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Story Publication logo April 3, 2024

Timber Hustling: Lia, a Thriving Hub for Congolese Mahogany Trafficked to Uganda, Kenya


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


Image courtesy of The Africa Report.

For at least 25 years, high-ranking Ugandan officials have turned a blind eye to pillaging hardwood from the Congo Basin in the DRC, according to the UN. The illegal, and rampant, deforestation continues as a small village turns into a timber station.

This is the first article in a four-part investigation into a Congolese wood trafficking hub on the border of Uganda. It reveals a burgeoning trade and an open secret.

As the sun goes down in late January 2024, the rural border point of Lia situated along the Uganda-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) frontier bustles with activity. Two trucks are unloading freshly sawn hardwood timber as a few people milling around watch attentively. Just metres away, another two trucks are being loaded with wood while three others are parked on the roadside waiting for timber.

Flourishing business

Business is booming in Lia as wood is moved from one point to another, changing hands from buyer to seller. Every day, around three dozen timber dealers and casual labourers criss-cross this border point, which has become the main area of timber coming into Uganda. Piles of planks stretch 300m all around the area.

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"Logs [from DRC] are mature, not like the ones in Uganda."

The hustle and bustle on the Uganda border feeds the high demand for quality wood in Uganda and beyond.

“Why Congo timber? It’s nice. You have to give it to them, Congo is a blessed country with a rainforest and everything. Their logs are mature, not like the ones in Uganda,” says Footsteps Furniture marketing executive Frank Nsubuga, who serves high-profile customers and government offices in Kampala, Uganda.

The mahogany family Meliaceae includes five species of African mahogany (Khaya genus) that are on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) protected list. As the raw wood crosses through Lia’s official border and travels to Uganda’s capital, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, it is not subject to scrutiny.

This seemingly ‘normal’ work setting hides a seamier side of the timber industry — one that involves miscategorised wood … and a lot of money.

Interviews with traders in situ, officials and those behind the scenes indicate that this is also a dangerous business. Most people whom The Africa Report spoke to in Lia requested anonymity for fear of their safety. Numerous sources discussed their part in the operation, but are not quoted.

Coupled with satellite imagery, our four-part series reveals how the illegal logging supply chain is so lucrative that those involved are willing to break the law and relocate to profit from this precious resource.

Timber station destination

Lia is a rural community, with a mixture of iron-sheet roofed and grass-thatched houses dotted across the village’s marram road leading to the border point. This hamlet is growing, fuelled by the timber trade, a change clearly visible in satellite images.

Timber used to pass through another border point, Mpondwe, located about 450km south of Lia. The establishment of a road to Mpondwe of a new timber park, the first of its kind in the DRC, pushed traders northwards to Lia from 2019 onwards.

Map by Federico Acosta Rainis/Pulitzer Center. Created with Datawrapper.

A large timber station opened in Lia in 2022, bringing in more money, traffic, people and cut wood, as evident in the images.

Timber dealers mention several provinces — North Kivu, Ituri, Tshopo and Haut-Uele — as the source of timber that arrives at the Uganda border. In Ituri, they spoke of Nia Nia, a hamlet located in Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a rich tropical rainforest. It is situated to the extreme west, where Ituri borders Tshopo and Haut-Uele. Despite the huge volumes of timber at Lia, there is little presence of authorities.

The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) office in charge of clearing goods passing through Lia is staffed with two people. Across the border on the Congo side in the Ituri region, there is a one-room office occupied by a few Congolese officials.

There are no scanners or weighing scales in Lia to check or weigh timber arriving or departing in trucks.

The Uganda border town of Lia, next to the DRC (rights reserved). Image courtesy of The Africa Report.

The same border crossing town of Lia, on the Uganda/DRC border, after the timber traders set up camp (rights reserved). Image courtesy of The Africa Report.

On the ground

In August last year, The Africa Report visited Lia and spoke to numerous people who explained how the logging business works. According to a local politician, as many as 10 trucks per day arrive from the DRC, depending on the season.

The timber is unloaded, and money is exchanged. If the wood quality is not good enough, the driver has to go back to the DRC to bring more timber while the buyer waits for their full load, which could be up to two weeks.

Lia doesn’t operate like other borders where trucks or people pass through to their destination. It's a stopping place for some, working as a timber exchange point and market of sorts. Uganda and Kenya timber buyers — always stationed at the border — with money and dependable connections in the DRC contract their Congolese counterparts to source timber, according to a person who works in Lia.

The buyers partially pay in advance for the raw materials and sometimes buy wood harvesting machines for their Congolese partners who go to the forests to cut trees, especially during the rainy season.

