By Beninese journalist Christophe Assogba, first published in La Dépeche newspaper (Cotonou, Benin) on 15 November 2017.
Benin lost 4.5 to 5.7 million hectares of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, according to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data. China's insatiable demand for raw materials, especially minerals and wood, is borderless. As the world's leading importer of timber, China appears as a zealous exploiter of great African forests. Indeed, after depleting Beninese forests, Chinese companies are now exploiting Nigerian forests via Benin using the free movement of people and goods in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Note: In 2017 the Africa-China Reporting Project commissioned a series of investigations on Francophone Africa and China, to be undertaken by Francophone African journalists from Morocco, Benin, Burundi, and the DRC and published in the region. The four investigations focused on Chinese traders in Derb Omar, the looting of Beninese forests, the impact of a revolutionary rice strain in Burundi, and a Chinese joint venture for the rescue of a state-owned electricity company in the DRC.
In July 2013 Sylvain Idohou, a cabinetmaker stationed in Cotonou, received an order from one of his loyal customers to deliver ten wooden gates for a new house under construction in Abomey-Calavi, a city located some miles away from Cotonou, the economic centre of Benin. For more than a month he was unable to find raw wood to satisfy his costumer’s needs; his client almost canceled the order.
Another carpenter from Akassato, a district of Abomey-Calavi, also experienced the same situation, except that despite his constant pleas, his customer simply terminated the contract.
These are not the only people to suffer from the shortage of certain wood species in Benin. This shortage prefaced the suspension by government order on 13 April 2016 of the export and exploitation of all forest products in Benin in order to preserve the gazetted forests, but this measure was surprisingly lifted almost a year later in March 2017.
Across the country wood workers are complaining more and more about the scarcity of many species of wood that flooded the Beninese market only a few years ago. “We suffer a lot to find some wood species like the Kosso. One plank of afzelia now costs US$56 (CFA28,000) against US$32 (CFA16,000) ten years ago”, Samou Yabi, a chief carpenter complains. The situation is worse for the craftsmen working in most of the big cities of Benin.
Benin’s forests are essentially gone
In 2010, the FAO reported that Benin recorded an annual forest loss of about 70,000 hectares between 1990 and 2010 while the National Center for Remote Sensing and Ecological Monitoring (Le Centre National de Télédétection et de Suivi Ecologique, CENATEL) at the Directorate General of Forests and Natural Resources (Direction Générale des Forêts et des Ressources Naturelles, DGFRN) in Benin published a more severe figure of 160,000 hectares per year between 1978 and 1998. The causes mentioned are bushfires; clearing for agriculture; use for lumber, service or fire; and the manufacture of charcoal. Uncontrolled exploitation of forest resources, especially the export of timber, is particularly highlighted as one of the main causes. “Cotton farmers are destroying forests even more than wood exporters, but this has never been condemned; then we stop to think, are we wood criminals?”, protested Dieudonné Gbèdjèkan, a professional timber trader.
Today, most of Benin’s forests are practically empty, according to many actors involved in the sector. Looting in these areas has reached a peak to the point where there is nothing left but uncovered soils. Wood traders and other forest resource specialists say that the country no longer has exploitable wild forests. Almost everything has been ravaged. Most of the local companies who legally operate in the wood sector have gone bankrupt.
Wood harvested legally or illegally from the forests follow two sales channels but is usually first conveyed to Cotonou. There are some who sell it directly to individuals or businesses; this is the case of Ib Moudachirou who will stock up in the forests bordering Nigeria. Others who have significant financial resources export their product out of Benin to make much larger profits.
For decades China has been at the heart of this business. It is the largest wood importing country from Benin, and almost all the timber exported from Benin is destined for the Chinese market. Data from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Analysis (Institut National de la Statistique et de l’Analyse Economique, INSAE) in Cotonou indicate that Benin's two main export clients in 2014 were China (18%) and India (17%).
A whole system to serve China
Darkness has just covered the beautiful city of Bohicon in the center of Benin. Despite the late hour of the day, the Mahukpenou sawmill continues to operate at full speed. In the middle of the shop, a busy-looking man is encouraging workers with puffy, dusty faces clinging to a big whirring machine to finish sawing many of the logs stockpiled against the sawmill's walls.
