By CHIKEZIE OMEJE/The International Centre for Investigative Reporting
The Nigerian regulatory and law enforcement agencies are aware of an unauthorised Chinese company that drives massive logging of wild trees for unprecedented charcoal production in Enugu State. But they have done nothing to stop the operation even when they know that the company is illegally producing charcoal.
Enterprising Chinese citizens have set up two factories for wood charcoal production in Enugu State without obtaining official permits from the state and federal agencies, an activity that violates the National Environmental (Control of Charcoal Production and Export) Regulations, 2014.
Their company, Kwo Chief Investment Limited, does not have official permits to engage in commercial production and export of charcoal.
At the moment, no company has been issued permit to produce and export charcoal because all the permits expired in December and fresh permits have not been given so far in 2019, according to records from the Federal Department of Forestry.
Nigeria last issued permits to 112 companies to produce and export charcoal between 2016 and 2017 but Kwo Chief Investment Limited has never been given permit to either produce or export charcoal.
In Enugu State where the company currently operates, its activities are hidden in the bushes where the locals cut down trees and supply the logs to the factories.
Though official regulations bar individuals and companies from exporting charcoal without permits, the Chinese still export containers of packaged charcoal through the Onne Port in Rivers State even when their company is not registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission.
They are able to export the charcoal by bribing customs officers. A customs officer who preferred anonymity told The ICIR that the Chinese charcoal producers operate in Nigeria with fake companies because they know that their activities are illegal. When they use freight forwarders to get the charcoal outside the country, their real companies receive the products in China and Korea, the source said.
The Chinese surreptitious production of charcoal does not only deplete the forests but also deprive Nigeria of income from the business because they do not pay the fees to obtain or renew permits and they do not pay appropriate taxes because their company is not registered.
They first started the charcoal factory in the state at Ikem in Isi-Uzo in early 2018. Later in November, they founded another factory, situated away from Ogrugu road at Akachele, Obimo in Nsukka.
As big as the charcoal production is, both factories are not officially approved. To protect Nigeria’s ecosystem from further depletion arising from charcoal production, official regulations require a company to obtain permits from state forestry commission and the Federal Department of Forestry before embarking on commercial charcoal production.
Part of the regulations states that “a person shall not be granted a permit for charcoal production without having a reforestation and rehabilitation plan for the area from where the charcoal will be derived or produced.”
However, reforestation, as specified by the official regulations, is impossible in the case of the Chinese factories because they do not replant. The locals go into the savannah forests to hunt for reddish hardwoods which they identify as Ahaha because that is the species that the Chinese currently buy.
“Chinese bribe politicians to destroy our forests”
Civil servants at the Enugu State Forestry Commission have known about the charcoal production by the Chinese but they said they have been powerless to stop the illegal activities.
Their reason is that the Chinese have bribed politicians to allow them produce charcoal and they do not want to lose their jobs by shutting down the charcoal factories.
“We’re even afraid of visiting those factories in the bush,” said a staff of the state’s forestry commission. “The Chinese bribe our politicians to destroy our forests. Politicians close their eyes to the evil Chinese people do here.”
While the state’s forestry commission is responsible for protecting all the forests in the state, the director of the commission, Achuna Obi-Amadi, pleaded with The ICIR to leave her out of the inquiry on the large-scale charcoal production.
Obi-Amadi said she did not give approval. Asked why she has not closed the factories, she insisted that she did not want to speak further on the issue.
“She doesn’t want to lose her job. That’s why she doesn’t want to speak against the Chinese,” said the staff who earlier spoke with The ICIR. “The Chinese are powerful here because they bribe politicians with dollars. They can easily ask these selfish politicians to remove you from your job. That’s why we’re keeping quiet, not that we don’t know how they are felling trees in the forests without even planting a single one in replacement.”
The fears of the civil servants are not unfounded. At the charcoal factory in Obimo, there are armed guards with Kwo Chief Investment Ltd written on their shirts while policemen move around the factory with the Chinese manager. The locals told The ICIR that when the Chinese first arrived in October, they were guarded by soldiers.
