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Peddling in Mukula trade or defamation – The EIA Report

ANALYSIS: EMMANUEL MWAMBA
I SAW it when it was just released but did not pay any attention to it, because there are so many propaganda stories against Zambia, against President Edgar Lungu and his government doing the rounds.
Many are so poorly done that they don’t deserve a mention, while others have had a semblance of importance such as one on foreign debt, on corruption, the rule of law and now Mukula.
But I decided to take a second and critical look at this after the story gained traction and was trending worldwide on the back of an original story done by Agence France-Presse (AFP), a global news agency.
A look at the Report titled; “MUKULA CARTEL, How Timber Trafficking Networks Plunder Zambian Forest”, because of its structure, and the depiction of characteristic cartoon figures of the personalities under discussion, one would think it was done by the highly credible International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which released the Paradise Papers.
The Paradise Papers were a set of 13.4 million confidential electronic and banking documents relating to offshore investments for persons and entities avoiding taxes, that were leaked to newspapers worldwide but shared by the ICOIJ, which also implicated Zambia’s opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema.
It is clear that this report was designed to mimic the ICOIJ Report.
But a casual look at this report immediately revealed that it was done poorly, unlike the Paradise Papers, has no credible and multiple sources, bears no proof of documents to the sensational allegations made and shows no bank accounts, international transfers receipt evidence, or any shipping documents showing any of the persons cited as the cartel behind it.
The entire report seems to rely on two witness personalities, a Mr. D (who sounds like an Asian national) claiming that he harvests the Mukula trees and pays “people connected or close to President Edgar Lungu”.
When he is queried further whether he has personally seen or met President Lungu, he stated that he only deals with those “close to the President”.
Another similar witness, on the same line also implicates Tasila Lungu, the daughter of the President, by bandying her name around but without demonstrating evidence of involvement or transactions.
So the evidence is clearly thin and not reliable!
So then, if the report is not credible, if both the video evidence and written report have not demonstrated proof to the damaging revelations and allegations being purveyed, why is AFP, News 24, Yahoo News and other international news outlet giving it credence and carrying it as breaking news against the Zambian President?
It became clear that the report has been carried without being subjected to a verification process because of the credible weight of the agency behind the allegations; Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA).
Allan Thornton, who was recently awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen, is an environmental activist, who owns and is co-founder of the agency.
The Canadian-born Thornton is the founder of EIA, which dedicates its work to covertly investigating environmental crimes with special attention to wildlife trade threatening endangered species and illegal logging.
The agency regularly publishes such reports to expose the alleged crimes.
What has President Lungu done about Mukula?
In 2017, President Lungu was so alarmed at the threat to hardwoods including Mukula, that he banned their cutting, transportation and trade.
Minister of Lands and Natural Resources Jean Kapata was also directed to issue a statutory Instrument(SI) that barred the transiting of Mukula tree logs in Zambia as neighbouring countries trade in it.
She bemoaned the loopholes in the Forest Act of 1973 that restricted the harvesting of major forest products without a licence.
This Act allows local and surrounding communities to the protected forests, to harvest the products for domestic use.
But the communities usually fuel the illegal trade especially in rosewood, Zambezi tik, Mukula, mukwa and other hardwoods.
Since 2005, bans (on production, conveyance or export) have been the preferred measure used by the Forestry Department, possibly due to constrained capacity and has regularly placed the Mukwa tree — one of the most harvested species — for fear of over-exploitation on the banned list.
And at the meeting in 2017 of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Zambia and President Lungu supported the total ban on commercial trade of pangolins, the African grey parrot, and strongly supported to restrict the international trade of all rosewood species within the genus Dalbergia — which includes Mukula.
Is their illegal trade in Mukula in Zambia?
In 2018, a research paper! “Informality, global capital, rural development and the environment”; Mukula(Rosewood) Trade in Zambia, supported by the UK Economic and Research Council, established that the trade was being fuelled because of Zambia’s weak policy and cited factors driving the illegal trade;
(1) rent-seeking behaviour at the political level, facilitated and reinforced by the legal ambiguity of regulations;
(2) rent-seeking behaviour among decentralised officials at lower levels of Government;
(3) And constrained capacity of the Forestry Department (FD) to implement the regulations it is tasked with.
What is the status of Mukula trade now?
Government banned the harvesting, transportation, trading and exportation of Mukula tree in accordance with Statutory Instrument (SI) number 94 of 2015, but allowed Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation Limited (ZAFFICCO) to sell confiscated Mukula logs.
It is therefore important that ZAFFICCO reports the result of this process in a transparent manner to avoid sensational innuendos like this report trending.
It is clear that President Lungu has shown commitment to fight Zambia’s deforestation. He has embarked on an ambitious programme of planting one million trees per province.
He has also supported the international restriction of Mukula trade through the CITES Convention of COP 17 held in Joahnnesburg.
He has also banned the illegal sale of Mukula in Zambia.
It is therefore inconceivable, that the person that has protected the Mukula specie through these official actions could be the one perpetrating the illegal sale as alleged in the Report.
It must be stated that it is admissible that illegal trade in Mukula could probably be taking place because of the weaknesses cited above.
But for a respected agency to allege without proof, without proffering evidence and without supporting the allegations with credible evidence, raises a fundamental question.
What is the motive? What is the reason? What is the purpose or cause of releasing such a fabricated report?
Is it to expose the illegal trade in the endangered wildlife species? Or is to deliberately sully, soil, and damage the local and international image of President Lungu for political reasons? Since the country will be preparing for the crucial presidential and general elections of 2021?
And for Mr. D and the people he allegedly pays that he claims are close to the President, kindly name them, and report this matter to both the media and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) so that the long arm of the law can prosecute them.
The hazard of the presidency is that people will steal, lie, destroy, pillage and plunder in its name.
The author is Zambia’s ambassador to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to the African Union (AU) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)

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