Senegal: when timber trafficking fuels rebellion in Casamance

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Timber Trafficking

By Mehdi Ba, in Dakar

Posted on Wednesday, 13 July 2022 13:58

Between Senegal and China, via The Gambia, the illegal trade in rosewood continues to flourish. An ecological disaster that generates colossal sums of money and finances an armed struggle.

This is part 4 of a 6-part series

The name could evoke a dinosaur straight out of the Jurassic Park films, but Pterocarpus Erinaceus couldn’t be further from a reconstructed pterodactyl, flying around the big screen and scaring children. In the south of Senegal, this species of precious wood – called, both, rosewood or vène wood – has long been one of the secret treasures of the green forests of Casamance; an ecological treasure, of course, before its uncontrolled exploitation and clandestine trade turned into a lucrative business involving Senegal, the Gambia and China, against the backdrop of an armed rebellion that quickly realised how much money they could make.

A deadly ambush

On 24 January 2022, a bloody encounter was a reminder that the long-standing conflict in this southern region of Senegal is not just about the independence demands of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). This 40-year-old rebellion – the oldest in Africa – is now split into two distinct factions that maintain a low-level conflict with the Senegalese armed forces. In the south, on the Guinea-Bissau border, César Atoute Badiate maintained moderate pressure after splitting with his rival brother, the uncontrollable Salif Sadio, before opting for a cease-fire.

In the north, in the area adjacent to the Gambian border, the latter remains militarily active. It is between the rebels led by Salif Sadio and the ‘Diambars (the nickname of the Senegalese soldiers)’ that the recent clash took place, at the origin of a possible turn in the conflict. Four Senegalese soldiers were killed and seven others were temporarily held hostage. In the following months, an offensive by the Senegalese army reflected Dakar’s intention to put an end to this allegedly unstoppable rebellion.

The day after the affair, on 25 January 2022, a press release from the Directorate of Public Relations of the Armed Forces (DIRPA) clarified the casus belli. Signed by Lieutenant-Colonel Saliou Ngom, it stated that the exchange of fire the previous day had taken place ‘in The Gambia, south of Bwiam […], as part of an operation to secure and combat illegal trafficking, particularly the criminal harvesting of timber on the border with The Gambia’.

Illegal trade and collusion

According to DIRPA, “during the previous five months, 77 trucks illegally transporting timber from Senegal had been stopped by the 5th Senegalese Detachment deployed within the Economic Community of West African States mission in The Gambia (MICEGA)”. Officially, Gambian law does not allow the exportation of rosewood, but despite the recent change of government in 2018, following the departure of Yahya Jammeh, there is evidence of complicity at the highest level on the Gambian side in this well-known trade.

Is it while trying to protect a convoy that the Senegalese soldiers were ambushed? Does this mean that the MFDC was protecting the containers of tree trunks stolen from the forests of southern Senegal?

If nothing is done in the next two years, the natural region of Casamance risks becoming a desert

“The area where the wood is illegally cut is located much further east of the area controlled by Salif Sadio,” says a Senegalese expert on the case.

However, according to corroborating accounts, the clash between the rebels and Senegalese soldiers began when the trucks full of logs were being checked for loading.

100,000 tonnes from the Gambia to China

“If nothing is done in the next two years, the natural region of Casamance risks becoming a desert.” On 26 May 2016, at a press conference in Dakar, Haïdar El Ali, an environmental activist, sounded the alarm, even if it meant overstating the case in order to draw attention to his cause. This founder of the Océanium (a diving club and an environmental protection association), who previously served as minister of ecology and nature protection and then of fisheries and maritime affairs under Macky Sall (between 2012 and 2014), has protested against the deforestation of Senegal’s forests for a long time.

