Deep in the forest in Northern Sierra Leone, near the demarcation line between Koinadugu and Falaba Districts, a man named Foday uses a power saw to cut into a thick tree, removing the branches to shape it into a log. According to him, he has been working as a logger now for more than 20 years. He describes timber as a lucrative business, which brings income into his pocket. “No one will take me away from this business,” he says, before turning back to chop down another tree. As a logger, Foday spends most of his time working in the bush, moving deeper and deeper into the forest as he looks for more trees to cut.
Professor Aiah Lebbie, head of the Biology and Science Department at Njala University in Bo District, says that in the past, there was widespread forest across Sierra Leone. In those days, he explains, people were afraid to move too far into the centre of the forest, for fear of the many dangers and taboos associated with it. Today, however, this has changed. As the population grows and loggers like Foday continue to move further into forests in search of more trees, he says there are different types of dangers communities face.
“We are more prone to disaster,” Lebbie says. “We are not growing trees [to replace those we cut down] and the demands for timber has increased. People will continue to encroach in the natural forests and there they might come into contact with this Zoonotic sources [of disease] that might come back to haunt us.”
Zoonotic diseases refer to diseases which can be transmitted from animals to people, such as rabies and Ebola, which are both spread to humans from contact with infected animals. Professor Lebbie, who has been working with the United States of America Centre for Disease Control (CDC) on numerous zoonotic disease-related projects in Sierra Leone, observes that the country’s forest has been reduced to a point that it can now be easier for humans to interact with animals, which may harbour emerging pathogens related to Ebola or even forms of Corona Viruses.
“Logging brings the animals closer to humans,” he explains. “The loggers stay in the bush and they need protein, so they eat the animals.” This interaction, he says, could lead to the loggers becoming sick, and even passing on the sickness to other people around them. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment Report, Sierra Leone is 40% covered by forests, 85% of which are owned by local and indigenous communities. The report, which comes out after every five years, further reveals that while less than 5% of the country’s forest areas are primary forest (meaning forests that are untouched by humans, and exist in their original condition), the vast majority of forests are naturally regenerated, with only 1% comprising plantations.
However, zoonotic diseases are not the only danger associated with the destruction of forests in Sierra Leone. On August 14th 2017, the country’s capital, Freetown, faced a horrific mudslide disaster, which killed hundreds of people, destroyed properties and left thousands homeless. Many environmental experts blamed the said incident, at least in part, on deforestation.
According to National Geographic – considered a world leader in geography and exploration issues – deforestation presents a significant threat to regions prone to mudslides, as trees roots help to hold soil in place. When the trees and their roots are removed, it’s then more likely that heavy rain will cause deadly mudslides. Running up to the 2018 general elections, now-President Julius Maada Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), made a promise in their “New Direction” campaign manifesto that, if elected, they would “adequately enforce laws and policies to protect forests and designate new areas for conservation and ecological tourism.”
On assuming office after the 2018 elections, President Bio among a series of Executive Orders on 9th April 2018 suspended the export of timber logs and further constituted a committee on Timber Export, “to review the existing system and practices in place and make recommendations.” Shortly after, on 27th April 2018, State House issued a press release, appointing Babadi Kamara of Leadway Trading Company to serve as Government Agent to export an estimated 13,000 containers worth of timber, which was already cut and awaiting shipment before the timber ban began.
After 18 months of exporting the given amount, another press release was issued by State House in February 2020, informing the general public that the sale of timber by Leadway Trading Company had, since June 2018, amounted in US $37,050,000 worth of levies for the government, and Leadway’s Babadi Kamara was reappointed as the Sole Government Agent for the export of timber. While giving a breakdown at a press briefing in the company’s office in Freetown, the Leadway Trading Company boss explains that, after the 2018 elections, the Ministry of Finance reviewed the taxes and export processes for timber. He says that the Ministry of Finance increased the taxes and charges on timber from $1,750 USD per container to $2,850 USD – and that the new tax also includes a $350 USD fee for “reforestation” per container.
Kamara declines to disclose how much it costs to export each container of timber. He also would not discuss how much Leadway profited over the 18 months. He says, however, that there are other charges on every container, above the taxes paid to the Government. According to an experienced timber harvester in Koinadugu and Falaba Districts, Mohamed Kamara, he believes that more than half of all timber logging in the country occurs in Falaba District – but, according to him, residents there are not seeing appropriate benefits from this logging.
He adds that the only income from the logging that the communities make is via the chief, who collects two bundles of zinc plus one million leones for every “power saw” logger allowed to operate in the chiefdom. Meanwhile, the owners of the land where the trees are actually cut down are paid separately for the logging activities to take place on their land. Once the trees are cut, Mohamed Kamara says the loggers sell the wood directly to exporters – many of whom he describes as being non-Sierra Leonean nationals – for the price of US $4,500 to $6,500, depending on the amount and quality of the wood. While this may seem like good money for individual loggers such as Foday, according to experts, such activity is not sustainable.
Tommy Garnett is Director for the Environmental Foundation for Africa, a Sierra Leone-based non-governmental organization. He says that, since his NGO has been working in the country for the past 25 years, the environment in Sierra Leone has not improved, and deforestation is causing increasing challenges across the country. For example, he indicates that when they started their operations, many of the areas in Freetown were bushy, adding that the Guma water dam was in the middle of a thick forest.
“After 10 to 15 years,” he explains, “the place has opened up, based on the huge demand of lands to construct houses. As a result of this, the forests that should [act as] major catchment for water have been destroyed.” This, in turn, leads to a lack of water during dry season, as well as flooding issues during the rainy season. Garnett mentions that it is good to know that the country made US $37 million in the export of timber, and that some portion of the said money has been allocated for reforestation, but adds that “it [would] also be good to know how many trees have been cut down to fill the 13,000 containers.”
He said resources should also be allocated to know the status of the forests before giving any new permit to log or export.
“Not having enough information about the status of our forests means that we are taking decisions in the dark that could come back to haunt us,” he maintains. “Every action we take to destroy the environment is an action taken against ourselves.”
He says if the land continues to be degraded and deforested, there will be lots of people that would not be able to stay up-country, but come to the city. “I think we are sleepwalking to a very difficult future, because of the fact that we are not managing our forests the way we should.”