Last November, rangers in Lengwe National Park arrested 35 illegal loggers within the park boundaries as they felled timber with a half-million dollars worth of equipment brought in via an illegal road from neighbouring Mozambique.
Satellite images suggest about a million protected mopane trees had been cut in just over a year in the area—a loss valued at about $37 million (about K27.7 billion) in court depositions.
Such illegal logging is a widespread problem across Africa. It often remains unseen, unprosecuted or met with fines far below the value of the stolen timber.
But this month, Malawi indicated it is prepared to crack down hard on such theft, with all 35 loggers—including 22 Mozambicans, 10 Malawians, two Chinese and one Portuguese-Mozambican dual national—given sentences of between 12 and 18 months of hard labour in prison.
Their equipment—tractors, trucks, motorcycles, saws and other gear—also was confiscated, with some of it repurposed for the national park’s own use.
“We are quite happy with the sentence passed down by the courts, as well as the forfeiture of the equipment, which means quite a lot,” said Department of Parks and Wildlife director Brighton Kumchedwa.
The prosecution, on charges of logging in a national park and immigration violations, follows the passage of a new Parks and Wildlife Act which prescribes sentences of up to 30 years for environmental crimes.
The act is intended to act as a stiff deterrent to future potential timber thieves.
Kumchedwa called the Lengwe case an important signal by the courts that natural resource theft will now be prosecuted as a serious crime in the country.
“Already we have seen some courts responding well to the new law, where we have seen much longer custodial sentences,” he said.
Cutting supply lines
Researchers say the landmark case helps peel back a shroud of secrecy about how international illegal logging syndicates work in the region, with European and Chinese nationals moving illicit timber from Malawi into Mozambique and then overseas through Mozambique’s northern sea ports.
Mozambique Government is aware that the country is a portal for illegal timber being shipped to Asia and has been trying to stop it with recent high-profile arrests and seizures.
Despite this, a January investigation by the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalism in Africa found logs still being exported from Pemba Harbour despite the government issuing a two-year export ban on all unprocessed hardwood timber leaving the country.
That ban was put in place in December by Mozambique’s Ministry of Land, Environment and Rural Development.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Malawi has the highest rate of deforestation in southern Africa. It is losing about 3-4 percent of its forests annually.
“Timber theft is widespread and we need to work together to stop it,” said Julian Bayliss, a technical adviser to Malawi’s government on protected areas and biodiversity management.
Bayliss works in Blantyre, where the once tree-covered hillsides are already largely bare from decades of deforestation.
“Most of the commercial timber has been removed or is in the process of being removed from the landscape outside protected areas. What we are starting to see now, which is extremely worrying, is illegal timber theft from inside protected areas,” he said.
Although the latest prosecution was successful, most timber theft worldwide is not prosecuted.
According to a recent Interpol report, illegal logging and sales cost governments between $51 billion and $152 billion a year in lost revenue alone.
This does not count the loss of ecological services from deforestation, such as maintenance of rainfall patterns, or the downstream agricultural costs of increased water runoff and erosion.
‘We won’t relent’
Last year, seven Malawian rangers found the now-prosecuted illegal logging operation deep in Lengwe National Park, having gained access after cutting a road in from next-door Mozambique. Felled logs were removed to a processing facility in that country, the court heard.
Joseph Kamkwasi, a lawyer for those convicted, told Radio Mozambique that there are sufficient grounds to appeal the sentence because “it is manifestly exaggerated.
Bayliss believes new laws, like Malawi’s, can be effective, but cross-border cooperation is needed to effectively curb deforestation.
“Law enforcement agencies need to combine and work together at an international level to combat environmental crime,” he said. “A positive outcome would be if Malawi and Mozambique can join forces over crimes such as this.”
But Kumchedwa, the director of Malawi’s national parks, said the Lengwe National Park case represents an important warning against natural resource theft.
“My warning to the criminals is that we will not relent until we are done with them,” he said.