A video shot by a drone was shown at the press conference, detailing the extent of the disaster. It reveals the existence, on Gambian territory, of one of the main storage sites for the illegal trafficking of rosewood cut on the Senegalese side of the border, in the administrative region of Kolda. At an altitude of 50 metres, the drone captured images of thousands of tree trunks lined up, waiting to be loaded onto heavy trucks. Their destination is Banjul, the Gambian capital, where containers will then be transported to China, a particularly lucrative market for traffickers.

According to National Geographic, imports of this precious wood to Asia increased 14-fold between 2009 and 2014. Appreciated for its reddish hue and longevity, rosewood is at the forefront of the most sought-after species in a trade that is even more lucrative than the illegal poaching of rhinos, pangolins and elephants that are hunted illegally for their horns, scales and ivory, which, according to the Global Environment Facility, is worth between $5bn to $20bn per year.

To understand the extent of The Gambia’s role, one figure is enough. “Between 2014 and 2017, this country of only 11,300 km², landlocked within Senegal, exported nearly $163m worth of rosewood to China,” the Swiss-based NGO Trial International said in March 2020. This figure is particularly significant when one considers that The Gambia has no forest area at all and would be incapable of supplying such a quantity of this coveted wood alone. In 2019, official figures indicate that more than 100,000 tonnes of rosewood were imported by China from The Gambia. This is more than four times the weight of the quantities imported in 2018.

Criminal charges for looting

This situation led the Senegalese minister of the environment, Abdou Karim Sall, to condemn the”unbearable situation concerning the assault on our historical forests”. In June 2019, Trial International filed a “criminal denunciation for plundering” against the company Westwood, owned by Swiss businessman Nicolae Bogdan Buzaianu, in which the former Gambian despot Yahyah Jammeh is suspected of having held shares. “Between 2014 and 2017,” the NGO said, “this Gambian company had an exclusive permit to export rosewood. The wood it exported was illegally felled in neighbouring Casamance.”

For years, trafficking has been happening in broad daylight. On several occasions, the Senegalese authorities were on high alert, especially since Jammeh’s departure from power. The former dictator had a complicated relationship with his neighbour, but today, the civil society experts that JA turned to about these much-criticised trafficking practices have politely declined to talk, while fighting has resumed in Casamance. Some people based in the region fear for their safety.

Illegal trafficking is not only a formal violation of the law: it is also, and above all else, a source of instability for society and the state

In March 2018, during the first Senegalese-Gambian presidential council, held in Banjul, Sall reminded The Gambia of its commitments to combat illegal lucrative activities between the two countries, specifically the destruction of the forests of Casamance. On 6 January 2018, 14 woodcutters were murdered in Boffa – a terrible crime that has just been tried in Dakar.

“Illegal trafficking is not only a formal violation of the law: it is also, and above all else, a source of instability for society and the state. This is why we must spare no effort in making the struggle against this scourge a top priority, particularly in the framework of the agreement on cross-border resources, especially forestry,” the Senegalese president said at the time.

‘An alarming situation’

The final communiqué issued at the end of the bilateral summit stated that “the two heads of state gave instructions to undertake identified actions [such as] the intensification of joint patrols along the borders to fight against timber trafficking”. For his part, Adama Barrow said: “You all know that my predecessor and his cronies had direct interests in the trafficking of this wood, and everyone agrees that this trafficking is very lucrative, just like drug trafficking. As soon as you start, you can’t stop and your appetites grow enormously, but my government has no interest in the trafficking of Casamance wood and I have told President Macky Sall that the Gambian security and defence forces are now stationed at all the entry points used by these Casamance wood traffickers, so I would like to assure Senegal of my total collaboration and availability in this common fight.”

Three years later, however, the problem remained. When the Senegalese and Gambian foreign ministers met in Dakar on 15 January 2021 to work out solutions, the two countries seemed to have stuck to good intentions. “This is not a Gambian or Senegalese problem, but a Sene-gambian problem,” said the head of Gambian diplomacy, Mamadou Tangara, who reaffirmed “the commitment of President Adama Barrow to work hand in hand with his big brother and friend Sall”.

