12 February 2019

Namibia: Timber Traders Want to Cut 195 550 Trees

The government has received 231 applications from individuals who want to cut down 195 550 trees in north-eastern Namibia in five years.

This information is contained in a draft document compiled by environment minister Pohamba Shifeta on 4 February 2018, and shared with agriculture and forestry minister Alpheus !Naruseb.

Shifeta declined to comment on the document destined for a Cabinet discussion, while !Naruseb refused to respond to questions yesterday.

The Namibian obtained the document from sources in the agriculture ministry who wanted to illustrate how individuals are craving to chop down trees for profit.

"Since the suspension of timber harvesting, transport, marketing and export, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has received numerous applications for environmental clearance certificates for timber harvesting activities," Shifeta stated.

According to the document, the ministry received 231 applications since the 2018 ban, of which 142 applications were supported and recommended by the agriculture ministry.

"It is a known fact that the issuing of forestry permits for all purposes was suspended with effect from 26 November 2018.

If approved, these applications will result in about 47 857 trees being harvested annually, and 195 550 trees to be harvested in five years," Shifeta said, warning that this figure could be more if the enforcement of the permits is not monitored.

"No public consultations were undertaken regarding the cutting down of the trees. No remedial measures were proposed to address the effects of the cutting down of trees on the environment," he stressed.

The Kavango East, Kavango West and Zambezi regions are sought-after areas for timber harvesting in Namibia.

The minister said the application process for environmental clearance certificates requires that an environmental assessment is conducted to determine the potential impact and risks on the environment due to harvesting activities.

"In all 231 applications, this was not done," he said, adding that there is a need to investigate the potential negative impact on forest reproduction, possible extensions of some trees, and the destruction and damage of bird nesting sites.

Shifeta also complained that the widespread export of timber without any local value-addition was a further concern.

"It is, therefore, proposed to establish a sawmill and furniture manufacturing plant to ensure that value is added to our timber before it is exported," the minister said in the document, suggesting that the government can approach the Development Bank of Namibia to set up such a facility.

Namibian Sun reported last year that farmers decide on the price at which the tree is to be sold, with a typical price ranging between N$300 and N$450.

"Sources claim that the trees are then sold at Walvis Bay to a Chinese buyer, who pays around N$12 000 per cubic metre for the timber. This means the local farmer gets between N$180 000 and N$270 000 for selling 600 trees. The Chinese 'investor' gets more than N$3 million for the trees," the report said.

The government banned the cutting and transportation of timber in November last year after concerns that timber was being harvested without following the correct procedures, and broader concerns over the environmental impact caused by logging mainly in the Kavango East, Kavango West and Zambezi regions.

The ministry of agriculture announced last week that the environment ministry had authorised them to lift the moratorium on the transportation of timber that was cut or harvested before 26 November 2018.

However, the moratorium on timber harvesting remains in place, and no harvesting permits will be issued until further notice.

Environment's executive director, Theofilus Nghitila, wrote to his counterpart at the forestry ministry, Percy Misika, on 28 January 2019, informing him that they were giving farmers who had already cut down trees permits to transport the timber.

"The permission will be valid until March 2019," Nghitila said.

Misika confirmed to The Namibian yesterday that he received Nghitila's letter. He, however, denied knowledge of the letter from Shifeta, which asked them to respond by 14 February 2019 to prepare the document for Cabinet.

"I did not see it yet. Maybe it is among the pile of documents I have not yet read," he said.

He denied claims that the agriculture ministry is encouraging the timber trade in north-eastern Namibia.

"The heavy cutting of trees concerns the government," he said, adding that the ministry does most of the confiscation of timber.

Misika said any licensing arrangement can have a loophole for abuse.

"It happens in any licensing. We have a rigorous surveillance system and campaigns. Whenever we hear of illegal timber logging, we confiscate it and report the culprits to the police," he said.

The timber business has for years benefited a few people while communities are paid little or nothing at all, an official familiar with this matter said.

The Namibian reported last year that a Chinese company wants to cut down 1 000 trees in the Zambezi region in exchange for building traditional authority offices and a school hostel block.

Senior Mafwe traditional authority adviser Elias Mueze said in 2017 that anyone who is against the export of timber from the Zambezi region should mind their own business.

Namibia is now facing a challenge to stop the cutting down of its rare timber.

Oxpeckers, an investigative environmental journalism project reported in 2017 in a story titled 'Chinese 'mafia boss' turns to timber in Namibia' that a Chinese businessman was smuggling timber from other countries through Namibian ports.

"They harvest most of the logs in south-eastern Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, countries that have banned the export of raw logs, and then transport the timber by truck to Walvis Bay harbour in Namibia.

"Using Namibia as their backdoor, they are exporting raw logs from the region at a rate of thousands of trees every month," the report said.

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