While the civil servants blamed politicians for granting approval to the Chinese to produce charcoal in the state in the name of foreign direct investment, the Enugu State commissioner of environment, Mr Chukwuemeka Mamah, told The ICIR that the state did not issue such permit.
“To the best of my knowledge,” Mamah said, insisting the state did not approve the Chinese to engage in commercial charcoal production.
“I got a hint of that charcoal burning in that area about a week or so,” Mamah said. “So, I sent some people to go verify what is happening but I’m inviting them [Chinese]. I’m waiting for them to come, let me know what they are doing there. Maybe after seeing them, then I will go to that site to see it for myself.”
Right now, charcoal production is in top gear at the factory in Obimo. The first 40-feet container of packaged charcoal was moved from the factory in the second week of January and, by the end of that month, nine containers had been transported from the site to the port.
Bribery puts enforcement on hold
Ezekiel Adesokan, head of forestry products and utilisation at the Federal Forestry Department, told The ICIR that the Chinese were involved in illegal charcoal production and Enugu State should not have allowed the unwarranted activity to continue.
“Any charcoal production for export must get permit from Forestry Department,” Adesokan said. “The approval must come from this office. And they must produce a letter from the state government, telling us that the state authorised them. State’s approval is not enough because they must show us evidence of reforestation.”
He said the Enugu State Forestry Commission is not doing its job. “How could you allow people to destroy what you preside over?” Adesokan asked.
He said the Federal Forestry Department had just posted staff to the Onne port after learning that forestry products were being smuggled from there. He said now that surveillance had been strengthened at the ports, the Chinese would not be able to export the charcoal they produce illegally.
But Nigerian charcoal entrepreneurs do not agree that beefing up surveillance at the ports is the solution to the unsanctioned charcoal production.
“Impound their equipment, arrest them and let them face the consequence of their action,” said Lola Idowu, legal adviser to Charcoal Exporters Association of Nigeria. “There must be consequences.”
Idowu told The ICIR that the Chinese are not members of the association. She said while members of the association have been trying to get permits after the expiration, the Chinese did not even apply for permits. “They do things that we the citizens cannot even try. They’re not planting. They didn’t establish any forest. They’re not paying for reforestation.”
She said the problem is corruption because the Chinese knew how to bribe their ways from the forests to the ports. “Some stupid Nigerians took them into the forests,” Idowu said. “It’s like selling your birth right. Before you know it, they start going to forests without you. They blend with the local people, enter the forests and cut down all the trees. The people that took them to the forest get peanuts. The problem is corruption and slavery mentality.”
When The ICIR reached out to the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Pele Egbagiri, its Enugu field office coordinator, said he was not aware of the charcoal factories.
He agreed that the Chinese should be arrested and prosecuted. “They don’t do such things in their country,” he said, but reiterated that the agency would not intervene until a petition is brought against the charcoal factories.
“We don’t work like that,” Egbagiri said. “Bring a formal complaint. Put your contacts in the written complaint so that when we want to go there, we’ll call you to at least help us to locate the place.”
Two staff of the agency who preferred anonymity told The ICIR that NESREA would not move to shut down the factories without a strong petition because they had to be careful in dealing with the Chinese.
“When your government is collecting cheap loans from China, don’t you know that it comes with this kind of price. We don’t know who is backing them and we have to be careful,” one of them said. They bemoaned how the office has been poorly funded and unable to engage substantially in monitoring and enforcing environmental standards.
NESREA’s Enugu office is on the seventh floor of the old CCB Building. Located at Okpara Avenue, the building appeared to have been abandoned. The paints have worn off and cobwebs are found on the dirty stairway. NESREA’s staff told The ICIR that they usually come to the office to write their names in the attendance register. They do not stay for long hours because the office lacks electricity.
Running illegal charcoal factory
The charcoal factory in Obimo occupies about 8,000 square metres of land. The nearest village to the factory, Akachele, leased the land for 10 years. An inhabitant of the area who preferred anonymity disclosed that the Chinese paid N10 million to acquire the land.
“We don’t have any problem with the factory,” said Felix Ozo, a community leader at Akachele who was once a councillor that represented Obimo in Nsukka local government.
He said the inhabitants were happy that the charcoal factory has brought employment and development in the area. “They are giving us water from their borehole, they have employed our people and some of us rent our spare rooms to the factory’s workers,” he said.
