Overexploitation of mahogany trees along the border of the Republic of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is causing a change in climate and massive migration of wildlife.
Individuals and some companies, both local and foreign, are involved in illegal logging for their personal benefits. The large-scale overexploitation of the ecosystem and absence of sustainable plans has had adverse consequences on the lives of people living in the border regions.
This large tropical forest of Congo Basin is the largest in Africa, covering almost 695,000 square miles bordering seven African countries including part of South Sudan. The tall trees and the huge forest acts as a rain catchment, with average rainfall of about 1,000mm per annum enabling farming in these areas.
In South Sudan most of the mahogany trees were planted by the British colonialists in the early 1940s, and in the Congo Basin they were planted by the Belgians as an industrial source of timber.
The unnecessary felling of trees and the overexploitation of forests today has had negative impacts on the environment.
According to Honorable Joseph Africano Bartel, the undersecretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the population is facing an energy problem where about 99.9 percent of the population depends on fuelwood and charcoal as their primary source of energy, which has put pressure on the forest.
“We have categories of forests; we have the central reserve forest, we have the state forest and the community forest, and the policies of the government is to have a land cover of forest of about 25 to 30 percent,” Bartel said. “So the source of energy that our people have; we only have charcoal as fuelwood, and that is what the majority of our people depend on and we don’t have any other alternative sources of energy like electricity, gas that our people can use and reduce the pressure on the forest.”
Climate change is already impacting lives and livelihoods, especially in the Equatorial regions. According to environmental experts, the relatively unmanaged and unsustainable harvesting could have serious environmental and climate impacts.
James Ndani, the chairperson of the Loggers Association, said there are now more than 27 registered local and international companies operating in Gangura Payam under Yambio County, Western Equatorial State and in Batima village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The number has been increasing over the years, he said.
Ndani added that some tree species are becoming increasingly rare due to an increased number of the loggers. He added that there are foreign companies cutting the trees without selecting which types could be cut and those that need to be conserved for the future.
“We need to know which type of trees we are supposed to cut and which one is not supposed to be cut, because those trees are very important for the people living near the forests. We should not allow the foreign loggers to enter our forests because they come with a different agenda of taking our natural resources that will exhibit suffering in the future. The government needs to take action on this matter, because most of our resources have all gone,” he said.
Ndani called on the authority to put measures to regulate cutting of trees and design plans for the community to access basic services so as to improve their living standards in the face of the Covid-19.
John Paspere Kambiri, one of the community leaders and the local chief of the area near the forest in Gangura Payam, South Sudan, said poverty and the lack of basic services are the core reasons that community members sell the trees without proper and manageable procedures. However, he said the communities have become fed up with the loggers who often fail to fulfill their promises of paying dues in exchange for the trees.
“We only take a certain percentage from the dealers as the community leaders, and it is the owners of the trees who sell to them,” Kambiri said. “We normally sell the trees because of poverty, to pay school fees for our children or medical bills and other essential needs, but now we have stopped selling the trees because they don’t fulfill what we agree on – they are supposed to pay us or provide us with boreholes and besides all the animals in these areas have fled, so we have stopped selling the trees.”
According to local leaders, if the forests disappear, the Indigenous people will suffer the impacts of climate change.
The disappearance of the forests today has forced many valuable wildlife, such as elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and pythons to migrate due to massive deforestation. This has contributed to a loss of biodiversity.
John Barak, one of the community elders in the Batima area in DRC, said if measures are not put in place to curb the rampant exploitation of the forests, the natural resources will vanish, hence causing a great loss to the two countries.
‘’We have lost most of our valuable species that used to make our rivers take longer to dry,” Barak said. “Even during the dry season, they are not providing any benefits to us. The government needs to initiate some monitoring mechanisms to monitor the activities of the loggers. The trees are being cut and taken out. We don’t have hospitals, no clean water, no schools; the roads are very poor. So, we shall not allow them again to enter our forests and cause severe damages.”
The South Sudan Ministry of Environment and Forestry has announced several policies encouraging reforestation, where cutting down one tree would require planting more trees, but such a policy has never been effective or respected by the loggers.
According to Joseph Ariminia Abiambu, the director of forestry in the State Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture, most companies are not registered and they are operating illegally. They need to be identified, investigated and found out why they are illegally operating, he said.
"The registered companies are very few, some come and go deep into the forest without our notice and without legal documents,” he said. “To transport those trees such as Avazilia, these are not allowed. We are blaming the legislatures; technically we are not allowing, but they can’t be arrested, because they have connections with powerful individuals in the government.”
Arminia says it’s advisable to the loggers to seek prior approval letters before entering the forest.
“We want afforestation [where] when you cut you need to replace. There is too much felling of trees than afforestation; nobody is thinking about replacing them; no planting is going on; we need to sensitize the communities about the environmental deterioration," he said.
With the current economic situation, the price of mahogany products is high due to high tax, hiked demands and the poor road conditions to transport the products to the market.
According to the Honorable Joseph Africano Bartel, the undersecretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, foreigners and the rebels have contributed to the destruction of the forests, especially in areas of Kajo-keji Western Equatorial.
“The government doesn’t have control over all the forestry areas. There are some areas that rebels are in; they are non-state actors who have ganged up with foreigners and they are doing a lot of logging and cutting our trees,” he said.
Honorable Joseph Africano Bartel, the undersecretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry
Most of these activities are illegally exploited by traders from both countries. Mahogany is used mostly for building materials such as furniture. It is highly exported to European and Asian countries and also to neighboring countries such Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and others.
The communities must participate in the management of their own forests in a sustainable and profitable way. Trees help maintain the balance of the ecosystem. They constitute the living environment of other plants and animal species. Most people living near the forests benefit from trees as sources of medicine and food.
In early 2021, the government launched a new project of planting 100 million trees in 10 years to regenerate the areas that have been depleted, but the government is unable to confirm how many trees have been planted so far.