The cut wood is later transported to the border during the dry season because movement is easier. It can take as long as six months for timber to be delivered. Once it is received, the pieces are counted and confirmed to be of the right quality, and the buyer pays the remaining balance, according to one wood dealer.

French disconnection

About 80% of the timber that arrives at Lia is en route, mostly to Kenya, explained a person working at the border, saying Uganda officials merely facilitate its movement. The small portion of timber destined for the local market is cleared, taxed and transported to Kampala.

"It's very rare to find that they have the documents."

Ugandan officials "don’t care about taxes on materials being exported," our source said, so "they don’t bother looking at the documents" because Uganda is only for transit.

While more than 200 languages are spoken in the DRC, French is one of the primary four official languages. But Congolese who bring timber to the border come with “tricky” and “not serious” documents written in French, according to one person who asked not to be identified.

“It's very rare to find that they have the documents the way you want them 100%,” the source said. “We end up initiating documents from here.”

Another person working in the wood industry at the border explained that timber arrives without the requisite documents due to corruption in the DRC.

In Haut-Uele, traders mention Isiro, Rungu and Dungu as areas where they source wood. In June 2023, DRC forest monitoring group Observatoire de la Gouvernance Forestière (OGF) organised a fact-finding mission to Haut-Uele, where it found that the province had not issued logging permits to artisanal operators for two years despite receiving more than 80 applications, yet artisanal operators were logging without permits, including in forest reserves.

The OGF report said it “encountered a truck loading a batch of sawn timber for export to Uganda" and that “all this wood was cut without authorisation.”

In the eastern Congo, money for permits is paid to individuals and roadblock operators rather than government offices, which explains the discrepancy in documents and stamps that truckers have at the border.

“Sometimes people receive money stamps on receipts and let trucks pass through. People arrive with stamped receipts and no other documents,” says the wood industry worker.

People involved in illegal logging take home triple the income of what legal logging pays in the DRC, says Moise Mugaruka Kajiwami, the head of the Forest Management Bureau in North Kivu.

“Most of it is in the hands of armed men, then operators who abandon it and join the rebels. The latter work to increase the Ugandan economy to the disadvantage of that of the DRC,” says Kajiwami.

No permit? No problem

What is always missing, according to Lia timber clearing agent Rashid Kabuye, is the certificate of origin, because the administrative state is centralised in the DRC.

“For a person to get [the certificate], he has to go to Kinshasa, which is very far, and you have to fly as there are no roads,” he says. The Congolese capital is around 1,700km from the Ituri region.

Image courtesy of The Africa Report.

Essylot Lubala, technical advisor of the OGF, says the excuse that dealers can’t go to Kinshasa to obtain a certificate of origin should not be accepted in Uganda.

“If there is no certificate of origin, timber should not be allowed to enter Uganda, or East Africa territory,” he says. If wood without a certificate is blocked, the owners will be forced to go to Kinshasa to acquire it. “It's through the acquisition of the document that legal compliance and tax obligations will be met.”

Although an agreement for the regulation of logging in the provinces of Ituri, Tsopo and North Kivu was signed last year in Bunia, the process is moot without enforcement, Kajiwami said.

The overall lack of infrastructure also hampers paperwork and operations.

“The offices around here have no computers, no electricity — they are still using pen and paper,” he adds.

One Congolese trucker who has ferried timber and asked not to be identified, candidly tells The Africa Report that logging is an “atrocious” job, but that corruption is part of his daily life as he moves timber across the border.

"Because we can’t check, we have to bribe."

Before reaching the Uganda border, the truck will have paid about $230 on checkpoints, he says. “These are amounts with no receipts,” he adds.

"If you don’t accept corruption, you have to provide genuine verification [of wood] and that’s different,” he says, indicating that a document showing a 20-tonne load may be for a load of 60 tonnes. “But that’s how we eat.”

If truckers are given documents that indicate they have a 3-5 tonne load, they have no way of verifying it before they hit the road — and the border check.

“Because we can’t check, we have to bribe. Even with the … [right] documents there might be an extra five tonnes for him, for his pocket, so he will let them go,” adds the trucker. "That’s how it works."

Researchers published a study of the park on the road leading to Mpondwe, which indicated a near-total failure to issue formal timber certification on the DRC side.

“Some 93% of what arrived at the Congo park had no legal logging permits,” Paul Omar Cerutti, head of the DRC office at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and the study's co-author tells The Africa Report.

This is how we do it here

There is another group of Congolese traders who bring timber to Lia without a prior arrangement with buyers. They either sell it quickly or wait for days until they secure a buyer. As a result, the border has become a marketplace.

