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Waves of crime crippling the timber industry

The forestry industry is on a global scale being crippled by a wave of crime that has seen officials of Interpol and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) team up to combat environmental crimes such as the killing of elephants and the theft of timber.ber.

At the end of 2013, Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, said that some 500 experts from around the world are going to try to arrest, “a rapidly escalating environmental crime wave”. The groups said internationally co-ordinated enforcement efforts must be stepped up to prevent wildlife and timber cartels from escaping law enforcement efforts by shifting operations from one region to another. UNEP says that global syndicates behind the poaching of animals, the illegal shipping of toxic waste and the cutting down of the world’s forests steal tens of billions of dollars from communities around the world every year.

Locally, however, it is a completely different ballgame. In South Africa the rise of timber and related theft is buckling the industry, yet local authorities seem unperturbed by the rise in these environmental crimes that are getting more sophisticated and organised as we speak.

“The single biggest challenge the industry faces is the absence of active policing in the industry. Syndicates active in the area are well aware of the shortcomings and use it to their full advantage,” says Joey Lascelles, spokesperson of the Lowveld Timber Theft Forum.

“Many cases have been reported by industry players to the SAPS and none ever results in the successful prosecution of the criminals.”

According to the forum, there has been a remarkable increase in timber and related theft in the industry. Annually, timber and related theft incur losses that run into millions of rands and are compounded as beefed up security costs mount, cutting deeper into the bottom line.

“Various security companies are employed by the industry at a huge cost. Without these companies it will be total mayhem. The SAPS has very little or no understanding of the industry resulting in their inability to investigate cases,” says Lascelles.

During the first week of May, the Annual Africa Progress Report was released by the UN and Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general, highlighted the fact that the plunder of timber and fisheries is holding Africa back.

“This year’s Africa Progress Report calls on African leaders to tackle inequality and demands that global community tackle plunder of the continent’s natural resources,” he says. Africa’s rich natural resources offer a unique opportunity for a breakthrough in improving the lives of Africa’s citizens, but too often these resources are plundered by corrupt officials and foreign investors. According to the local timber industry, theft is becoming a major threat to profitability, but authorities give the impression that they are untroubled.

“As well as for timber theft, the industry is also going through hell with diesel theft and bell logger part theft,” says Pieter Knipschild, chairman of the Lowveld Timber and Theft Forum.

A truck was stopped with this stolen timber on in the Lowveld recently
Stolen timber related goods that were recovered
This stolen equipment was recovered with the help of private security companies
Theft also seems to be getting more vicious with thieve susing violence to get the goods they want. “During the month of April we had four chainsaw armed robbery incidents in Mpumalanga,” Knipschild says.

The Lowveld Timber Theft Forum reports that the biggest problem in solving timber theft currently lies with failures within the structures of the SAPS. People often expressed their frustrations when having to deal with the local police stations. In many instances none of the cases reported are investigated by the SAPS due to their limited knowledge of the industry and timber theft not being perceived as a serious crime.”

According to Lascelles, “The industry in the Lowveld faces many challenges:

• Un-roadworthy trucks with the traffic department doing very little in removing them. These trucks are very often used in timber theft.
• Many landowners and absent landowners in the area of the Lowveld. The area is very fragmented and often absent landowners give permission to potential criminals to harvest on their farms resulting in these people also stealing timber from surrounding farms and when caught, claiming that they were not aware of the boundaries.
• Numerous neglected plantations. When a plantation is overgrown it is very difficult to see when timber is getting stolen.
• Many timber transporters. The area has a lot of informal timber transporters who use every opportunity to steal timber from depots and roadside. This, together with no standard permit system for the transportation of timber that could be enforced by law and illegal, and fraudulent permits contributes to the challenges.
• Possible collaboration between security companies and timber thieves and harvesting contractors and timber thieves.

These problems are escalated by markets accepting stolen timber or willing to pay below market value, land claims and rightful ownership, many cases are not reported due to a great deal of ignorance from authorities, insurance companies are no longer willing to insure equipment, unscrupulous timber agents and contractors and farm murders that are on the increase.
“Theft in general in the country is not perceived as serious and as a result a general lawlessness prevails,” says Lascelles.

This is even further intensified by many people not even bothering to report cases anymore, owing to the fact that the SAPS does not solve the crimes due to ignorance and general inexperience. Yet, the industry loses billions a year owing to timber and
timber related theft and crime.
Over the past couple of weeks the following incidences has been reported to the Lowveld Timber Theft Forum:

• A total of 21 chainsaws were stolen with an estimated loss of R126 000 during the month of April. In one of the incidences a truck was stopped by three armed men along the Long Tom pass on 28 April. The robbers opened the cab at the back and fired a shot through
the roof of the cab. They then hijacked the truck and discarded it along the road after stealing 10 chainsaws.

• An armed robbery on 7 May, election day, a local security company informed the complainant not to bother to try and call the police out as they were all involved in the election campaign. Three men, of whom two were armed, entered the staff housing on a farm and held five employees hostage. They stole five cell phones, cash and attempted to steal a fire tender, but due to the arrival of the private security firm they fled the scene. No arrests were made and police arrived the following day to take statements.
• 2 x Bell Loggers stripped
• Trees illegally felled:
- 7 May - Sappi Kyloe Estates - 230 trees - 2,5 years old - estimated future value of R234 600
- 28 Jan - Sappi Kyloe Estates - 331 trees - 3 years old - estimated future value of R337 620
- 1 April - Timber Theft - Merensky Plantation Ramanas.
• In Rooihoogte, during the month of April, 840 litres of diesel was stolen with an estimated value R11 000.
• Attempted theft of solar panels in Bultfontein. The complainant is unable to lay charges of attempted theft as the police are only willing to accept a case of trespassing and the accused were free to go.

“When there is finally a successful prosecution, the accused are let off on a very light sentence - three suspects that were caught stealing 136 trees in the Amsterdam area received a sentence of R3 000 or six months imprisonment suspended for five years,” says Lascelles.

Local authorities, however, seem unperturbed. “There is so much crime, and violent and serious crime at that, going on in this country that the South African police do not see the theft of timber as serious, despite the monetary losses incurred by these crimes. Unless someone is murdered, raped or grievously harmed, these thieves get away with crimes, often being slapped with a simple trespassing fine.”

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