Lusaka — Is selling illegally cut timber a way to make needed cash for the country - or does it send the wrong message?
Zambian authorities have begun exporting timber confiscated from illegal loggers who continue to fell trees despite a nationwide ban to protect the country's dwindling forests.
Similar moves in other countries have proved controversial, with opinion divided between whether selling confiscated timber sends the wrong signal to illegal loggers, or is acceptable in order to provide much-needed income.
Two years ago, Zambia banned the felling and transport of a tree known locally as mukula - Pterocarpus chrysothrix, a relative of rosewood - in a bid to curb its rapid loss fuelled by growing demand in Asia.
The wood is highly prized on the international market, making it one of the trees most heavily logged by illegal harvesters.
According to the Zambia Revenue Authority, more than 250 trucks of the illegal timber have been confiscated in the past two years.
This year, authorities started exporting the confiscated mukula logs to Asia via South Africa, saying it was better to earn the country much-needed foreign revenue than to leave the wood to rot.
If the export of confiscated mukula timber puts money back into Zambia's economy, "we could use the profits meaningfully in economic development", said Emanuel Chibesakunda, head of the PlantAMillion, a Zambian tree conservation charity.
"The ban on logging is only a drop in the ocean" in reducing the amount of forest lost every year - amounting to between 100 million and 276 million trees each year, Chibesakunda said.
ONE MILLION HECTARES LOST
Between 250,000 and 300,000 hectares of forest are cut each year, according to Zambia's Forestry Department.
Between 2001 and 2014, Zambia lost more than 1 million hectares - an area roughly the size of Lebanon - of three types of Pterocarpus trees, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Before the timber ban, harvesters needed a licence to cut trees, which specified the location, tree species and estimated fees to be paid to the authorities.
But because of ever-growing international demand for timber, together with the high prices the wood fetches, most harvesters have been felling the forests without a licence and exporting them illegally to Asia, government and forest experts say.
"We are prosecuting those people found with illegally harvested timber ... as well as those trying to export the logs. Others have bolted ... they have disappeared," said Topsy Sikalinda, communication manager at the Zambia Revenue Authority.
TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN?
Like Zambia, Guinea Bissau early this year announced it would begin exporting illegally sourced wood to China, Vietnam and India, and would use some of the proceeds to finance conservation and forestry research.
In Mozambique, however, timber operators last year urged the government to burn all confiscated timber, saying this would send the strongest market signal to illegal loggers.
Mozambique has one of Africa's highest rates of deforestation alongside Zambia.
Regardless of which choice a government makes, it is extremely difficult to curb illegal logging, said Thais Narciso, a technical advisor on forestry in Africa at U.N. Environment.
"Environmental crime in the forestry sector is getting ever more sophisticated," she said. "It's a really hard sector to control."
DO BANS CURB ILLEGAL LOGGING?
Last year, Zambia banned the export of logs from all tree species and now only gives export permits for processed or sawn wood, saying it wants to boost the country's timber manufacturing sector.
The sector as a whole makes up 3.7 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to Zambia's Forestry Department.
Some say, however, that the ban on felling and exporting logs has increased illegal logging and tree loss in Zambia.
"This move has encouraged deforestation, as illegal harvesters are trying to cash in big because of the increasing demand of timber on the market," said Charles Masange, president of the Timber Producers Association of Zambia.
Masange estimates that 100 trucks of logs a month are illegally leaving the country. A typical truckload can hold up to 15 logs, each one about 5.5 metres long. He said illegal loggers are funded by Chinese nationals.
The government should lift the 2015 ban and revert to issuing logging licences under the Forest Act, he said.
"The Act empowers local communities (rather than foreigners) to benefit from the natural resources," Masange told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Even before the ban in 2015, however, many people took part in illegal logging because of government restrictions on tree-cutting and because of the cost of a commercial harvesting license - about 10,000 Zambian Kwacha (more than $1,000) - as well as the cost of transport and export duties, according to the Timber Producers Association of Zambia (TPAZ).
TPAZ said lowering the cost of the licence and cutting export duties could curb illegal logging and illegal international exports.
Another cause of deforestation is much closer to home, with many trees cut for charcoal, said PlantAMillion's Chibesakunda.
The charity says people have felled mukula trees worth 150,000 Zambian Kwacha ($15,300) to produce charcoal worth 60 Zambian Kwacha ($6).
"We need charcoal replacement options to really have an impact on deforestation," Chibesakunda said.
Protecting trees is in the hands of communities and traditional leaders, he added.
"Change can only come from the people, and people will only change if they see the financial benefit in protecting trees."
($1 = 9.8096 Zambian Kwacha)
Reporting by Danstan Kaunda, Editing by Alex Whiting