For centuries, forests have been central to the life of people throughout Guinea-Bissau. Relying on traditional knowledge systems that vary across the country’s villages, many local communities consider forests to be spiritual spaces where secular ceremonies are performed, the use of natural resources is restrained and the cutting and selling of trees is strictly forbidden.
Guinea-Bissau is approximately 70 percent forested, but the pillaging of resources in recent years has endangered the country’s natural reserves and the stock of some of its most valuable species of timber.
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One of the largest threats to its forests emerged in 2012 when a coup weakened the central government’s authority. This led to a period of illegal cutting of timber that saw most of the country’s forests being targeted but sacred forests remaining largely untouched.
The illicit felling was partly controlled in 2015 when authorities implemented a moratorium on all logging and exports. However, a government proposal in October last year to lift the logging ban sparked concern among environmental activists, who fear this may enable a return to the timber felling that stripped the country’s forests between 2012 and 2015.
The plan outlines a “special regime” with a plan for reforestation and restricts logging to 14 species that are subject to specific licensing and quotas. The decree, which was drafted by the council of ministers, is currently awaiting the signature of President Umaro Embaló.
“If this decree were to pass, we would revert to what happened prior to 2014,” argues Abilio Rachid Said, head of programmes at the country’s Institute of Biodiversity and Protected Areas (IBAP), saying specific measures should be taken before the lifting of the moratorium to assess how much wood has been cut and begin the reforestation of valuable species of timber.
“We need to reorganise the sector,” he continues. “The idea is to stop the cutting, so we can have an understanding of the conditions of the forest.”
Advocates for resuming logging argue the lifting of the ban would benefit the local economy and help create jobs by employing loggers who work for the local furniture market since illegal cutting has continued in recent years despite the ban.
Last November, an investigation by the judiciary police found that illegally logged wood apprehended by law enforcement officials was tied to a Chinese company with alleged connections to Prime Minister Nuno Nabiam.
In a separate instance in January 2018, the government made an exception to the export ban, selling off a stockpile of approximately 180,000 logs over several months. The logs had been seized between 2014 and 2016 and were allegedly sold to Chinese buyers.
According to an investigation published by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), officials sought revenue to reimburse a defaulted loan to the International Monetary Fund. The sale period was authorised by the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – but traffickers took the opportunity to mix in freshly cut wood which was exported illegally throughout the year, according to EIA’s investigation.
Nelvina Barreto, a senior consultant at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the former minister of agriculture and forests, says the intention to lift the moratorium relates to a few species of trees such as rosewood – Pterocarpus erinaceus, referred to as “bloodwood” in Guinea-Bissau – which takes an average of 35-40 years to reach its phase of maturity.
“[Rosewood] happens to be the most sought after in the international market, particularly by Chinese operators,” says Barreto. “These were also the species that were most exploited during the period of 2012-2014.”
A report released in 2018 by the EIA outlined that timber exports from Guinea-Bissau to China increased from 61 tonnes in 2007 to 98,000 tonnes in 2014.
CITES has listed rosewood as subject to strict regulation, restricting its consumption in most markets. However, trafficking to China – the main buyer of timber from Guinea-Bissau – has persisted over the last five years.
‘This belongs to the populations’
Neighbouring areas like Senegal’s southern region of Casamance face similar pressures as illegal logging has threatened the availability of rosewood – locals are often recruited to handle logging and transportation of the timber which is used predominantly in China’s luxury furniture market.
The delay in undertaking a forest inventory is among the issues raised by those opposing the moratorium being lifted in Guinea-Bissau, with the last available record dating back to 1985.
Barreto says there is a concern as to how the proposed supervision and reforestation would be made. “This requires technical, human and material resources that the country currently does not have.”
Marina Temudo, a senior researcher at the School of Agriculture of the University of Lisbon working in Guinea-Bissau, notes that lifting the moratorium could further enable illegal logging of valuable timber species due to a lack of resources to oversee the new restrictions, making wood scarce for local populations who rely on it, predominantly as a domestic source of energy.
Temudo explains that many women live off the production of charcoal, while farmers depend on rosewood to build ploughing instruments for mangrove rice cultivation.
“At the end of the day, this belongs to the populations,” says Temudo. “There are already various areas of forest protected by locals who create their own reserves, but not all of these are delineated. Soon these will be the only trees left.”
Throughout the country, illegal timber logging coupled with practices of slash-and-burn agriculture, have posed an increasing threat to soil degradation and erosion.
Guinea-Bissau belongs to the Sahel, a region where temperatures are projected to rise 1.5 times faster than the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Furthermore, the country is particularly vulnerable to climate variability as an estimated 70 percent of the population lives along coastal zones, often in low-lying areas, which are increasingly susceptible to coastal erosion and flooding.
Temudo notes that changes are already being felt throughout Guinea-Bissau with rising sea levels, drought episodes, increasingly strong tides and irregular rain seasons – whose unpredictability disrupts agricultural production, leaving the livelihoods of farmers at risk.
“The environmental crisis is visible,” Barreto agrees. “Today, nobody denies it.”