Since China imposed a domestic logging ban to preserve its own forests in 1998, its expanding economy has steadily become hungrier for African wood. Illegal activity in Mozambique’s forestry industry has increased alongside a surge in Chinese demand for Mozambican timber, leading to negative effects for the industry and for the sustainability of Mozambique’s forests. But this could help spur positive changes to the country’s timber and trade policies, researchers say.
“China’s demand for timber has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, so that today, more than 80 percent of Mozambican timber exports are destined for China,” wrote the authors of Chinese trade and investment in the Mozambican timber industry: A case study from Cabo Delgado Province, conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Much of the Mozambican wood sought by China is jambire, used to make antique-style furniture popular in the Chinese market, according to companies interviewed for the study.
While Mozambique’s forestry sector was specializing to supply that niche, the national authorities banned the export of raw logs in 2007, intending to increase local timber processing and create jobs in sawmills in the southern African country.
Yet researchers found that the demand from Chinese carpenters is for raw logs, which are easier to carve into traditional designs in Chinese workshops. “Processing timber locally in Mozambique into products that meet the Chinese demand is considered difficult due to a lack of the skills needed to produce such furniture,” researchers wrote.
“The log export ban seems to have been implemented without sufficient research, and it is actually decreasing the value of Mozambican exports,” said Sigrid Ekman, the publication’s lead author.
An unintended consequence of the policy is to encourage illegal exports of first-class logs, which the scientists found to be profitable.
According to their estimations, the profit on a container of raw logs taken illegally from Mozambican forest to Chinese market is much higher than the profit on a container of sawn wood. This takes into account not only shipping costs but also the bribes distributed to ensure local officials look the other way.
The intersection of Mozambican forestry policy and Chinese business practices has highlighted problems in the attribution of logging titles, according to the authors of another CIFOR paper exploring the differences between concession holders of various nationalities in Cabo Delgado. According to available statistics, Chinese companies operate nine of the province’s 30 concessions in 2010.
Concessions are long-term, large-scale logging titles granted to companies that submit detailed forest management plans — in contrast to simpler, short-term licenses, which are reserved for Mozambican nationals. In recent years, the Mozambican government has promoted concessions to encourage sustainable practices and attract more stable investors to the forestry sector.
For this analysis, the scientists studied the concession-level data from Cabo Delgado and found that one in three operated without having obtained the authorities’ approval on the way they were planning to exploit — and preserve — forest resources in their area.
According to the analysis, “The group with the largest relative share of concession area operating without an approved management plan shifted from Mozambicans (64 percent in 2007) to Chinese (41 percent in 2009).”