Maputo — The Attorney-General’s Office is investigating the smuggling of timber from Mozambique to China, and the possible involvement of senior figures in the government and the ruling Frelimo Party in this illicit trade, according to a report in the latest issue of the independent weekly “Savana”.
The smuggling was denounced by a British-based NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which looked at the figures from both the Mozambican and Chinese ends of the trade and spotted enormous discrepancies. The imports of Mozambican timber declared in China massively exceed the exports declared in Mozambique.
According to the EIA report, in 2012 China recorded imports of wood (logs and sawn wood) of 450,000 cubic metres. Yet for the same year Mozambique recorded exports of wood of 260,385 cubic metres, not merely to China but to the entire world.
When the Chinese figures are broken down, 323,000 cubic metres of the wood imports from Mozambique are logs. The total exports of logs in the Mozambican records are just 41,543 cubic metres.
Discrepancies on this scale cannot be dismissed as mathematical or accounting mistakes. They indicate that hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of wood were exported illegally to China in 2012, mostly in the form of unprocessed logs.
While the discrepancy was exceptionally large in 2012, it follows the pattern of preceding years. The EIA calculates that from 2007 to 2012 “more than 707,025 cubic metres of China’s registered imports of Mozambican timber were not registered or licensed for export by Mozambique”.
The financial loss to the Mozambican economy is very considerable. The Mozambican export figures for 2012 show 49 million US dollars worth of timber was shipped to China.
The Chinese figures show timber imports from Mozambique valued at 134 million dollars. So 85 million dollars has gone missing.
The spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Office, Assistant Attorney-General Taibo Mucobora assured journalists that prosecutors will investigate the scandal, analyzing the denunciations made in the EIA report.
“This is a public crime, and so it is enough for the Public Prosecutor’s Office to be aware of its occurrence in order to begin investigations”, he said. The preparatory investigations would show whether there was sufficient evidence for criminal proceedings against anyone named in the report – and those named include the current Agriculture Minister, Jose Pacheco, and a previous minister, Tomas Mandlate, who is now a Frelimo parliamentary deputy.
Mucobora said that, within a matter of days, prosecutors will go to the provinces where the smuggling occurred. “We shall hear the persons named, the relevant bodies and other parties crucial to clarifying the case, and the due procedural treatment will be given to the matter”, he pledged.
One of the main smuggling outfits is the Chinese company MOFID, which has been repeatedly caught out by Mozambican officials and the Mozambican press, attempting to export logs illegally from northern Mozambican ports. Despite this, MOFID continues to operate in Mozambique.
EIA investigators, posing as clients, talked to one of the owners of MOFID, Liu Chaoying, who boasted that he could export large quantities of first class hardwoods – which, under Mozambican law, should never be exported as logs, but only as processed products.
Liu also boasted that he had close connections with Pacheco, claiming “me and him are like brothers”, describing him as “a friend”, and alleging that when the Minister “needs money, he has come looking for me”.
Of course, these claims of close ties with Pacheco may only be the idle boast of a crooked businessman trying to impress someone he believes to be a client. But so far Pacheco has not reacted to these damaging allegations.
Mandlate is much more compromised than Pacheco. EIA investigators say they met Mandlate at the home of a man named Xu in the northern city of Pemba in September. Xu is an official with the Senlian Corporation, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned Shanghai Senlian Timber Industrial Development Corporation.
Mandlate was staying at Xu’s house during the Frelimo Tenth Congress. According to the report, Mandlate claimed that his role is “to help the company solve some problems”.
Xu supposedly said that Mandlate “takes care of the liaison work, such as export quotas, and forest concession permits”, for which the Chinese company paid him a salary and gave him a share of the company.
But Senlian ran into trouble in April 2012, when 34 of its containers full of illegal logs were seized, resulting in large fines and forcing Senlian to suspend log exports for the rest of the year.
Nonetheless, Xu hoped that Mandlate would smooth the way to resuming illegal exports. “He will sort it out for me next year”, he claimed.
Mandlate strongly denies any involvement with Xu in the illegal timber trade.
The EIA report praises the Mozambican authorities for the repeated seizures of containers full of illegal logs over the past few years – but it notes that “despite being caught breaking the law, after paying the appropriate fines some of the companies implicated in these frauds were allowed to buy their logs back and ship them to China”.
It also notes that, “while laudable work is being done by progressive elements in the Mozambican government to crack down, their work is being undermined by unscrupulous and corrupt officials who facilitate Chinese traders in continued illegal operations”.