“I just buy it, illegal, legal, I just want a good piece of wood” – Moustapha Bame, carpenter

In Senegal’s southern region, trucks full with tree trunks make their way down narrow roads connecting villages to the forest, spewing up dust. Most of the wood packed onto these flatbeds is the product of illegal logging, an industry worth as much as 11 billion dollars. There are many actors involved but in Senegal, the only people getting penalized are the ones found with a hand saw.

“There are only a few places you can get Teak legally here. Then there are the Chinese, they’re not the ones cutting trees down in the bush, they have representatives cutting the wood and transporting it to the port so they can load it in the containers” – Moustapha Bame, a carpenter in Ziguinchor

International organizations like Greenpeace say illegal timber trafficking amounts to environmental crimes and those who purchase the wood, as well as those who make furniture from trafficked trunks are as responsible as those who cut down the trees.

A vehicle full of illegally cut timber in Ziguinchor, Senegal.

A vehicle full of illegally cut timber in Ziguinchor, Senegal.

Senegalese villagers between Ziguinchor and the Gambia say they are well aware of the foreign interest in their trees and the hefty payouts that can come for those willing to risk illegal cutting. For some villagers, that potential for a larger income is worth even the risk of death.

“We don’t have any machines. We cut everything by hand. We can’t even imagine using machines because of the rebels that are still in the forest. If they hear some machines they’ll come out. Before Tabaski the rebels took 32 of my friends.” – Khadim Tall, newcomer to the wood traffic trade

During the late 1980s, thousands were killed during rebel uprisings in southern Senegal and those who frequent Casamance’s dense forests say some rebels still attack today. While attacks and kidnappings by rebels are a very real danger, large fines, equipment seizures and even arrest from Senegal’s Eaux et Fôrets may pose even greater risk for those in the illegal timber trade.

A forest entrance in Casamance. Senegal

A forest entrance in Casamance. Senegal

“We cut down the wood about 14km away [from Ziguinchor], we store it in Nema. It’s the closest town to where we cut the wood that I have friends in. If the Eaux et Fôrets see we have wood, they can seize everything we cut down. It’s really difficult to keep the wood together because of them. The agents of Eaux et Fôrets, they circulate. So in order to get the wood out of the forest, we have to wait until they’re too tired to take it out. Before the penalty was only 10,000CFA, now they take your wood, your chariot, your bike, or your truck, whatever you have” – Khadim Tall

Eaux et Fôrets, are the Senegalese governmental commission that regulates deforestation and are responsible for stopping illegal timber trafficking in the country.

“The Eaux et Fôrets are adequately armed to treat the situation. We have seized over 35 trucks, have intercepted 692 illegal logging incidents and have put over 90 people in prison. We are set to fight against fraud and survey our forests,” said Senegal’s minister of the environment and durable development, Abdoulay Bibi Baldé, in a public announcement.

A donkey pulls a cart of filled with timber near the Senegal-Gambia border.

A donkey pulls a cart of filled with timber near the Senegal-Gambia border.

In a recent study done by Interpol, 15-30% of all commercial timber in the world comes from illegal exploitation. According to Colonel Mamadou Aly Seck, of Eaux et Fôrets, these figures are unsurprising given the potential financial reward for prized wood. Rosewood is one of the most highly sought after woods on the international market with Asian markets being the main destination for illegally harvested wood.

“They traffic rosewood, Teak, Venne, and at least 3 other types, all for motorcycles and money. You see all these bikes around? We did not build them, 30 trunks of wood will get you 1 motorcycle from any of the foreign buyers.” – Col. Mamadou Aly Seck, Eaux et Fôrets

Khadim Tall offered this story of a friend also involved in Ziguinchor’s illegal timber trade. “One day he asked me if I wanted to help him find mangos and tamarind in the forest. When I got there, I saw there were people cutting down and reselling trees. I heard about it and figured I could do the same but to start, I’d build a bed with the wood I cut. When I sold the bed, I knew I could do it. I knew the prices of different items and I could use that money for me and family,”

While Tall says cutting and selling timber illegally earns him enough money now to support his family, he says the burden of always having to look over his shoulder does not equal the money he makes. For Tall, he says he’d like to stop trafficking in illegal timber “soon”, before he gets caught by the Eaux et Fôrets, injured or something worse. But with demand on the international market increasing, the financial draw of illegal timber trafficking may prove too strong for many living in southern Senegal.