Chainsaw Massacre: How Sierra Leone’s Forestry Minister benefits from Illegal Logging

James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 27 February 2022:

Sierra Leone’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Dr. Abu Bakarr Karim, is personally benefiting from the horrific and most ruinous illegal logging Sierra Leone has ever seen.

The ministry is one of the most corrupt in the country, and it is the main driving force behind the current catastrophic food insecurity and the environmental and ecological degradation overtaking Sierra Leone.

Our most recent investigation, which was concluded just a few weeks ago, has exposed the ministry as deeply duplicitous in its operations. It is targeting Eastern and Northern Sierra Leone, where its illegal loggings and wildlife crimes and operations are carried out with impunity.

In both regions, youth unemployment, degrading poverty and food deprivation have been used by the ministry as weapons of control, forcing the communities to surrender their lands to illegal Chinese and Vietnamese loggers who have no documentation or permits but who are protected by state security forces. In return, the Chinese and Vietnamese illegal loggers work directly with the minister, making sure that he receives his share.

In Eastern Sierra Leone, we came across young men who were equipped with powerful chainsaws in the forests. These young men are plied with psychedelic drugs, including the popular kush, and with tramadol and alcohol, and they are forced to work even at night to harvest timber illegally. (Photo above: Illegal logging in Sierra Leone).

Most of the synthetic drugs used, especially tramadol and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), are imported from China and Vietnam. They are used against local youths as weapons of mood control and enhanced physical stamina. The scenes are devastating; trees, hundreds of years old, are felled and cut into timber.

The Chinese and Vietnamese loggers, equipped with bulldozers and road-clearing machines, make way into the forests to harvest timber. We came across several broken-down machines in North-Eastern Sierra Leone, littering forest roads towards Banda-Juma Yawei Chiefdom where prolific and destructive illegal logging is taking place.

In a small town in Eastern Sierra Leone, you could hear several chainsaws at different locations, roaring simultaneously both night and day in the middle of the forests. As evening falls, many trucks of timber drive to the highway, where they wait until it is night before they travel to the seaport in Freetown. There, the timber is loaded onto containers and shipped.

The impact on wildlife in the country has been wholly detrimental. Large trees such as cotton trees where birds of prey nest have been cut during nesting times, leaving endangered birds unable to breed. Furthermore, the incessant sound of chainsaws roaring in the forests, day and night, has caused rare animals to flee, bringing them closer to human settlements, where they become targets for local bushmeat hunters.

Along one of the motorways in Northern Sierra Leone, we found two local hunters selling a deer they had shot near their village. They carried the deer to the motorway and hung it on a cross bar over two wooden tripods to sell it to passers-by. In another village, we saw a group of young men selling a dead duiker.

Duikers have become the most hunted creature here, as they are extremely sensitive to loud noise. This has serious consequences, as even a minimal change in their life patterns profoundly affects their reproduction.

Photo: It is like open season here for local hunters: this deer was shot by hunters after fleeing from the noise of chainsaws used by illegal loggers. The deer’s horns had been hacked off for ritual purposes.

The destruction is so widespread that Pel’s flying squirrels – a species native to West Africa and after which wingsuits are modelled – are no longer able to move from tree to tree in some areas; they rely on taller trees, which they can climb to the top of before gliding to the bottom of the next tree.

Another major tragedy which the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security is covering up is the spate of wildlife crimes carried out by the illegal loggers, who harvest pangolin scales and other rare animal parts for export. Pangolin scales and other endangered species’ body parts are mixed with timber, loaded onto containers and shipped to China and Vietnam.

Photo: The Moa River used to be very clean, with a beautiful sky-blue colour. In just four years, it has become highly polluted through illegal mining and timber logging.

The Moa River, which runs from the highlands of Guinea and into Eastern and Southwestern Sierra Leone, has become highly polluted through illegal mining and timber logging, making it extremely challenging for local communities settled along the river to fish in order to feed their families. Chemicals from illegal mining sites and rotting trees from illegal logging have changed the river’s colour, resulting in the decimation of its ecosystem and the communities that depend on it.

A small group of fishermen we met by the river have complained of how difficult it is to catch fish, and how ‘tasteless’ the fish have become. ‘This used to be our livelihood, but now we struggle to make a living even in the dry season when fish are supposed to be abundant. We spend the whole day here and then return to our village in the evening, sometimes empty-handed.’

In our 2019 expedition up the No 2 River in Western Freetown, we discovered rare plants at the foot of a waterfall, which was also a serene place for wildlife, including saltwater crocodiles and green monkeys. Within the last two years, the government has cleared the land and given it to its political supporters, who are now building houses in the greenbelt area.

Photo: The greenbelt in Western Freetown has been breached, with its forest trees cut down and the land given to political supporters and to those who are able to pay substantial bribes to ministers.

Seeing this mindless destruction makes you seethe with rage. This is the country that actually gave one of the world’s most iconic animals – the gorilla – its name. The word ‘gorilla’ comes from the Mende words golli (singular) and gollogaa (plural), although what the Greek Carthaginian explorer Hanno and his team actually saw in 500 BC were chimpanzees, which are called gollogaa in Mende in Sierra Leone to this day.

