Transparency International is calling for all competent authorities in Zambia to fully investigate the allegations and prosecute wrongdoing regardless of the rank or status of the accused following reports that President Edgar Lungu, his daughter Tasila and several high-ranking politicians are allegedly involved in the illicit trade in mukula wood.
Multiple allegations appear in Mukula Cartel, a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), published late last week.
Traffickers allegedly told undercover EIA investigators that Tasila Lungu, daughter of President Edgar Lungu, is involved in the illegal trade of protected mukula timber, along with the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, Jean Kapata, and the Minister of Justice, Given Lubinda.
The state-owned company Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation Limited (ZAFFICO) is alleged to have used its mandate to trade logs seized from illegal traders as a cover to trade freshly felled mukula trees, in some instances under the protection of the Zambian army.
ZAFFICO is also alleged to have issued fraudulent export certificates, allowing timber from the endangered trees to be exported to China through the South Africa port of Durban.
EIA estimates that the illegal trade generates approximately US$7.5 million in bribes and informal fees annually.
Rueben Lifuka, Vice-Chair of Transparency International and President of Transparency International Zambia said: “It is imperative that the claims made in this report are investigated by multiple agencies and offices. Not only mukula continues to be trafficked despite the outcry of the Zambian public and the international community, the sale of Zambia’s natural resources allegedly benefits only a few people at the highest level of the government.”
Alarmingly, the report reveals that endangered trees are also used as a currency to influence Zambian elections.
Traffickers told EIA investigators that President Lungu granted mukula permits to regional chiefs in exchange for votes from their provinces ahead of the 2016 election and accepted a US$40,000 “donation” from a powerful Chinese trader to buy expensive outfits for his re-election campaign.
Mr. Lifuka continued: “This report describes the abuse of the state apparatus to facilitate and protect a criminal network operating at the highest levels of power. Such grand corruption thrives on the exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of the few, to the detriment of the many, and to their right to their natural heritage and environment.”
To restore the integrity of Zambia’s government and protect the remaining mukula trees, Transparency International urges the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources to urgently institute a complete ban on the export of mukula wood.
It also wants the Zambian government to provide a full account of mukula traded through ZAFFICO, including information on revenues and how the funds have been expended.
Transparency International also wants the Chief Justice of Zambia to establish a special tribunal to investigate the alleged illegality and the Anti-Corruption Commission to launch a full and thorough investigation into the findings of the EIA report.
The organization wants all relevant authorities, including the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Electoral Commission of Zambia, to investigate the legality of campaign donations and allegations of vote buying, and the abuse of state resources ahead of major Zambian elections.
Transparency International also calls upon the South African government to investigate their end of the suspicious transit route in order to stop the flow of Zambian Mukula wood from the port of Durban, which the report claims is now the principle point of departure for Zambian mukula from Africa since authorities in Tanzania have increased enforcement against trafficking.
Mukula is a rare African tree and one of the rosewood species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Illicit and unsustainable harvesting of this precious timber has led to the destruction of Zambian forests, with environmental activists and the international community warning of a looming extinction.