Sudan’s militias turn to illegal logging in vital forests

Activists say they can't do much to stop people with AK-47s and the political crisis means there's no government to intervene

An agricultural field worked by Othman Cheikh Idriss, a 60-year-old Sudanese farmer, in the capital Khartoum's district of Jureif Gharb. AFP
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The military coup in Sudan that derailed the country’s fragile democratic transition has led to an intractable political crisis and a near economic meltdown.

But beyond the headline-grabbing events of recent years, including the military’s October 2021 power grab, a major environmental crisis has been brewing in the country's endangered forests.

An essential and vital part of the biodiversity of the vast Afro-Arab nation, they are now threatened by thousands of former rebels as well as refugees.

Three Sudanese with first-hand knowledge of the issue — two of them are in Egypt for the UN climate summit — told The National that the international isolation Sudan has suffered since the coup and the subsequent suspension of economic aid by the West has left climate change fighters with little to no resources to protect the forests in the south and west of the country.

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Former rebel groups, they explained, descended on the capital Khartoum and other major cities after their groups signed a peace deal in October 2020 with the military, which at the time was ruling in partnership with civilians.

But with the government’s coffers empty, the former rebels were left without shelter, food or jobs, forcing them to turn to crime and the forests to feed themselves.

A farmer turns on an irrigation pipe from the Nile to a canal in Sudan's Al Jazeera region. AFP

The case of the former Sudanese rebels and their illegal logging showcases the close link between the need to protect the environment and the need for sound government leadership.

The Sudanese case comes as the countries with the largest concentration of rainforests — Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia — join hands in the fight against deforestation to keep the world’s “lungs” alive and vibrant.

“There is no budget now even for the most basic of activity to fight climate change when Sudan is perhaps one of the worst hit countries by global warming,” said Mahgoub Al Halimaby, one of Sudan’s foremost climate change experts.

“People are illegally cutting down trees and selling them with impunity.

“The Sudan segment of the Great Green Wall extending from Senegal to Djibouti has fallen into neglect and remains incomplete.”

The “Great Green Wall” is a project chiefly funded by the African Union and the UN to restore biodiversity to a stretch of Africa hit hard by climate change.

“We are heading towards a hole in the ground that may well be the abyss,” Mr Al Halimaby said.

Also threatening Sudan’s forests, particularly those in eastern and southern regions, are tens of thousands of refugees who fled to Sudan when the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region broke out in 2020.

The refugees, like the former rebels, are following the same methods for survival.

“They have no resources of their own, so they turned to the forests for a livelihood, cutting down trees to sell them as wood or burning them and selling them as charcoal,” said Hanady Awadallah, a senior official at the state agency in charge of forests who is in Egypt for the climate summit.

“You cannot do much to stop someone with an AK-47.”

About 15 per cent of Sudan’s territory — 1.8 million square kilometres — is covered by forests.

Ms Awadallah pointed out that this is well below the national target of 25 per cent.

Damage caused in August by heavy rainfall in the village of Aboud in El Manaqil district of Al Jazeerah state, south of Khartoum. AP

She says authorities have traditionally allowed communities living on the edge of federal forests to grow crops among the trees, given the fertility of the land there.

In recent years, however, rogue farmers have begun to operate outside the supervision of authorities, cutting down trees to engage in large-scale agriculture.

“Our strategy with the local communities was ‘you serve the forest and the forest will serve you’ but what the others don’t understand is that the land of the forest is only fertile so long as the forest is still there, healthy and intact,” Ms Awadallah said.

Sudan, Africa’s third-largest country, has for decades been a victim of desertification and incessant bouts of drought and floods. Seemingly endless civil strife since independence in 1956 has left the hands of authorities tied when it comes to protecting forests and wildlife in conflict areas.

Illegal logging

Nisreen Al Sayem, 27, who is attending her eighth straight UN climate summit in Egypt, said illegal logging in Sudan has increased 30-fold since the military takeover.

That claim could not be immediately verified, but she blamed corruption as the chief cause of deforestation, with federal forestry officials unable to stop armed rebels from illegal logging.

Turning to the question of fighting climate change and shifting to renewables, Ms Al Sayem said the suspension of western aid has led to the disruption of projects launched after the removal in 2019 of long-time dictator Omar Al Bashir and the gradual emergence of Sudan from 30 years of being a pariah state.

“Moreover, the attention of the community of climate experts and activists, like everyone else in Sudan, has shifted away to dealing with the day-to-day hardships caused by Sudan’s grinding economic crisis,” she said, alluding to three-digit inflation, the depreciation of the local currency and frequent shortages of basic foodstuffs.

Updated: November 17, 2022, 10:57 AM
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