts vast forestry resources and exports raw materials for processing abroad. We are (almost) third in the world for the material base. But all we lack is an investment in processing.”
China has invested heavily in Central African forest resources in recent years, with more than 4.2 tonnes of timber exported to China over the past decade.
At the same time, exports to Europe have halved, falling from $US1.4 billion to $US600 million in value, according to the Central Africa Forest Observatory.
African imports of tertiary processed products are valued at USD 4 billion, with just 10% ending in cross-border trade.
Dr Cheboiwo gave the keynote address at the African Forest Forum held in Nairobi last month.
The African Forest Forum (AFF) is an Africa-wide group of foresters which brought together 70 forestry stakeholders from 17 African countries.
The group share information and experiences on forest conservation and tree-based ecosystem services for socio-ecological resilience against climate change.
A new study commissioned by AFF revealed that Africa’sAfrica’s export challenges in the forestry sector are complex.
The research uncovered a scarcity of trade data on forest products between borders.
It showed that the quantities and sales remain unknown, highlighting the concealed opportunity for governments to generate significant revenue.
According to Dr Cheboiwo, efforts have been made to condemn and curb illegal logging activities, but more attention is needed to implement reforms.
He argues that weak coordination among agencies in respective countries, conflicting laws and policies, poor enforcement regulations, collusion, and corruption significantly drive illegal trade.
African sandalwood and African rosewood are two species most impacted by illegal trade by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Both are used in perfumes and luxury furniture in India and China.
Doris Mutta, a Senior Program Officer at AFF, explained that sustainable forest management should balance the exploitation of forest resources and their positive impact on development.
“Some nations are rich in natural resources, while others struggle with limited resources and rapid population growth and urbanisation,” Mr Mutta said.
“The promotion of intra-African investments and trade can significantly impact job creation and overall economic development across the continent. To achieve these goals effectively, African nations must adopt measures under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that facilitate smooth movement of forest products and services across borders.”
Most illegal trade revolves around timber from various species harvested from natural forests in the west, east and central Africa.
The latter stands out, especially for its prized mahogany hardwood species, valued for the furniture and construction industries.
“The special Africa sandalwood and Africa rosewood are largely found in scattered woodlands and forests throughout Africa, and the high demand in Asia has resulted in high extraction from their natural habitats to near extinction,” Mr Mutta noted.
The Nairobi workshop foresters examined the intra-Africa timber trade’s role in continental socio-economic development.
According to the experts, intra-Africa investments and trade can contribute significantly to employment creation and overall continental economic development if well managed.
Dr Cheboiwo said Kenya faced significant deforestation challenges due to governance problems and frequent logging bans.
Kenya was the largest timber importer and re-exporter of forest products to its neighbours.
Lengthy logging bans in Kenya deterred potential investors and hindered growth and manufacturing in this sector.
The ban was lifted following a Multi–Agency Taskforce between 2020 to 2022.
In an article published in Kenya’s largest media publication, Environmental Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya revealed that of the 150,000 hectares of primarily cypress, pine, and eucalyptus exotic tree species, “26,000 hectares are of mature and over–mature forest plantation stocks.”
If not removed, Ms Tuya argues, “these materials would eventually die and rot with the attendant colossal loss in revenue, which would otherwise be used in the restoration of degraded public forest areas.”
In contrast, Tanzania and Uganda have successfully attracted private investors to establish plantations resulting in more rapid forestry growth.
Tanzania hosts the largest sawmill capacity.
Several notable wood manufacturing facilities operate within this region, including Sao Hill, with a capacity of 48,000 metric tonnes, Mufundi Paper Mill at 46,000 cubic metres, Kilombero Valley Teak Company at 45,000 cubic metres and Tanganyika Wattle Co at 20,000 cubic metres.
Tanzania is also a key exporter to eastern and southern African markets.
Three Kenyan companies, Rai Ply Group, Comply Industries and Timsales, are significant players in integrated sawmilling operations and plywood particle board production.
Their operations have expanded into neighbouring countries such as Tanzania and Malawi.
According to Dr Cheboiwo, across most of the continent, despite investor interest in private plantation forests, land acquisition issues complicate the process.
“Land security concerns, conflicts over land between communities, regional and central governments, interfere with investment in Africa.”
But there are issues of over-exploitation. “Of late, we’ve been receiving investors from China in the veneer and plywood production sector,” Dr Cheboiwo said.
Tanzania and Uganda have a lot of veneer production for export but not for local consumption.
But the practice doesn’t seem to be sustainable. They’re harvesting very young trees.
“Some of the investors who have moved from Tanzania to Uganda moved because they’ve wiped out resources in Tanzania,” said Professor Reuben Mwamakimbullah, CEO of Davis Forestry Consultants in Tanzania.
Moreover, according to Prof Suzana Augustino, from the Department of Forest Engineering and Wood Sciences at Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania, failure by African states to account for the contribution of the forest ecosystem services to get their proper GDP value and contribution has kept the region’sregion’s forest resources undervalued and made resource management difficult.
“We also have an issue of incomplete and outdated regulations on forest products harvesting and trade. Inadequate enforcement of laws and regulations. Policy and legal frameworks are required to promote investment in industries, infrastructure development, and efficient and legal timber harvesting.”
AFF’s executive secretary Professor Godwin Kowero added: “This region has a lot of wood but produces few industrial wood products.”
According to Professor Kowero, “It mostly has small scale and very little production of veneer and plywood and an absence of pulp and paper production.”
In contrast, despite having limited forest resources within its borders, North Africa stands out as a noteworthy hub for pulp and paper manufacturing.
“The situation in Africa is such that where you don’t have a lot of forests, you have the most processing.”