This is the most wanton environmental and ecological destruction Sierra Leone has ever witnessed. Unscrupulous and unrepentant political grafting, combined with primordial revenge politics and extremely poor leadership at the very top have driven this country to the brink of ecological collapse and socio-economic breakdown.

No other government has ever mismanaged this country the way this current administration, with its incomprehensible stupidity and self-degradation, has done in just four years.

The situation is as pathetic as it is dire, but still totally defended by those who are managing the country, even when their credibility is publicly ridiculed by musicians, comedians, and people on the streets. But pervasive greed has no conscience or face, and it is the terminal and invincible destroyer of integrity; it forces even the most educated to behave in the most degrading ways; to undermine humanity and defy common sense.

The first thing these leaders say to you when you meet them in their offices is, ‘My names is Dr (or Professor) So-and-So.’ Really? And you are stealing food supplies meant to feed destitute school children and selling them for your own personal benefit.

In 2019, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security promised to appoint regional environmental, social and gender officers who would ‘be responsible for monthly environmental and social monitoring and reporting on sub projects within their jurisdiction.’ These officers would also ‘undertake environmental and social due diligence of companies, ensuring that companies comply with policy requirements’ and ‘be part of the grievance redress mechanisms at the sub project level,’ as well as being ‘responsible for screening of sub projects within their jurisdictions [and] preparing and submitting screening reports’.

The minister’s statement is as nonsensical as it is demonstrative of an administration that has become lost in its own venal maze as more and more people in the country die of hunger and of nutritional deficiency-related diseases.

In response to the current food crisis, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security has decorated its website with ludicrous and disgraceful internet stock images of cows, vegetables and timber that are not even grown in Sierra Leone.

The use of internet stock photographs of Holstein Friesians (black and white milk cows), courgettes and turnips, and Douglas fir timber from North America is as absurd and provocative as the French princess, Marie Antoinette, sarcastically telling French peasants, her subjects, at the height of a severe famine in France in 1789, to go and eat cake if they had no bread. “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” she told dying peasants.

 

4 Comments

  1. Mr James Fallah-Williams never disappoints his readers. As always, his pieces of reportage are in a league of their own both in terms of their relevance and timeliness. The stories he tells and the images, photos, illustrations with which he intersperses them are appropriate and arresting. Taken together, his narratives and their visual, illustrative quality detail unforgettably in this case the wanton destruction of our natural environment spearheaded by no less a figure than a government minister.

    Government ministers are appointed to serve, one would have thought, the very best interests of their countrymen and women. They are expected in carrying out their duties to put their country first, put others before self, and in so doing protect the lives and livelihoods of their compatriots, in particular those among us whose welfare depends on the judicious use of our God-given natural resources.

    Sadly, President Bio and those he has appointed to key state offices have been doing the exact opposite of selfless service and patriotic governance. Lining their depthless pockets is and has always been their topmost priority. By foul means mostly, or rather, exclusively. The net result of all this? Well, as Mr Fallah-Williams has painstakingly documented, dead animals, polluted rivers, fallen trees…. In short, irreparable ecological and environmental damage. The Minister by acts of commission and of omission, bears the greatest responsibility for this tragedy. He should be held to account for what I consider to be an unforgivable criminal act.

  2. We have been raising the alarm about the environmental degradation and the wanton destruction of our rain forest for years. We know Bio and some of his handpicked unelected ministers are complicit in the illegal logging trade that is taken place right across the country. From Falaba in the North right to Kaliahun and Pujehune District to the South , and Kambia District to the west, and Portloko. And to add insult to injury for rural communities up and down the country, that are going to bare the brunt of this unregulated trade, the harvested logs are hidden in plain sight waiting to be picked up by lorries bleaching black smoke and raising dust,causing more environmental damage on there way to Queen Elizabeth Quay in Freetown, on wards for the hungry Chinese Markets.

    Today after many years of false promises to tackle this problem by Bio and past governments the same problem persists on an industrial scale and no one seems to be doing anything about it. For all his talk at the COP26 climate change conference, in pledging to fight against the causes of climate change, given how frequent the city of Freetown is now experiencing flash flooding on routine basis causing preventable deaths, we are yet to see any meaningful and concrete action from Bio’s government to help us find solutions to this growing menace. His lip service to the logging problems facing communities up and down the country, is not only deplorable but criminal in anyway one wants to discribe it.

    Not long ago Bio was doing a photo Opportunity, by promising to plant millions of trees, but as always, Bio’s PR team was on hand to capture the moment for our international department partners. We know under his watch, the destruction of our rain forest continues unabated. The only politician that is genuinely trying to arrest the situation we found ourselves is the Mayor of Freetown. Mrs Akin Sawyer is the internationally recognised spokes person for climate change for the Southern hemisphere countries and how ironical her own government is pulling all the stops to undermine her efforts . I won’t put it pass Bio all this pressure he is putting on her is because of the good she stands for and want to deliver for our country, which goes against all the destructive impulses of Bio and what he is doing to our country.

  3. Mr Williams…you have always been pointing out the problems Sierra Leone is facing…and nobody in this tribalistic government is listening to you…its time for you to let the world know exactly what is happening here otherwise these people will destroy our country completely…Thank you Sir for your commitment and hard work.

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