WASHINGTON-BASED Environmental Investigation Agency warns that if the powerful ‘Mukula Cartel’ is not derailed, the rosewood species may soon be extinct in Zambia.
In a report released on Thursday, EIA implicates President Edgar Lungu, his daughter Tasila, justice minister Given Lungu, lands minister Jean Kapata and Senior Chief Nkula (Kafula Musungu II), among other influential figures in the “mukula cartel”.
But chief Nkula of Muchinga Province told The Mast that President Lungu gave him permission to export 100 containers of mukula.
Nkula said he hates people implicating him in “political talk”.
He said when there was confusion about mukula, the government stopped “all of us and when I went there to start again, when the confusion ended, they have denied but the President said you can continue but they didn’t renew my licence so I had to say it’s okay, what can I do?”
He complained that Chinese had continued going to his chiefdom to cut other species of trees like ndale.
“I don’t know what is going on,” he said.
Nkula explained that it was true that President Lungu allowed him to export mukula.
“What happened, at first, the President gave all these politicians [permission to export five containers] so that they can fundraise when there was a campaign,” Nkula said.
He explained that people went to his chiefdom without notifying him.
“So when I discovered that they have, okay they already had those five containers but they continued even cutting more. They were all over in the bush but my people came to me to [ask] that, ‘who are cutting these trees?’ We didn’t know about mukula,” he explained.
“Then I went to investigate and found that this mukula, they are selling. So I saw a lot of stations where there were a lot of mukula, so I went to the President and tried to talk to him and said why can’t they tell me first…he said ‘sorry, all of them have fulfilled [their quota] because I gave them five containers. The rest of those mukula let me tell this lands minister…’ and they gave me a licence so that I can take all that which were in the bush. That’s what I did.”
Nkula said President Lungu gave him permission to export 100 containers of mukula but that he only cut 42 containers before the licence was terminated.
“The remaining 58 containers I am sorry…” he said.
Nkula explained that he went back to President Lungu over the development and was allowed to complete his allotted containers but the Ministry of Lands refused.
He said to avoid creating enmity among them, he decided to “keep quiet and see what’s going on”.
“Now I have found out that they have sent some Chinese and some are here cutting ndale tree, not mukula; they are all over the country,” Nkula said.
He said the mukula he was allowed to export was not due to any alleged political support for President Lungu.
“No no no no, it wasn’t like that; I just claimed because some people were cutting [mukula] without even asking me…I used to feel very bad about it. It wasn’t like that, I don’t support anybody in politics, I am a chief. I hate people talking about me in politics. Politics, with me I don’t participate in such,” said Nkula.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) says in Zambia, the trade of freshly cut mukula logs has not stopped despite a myriad of public announcements and commitments by senior officials, several of them personally involved in the trade.
The agency says the illegal trade generates a total of approximately US$7.5 million paid annually in bribes and informal “fees,” as traffickers described to investigators. According to the traffickers met by EIA undercover investigators, prominent figures of the Zambian government and political sphere, including President Lungu, his daughter Tasila, Lubinda and Kapata are central figures in this illicit network.
But Tasila told the EIA that: “I have not at any juncture been involved in either of the alleged criminal transactions. This kind of reporting is highly regrettable.”
EIA undercover investigators had the opportunity to talk to two individuals involved in the traffic of mukula who clearly explain Tasila Lungu’s role: “Mr. O and Mr. L: They have [mukula] taken, diverted by the daughter of the Man […] The daughter of the President, whatever comes she gets first of first.
EIA: So some money pays to the President? Mr. O: No, it’s the daughter… The daughter is directing… whatever comes in Lusaka, she has an ear to the ground… she will easily know that containers […] and she will be fast to take care of them.
EIA: So who is she? Mr. O: The daughter… EIA: The daughter of the President? Mr. O: Yes. EIA: Of course […] Mr. O: The moment she gets wind of it, she has engaged a lot of guys, when it comes they call her first thing. EIA: What’s her name?
Mr. O: Tasila… It’s a common name. EIA: That’s a pretty name. Mr. O: She is a councillor in the next shanty compound here casino down town, yeah that’s the councillor. EIA: So timber business is her side business? Mr. O: Yes, but you know the father knows everything. You know the father can’t do these other businesses so these other businesses are done by daughter and others.”
The traffickers that explain Tasila Lungu’s role are themselves very organised.
EIA says if not dismantled, “this mukula cartel has the power to derail the international protection recently granted to the rare African trees under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). At the current rate of expoitation, the rosewood species may soon be extinct.”
The EIA also implicated chiefs, whose quid pro quo was votes in exchange for mukula logs export licences.
