Natural Forests in Uganda are some of the last preserves of the richest flora and fauna.
But the rate of illicit logging is threatening large swaths as trees are being felled to feed the appetite of a global wood-processing industry. Uganda's forests have been depleted and estimates have placed what is left at 8 per cent.
Daily Monitor spent about a fortnight in Adjumani District investigating illicit logging. Adjumani is at the tip of West Nile and borders South Sudan. It is separated from Moyo District by the pale-blue waters of River Nile.
From the lumberjacks inside the forests that descend deep into the bowels of the earth, to police and traffic officers, forest officers, district leaders, and the buyers in Kampala, the tightly knit criminal cartel is able to run this murky trade seamlessly.
Aliwala Village, is a shabby outpost in Mungula Sub-county, Adjumani. It lies at the parallels of this forest.
Trudging through a village path, as a wind gently sweeps across a canopy of trees, we came at the edge of this forest.
Here, freshly cut logs lie on the ground as others are measured in size by the loggers. Stems of cut trees are visibly fresh.
Some of these men are armed with buzzing sawmills and are ready to cut more trees. A judicial officer owns this sawmill, which was confiscated by a forest ranger.
A tractor and old Bedford truck are used to ferry these logs. Some of the dealers here at Mungula driving a vehicle with Kenyan number plates await to accomplish a purchase. Others in this vicinity discuss the details of a transaction.
It is this logging trade that has partly transformed Adjumani, once a backwater into a bustling hive.
Yet the effects on the environment will be much more costly to restore than a few incongruous structures that litter the streets of this town.
Many communities have been displaced as deforestation has slowed the torrential rains that used to pound this area. As a result, their source of livelihood, especially farming has been affected.
The birds, monkeys and insects have since fled their cradle as logging expands inside the forest.
Trailing logging trucks
Every night, trucks laden with logs negotiate hundreds of kilometres of bumpy earth roads, headed towards Adjumani Town. Many of these trucks are cleared at police roadblocks without any inspection. Other roadblocks are left unmanned.
In order to confirm this syndicate, we trailed some of these trucks carrying logs. We were able to film a truck, which upon passing a checkpoint in Atiak on the Gulu-Nimule highway, the driver was cleared to proceed. But upon reaching Gulu Town, he tried to avoid other checkpoints.
We also witnessed another truck carrying logs from Adjumani District. We were curious about its final destination and we decided to trail it while remaining undetected. Often, we drove ahead of it to be able to get more video footage.
With the complicity of authorities, the driver finally arrives in Kampala. He later drives to Namanve Industrial Park where the logs are offloaded and assembled for export. The following day, the truck leaves the park perhaps for yet another trip to pick more logs in West Nile.
Mr William Leslie Amanzuru, who is a community leader in Adjumani, told Daily Monitor that, "For over 20 years, people living around Zoka belt have been on the run from rebels. Now that there is peace, there is this attack from the loggers, because they are extremely powerful. They control every intelligence and security system so that locals have nowhere to seek refuge. The only refuge (for locals) is seeking the intervention of God."
Mr Amanzuru says he is disappointed with the security for shirking its responsibility of fighting crime.
"Because right from the forest you have roadblocks but these cartel guys beat the checkpoints. They don't use intelligence, all they have is money. If money is part of our intelligence then I don't know how far we can go as a country," he argues.
About a fortnight ago, the first deputy premier, Gen Moses Ali, told an audience in Adjumani that district authorities should enforce the ban on logging and sell off the old stock of logs, which had already been cut. However, he ominously warned against the dangers of deforestation.
"There is no more cutting of trees (in Adjumani). We are only trying to dispose of what has already been cut. We also agreed that a lot of degradation has been done. Many people have cut the trees. The rate of cutting trees has also doubled because refugees and locals are cutting (the trees)," said Moses Ali.
He implored the community to plant trees to replenish the dwindling forests.
However, little did he know that some of the district leaders at the meeting have been accused of this illicit logging racket.
Sabino Amadra, is the acting district forest officer (DFO). In order to expose his involvement, our undercover reporter purporting to be an illicit dealer, asked him whether he could facilitate the transfer of freshly-cut logs from Adjumani.
During this interaction, the undercover reporter offered to pay Shs3m to senior district leaders to facilitate the movement of logs.
Amadra was excited when he heard about this payment. Later, he was told that the money would only be paid the next day after it was withdrawn from the bank, which dampened his spirits.
But later he reveals that, "This opportunity is important. I have been here as a caretaker. Someone else is coming in to take over this office. I am sitting in for someone right now. The chief administrative officer has cleared him. The time is too short but I will try my best to execute this business deal."
But he retorted, "What makes me sick is I am leaving this office at the time of a great deal."
