Working Together to Combat Illegal Timber Trafficking in Gabon

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of State, and Environmental and Judicial Ministries across the Congo Basin, the U.S. Forest Service is working to enforce capacity and build enforcement networks concerning illegal timber trafficking. These workshops bring together law enforcement, notably forestry agents, prosecutors, and judges, to help them develop closer working relationships and encourage information exchange. 

Sosthène Ndong Obiang, a senior ecoguard with Gabon’s National Protected Area Agency (ANPN), speaks about the identification of forest products during the workshop.

After a few years of exclusively virtual support due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USFS, in partnership with the Ministry of Water and Forests (MINEF) and the Ministry of Justice of Gabon, hosted a workshop in Libreville for magistrates, law enforcement, and forestry agents in April 2022. During the workshop, participants discussed investigation and prosecution techniques, forestry codes, and how closer collaboration can help build more robust cases. Speakers also touched on the importance of involving provincial agents in these efforts, as these agents can play a key role in identifying and deterring illegal activities. 

During the workshop participants also visited a forest concession and processing plant in Kango, where forestry agents gave tours of the facility and discussed the challenges of their work. Field visits such as this allow a better understanding of on-the-ground legality verifications steps as well as provide a clearer picture of how illegal goods are identified and apprehended. They also allow forestry agents to develop relationships with prosecutors and judges.

Eurol Luce Mapaha, head of the legal department at the General Forestry Directorate, speaks to participants during their visit to a processing plant in Kango.

As a new part of the ongoing collaboration with the U. S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, USFS is also in the process of providing the Gabonese government with a Mass Spectrometer, which technicians will use to help identify different wood samples from timber passing through the main port in Libreville. This technical assistance is the first of its kind in central Africa, and having access to this sophisticated equipment will allow MINEF to more adeptly identify illegally harvested goods. Having access to this equipment will be an advantage for investigators and prosecutors, as seizing illegal timber before it has left the country makes prosecution much more likely.

Timber trafficking is a complex business, but linking prosecutors and forestry agents can increase the successful interception of illegal materials and subsequent prosecution of those involved. These workshops are not only a place to discuss investigation techniques and judicial procedures but also a unique opportunity to solidify working relationships between the different ministries involved in coordinating these efforts. Enabling these types of exchanges can help governments better investigate, develop and prosecute illegal logging cases in the region. The broader aim of these efforts is that more cases will be prosecuted, thus deterring illegal actors in-country and decreasing the amount of illegal timber being harvested and exported.

Judges Bekani Kiki Véraldie and Nyingone Paola during a workshop presentation.

The illegal trafficking of timber and forest resources is not only environmentally devastating for the central African region, but can also be detrimental to forest communities’ social and economic well-being, even though most illegal trade is not happening in response to local demand. While there are laws against its importation and use, the United States is estimated to be one of the top ten global consumers of illegal timber. While agents in the United States can seize illegal imports, being able to coordinate and support counterparts internationally to reduce the amount of illicit timber exported overall is a crucial step in dismantling the illegal timber trade globally.

Alain-Georges Moukoko (President of the Court of Appeals in Mouila), Stessy Ndina (a specialized correctional judge), and Yannick Owono (legal counsel at ANPN) during a workshop panel discussing the challenges faced by investigators, prosecutors, and judges. 

In collaboration with the U. S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), USFS is working to help strengthen the institutional capacity of government, law enforcement, forestry officials and communities to combat illegal logging and related financial crimes in Central Africa. USFS is also partnering with civil society groups, NGOs, and independent monitors to spread awareness, build capacity, and increase transparency in the logging sector.

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