URA spokesperson Ibrahim Bbosa tells The Africa Report that the practice of traders waiting at the border for their Congolese counterparts to deliver raw material is acceptable as long as the timber is cleared by the customs officials.

However, he also said trade in timber at the border, which is booming in Lia, is not permissible under the law.

Besides traders significantly under-declaring their raw material tonnage to cheat taxes, bribery also aids the movement of timber trucks loaded at checkpoints and weighbridges en route to Kampala or Kenya.

A Ugandan timber trader who showed his tax papers to The Africa Report just days after collecting timber from Lia had roughly paid only 20% of the tax he should have been charged.

Why traders moved to Lia

Depending on who you speak to, there are several reasons why traders stopped using the Mpondwe border, but danger coupled with the restive area certainly comes into play.

"Traders are like pastoralists."

Nathan Biryomumaisho, a wood dealer, said the move was due to insecurity, while Lia clearing agent Kabuye said fighting in the North Kivu region pushed wood dealers to source wood in other areas.

Rebels were hiding in the forests where these guys were getting timber,” says Kabuye.

“Wherever rebels found them, they would attack and kill them. They [loggers] diverted to other forests where there is no insecurity and those forests are closer to the northern routes,” he adds. Rashid Muhindo, a clearing agent who moved to northern Uganda, agrees. “Rebels were burning trucks and people were losing lives,” he says.

However, Ngasu Jackson Bwambale, a forest ranger in charge of the area around Mpondwe, says traders felt they were being overtaxed.

“Traders are like pastoralists. They transferred their trade from Mpondwe to Lia … and established another timber entry route,” he says. “They shifted due to high taxes.” But taxes on timber are uniform across all borders, so they found a place where documents were not a key requirement.

Blame it on the border

In Kampala, government officials don’t dispute what The Africa Report investigation reveals but argue that it is difficult to authenticate products that come from eastern DRC, which has been at war for decades resulting in weak administration.

Bbosa says contraband that crosses the Uganda-DRC border is due to the lack of control posts.

“What is still a problem and is difficult to account for is timber that could come in through our porous borders,” he says.

"You're raising an issue which is going to amount to a serious investigation."

The ease with which traders turned Lia into a market without checks and easy bribes has made the hamlet a hub for traders.

Less than 30km south of Lia is the Vurra border, the second-largest and most-developed border, with everything that a smooth, legal timber trade requires. It is not used by timber traders.

When told about the outcome of the 2023 CIFOR-ICRAF study analysing the park near Mpondwe, Bbosa is surprised. “I think it's good information for us to act on,” he says. "We as tax administrators can act on such information. If there is a loophole that needs to be closed, that would be an interesting trigger.”

Bob Kazungu, Uganda's acting assistant commissioner for forestry at the Ministry for Water and Environment, says in the past they used to get forged documents that they were able to deal with, but ruled out the scenario of timber passing through official borders without any documentation.

His office hadn’t heard of this lack of papers “because if it had, we would have swung into serious action,” he says. "You're raising an issue which is going to amount to a serious investigation."

Yet other studies, including a Chatham House document from 2014, show that 87% of logging in the DRC was illegal.

Lia timber trade welcomed by locals

When the illegal wood route moved to Lia, the money followed. The rural community has welcomed strangers over the past two years — timber dealers. The community is excited by the trade boom, but has a few reservations, according to Ariko Moses, a councillor representing the Arua city council, the area under which Lia is located.

In mid-2023, new timber dealers were arriving in the area from Kasese, Uganda, Moses told The Africa Report in August. Their arrival raised security concerns because some rebel groups operate along the DRC border in Kasese, he said.

“People from Kasese, the number increased this year … we asked the security to investigate them … there are people who are loading [raw wood], there are people who are counting timber going out,” he said. “We discovered together with security that they are genuine businesspeople, and they have work permits.”

Local politicians, Moses said, are happy with the boom in timber entering Uganda through Lia. "It's aiding the community to develop and is a source of revenue: Dealers are renting spaces where they keep their raw material as well as houses."

Most importantly, it has been a source of jobs for youth who load and unload timber on trucks or guard timber stockpiles. The city administration is planning to tax the timber dealers so that it can generate revenue, Moses said, but admits they will be cautious.

“We want to collect our taxes from them … we want a moderate [tax] rate. We don’t want to overtax them, you know, taxes can also chase people. Once we chase them, it will have many implications,” he said.

“If we chase them because of tax, the voters will turn against us. We don’t want to collapse the business,” he added.

Besides these two types of illicit timber cross-border movement — with suspect documents or no documents at all — a third type of wood hustling, as detailed in part two of our four-part series, is smuggling.


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