Unregulated teak trade fueling South Sudanese violence: report

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Global consumers purchasing teak may be fueling conflict in South Sudan, a research group said on Tuesday, warning that armed groups are benefiting from an unregulated logging trade worth tens of millions of dollars.

Washington-based research group C4ADS, which uses publicly available data to analyze illicit transnational networks, examined trade data to document the export of around 100,000 tons of South Sudanese teak from January 2018 to March 2019.

Their report found that corruption and a poorly regulated logging trade mean that the government, the military, and other armed groups are skimming profits off South Sudan’s portion of the global teak trade, which is worth more than $500 million dollars annually.

“This vastly underregulated trade is entering global supply chains with little consideration of its clear relationship to conflict finance,” said report co-author Stella Cooper.

Oil-rich South Sudan became Africa’s youngest nation in 2011, but slid into a civil war two years later that killed an estimated 400,000 people and caused Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide. A shaky peace deal signed a year ago is largely holding but the formation of a unity government has been repeatedly delayed.

British colonialists planted South Sudan’s teak in the first half of the 20th century. The attractive tropical hardwood is sought after by furniture makers.

Although decades of war with its erstwhile ruler, Sudan, have degraded South Sudan’s plantations, the teak plantations could generate up to $100 million per year in export revenue if properly managed, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

The South Sudanese Environment and Forestry Ministry’s Undersecretary of Forestry Jaden Tongun did not answer phone calls requesting comment on Tuesday afternoon.

Another undersecretary in the ministry, Joseph Bartel, said he could not answer questions on forestry. A government spokesman did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

But logging and plantation concessions are not properly regulated, the report said, adding that contradictory laws mean it is difficult to define whether teak is logged illegally.

Teak traders have paid bribes to county governments, the military, and rebel groups for protection, the report found. Much of the teak illegally crosses South Sudan’s porous southern border with Uganda, the report found.

South Sudanese teak worth more than $30.5 million went to India, the world’s biggest teak importer, according to Indian trade data cited in the report. That’s about half of the South Sudanese teak trucked through Uganda in 2018, the report said.

South Sudanese teak also goes to Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya and China, the report found. It was impossible to state the total amount of South Sudanese teak exported last year, the report said, because of gaps in import-export data.

Reporting By Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld, William Maclean