"I know I will get the views of the incoming district forestry officer. Let me tell you that government has officially declared a ban on these logs and even the former DFO was removed from office just because of this business," says Amadra.
He then asked, "Where are the logs?" The undercover reporter revealed that they were at a place called Ogweujo-Pakele.
He also reveals that Jackson Drichi, a major log dealer, who had transacted with Amadra before, knows the site where these logs are kept.
The undercover reporter then told Amadra that the logs are packed. "When you (Sabino) meet the main dealer (Drichi) try to engage in a detailed discussion to ensure safe transportation."
The undercover reporter then saved the number of Amadra in his cell phone and promised to keep in touch as he left his office.
Later, the Adjumani District police commander, Mr Simon Symsingira, was asked whether he could facilitate the transfer of logs. This undercover investigation was undertaken after reports emerged that he is part of the racket.
The undercover reporter purporting to be a dealer, revealed 'I wanted to come with Jackson (Drichi) who does some kind of logging.'
"So I have got some business where some people sold us some logs, it is this side of Ogweujo as you go towards Itiani." The police officer asked, "What is the name where they (logs) are?" It is Ogweujo, he replied.
"Now what I know is there is a temporary ban on these things. Yesterday, I was with the DFO, he told me it is good for me to interact with people who can help me settle my exit from here," said the undercover reporter.
"Have you ever bought from the district?" asked the DPC. "The only people we know are the ones who bought from the district."
"I know you will be of help. What I want is help. You will provide work for me from here to Atiak and then there I find my way," argued the undercover reporter.
"It is not possible. Right now people from NTV are around. You saw what happened recently," said Mr Symsingira, appearing to allude to fears as a result of recent stories aired on NTV and published in Daily Monitor on illicit logging in West Nile.
He then asks him whether he was dealing in freshly cut logs or old ones. He warned the purported dealer to be careful and to conceal the logs because he had seen an NTV vehicle in the area. "The NTV people were in Gulu yesterday."
The undercover reporter revealed that he was aware of NTV's presence and had hidden the logs. As a way of facilitating the movement of these logs, the officer received Shs100,000 to which he referred to as an "airtime" fee.
Stamped out illicit logging
However, in a telephone interview with Daily Monitor on Saturday, Mr Symsingira said since his deployment in February, he has stamped out illicit logging in the district.
"Within this week, I arrested two people with logs. I took them to court. So the hunt is on but the rate has now reduced. What is helping us is now the community because we have made the radio announcements that the people who are selling are also part of the trade. We shall also arrest the landlords who are selling, then we add the transporters."
He said that LCs are compelled to call whenever they see any vehicle loading logs.
"Whether it is carrying or not as long as there is intention and it is now twice that the community, especially in the sides of Aliwala have been able to call me, the police or any other person that there is a vehicle loading then we go and impound and then take it to court," Mr Symsingira revealed.
He also revealed that he is neither involved nor aware of police officers in Adjumani who are accomplices in the illicit trade.
"But how does the district and police facilitate trade unless you say they are the owners of the business, which is a bit difficult because if the community calls and says Afande come and arrest and I go and arrest and of course people are entitled to their opinion," he said.
"I have more than 22 people in prison. Right from when I came in February. You can even ask the Friends of Zoka. I have arrested groups of people, the vehicles, the charcoal the logs within this month we have arrested three categories (of illicit loggers), taking them to court, the records are there."
The police spokesperson, Mr Emilian Kayima, told Daily Monitor in an interview on Thursday that he is aware that some officers and duty bearers are abetting this crime. However, Mr Kayima argued that illicit logging requires the effort of all stakeholders to nip it in the bud.
"We all agree that there is a problem with illegal logging. It is a destruction that is happening in northern Uganda and part of West Nile. I have talked to territorial commanders who affirm to this and there are mechanisms from the police that we have put in place to fight the scourge. But the problem is not going away, which points to the fact that all duty bearers have to pull up their socks," Mr Kayima said.
"Do we know anything about global warming? I think we don't fully understand and that is where the problem lies. We look at the quick fix, the quick money," he argued.
He warned that those implicated will face disciplinary action.
"So it means that individual officers who don't appreciate this danger may facilitate it thinking that they are just making a quick kill but the remedy is there. For those who facilitate this, our administrative structures and the PSU (Professional standards Unit) - are going to pursue this so that we punish our own so that the other duty bearers will do the same."
Uganda has already lost over two thirds of its forests in the last 30 years. If government does not halt the widespread destruction of its forests largely through illicit logging, there are fears that they will be depleted setting off a chain of catastrophe including disease, famine and conflict.
WHAT HE SAYS...
Mr William Leslie Amanzuru, community leader: : Because right from the forest you have roadblocks but these cartel guys beat the checkpoints they don't use intelligence, all they have is money. If money is part of our intelligence then I don't know how far we can go as a country.