World Environment Day: Why forestry crime must urgently be tackled

Space for Giants’ Wildlife Justice Advisor Blair Atwebembeire on the need to stop criminals to protect both people and the planet

Sunday 05 June 2022 09:48 BST

Estimated at £120 billion a year, the illegal timber industry causes grave economic, environmental and social damage, with the world’s biggest organised crime groups competing for available markets.

Forestry crime is a global issue that demands a global response. No country can single handedly tackle this vice without collaborating with others. In April, 69 suspects of forestry crime were arrested in Columbia in possession of more than 80 truckloads of unlawfully acquired timber. This arrest was as a result of months of investigation by police, customs and forest agencies from 12 countries.

Meanwhile in Uganda, deforestation remains a major threat to environmental conservation. According to the Global Forest Watch, in 2010, Uganda had 6.93 million hectares of tree cover, extending over 29% of its land area. By 2021, Uganda had lost 49.2 kilohectare of tree cover, equivalent to 23.5 metric tons of carbon emissions. It is estimated that the Government of Uganda loses over six million dollars (USD 6,000,000) equivalent to approximately 23 billion Uganda shillings (Ugx 23 billion) every year as a result of illegal timber trade. This is about 80% of the total timber trade in Uganda.

While Uganda has indicated its resolve to fight forestry crime, little emphasis has been put on the prosecution of offenders. Without an effective system to investigate and prosecute forestry offences, this crime will continue to thrive.

Therefore, it is very vital that investigators, prosecutors and judicial officers are equipped with the right skills to effectively handle forestry crime. Effective prosecution of cases reported has the capacity to deter deforestation, encroachment, illegal trade and other forms of forestry crimes in Uganda.

To strengthen the country’s investigative and prosecutorial capacity, international conservation organisation Space for Giants recently trained 40 prosecutors, investigators, judicial officers and forestry officers who handle forestry crime in Uganda. The majority of participants were drawn from the National Forestry Authority, the Uganda Police Force, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Judiciary.

The event was aimed at improving professionalism and the technical capacity of investigators and prosecutors to handle forestry cases. It is hoped that this initiative will not only increase the number of forestry cases investigated and prosecuted, but also raise the conviction rate in forestry and related offences.

Forestry crime is a cross border organized crime and remains prevalent in many African countries. Timber from South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic finds its way to Uganda destined for foreign markets. The prosecution of forestry crimes therefore needs to be a priority agenda for many African nations. There is an urgent need for concerted efforts in this regard. Without a strong agenda in all African countries, this illegal business will continue to wreak havoc on the environment.

While the government of Uganda has shown strong determination to tackle deforestation, fighting forestry crime though prosecution of offenders does not rank high on its priority list. There is a need for development partners to fill this gap and support the government’s efforts to effectively investigate, prosecute and adjudicate forestry crime cases in Uganda.

I am very hopeful that forestry criminals can be successfully prosecuted. Space for Giants has worked with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to build the capacity of investigators, prosecutors and judicial officers involved in wildlife crime. Since we embarked on this project, we have witnessed great improvement in the prosecution of wildlife crime including the establishment of the only wildlife court in Africa at Buganda Road, in Kampala Uganda. I therefore strongly believe that we shall see significant reforms in the judicial system particularly in how forestry crime cases are handled.

Prosecution of forestry crime is a strong deterrent tool to prevent further degradation of the environment. Strong sentences send a strong message to the criminals that the judicial system is more vigilant now than ever. Moreover, the prosecution of criminals will also help members of the public be more cognisant of the effects of forest destruction and hopefully enlightened on the importance of protecting one of the major sources of biodiversity - the forests.

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