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Saving the Central African Rainforests

Miti article at a glance

This article discuss the impact of timber extraction from the Congo Basin rainforest to meet the growing demand for tropical hardwood, primarily targeting older mahogany trees. Mukau trees (Melia volkensii) planted by Better Globe Forestry may help promote sustainability.

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Growing commercial quantities of mukau in East Africa would present consumers with alternatives to mahogany and other hardwoods of the Congo

Miti issue no. 25 page 32-35 January-March 2015

Miti interviewed JOSHUA CHEBOIWO, PAULO CERUTTI and DENNIS GARRITY on the economic and environmental importance of planting mukau. Below are excerpts from the interview:

How important is the volume of imports of mahogany from the Congo into East Africa?

Cheboiwo: It is very important for Uganda and Kenya because the two countries have restricted logging in indigenous forests, hence locking out the local wood markets’ access to hardwoods. This is more serious for Kenya given the size of its market for hardwood timber and minimum access to local materials.

Imports have been on the increase for a number of reasons. One, with improved economic conditions, there is an increase in preference for hardwood furniture and fittings. Two, there is a booming real estate sector and the taste for exotic materials is expanding beyond the traditional areas of Nairobi and Mombasa, to Eldoret, Kisumu, Nakuru and other towns. There is an unfilled demand by a growing middle class for furniture made out of hardwoods, something that was not significant some 10 years ago.

Cerutti: I guess it depends on what is considered “mahogany”, but our data show the percentages in Figure 1.

Species exported from the Eastern border of DRC

Figure F1: Species exported from the Eastern border of DRC (percentage)

How long do these trees of the rainforest take to mature?

Cheboiwo: The trees being harvested may be 400 years old and can take not less 80 years to reach desired sizes for harvesting and colour.

Cerutti: For sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum), which is the one I know well, the trees flower when 35 - 45 years old and fruit production starts when bole diameter is above 50cm. However, there is great variability as the tree is spread over a large area - from Cote d’Ivoire to Uganda. In all the countries I know, harvesting is recommended when the diameter is well above 50cm. In Cameroon, minimum felling diameter is 100cm, in Congo it is 80cm.

What other species are extracted from the rainforest of the Eastern Congo and what is the relative importance of mahogany?

Cheboiwo: The key species destined for East African markets are the red timber range of Entandrophragma spp and Khaya anthotheca that are grouped as mahogany. The South Sudan market is dominated by white timber species that include white nongo (Albizia ssp) and nkalati (Aningeria and Chrysophylla). Some mvule (Milicia excelsa) and false mvule (Antiaris toxicaria) enter Kenya, not specifically from DRC but from Uganda and Tanzania.

Other species include Cordia abyssinica, Fagara microphylla and Pericopsis alata that rarely reach Kenya.

What impact does this extraction have on the rainforest, other species, and other activities like mining?

Garrity: Degradation and complete transformation of the forests. Roads built to access the logging sites lead to even more degradation as people move and settle in the forest. So, the extraction also leads to opening up of the forests for settlement.

Cheboiwo: Based on available information, the DRC rainforest covers 156 million hectares and is capable of producing 3 million cubic metres of wood per year. East Africa only legally imports about 70,000 cubic metres and, out of this, Kenya about 50,000 cubic metres. Even if we include illegal sources, it may not exceed 100,000 cubic metres. That is a meagre demand to impact negatively on the stability of DRC forests if prudent, sustainable management of the forest and processing technologies are adopted.

However, with growing demand, we may need to engage partners such as DRC to take stock of forest resources and sustainable off- take. This would ensure sustained supply without negatively impacting the forest environment and its ability to provide crucial services into the future.

Cerutti: There is not enough data specific to the DRC, and in particular the eastern forests, to determine the current impacts of extraction. This is for two main reasons. One, it was only last year – 2014 – that the DRC government started approving management plans for a few of the logging concessions in the eastern part of the country. It is only by following forestry operations with the data present in those management plans (inventories, growth rates, harvesting rates, etc.) that, over the medium to long term, better knowledge on the impacts of harvesting can be gauged.

Two, most of the figures we have on export data record timber that is NOT extracted from logging concessions (with or without management plans), but from small to medium- scale operations occurring without following the prescriptions of a management plan. When compared to other countries in Central Africa for which we have recent data (see www.cifor.org/pro-formal), it seems that such small-scale operators in Eastern DRC are still able to find trees with very large diameters on which they can obtain better costs/benefits ratios. This could be an indication that, at least in terms of availability of the resource, impacts are still moderate.

However, the problem is that nobody (public or private) is recording such impacts, not only because harvesting occurs largely on an informal basis, but also because it occurs over large swathes of land that are difficult to monitor.

Inside the rainforest.

Inside the rainforest. Beams of timber extracted from the forest and brought to the roadside for transportation to the market. (Photo: Paolo Cerutti)

Is this illegal logging of rainforest related to funding of civil strife in the Eastern Congo?

