Building skills to help monitor cross-border timber trade in Africa’s Great Lakes region

Congolese border agents learn to identify wood species

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In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) timber is typically logged mostly in the forested interior of the country and then transported along the Congo River to the port of Matadi in the west of the country. From there it is shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to points in Europe and beyond.

As the volume of timber exports grows, in recent years, the share of overland trade through the country’s interior eastern border has steadily grown. High demand for timber in Asia has shifted market dynamics, and China is now the main export market for Congolese timber, followed by Vietnam. For these exports, the port of Mombasa in Kenya serves as the main point for intercontinental shipping.

Simultaneously, another trend is developing. Economic development and depletion of resources in such East African countries as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, has significantly increased regional demand for tropical timber.

Overland timber trade in the Great Lakes region is estimated to be occurring at a substantial volume, but due to its informal nature and because it is mostly supplied by small-scale artisanal loggers, it remains largely overlooked by policymakers and researchers.

As DRC learns to cope with this new reality, border agents and customs officials on the country’s eastern borders often find themselves unprepared to implement export regulations and to ensure that laws restricting trade of protected species are enforced. One of the main challenges is the lack of technical knowledge to properly identify wood species when it is roundwood logs or sawn wood.

To address these issues, the Association de Coopération et Solidarité en RDC (ACS-RDC), a DRC-based non-governmental organization, has stepped up, launching a new project to increase information about and the transparency of timber exports to Uganda, which according to one report amounts for 80 percent of total timber trade in the DRC’s eastern border.

Financed by the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) which is jointly managed by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the European Union (EU), the initiative aims to improve the border control system and to train officers in wood identification and data gathering.

Understanding wood

As part of this project, ACS-RDC has also partnered with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Belgium’s Africa Museum, and the Congolese Institute for Agronomic Research (INERA), to help train border agents and road control officers on the identification of species according to the trunk characteristics and wood anatomy.

“There are timber species that look very similar and are often misreported in export declarations,” said Silvia Ferrari, a timber expert with CIFOR. “For example, because of its color Iroko (Milicia excelsa), can be mistaken with Afrormosia (Pericopsis elata), whose trade is restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Therefore, it is important that agents recognize wood species and know how to estimate related weight and volume.”

Training took place in October 2020 in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, a forestry scientific hub in the north of the DRC, home to Central Africa’s first wood biology laboratory – a world-class facility opened in 2019, built by the company R&SD with EU funding and managed by the Africa Museum, that facilitates on-site training and research on wood anatomy and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating).

Addressing data gaps

Now that border officials have been trained, the next step is data collection, according to Ferrari. For the next nine months, CIFOR will be working with ACS-RDC to study export volumes and species to gain a better understanding of regional timber trade.

“We hope that this work can help the Congolese authorities to better implement export regulations and monitor trade volumes,” said Ferrari. “Clear and reliable data on cross-border timber flows will be key to promote a formal regional industry that contributes to tax revenues and complies with sustainability standards.”

This project aims to strengthen ongoing efforts by CIFOR to formalize the artisanal logging sector in the DRC, particularly in the country’s Tshopo province, a timber production hotspot that is connected by road to the eastern borders.

For more information on this topic, please contact Paolo Cerutti at
This research was supported by FAO-EU FLEGT Programme
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