As for his Senegalese counterpart Aïssata Tall Sall, she confirmed that “the reports and other data we have described an alarming situation, as well as an ecological and health disaster”. In the face of woodcutters, she said “it is therefore imperative to enforce zero-tolerance”.

BBC investigation

However, in between the two meetings, in March 2020, a BBC investigation threw a spanner in the works. In a 45-minute documentary made between Casamance and The Gambia, the investigative programme BBC Eye revealed the background of the rosewood trade. Local authorities in Senegal, the presidential entourage in The Gambia, MFDC rebels… no one was left unscathed.


“It is estimated that illegal rosewood exports account for about half of the country’s exports and 10% of its GDP,” the British channel said, adding that The Gambia is among the world’s top five exporters of rosewood… despite the fact that its forest is currently devoid of this resource. Have drastic measures been taken since Adama Barrow came to power? Alas! “Adama Barrow is the same [as Yahya Jammeh],” says Haïdar El Ali. “And it can’t continue!”

Officially, Gambian law does not allow the export of keno – the local name for rosewood. However, according to the BBC journalists, who managed to trick interviewees on hidden cameras by pretending to be involved in the trade, there is still complicity at the highest level in Banjul.

Declarations of intent

In recent years, only NGOs have exposed and criticised the extent of this ecological disaster. Greenpeace, Trial International and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), based in Washington, have found themselves alone on the front lines of the war on timber trafficking, while governments have, more often than not, limited their efforts to declarations of intent and, occasionally, to spectacular operations that are too isolated and sporadic to have any lasting effect.

In March 2022, in a communiqué, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) nonetheless reiterated its “support for the fight against wildlife crime in West and Central Africa”, with Pterocarpus Erinaceus at the forefront, a text – which despite its bureaucratic and cryptic language – invites “the range states of Pterocarpus Erinaceus [in total, 15 African states] ‘to transmit to the Secretariat within 30 days of this notification [27 April 2022] a written justification indicating that the accelerated procedure for the application of Article XIII does not apply in their case either by submitting their non-detriment findings [NDFA’s] and legal acquisition findings or by requesting the Secretariat to publish a voluntary zero export quota for trade in specimens of that species”.

They will probably find ways around it and alternative species of redwood

Following CITES’ decision, the Chinese have stopped pre-financing timber exports from The Gambia or Mali, says a Senegalese environmental activist who prefers to remain anonymous. “But they will probably find ways around it and alternative species of redwood,” he says.

When contacted by us, one of the CITES representatives in Senegal, Colonel Abass Sonko, did not respond to our calls and messages. As for Haïdar El Ali, who is recovering from health problems, he is now living in Casamance with his family and, in the tense context following the Senegalese military operations against the MFDC, did not wish to answer our questions.

Insatiable appetites

Known as the ‘ivory of the forest’, rosewood, which plays a vital role in the ecosystem, is therefore on the verge of extinction due to intense trafficking. However, the leguminous species is important for its habitat, as it fixes atmospheric nitrogen and can survive bushfires.

An instrument for war financing, a white-collar mafia, the trafficking of rosewood is generating huge profits for crooked intermediaries lurking in both Senegalese and Gambian official services and providing a slice to the MFDC rebels in the process. The profits are “estimated at between $51 to $152bn a year”, according to Interpol’s executive director Tim Morris. “The intelligence provided to Interpol confirms that the routes and modus operandi used for illegal timber trafficking are the same as those used for drugs and protected species,” he says.

“It is China’s insatiable appetite for rosewood that fuels the trafficking,” the BBC said in its recent investigation. One thing is certain: the illegally cut logs end up in Chinese shops selling luxury furniture. Between 2017 and 2019, 600,000 tonnes of rosewood, equivalent to 1 million trees, were transported to China by sea, for a value of $300m, ecological booty taken from the Senegalese forest, with guilty indifference, by the traffickers.

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