Cerutti: I prefer “informal” to “illegal” logging because most of the people we work with in the forests of Eastern DRC are not provided with a law adapted to their needs and to the nature of their operations. Forest laws in the Congo basin, in general, maintain a focus on industrial, large-scale, export-oriented operations, and they are not adapted to the artisanal, small-scale operations that largely serve the timber market of East Africa.

We have not been conducting research with the specific aim of assessing whether logging is related to funding of civil strife, so the answer to this question is “I don’t know.”

Cheboiwo: Like other natural resources that include minerals, timber has become low-lying fruits that can be easily transformed into cash by armed groups to finance their operations.

How sustainable is the current timber extraction in the rainforests of the Eastern Congo?

Cheboiwo: Difficult question to answer given that no inventory and annual extractions are available to balance the stock and make projections. However, from reliable sources, valuable logs are getting scarcer in the border region with East Africa and loggers are moving deeper westwards into inaccessible areas. This is a sign of growing scarcity that can point to lack of sustainable practices currently. There is also lack of adequate infrastructure, patrols and skilled manpower to undertake some form of rationalisation in forest management towards sustainable pathways.

Cerutti: The short answer is “nobody knows”, although, at least in some places, for example around major cities like Kisangani in the East or in the North Kivu Province, there are indeed preliminary indications that harvesting has been increasing a lot in recent years, largely linked to a growing population and its needs for construction and infrastructure.

And of course, we should not forget that one of the major constraints on timber harvesting is the quality of infrastructure, e.g. roads. Given the huge investments East Africa is making on road and railway building and the prospects of improving the communication networks over the next decade or so, I think the need for monitoring (or regulating) what happens in those forests is even more urgent. For the moment, our data indicate that the Province of North Kivu is entirely affected and that harvesting is moving away from over-exploited areas in North Kivu to the Oriental Province (see map).

Map from Eastern DRC

A map from Eastern DRC showing (in red) registered forest exploitation concessions. The boundaries of the North Kivu province are visible. North of this is Oriental Province, where the loggers have now moved, having depleted most of North Kivu.

Are there ways of stemming the destruction of the Central African rainforest?

Cheboiwo: Yes, securing ownership. Currently there is overlapping ownership and claims between communities, clans, individuals and public agencies. There is an urgent need for forest sector reforms to include simple participatory and transparent procedures for concessions and licensing. There is need for more funding for purchase of equipment, facilities and hiring and training of manpower to undertake management and supervision of sector operations.

Garrity: Yes. A number of things. One; there should be controls and regulations on concessions so that large forests are not logged.

The other way of stemming the destruction is to develop the growing and processing of Melia volkensii (mukau), which is a good replacement for mahogany from the rainforest. Since there is demand for high quality mahogany, Melia needs to be grown on a large scale. This is possible and is a vision shared by Better Globe Forestry and ICRAF.

We need to support small-scale mukau farmers, as well as plant Melia on a large scale. This will eventually reduce demand for rainforest mahogany wood as there will be alternatives. Support for small-scale farmers will bring additional income into the country-side, thus raising the standards of living.

Cerutti: For now, I would not talk about “destruction”. Harvesting is indeed occurring at a pace that increases with the growing population and needs, but deforestation rates remain comparatively low in DRC. A quick visit to Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire, or Kenya for that matter, or a click on a virtual map on the web, would help demonstrate the difference. Nonetheless, demand, both national and regional, will grow, especially following infrastructural development. Some 20 to 30 years ago, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire believed their forests would last forever. But they did not.

So, when asked about stemming such destruction, I would put on top of my list the suggestion to plan ahead and to monitor land use and land cover, two things that are currently not done in DRC. Without a clear plan of, say, where we want our forests to be in the next 20, 30 or 50 years and how we want them to be managed (ecologically, economically and socially), if at all, it is difficult to imagine why people would stop harvesting resources that provide them with much needed livelihoods.

In the case of Eastern DRC and the timber exported to eastern Africa, things are complicated by the fact that supply and demand are located in different countries, and I believe concerted, supra-national efforts must be made to try and come up with regional solutions to what I believe is a regional problem.

How would you describe Melia volkensii (mukau)?

Cheboiwo: It is a valuable dryland timber species that can substitute timber imports from Central and Rift Valley provinces, and offer on-farm diversification for households in the drylands. It can also provide green economy-based solutions to environmental conservation and climate mitigation.

Some have called mukau the mahogany of East Africa’s drylands – is this an accurate description?

Cheboiwo: Yes, it has the desired mahogany characteristics of red wood. With innovative marketing, it may penetrate the high-end market in urban areas to change consumer tastes. In Kenya in the 1960s, timber users were reluctant to take up cypress and pines as substitutes for indigenous species. Also, a few years ago, eucalyptus was considered inferior timber. Today, it serves about 70 per cent of timber uses in western Kenya.