EIA investigators were told by the business partner of Kafula Musungu II, Senior Chief Nkula in Muchinga Province, that the chief allegedly convinced a large majority of “his people” to vote for President Lungu in the latest presidential election. As a thank-you gift, the President reportedly issued him a permit for the export of 100 containers of mukula in 2016. But the permit was suspended in 2017, after only 38 containers had been exported. The chief told EIA investigators that the president assured him in person that he is about to issue a “special permit” to export mukula “just for [him].” The permit would allow the export of 100 containers and could be renewed easily. The chief traveled to Lusaka in mid-March 2019 to meet the president, hoping to finally close the confidential deal, but the permit was allegedly pushed back for a couple of more weeks. The chief explained to EIA undercover investigators:
“Chief Kafula: I try to get in contact with some people so that when we start producing mukula trees so that we can be exporting. I don’t want to work with ZAFFICO[…] I think I will make an appointment with the president so that he can follow up with my application because I left my license to the State House to the president, and he gave it to somebody so that they can process the papers, it is just to renew. My  license, I didn’t finish my containers that I was supposed to finish. So I claimed to finish them, no one will say no. […] Me, I go straight to the president. I don’t go to this office and other things. It’s him.”
Chief Kafula produced his canceled export permit to EIA investigators and further explained that his objective is to reach out to several chiefs in other areas in order to fill the containers, as he did three years ago. In 2016, his license was used to cut trees in several other regions. He bought the timber from other traditional chiefs and would himself sell the containers to a business partner.
He also told investigators that he had built a joint venture with an influential Chinese businessman, also met by EIA investigators, who is the hidden financier and owner of a company registered in Zambia, despite the national law prohibiting foreigners to own a company in the country.
This company has been designed as the sole agent to use the chief’s export permit for mukula logs. The respective Chinese businessman explained to EIA investigators how he built his joint-venture with the chief: “You have to pay US$10,000 to meet with the President. Might as well ask the chief to see the President. I gave the chief a couple of cars, brought him 10,000-20,000 Zambian Kwacha every time I saw him.” According to the Chinese trafficker, the deal is extremely lucrative for the chief:
“Mr. D: President is offering the chiefs business opportunities. The president won’t give 10,000 dollars in cash to the chiefs. Instead, he’s granting the chiefs opportunities to make money by themselves. The chiefs have to find clients himself. They could then easily make over one million USD by issuing one permit.
The Chinese trafficker also explains the involvement of the army:
“EIA: How does the permit work? Does he give you ten copies for your ten containers? Mr. D: No. I usually arrange containers and trucks first on the loading day. Before I get to Northern Province, I would notify the army and the army officers would get to see the original permit from chief. The army would then sign an export license for every single container, with specific port of export on it. For example mine says South Africa.
EIA: So you get the export license from the army? Mr. D: Yes. Because it was the president who authorized the army [to issue export license]. EIA: And these export licenses will work at the checkpoints on the road? Mr. D: Yes. Once you have that, you’ll have no problem. EIA: Do they actually check? Trafficker: They check this export license at every checking point. If they see this, they’ll let the truck go. EIA: Can they tell if it’s a fake one? Mr. D: There’s no fake ones! It’s signed by the army, who dares to fake that? Loading trucks in Northern Province are overseen by the army. They have people there [at every loading place]. EIA: Why is the army a part of this? They want money? Mr. D: Not really. Forest in Northern Province are controlled by forestry ministry, ZAFFICO, and the army. So the army is under direct authorization from the president, therefore the army has the power [to oversee the transport]. Police is also entitled to participate in traffic control at checking points, but their authority is lower than the army.”
This is according to the multiple traffickers who talked to EIA undercover investigators.
“Well-connected traffickers have used ZAFFICO as a smokescreen to perpetuate their business with foreign buyers. Their insatiable appetite has led them to export even more freshly cut mukula logs, hidden from view of Zambian citizens,” it stated. “EIA sources report that this illicit trade has been facilitated by key political figures, who count in their rank government officials, influential traditional chiefs, and the President’s relatives. Members of this trafficking network told EIA investigators that they have had a series of confidential negotiations with the President to get access to new mukula deals. EIA sources said that these organised criminal networks that have developed in Zambia, with their roots at the highest level of government, represent a direct threat to the survival of the mukula tree. They represent a considerable obstacle for effective implementation of the international protection recently granted to this rare African rosewood species.”
EIA recommends that Zambia investigates the current clandestine operations in the mukula trade, carried out apparently with the participation of senior officials, including ministers.
“Suspend the trade of mukula – using a zero export quota – until mukula trafficking networks are dismantled and the requisite for trading under CITES, including Non-Detriment Finding (NDF) and Legal Acquisition Finding (LAF), are met and shared publicly,” it recommends. “Significantly increase public transparency, independent monitoring, and government accountability in the forest sector.”
To the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, EIA urges support the fight against illegal logging and trafficking by the implementation of CITES and enforcement cooperation with Zambia.
“To China and Vietnam: Support the fight against illegal logging and trafficking by the implementation of CITES and enforcement,” urges EIA.