GABES, Tunisia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Tunisia’s streets emptied and shops shuttered after the 6pm national curfew to stem the novel coronavirus outbreak, a clandestine group headed to the forest.
Over two nights in early April, a group of people in the northwest region of Ain Draham illegally felled 400 trees, a species known as Algerian oak which is listed as endangered by the United Nations, the country’s forestry agency said.
When the authorities arrested eight people a few days later, they revealed the trees, some of which had been standing for more than 300 years, had been turned into charcoal.
Since Tunisia went into lockdown on March 22, the forestry agency has raised 200 legal cases for violations against the forest code, including illicit logging, unauthorised construction and hunting in forest areas.
That is 10 times the number of cases in the same period last year, noted Mohamed Boufaroua, general director of forestry at the Ministry of Agriculture.
The curfew gives cover to illegal loggers with fewer people around to catch them in the act, Boufaroua said, adding that “they (illegal loggers) want to take advantage of this period of confinement”.
The boom in illegal logging could be driven by the sharp economic toll of social distancing measures, said crime expert Matt Herbert.
People who lost their jobs in the lockdown may have turned to producing and selling charcoal as an alternative source of income, explained Herbert, a senior analyst with the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Almost 60% of working Tunisians rely on informal employment, according to the International Labour Organization.
“There’s only so long most families can go without income, so I think that displacement - like (out of work) construction workers felling trees - is most assuredly going on,” Herbert told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The government on Wednesday announced it would start relaxing its lockdown next week, with the first sectors to be relaxed including the food industry, construction and half the public service.
Another 1,000 trees - oak and fern - were chopped down during the night in the same area in Ain Draham on April 8, said National Guard spokesman Houssemeddine Jebabli.
Boufaroua said the ministry has launched “an initiative (to combat this) with the national guard, the ministry of interior and the ministry of justice. (But) even if we work all night, with the size of the forest, we cannot be everywhere”.
According to forestry agency data, Tunisia’s oak forests covered 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres) in 1970.
Of that there were 10,000 hectares of Algerian oak trees, said Boufaroua, adding many of this tree species were cleared during the colonial period, when the French used the robust wood to construct railways and mine roofs.
Today, the species is down to 8,350 hectares (20,633 acres), he said - out of 95,000 hectares of oak overall.
Cutting down the Algerian oak is a criminal offence in Tunisia, but some environmentalists say local authorities often turn a blind eye to illegal logging.
“There is a scent of complicity,” said Ines Labiadh, head of environmental justice at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.
Pointing to the incident in early April, she noted that the loggers managed to close off a large area of forest and cut down the trees without being detected.
“There are forest guards, but no one heard that there was something going on,” she said.
“And these are huge trees - they make a lot of noise.”
However, she added that the forest guards who help illegal logging operations often feel they have no choice.
“They are victims of aggression and sometimes they are worried for their lives and for their families,” she said.
The 5,150 forest guards working around Tunisia are not enough to cover the country’s 5.6 million hectares (13.8 million acres) of forest, she added.
Labiadh said local government officials often agree to the clearing of forest land, sometimes in exchange for bribes, but the lack of transparency makes it impossible to know the extent of the issue.
Boufaroua of the forestry agency denied the allegations of corruption, stating that anyone “(whether) inside or outside of the agency” engaged in illegal logging would face the full extent of the law.
Labiadh, whose doctoral research focused on the use of resources in the Ain Draham region, said there has long existed a network for illegal charcoal, which fuels logging.
It usually involves cutting the oak trees and producing the coal in the region and then transporting it to other cities around the country, she said.
Illegal loggers can make up to 2,000 dinars ($690) per month, according to Labiadh, more than double the average salary in Tunisia.
“The forest is a mine for money,” she said.
“The trees are the lungs of our earth. We want to protect our lungs against COVID-19 and we need to protect the lungs of our earth.”
Essia Guezzi, climate and energy project officer for green group WWF-North Africa said the tree felling happening now feels like a repeat of the illegal logging boom after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.
At the time, the number of legal cases related to tree felling tripled to 4,500 in one year, according to figures from the agriculture ministry.
Back then, “the instability led to crimes against nature,” said Guezzi.
“The same thing is happening now, when all the authorities are focussing on the coronavirus crisis.”
Reporting by Layli Foroudi, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org