A recent survey by KEFRI on market demand for mukau timber showed overwhelming demand that could not be matched by supply and there is therefore need to develop the supply to assure users of consistent supplies.

Garrity: Mukau is well adapted to drylands – it grows rapidly under dry conditions. And it produces a high quality mahogany wood.

How long does it take mukau to mature?

Cheboiwo: Mukau can take less than 20 years. And in good sites, it can reach sizes that can provide medium sized logs at 10 years.

Commercial potential of a Kenyan dryland mahogany, mukau - Melia volkensii

Dennis Garrity (centre) discussing the commercial potential of a Kenyan dryland mahogany, mukau (Melia volkensii) with Jan Vandenabeele, the Executive Director of Better Globe Forestry, and Erick Otieno, an intern at ICRAF (embracing the tree) on a farm in Kitui County. (Photo: BGF)

What effect would the planting and production of mukau have on the rainforests of Central Africa?

Garrity: It would reduce demand for wood from the rainforests. It would replace importation of mahogany and make the wood cheaper for buyers.

Cerutti: It is difficult to know in advance. CIFOR data from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania indicate that timber traders, brokers and sellers of timber sourced in DRC have a long list of complaints about the difficulty of their job: the time it takes to get orders filled, if ever, the quality of the product they get, and the amount of informal payments along the road, among other complaints. All these contribute to increasing the price of timber in the destination market.

In theory, all other things being equal (and they rarely are), if the same market could be filled by a species that is acceptable to the final consumer as a substitute of DRC mahogany, delivered in good quantity and quality, and with much smaller transportation costs, traders might prefer to trade in local timber instead of going through the difficulties of getting it from the DRC.

Could the supply of well-seasoned and good quality mahogany from Melia volkensii have an influence on better and sustainable management of DRC rainforests?

Cerutti: This is a very difficult question to answer. One thing that can be said, however, is that for the time being, the sustainable management of DRC forests is entirely at the hands of the DRC government and the quality of laws that it enacts (and their enforcement), as well as in the hands of industrial logging companies and artisanal millers and the way they respect those laws. There are several species harvested in DRC and mahogany is just one of them, albeit very important.

Only a comprehensive implementation of the forest law, with its requirements for forest inventories, management plans, set-asides, etc. can make sure that, whatever the species harvested and the market served, that timber has been harvested in a responsible way.

Production of more Melia volkensii in Kenya would be a commercial factor that producers in DRC would have to take into consideration. This they surely would, maybe producing less mahogany, maybe more and of better quality, but the thing we would like to be sure of, is that production occurs sustainably.

Stacks of timber - mahogany

Inside the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Stacks of timber (most likely mahogany) pilled up in the market of Mpondwe/Kasindi, waiting for buyer. (Photo: Joshua Cheboiwo - KEFRI)

What do you mean by “evergreen agriculture”?

Garrity: Integration of trees into crops. “Evergreen Agriculture” is a vision for agriculture which includes not just annual crops but also trees grown for fuel wood, fruits or bio-fertiliser. It is what was previously called inter-cropping. It’s a type of agroforestry – trees are planted directly into the field with food crops.

The trees planted must be chosen carefully and planted with adequate spacing for both trees and food crops. The tree canopy needs to be managed efficiently to get maximum sunlight for the food crops.

Can Melia volkensii have its place amongst the species suitable for “evergreen agriculture”?

Garrity: Absolutely. This has been demonstrated in Kiambere and Kibwezi. The trees become an asset – adding value to the farmer – like a bank account.

What future do you see for mukau?

Garrity: Better Globe Forestry, KEFRI, ICRAF, and Miti have a shared vision for production of mukau. We want to produce mukau and make it a full-scale industry supporting small-scale farmers in drylands. Look at the example of Java in Indonesia where they have planted 1 million hectares of teak (Tectona grandis). The country benefits.

In the same way, if we planted mukau on a large scale and supported farmers in drylands growing the tree, it would be a source of income in areas that do not offer many opportunities for farmers. This would improve the economy of the areas and subsequently, the economy of the country.

We need to spread awareness of the potential of mukau wood – policy-makers need to know. It’s a great opportunity for Kenya. As such, we are organising a conference in August 2015 for timber processors, KFS, KEFRI, investors, furniture-makers and other stakeholders. We need to talk about building an industry around a great Kenyan tree.

We need to address the urgency of building a mukau timber industry, as it will be a major boost for the economy. We need to take action urgently because mukau is becoming an endangered species. There are very few model trees left. We need a private and public sector cooperation to develop quality seeds.

Timber ready for sale in the DRC

More timber in the DRC ready for sale. (Photo: Joshua Cheboiwo - KEFRI)

Joshua Cheboiwo is Deputy Director, Socioeconomics, Policy and Governance, Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI)
Email: [email protected]

Paulo Cerutti is a Forester, IS & RS Analyst, Forests and Governance Programme, Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
Email: [email protected]

Dennis Garrity is Drylands Ambassador, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
Email: [email protected]

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