Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo April 8, 2024

Kenya Talks Big on Climate, While Illegal Timber From Ancient Trees Flows in Daily From the DRC


Uganda has for years had large volumes of informal trade with the DRC.


Image courtesy of The Africa Report.

In the final chapter of our four-part timber smuggling series, we look at the discrepancy between Kenya’s official declarations to save the Congo rainforests and the country’s trade in endangered hardwood.

This is part 4 of a 4-part series

Since William Ruto ascended to the presidency, Kenya has positioned itself as the continent’s climate change champion. But the country is a key market of illegally logged timber, consuming as many as 300 trucks of timber monthly from the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of the Congo Basin carbon sink.

In stark contrast to the agenda Ruto is championing, our investigation reveals that not only is official data suspect, but Kenya authorities emphatically state that illegally logged DRC-sourced timber is not their concern.

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!

Ruto repeatedly defends and calls for the protection of the world’s basins and rainforests, including that of Congo.

“Their integrity ought to be, without question, the foremost priority of all humanity,” said Ruto at the Three Basins Summit — Amazon, Borneo-Mekong-Southeast Asia, and Congo — held in Brazzaville in October 2023.

Talking heads

Ruto, who holds a PhD in plant ecology from the University of Nairobi, gave a captivating speech, earning him applause and cheers.

If well-taken care of, the president said that the three basins have the potential to set humanity on a new path of transformation through ecologically responsible production and consumption. Ruto said the role of the basins “has always been potent; never has it been as clear and urgent as it is today.”

These are important words from an African standard-bearer, who also chairs the African Union Heads of State committee on climate change. Last year he hosted the inaugural Africa Climate Summit. Due to his efforts, Ruto was featured in Times Magazine’s 100 influential climate leaders in 2023.

While he carries the flag for defending Africa against climate disaster, a different reality is played out on the ground.

“If Kampala takes 30 trucks of timber, it will be full. But Kenya, I think within a month, they take around 300 trucks and the demand is still high,” Rashid Kabuye, a Ugandan timber clearing agent on the DRC and Uganda border, tells The Africa Report.

Can Ruto use his pulpit?

Change is necessary from the top to combat the massive deforestation of the Congo Basin. Ruto has an opportunity and moral authority to set the standard that can restrict the entry of illegal wood into Kenya, says Nyaguthii Chege, chairperson of the Kenya-based Green Belt Movement.

"We would be hypocritical to … turn a blind eye to the destruction that is happening in the Congo Basin."

“He has the pulpit and the megaphone through which he can announce that this is the standard we have,” Chege tells The Africa Report.

And she should know. The Green Belt Movement was founded by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, who served as a goodwill ambassador of the Congo Basin forest ecosystems.

Chege says that Kenyans must imagine themselves as part of a neighbourhood that includes the DRC. “Congo is two borders away from us,” she says. “We would be hypocritical to be focused on protecting our forests … and turn a blind eye to the destruction that is happening in the Congo Basin for our benefit, whether direct or indirect.”

Kenya has had a ban on logging indigenous trees through various legislations and presidential decrees since 1964, Kenya Forestry Services (KFS) tells The Africa Report. As Kenya’s economy expands, the demand for timber has outpaced the supply, prompting the country’s traders to set eyes on the DRC’s ancient, indigenous and endangered trees in search of hardwood.

Kenyans – timber’s ‘big men’

Kenyan dealers are a common feature in Lia, a border point on the Uganda-DRC frontier, where timber with questionable, if any, documents passes into Uganda en route to Kenya. The Kenyan dealers are referred to as ‘Somalis’ because Kenyans of Somali descent dominate the trade, say sources.

As the main drivers of the timber business, the dealers are revered and reviled in equal measure because they can out-compete their Ugandan counterparts and drive up prices.

“The way 'Somalis' do business is not how others do business. If they say they want timber, they will get it,” Rashid Muhindo, a Ugandan timber clearing agent, tells The Africa Report.

As much as 80% of timber that arrives at Lia is destined for Kenya, a person working at the border said in an interview.

At the Malaba border, the main border between Kenya and Uganda used by timber trucks, clearing agents told The Africa Report that trucks loaded with timber are cleared daily.

Sticky statistics

Official statistics The Africa Report received from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) reflect timber volumes entering the country. KRA statistics indicate that 145,479 tonnes of timber, or 468,924m3, entered Kenya between January 2020 and December 2022.

"The weight and volume don’t correspond."

Though KRA does not detail the species, the UN Comtrade database does. Timber imported into Kenya was declared as mahogany except for 624 tonnes of Afzelia africana and 6.6 tonnes of iroko, or African teak. Afzelia africana, also sometimes called African mahogany, was listed as an endangered species in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2022.

According to official data, roughly 132 tonnes, or four trucks, were entering Kenya daily between 2020 and 2022, which is less than half of what Uganda traders on the border witness.

The KRA also shared data from July to December 2023, showing an astronomical boom in trade. In the six months, 705,606m3, equivalent to 13,606.7 tonnes of timber, was imported into Kenya. All the imports were mahogany except 14.6 tonnes of mvule, or Milicia excelsa, and 0.32 tonnes of pine.

But Kenya’s data is highly questionable, Silvia Ferrari, a wood scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and co-author of the study whose data was collected from the timber park in Congo, says in an interview. It is questionable because there is a discrepancy between cubic metres and the mass in kilograms.

