Why illegal deforestation in Angola must stop

José Evangelista

Recent studies and satellite images show that illegal logging is expanding at an alarming rate in the Angolan planted forests. Satellite images (readily available on Google Earth Timeline) of the same forest areas in Angola, taken in 2015 and 2016, show that they continue to suffer from large-scale illegal logging, eventually leading to deforestation and loss of local economic livelihoods.

The primary cause of this is illegal logging by foreign companies who are failing to replant the trees they illegally cut. In the wake of the logging come ‘slash and burn’ subsistence farmers who typically plant their crops, deplete the soil, and move on after a couple of years. While this does provide a certain level of food security, it is also unsustainable.

Part of the challenge is how to tackle companies who have been granted logging licences by unauthorised local officials who are incentivised to issue ‘licences’. Enforcement of existing laws is challenging because there may be confusion amongst local police as to what holds legal precedent: the licence or the existing laws. This confusion is creating what can only be described as a ‘logging licence racket’. The impact is devastating. Angola has seen its planted forest areas decline by 31% between 2010 and 2013. Forty percent of the country’s plantations (which were abandoned by the Angolan state during the civil war) can now be classified as ‘totally degraded’.

This is a story that is familiar right across the African region – unregulated logging of natural and planted forests in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia have caused widespread deforestation. The Mozambican government has now passed a law banning the export of hardwood logs from January 2017 to end the devastation of its forests, but hardwood logs can still be seen on trucks heading for the port of Beira. And it’s not just an African problem – we are seeing widespread corruption destroy natural forests in the Ukraine, Malaysia, Vietnam, right across the world. Only a handful of first-world countries have illegal logging largely under control.

Outright bans in places where natural forests are being decimated have been effective in some jurisdictions – but in Angola we are seeing the destruction of man-made planted forests that are critical in meeting the growing demand for wood across the African continent. Development and sustainable management of the forest industry in Africa depends on the supply of logs from legally and ethically mandated licensed companies. In Angola, the national government has granted legal concessions to companies capable of meeting that demand by sustainably managing planted forest resources. However, when those companies move in to carry out their legally mandated work, they find that many hectares of land have already been degraded by illegal logging, a failure to reforest, uncontrolled fires and the ruination of soil.

One of the companies to have been awarded plantation concessions in Angola is Estrela da Floresta, whose mandate is to build a world class, sustainable timber industry. Estrela da Floresta was created to develop Angola’s timber sector through sustainable forestry practices, as well as contribute to job creation and national economic growth. In the context of logging, the key is sustainable fibre supply: sustainably managed forests that can supply wood and fibre at reasonably consistent annual volumes while contributing a net positive impact to the environment and surrounding communities. This requires rapid replanting of the forests, protection of soil using appropriate equipment and an understanding of how to manage the land. Estrela da Floresta is also monitoring forest plantations on an ongoing basis. It has hired a Finnish forest technology solutions provider called Simosol to monitor the plantations through high resolution satellite images.

Sustainability also has a long-lasting socio-economic impact. It means that supply doesn’t end and Angola’s logging industry can make a long-term contribution to the development of wood processing industries, job creation and tax-take. As it stands, illegal logging contributes zero tax to the Treasury and is destroying forest soils by compaction and the use of inappropriate logging machinery. Illegal logging companies also have little compulsion to look after those working for them – no contracts, compromised worker’s rights, little-to-no safety equipment and zero healthcare provisions for ordinary Angolans.

The solution may seem easy. National government could move in and remove illegal logging companies and evict illegal farmers from state-controlled land. However, most of these are small-scale subsistence farmers who are very poor and who depend on the land for their food and survival. To evict families with no other livelihood would be patently cruel.

Where these communities overlap with the concession areas awarded to companies like Estrela da Floresta; local government, national government and the companies themselves are looking to collaborate. A heavy-handed approach would likely cause misery and resentment, which is why Estrela da Floresta has recruited community relations managers to work with subsistence farmers. They teach them how to get the most from the land they are using, to use it responsibly and sustainably, and to work in harmony with the companies whose role is to develop sustainable forest plantations for the benefit of the wider community. In the medium-to-long term, planted forests have the potential to stimulate local production of wood and paper products (Angola imports almost all its processed wood products) – so there is considerable scope for local communities to benefit from putting an end to illegal logging.

The international community is already playing its part. In Paris, December 2015, the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) was launched. Its objective is to, ‘… bring 100 million hectares of degraded land into restoration by 2030′. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), alongside other bodies such as the World Bank, has set aside ‘US$1bn in development finance through the Africa Climate Business Plan’. Other ‘impact’ investors have earmarked $481m in private finance for restoration. These sums are significant but fall short of the real cost of restoring 100 million hectares, which could be as much as $200bn. Restoration of the continent’s forests is crucial, not only to end deforestation, but to support sustainable logging and improve soil fertility – itself an important component in the drive towards achieving food security.

Illegal logging is a crime that hurts the natural environment and causes long-term socio-economic damage to communities. It’s continuation rests purely on bribery and corruption. The time has come for local influencers to work with national government to find a way to phase out illegal logging practices and reboot sustainable forestry practices. Private companies such as Estrela da Floresta have a positive role to play too, by working with vulnerable communities to ensure that the poorest people do not pay the ultimate price by losing their livelihoods. These issues are global in nature and Angola has an opportunity to establish the template for other countries to follow: a collaborative approach to boosting forest products output – and job creation – through sustainable forest management, respect for workers and local community well-being, and the creation of a globally competitive forest asset.

José Evangelista is a manager at Estrela da Floresta.