From time to time he takes a look outside at his workers who are loading logs cut into four-meter pieces in a container on a truck parked in front of the sawmill. On either side of the large doors of the workshop, dozens of wooden planks marked in black ink or sometimes with chalk are stored on the ground. Boniface Bagbénon, forestry agent and owner of the sawmill, says the container being loaded is for the Chinese market. Every month he delivers to his Chinese partners a good ten containers of wood. Each year, hundreds of containers filled with logs of various plant species are shipped to China through the port of Cotonou.
In any case, according to Ib Moudachirou, the main destination country for timber leaving Benin is China. Economist Bertin Koovi says that 97% of the wood leaving Benin end up in China.
Ib Moudachirou added that it even happens that Chinese come themselves to buy the wood with Beninese traders who provide them with all the necessary paperwork. The annual forest statistics of the Directorate General of Forests and Natural Resources (DGFRN) indicate that in 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively, 113,578 cubic metres, 38,214 cubic metres and 16,822 cubic metres of timber were exported to China. The paradox, according to a researcher specialised in forest sciences, is that “in countries that receive wood from Benin including China, you cannot export a single cubic metre of wood without having processed it completely.” Raw wood cannot be exported.
Tracking Nigerian timber through Benin
China's wood supply chain from Benin uses a range of actors. Various timber harvesting structures and private traders play a large role in facilitating timber exports from Benin to China.
Alain Coffi is a professional forest agent in Benin. He explains that currently most of his colleagues have gone to Nigeria to buy timber because of the lack of resources in Benin's forests. In this business they are supported by Chinese traders who take back the Nigerian timber to Benin on their own account so as to present it as being produced in Benin. But how is this possible?
The economist Bertin Koovi explains that in fact Nigeria has a policy in place of optimisation of its wood resources inside the country. Thus raw timber is difficult to get out of Nigeria through the port of Lagos. But under the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) free movement of persons and goods principle, Nigeria authorises the export of its semi-processed timber to other countries in the ECOWAS region. It is on behalf of this principle that many timber traders are siphoning timber from neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and especially Nigeria. Making use of this opportunity, Chinese who cannot export directly from Nigeria have entered into partnerships with Beninese wood traders. As such, they have funded the establishment of several sawmills that process the wood coming from Nigeria. In return they have the exclusive right to buy all the products coming out of the sawmills that they export directly to China.
In fact, Ib Moudachirou recounts: “The Beninese timber traders will pay for wood in Nigerian forests. There they fulfill administrative formalities and cross the border to Benin after completing customs formalities. The wood that gets into Benin are directly shipped to China”.
The exploitation of Benin’s puny remaining forest resources is undertaken against the spirit of the law and in contravention of the standards for protection of the environment and biodiversity. According to specialists, the regulations are written in such a way as to prevent abusive felling of trees, but they are not being respected at all.
Under Article 52 of the Forestry Act No. 93-009 of 2 July 1993, any exploitation of forest products for commercial purposes in Benin is subject to the prior obtaining of an exploitation license issued to approved timber traders. No-one should be able to enter this sector without permission. “But we see that many people operate illegally with well-oiled accomplices”, Clement Kotan, Director General of the Environmental Protection Unit of Benin (l'Unité de Protection de l'Environnement), stated angrily.
The forestry administration is not exempt from reproach either: “We are not endowed with big forest resources, but we make big timber exports because our forest is decimated by lawless farmers”, José Tonato, Beninese Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development complains, recognising the complicity of some Beninese forestry agents in the violation of the law.
Chinese are difficult customers
“Sometimes you get bored to go get the wood. You even try to bring it to Cotonou without having any idea for how much you can sell it because it is the Chinese who fix the purchase price by considering for example the fluctuations of the US dollar. It does not matter for them if you make a profit out of it or not,” says Alain Coffi disappointedly.
A survey from Greenpeace published in 2016 named China as the largest illegal exploiter of African forests. The survey found that the worst thing for all timber exporting countries is that they are becoming more and more dependent on China, and often they are forced to accept the unfavorable conditions imposed on them.