“The weight and volume don’t correspond,” Ferrari says. “I don't know what is correct, the volume or the weight.”

Here is why. A cubic meter of mahogany weighs 600-700kg when dry. But if not dry, it weighs 800-1,000kg, Ferrari says. Logging in eastern DRC is done by artisanal loggers who lack the technology to dry the timber, thus wood exported from the region is never dry.

Kenya’s July to December 2023 imports of 690,686m3 of mahogany would weigh 587,083 tonnes, which is 49 times more than the weight captured by Kenya data – a cubic metre of wood does not weigh 19kg.

Under documented

The laissez-faire process under-declared timber without documentation is cleared at Lia extends to the Kenya-Uganda border. Kenya officials and clearing agents tell The Africa Report that the Uganda border's clearance is considered sufficient to indicate that the timber was felled legally in DRC.

At Kenya's Malaba border, The Africa Report spoke to three clearing agents familiar with places like Lia, which are used for timber in transit to enter Uganda.

“Here, we don’t consider DRC documents,” said one clearing agent. “For us, we declare based on Uganda documents. If you're in Uganda, you declare based on DRC documents,” said another clearing agent.

A transit document (T1) issued by Uganda at the entry border and a forestry document issued by authorities in Uganda is all that is required at the Kenya border.

Clearing agents say drivers of overloaded trucks bribe officials at weighbridges in Uganda en route to the Kenya border. Most truckers come with a full load and pay the same taxes as a smaller load.

Timber is carried by heavy-duty double diff trucks that can transport an excess load, passing through rough terrain and slippery roads.

“We carry timber at maximum because that is how we make a profit,” says another agent.

Corruption at Kenya's border

Trucks arrive at the Kenya border with as many as 65-70 tonnes of timber, clearing agents say, which is an overload of 15-20 tonnes. Trucks are allowed to carry 30 tonnes on East African roads. A full load, which includes the truck's weight and the cargo, will total around 48-50 tonnes depending on the type of truck.

A clearing agent said it cost between about $180 to $220 in bribes to pass through the three weighbridges in Uganda before reaching the Kenya border.

Once a truck arrives at the border, its owner appoints a clearing agent as a go-between to deal with KRA officials. Timber is measured in cubic metres during the clearing process. The agent invites a customs official to measure the timber and compute the cubic metres.

The timber is often rearranged before customs officials enter the truck to take measurements. When trucks are overloaded to the extent that they can’t be opened, the measurements are taken from outside. After measurements are taken, clearing agents say they 'negotiate' with customs officials to accept a declaration of fewer cubic metres, corresponding with what was declared in Uganda.

Trucks that arrive with an excess load can measure up to 42m3. Clearing agents explain that through negotiations with customs officials, they may declare it as 25m3 for tax assessment, giving the KRA clearing officials a percentage of the taxes as a bribe.

Once timber trucks are cleared and enter Kenya, they unload excess wood at a private weighbridge that also operates as a timber park, located about 2km from the Malaba border.

They only proceed to Nairobi or other destinations with the allowable load of 30 tonnes. Clearing agents said that unlike in Uganda, where it's easy to bribe officials to pass through weighbridges, it's much harder in Kenya, so the excess load is discharged.

What Kenya officials say

The KRA and Kenya Forest Services (KFS) work at the border in timber clearance. The Africa Report shared the findings of this investigation with the two agencies.

In response to questions, the KRA lists eight required documents for timber clearance. All are acquired from other Kenyan agencies at the border, except two. The first is a certificate of origin that would have presumably come from the DRC. But timber never arrives at the Lia-Uganda border with a certificate of origin, say people at Uganda entry points. The second is a T1 document issued by Uganda at the point of entry.

The KRA said that at the Uganda border, timber importers will have presented and verified all the documents. “The processing of timber consignments begins at the Uganda-DRC border, where customs officials from both partner states verify and assess all necessary documentation” before the issuance of a transit document (T1). It's the documents issued by Uganda that the KRA authenticates.

The KFS, in response to our questions, said that only the KRA has the mandate to clear imports. “It is after all these clearances that the KFS gives a movement permit for use while on the Kenyan roads,” the agency said.

The KFS says before timber “is cleared by the country [DRC] of origin it must satisfy the regulations.”

But in another set of questions, KFS notes that areas in North Kivu and environs are in rebel territory and “therefore controlled by community clans," adding: "It is sad to say that the village elders in these communities collect some levy (musoro) from timber merchants who then are allowed to extract/harvest timber.”

A highway for the processing of illegal timber

The agency added that “when this timber gets to the border point, the DRC government collects its tax, then certifies the consignment fit for export.”

When asked about timber parks where trucks unload excess wood, KRA said: “After payment of the requisite taxes, our role as customs ends with the release of the [truck transporting timber] to the clients.”

Green Belt’s Chege says agencies like the KRA and KFS must play their role of ensuring that they put in place processes and systems that bar the importation of illegally harvested timber into Kenya.

“They should be able to monitor the source of timber that is coming into the country so that we don’t become a highway for the processing of illegal timber,” Chege adds.


logo for the Rainforest Investigations Network


Rainforest Investigations Network

Rainforest Investigations Network

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues