International news organisation Aljazeera has reported that despite the ban on the rosewood trade, the practice still goes on in The Gambia.
An Aljazeera investigative report published on Tuesday quoted a trafficker identified as only Lamin who outlined his plan to traffic rosewood timber from Senegal.
“All of this has to be secret,” Lamin whispered, trying to be reassuring about his almost decade-long experience in the illicit trade.
“Things have got more difficult recently, but it’s not impossible if you have the right contacts,” the trafficker told Aljazeera.
Aljazeera reported that for decades, timber has been smuggled by men like Lamin from southern Senegal’s Casamance region into The Gambia to then be shipped to China. One of the most sought-after species is rosewood. Scientifically known as pterocarpus erinaceus, the crimson-coloured timber is in high demand by Chinese furniture manufacturers.
In 2012, the West African rosewood tree was officially classified as being on the brink of extinction in The Gambia. But the country, along with neighbouring Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, has continued to be among the primary suppliers of this species to China.
Since June 2022, there has been a regional ban on felling, transporting and exporting timber by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Gambian government also instituted a ban that same year, but traffickers said they continue to work with Chinese businesspeople to smuggle the precious timber out of Casamance.
From 2017 to 2022 alone, China imported more than 3 million tonnes of rosewood worth at least $2bn from West Africa, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO.
Al Jazeera spoke to traffickers in The Gambia, posing as investors interested in getting involved in the timber trade. The traffickers revealed that the trade is still well under way and said 200 containers loaded with the timber sat in Banjul’s port, awaiting shipment to China. When reached for comment, the Gambian government said it was unaware of the presence of such containers.
Smugglers in Banjul showed Al Jazeera video footage of people loading rosewood logs onto a ship, saying it was a private vessel used exclusively for rosewood timber exports to China. According to Lamin, a container holds 80 to 90 logs, depending on their size. The older they are, the bigger the circumference and the more valuable they are. A full container can fetch more than $15,000. According to Lamin, traffickers like him can get up to $1,000 per container.
The process of exporting timber through Banjul’s port has become more difficult, according to the traffickers, who said obtaining export permits from authorities is no longer as easy as it was before. Private shipping lines, which used to be the main method of transport to China, stopped shipping timber in 2020.
“There is no way at the seaport yet,” admitted Secka, one of Lamin’s superiors, “but if you are getting into timber trafficking, you are supposed to have proper contacts in place.”
According to them, well-placed contacts within the port authority facilitate export procedures, which include permits and the deposit of containers, as do the police, who can greenlight the release of seized containers in exchange for what Lamin calls “tips”. Al Jazeera contacted the port authority and Gambian police but did not receive a response.
“You need to know people in the system, a backup in case you get caught,” Secka said, suggesting that authorities are heavily involved in the trafficking.