The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) yesterday released a report showing how over 1.4 million illegal rosewood logs from Nigeria, worth $300 million, were laundered into China.
The report which was first made available by Global Media Max, a strategic communications services agent to the EIA, claimed that multiple independent sources told undercover investigators that over $1 million was paid to top Nigerian officials to release the woods stopped by Chinese authorities.
The EIA is a US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded in 1984 by Dave Currey, Jennifer Lonsdale and Allan Thornton — three environmental activists in the United Kingdom — to investigate and expose crimes against wildlife and the environment. It also campaigns to prevent environmental crime.
Senior Policy Advisor and Director of Forest Campaigns at the EIA, Lisa Handy, said the report indicted the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations and President Muhammadu Buhari’s former Environment Minister Amina Mohammed who now faces questions regarding her role in the entire process.
“Thousands of permits,” she said, “were ultimately signed by the then Minister of Environment, Mrs. Amina J. Mohammed, who currently serves as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN)”, according to the report emanating from a two-year investigation by EIA on the “Rosewood Racket” detailing the journey of illegal African rosewood, also known as “kosso,” from the remote forests of Nigeria.
Mrs. Mohammed was reportedly supposed to start her new position as Deputy Secretary-General of the UN on January 1, 2017, but extended her time as Minister of Environment at the request of President Buhari to round off critical responsibilities.
EIA investigators said they found that she signed thousands of retroactive CITES permits in January 2017 as one of her last acts as Minister of Environment, and just before she was sworn in as the Deputy Secretary-General to the UN.
The permits were reportedly used by Chinese importers to release over 1.4 million illegal logs that had been detained at the Chinese border for months, after having left Nigeria in violation of both Nigerian law and international CITES obligations.
Alexander von Bismarck, EIA Executive Director, who was quoted in a sumarised reported and later spoke on telephone from his U.S. base, said: “As a legally binding treaty ratified by nearly all members of the United Nations, CITES can play a critical role in protecting endangered trees and fragile forests.
The international community needs to urgently bring transparency to the CITES permitting process in order to fight the organised criminals that profit from the extinction of endangered species.”
Von Bismarck added: “The power and reach of organised timber criminals in forest rich countries is overwhelming if illegal wood is allowed to be sold overseas without consequences.
“This is why we urgently need regulatory changes in consuming countries to stop timber shipments based on evidence of being illegally logged, transported or traded. Such laws have already been passed in the U.S. and the EU.
This case shows that China has the ability to take action when it stopped thousands of containers of illegal rosewood. But the fact that the wood was ultimately released shows that China urgently needs domestic legislation to ban the import of illegally sourced wood.”
EIA says the products of the illegal logging found their way to luxury furniture boutiques in China, “despite protections placed on this threatened tree species by the CITES.”
It further stated that the exploding Chinese demand for kosso over the past five years had triggered a series of “boom-and-bust” cycles that led to the depletion of forests across West African nations.
“In most of the countries, kosso has been illegally logged in violation of harvest and log export bans, including in protected areas. Precious trees have been laundered into the international market through regional smuggling routes, using mis-declaration and falsification of official documents.”
The boom, according to the EIA, began in Gambia and Benin, but Chinese traders had to rapidly move on through other countries in the region — before settling on the largest untapped forest resources of Nigeria — as supply was exhausted in just a few short years.
Since 2013, Nigeria has been transformed from a net importer into the world’s largest exporter of rosewood logs, and is to date one of the top wood exporters on the continent.
The unprecedented and uncontrolled level of logging across the country is causing desertification, imperiling the livelihoods of millions of people, and threatening national parks and endangered emblematic species such as the most vulnerable chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) in the world.
Kosso was added to Appendix II of CITES in 2016, meaning that logging and trade must be strictly controlled and kept at sustainable levels.
The results of the new EIA investigation show that the enforcement of the convention faces serious challenges when dealing with transnational criminal networks.
The report shows how Sino-Nigerian criminal networks took advantage of an obsolete and opaque permitting system to launder illegal wood using CITES paperwork.
Efforts to get a response from the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations did not yield immediate results as several telephone calls to her mobile phone which a presidency official said was roaming, did not go through. There was also no response to a text message at press time.
But Mrs. Mohammed was quoted last month as having referred to the permits in an interview last month in her sprawling 38th-floor U.N. headquarters office in Manhattan overlooking the East River. The certificates, she said “came in bags, and I just signed them because that is what I had to do…I don’t remember how many.”
She reportedly described her own action as part of “a complicated, though legal, balancing act aimed at ensuring Nigeria’s threatened forests were being harvested sustainably while also honouring contracts with Chinese rosewood importers and protecting the livelihoods of a growing number of Nigerians who depend on the timber trade.”
What looked like an official reaction — though unsigned — came much later through a third party.
“The Secretary-General has been informed by the Deputy Secretary-General about the reports and reiterates his full support and confidence in her. She, of course, categorically rejects any allegations of fraud,” Ms Mohammed reportedly said in response to enquiries.
“The Deputy Secretary-General welcomes the effort to shine more light onto the issue of illegal rosewood logging and exportation that she fought hard to address during her tenure in the Nigerian Government.
She says that her actions as Nigerian Environment Minister were intended to deal with the serious issue of illegal wood exportation. As a result, she instituted a ban and set up a high-level panel to find policy solutions to the crisis of deforestation in Nigeria.
“Ms. Mohammed says that the legal signing of export permits for rosewood was delayed due to her insistence that stringent due process was followed. She says that she signed the export certificates requested before the ban only after due process was followed and better security watermarked certificates became available.”
Asked whether the investigators actually consulted Mrs. Mohammed, Von Bismarck said on telephone last night that she was reached by Foreign Policy reporter for comments and she denied that the woods were illegally exported, although there were local laws banning logging in Taraba and other parts of Nigeria.
The illegal business, according to him, has further increased poverty and enriched the traders by some $1billion between 2014 and 2017.
He also insisted that on-the-spot checks on containers in Nigeria and China as well as Chinese trade data confirmed that logs were imported from Nigeria.
“The logs provide luxury furniture for many thousands of dollars in China,” Von Bismarck said.
But Nigeria’s leading environmentalist and director at the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOME), Nnimo Bassey, expressed “serious doubts” that “Amina Mohammed as Minister of Environment would preside over illegalities in the management of environmental resources.”
He, however, said he was aware that “there have been a lot of pressures and subterfuges on Nigerian forests including during her short tenure.
“My impression is that she fought particularly hard to ensure that the Nigerian environment was protected and raised the importance of the ministry to new levels. This includes the hard fight to protect Nigeria’s last remaining pristine rain forest in Cross River State that has been under intense threat from the proposed superhighway project.”