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Story Publication logo May 30, 2024

Timber Trade Across Uganda-DRC Borders Must Be Tightened, Minister Says


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


Piles of Congolese hardwood in a section of Ndeeba timber market, Kampala on display for sale. Traders describe this section as the world centre for Congo’s hardwood. Image by Musinguzi Blanshe. Uganda, 2023.

Officials in Uganda say there must be tighter scrutiny and checks at entry points on the vast Uganda-Democratic Republic of Congo border in order to curb illicit trade and smuggling of timber logged from Congo Basin forests.

A recent four-part investigation by the Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN) and The Africa Report revealed how non-rigorous customs checks and lack of scrutiny is fuelling cross-border trade of illegally logged timber and smuggling of timber from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) into Uganda.

The timber is either consumed by Uganda’s local market or transits to other countries such as Kenya.

The investigation further revealed how high-ranking security officials have been at the centre of smuggling for decades and how furniture companies in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, make furniture out of timber harvested illegally in Congo and pay little attention to how it is sourced.

Following the publication of the investigation, Uganda’s Environment Minister Beatrice Anywar said in an interview, “We need to tighten the entry points and the transit process.”

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She added that Uganda faces many challenges and limitations in regard to tracking timber deforested in DRC as well as its own forests. Her views were expressed by other senior officials interviewed.

Biyika Songa Lawrence, a legislator hailing from Zombo, a DRC-Uganda border district and chairperson of Uganda parliamentary committee on climate change, told RIN that timber can’t be monitored when it has entered the country, hence the most important aspect of monitoring should be at the border.

“That is the place where all paper should be checked because now the person who has a store in Kampala may be a third buyer,” he said. “Whereas people need timber,” Biyika said “the business should be done properly…in an organized formal way.”

Why Congo Basin is vital

Anywar underscored the importance of Congo Basin forests to Uganda, the region, and the entire globe. “Industrialized countries are relying on developing countries and areas like the Congo Basin to help them clean their mess,” she said.

The Congo Basin is a source of clean air for Uganda as well as plays a vital cleansing of the air that Ugandans breathe. “If industrialized countries far away value the Congo Basin forest, how about us?” the minister inquired.

Biyika says the Congo Basin is the “greenest part of Africa,” and “It needs protection.”

The challenge

Challenges ranging from weak governance systems in Congo to conflicts that have plagued the country for decades make it hard to monitor forests and timber trade in the country, officials say.

Anywar said Uganda has a law enforcement challenge, with less than 600 law enforcement officers who are supposed to cover the entire country. Timber smugglers and charcoal traders – whose trade has been burnt – easily dodge enforcement teams stationed on the roads.

“You’re talking about those with fake documents, no one can see fake documents and let them go. They must have panyas [short-cuts] where they pass,” the minister said.

Officials are sceptical on whether tighter checks on companies that use Congolese timber to make furniture can yield positive results. The supply chain from Congo into Uganda is largely informal. Ugandan and Kenyan traders stationed at the border points employ Congolese to deliver timber for them. It’s these traders who supply large furniture-making companies.

Anywar said furniture companies are always searching for cheap raw materials from wherever they can find it. She said it would be impossible to ask them how they got timber.

“You can’t go to them and say you cut this table out of this timber; did you use legal timber? How?” she argued. “That would be expecting too much of them but raising concern is genuine,” the minister added.

Anywar said that Uganda is not yet up to the task specifically in probing informal supply chains which dominate the internal and external timber market dynamics. By the time timber reaches a company, it may have gone through four or five hands.

“A company might have subcontracted someone who is the supplier. Then, the supplier is also being supplied. The chain of supply will be a long one. You can see that challenge,” she said.

Biyika too sees the same challenge with probing the informal supply chain. As a country, we have not reached the extent of questioning the source of hardwood.

“Maybe, with time, that can be gradually done when we have streamlined the legal framework, we can be in position to know the source of timber. But for now, we lack framework and capacity,” he says.


a yellow halftone illustration of a truck holding logs





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