Wednesday, 08 June 2011 15:11(AFP) - Lorries loaded with stolen lumber stand parked in a clearing, ready to haul their cargo across the border as an insurgency allows illegal loggers to hack into Senegal's dense forests.
Many of the trucks parked near villages in troubled southern Casamance province, in broad open spaces where trees including hardwoods prized for making furniture have already been felled, have Gambian licence plates.
"All these vehicles that you see take forest tracks to transport the wood away, above all to Gambia," a local tells AFP in an area called Palm, near the border. It is a lucrative racket that flourishes in the insecurity of a low-level insurgency led by the rebel Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), which has been fighting for the province's independence since 1982. Operations by the Senegalese army are also exacting a toll on the forest, as is drought, said Eli Jean Bernard Diatta, a teacher in a high school in the provincial capital Ziguinchor who has published a study on the problem."The forest is being attacked in
an abusive fashion. The war and drought are the main factors," said Diatta. "The war created a climate of insecurity. The economy of the region has deteriorated and people have fallen back on the forest," he said.
Locals work with foreigners in the illegal logging trade despite heavy fines, Diatta added, while several residents said many clandestine sawmills operate in the province, which has vast natural resources. "Recently a Mauritanian non-governmental organisation ordered 10 pirogues (wooden boats). That means a minimum of 100 trees will be cut down," the teacher said. He also blamed the degradation on "the military and the rebels, who burn the forest to carry out security operations."
The smuggling persists despite fines of four to five million CFA francs (more than 6,000-7,600 euros/8,700-11,000 dollars) per lorry "because it earns a lot", a regional water and forestry services official said. "This trafficking takes place with the complicity of the population, armed bands and the Gambian authorities," a regional administration official said on condition of anonymity.
"A few days ago, three lorries loaded with tree trunks were impounded in this area. Their drivers got away," he said. The traffickers often operate in areas of no-man's land because of the fighting, which has left a trail of mines that have killed 168 people since it started. "The lorries move, at night, in areas that are not under control," the regional official said.
"The water and forestry service can't go there because of the insecurity, but the army and the (paramilitary) gendarmerie often carry out crackdowns on the traffickers." An official in the service said rebel fighters hiding out in the forest were largely responsible for its abuse. "They believe that they are in conquered territory and that they can do what they like," he said. But Diatta said some rebels were protecting the vegetation. "They know that if the forest disappears, it's the end of the rebellion," because they will have no rear bases in which to hide, he said.
"A species like teak is disappearing fast like the venne," another local hardwood tree, Diatta said. Loggers particularly go for trees that are highly valued for making furniture.
The dragging conflict in the Casamance, a strip of land separated from the rest of Senegal by tiny Gambia, has dragged on despite attempted ceasefires, causing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. With many despairing of ever returning, locals worry about the future of their land. "Our children risk never knowing the forest," one said.
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