The villagers have also decided to use part of the money that the Chinese gave them for the land to construct a borehole at a central location in the village, a youth who did not want to be mentioned told The ICIR.
The charcoal factory, situated in the bush and without a signpost from the main road, is built with pillars and zinc roofs. Overlooking from a nearby mountain, smokes emit from the straight rows of zinc roofs in the factory.
The factory is unfenced but has a single iron barrier across its entrance. Armed guards warned new visitors: you’re free to look around but you can’t take any pictures.
The place buzzes with activities. On the left-hand side facing the factory’s entrance, a 40-feet container on a trailer is loaded with cartons of charcoal. Behind the trailer are mostly women and children selling food under cashew trees. Other women hawk snacks and soft drinks to the workers around the factory.
On the first long row of shed with zinc roofs, groups of six men feed logs of wood into ovens built with bricks. Smoke emits from already covered ovens which burn the logs slowly without oxygen. Shirtless young men scoop hot charcoal with long shovels from the ovens while other men throw sand on a pile of hot charcoal. Women sort out cooled charcoal from the sand and move the charred material in wheelbarrows to the cutters.
On the second row, women use machines to cut the charcoal into smaller regular shapes. Groups of five young women sort and arrange the pieces of charcoal in cartons that have cellophane inside. Each carton is weighed by the women to ensure it is within 10 to 11kg before being taken to the warehouse built with woods.
A similar division of labour is replicated across other rows in the factory where operation goes on from Monday to Sunday, but they do not work at night.
While charcoal production is laborious and dirty, the workers are poorly paid. Those that cut and stack the logs in the oven are paid N12, 000 for filling each oven. The men that remove the hot charcoal from the oven earn N15, 000 for the task while the women that sort out the charcoal from sand are given N4, 000 for each oven’s load.
The rest of the workers are paid on a monthly basis. The women that cut the charcoal into regular shape earn N28, 000 monthly while the women that arrange the pieces of charcoal in the cartoons are paid N25, 000 monthly. To earn the N25, 000, each person must fill 10 cartoons in a day.
Although high exposure to black carbon particles that come from the charcoal is linked to heart attack and cancer, many of the factory workers do not wear a face mask. While some told The ICIR that face mask was not given to them, others said they did not like wearing it because of heat.
Logging for the money
The hardwoods for the charcoal production in Obimo are sourced by the locals from the forests around Nsukka and Uzo-Uwani local government areas.
Like other youths who have seized the opportunity, Kenneth Ugwu has become a regular supplier of hardwoods to the factory. He is paid N6, 000 per the scale the factory uses. He logs at Opi, about 26 kilometres from the charcoal factory, in a forest that stretches over a long distance.
“A full tipper load yields between 8 and 9 scales,” Ugwu said. “I pay the chainsaw operator 7k, give loaders 8k and 20k for the tipper. So, there is enough gain.” His main challenge, he said, is creating an easily accessible path into the forest because the tipper drivers have been turning him down. He said buying a pickup truck would be his next big move to fully engage in the business.
Ugwu, who was unaware of the negative impact of his logging, argued that the wild trees he cut down are not useful; rather, they have been occupying the space for economic trees like cashew.
Regardless of the tree, deforestation is a big concern for global climate change activists. Trees do not only absorb carbon dioxide but when forests are depleted, carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere.
According to Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2017, Nigeria lost 738kha of tree cover, equivalent to a 7.3 per cent decrease since 2000, and 56.3Mt of carbon dioxide of emissions. Adding to this, from 2001 to 2015, 15 per cent of tree cover loss in the country occurred in areas where the dominant drivers of loss resulted in permanent deforestation.
“In this era globally that we are canvassing for reforestation and afforestation, it is a very sad news that a company or communities are cutting down more trees and thereby aggravating the impact of climate change,” said Smart Amaefula, founder of Climate Transformation and Energy Remediation Society, after The ICIR told him about the activities of the Chinese.
Apart from the environmental damage, Amaefula wondered if Nigeria is benefiting economically from the illegal logging. “I don’t see how it empowers the Nigerian economy,” he said.
Omeje can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @KezieOmeje