In 2014, West Africa suffered from an explosion in logging due to the lucrative trade in rosewood. Chinese imports of West African rosewood, Pterocarpus erinaceus, increased from US$12,000 to over US$180 million in just five years, a 15,000-fold increase, making this the most heavily traded tropical hardwood species in the world. In 2015 the government implemented a log export ban, and authorities confiscated vast amounts of cut timber. In the rural areas of West Africa, where the ongoing rosewood trade has been heaviest, more than 90% of the population depends on farming for survival. The forests where this species is being harvested produce and store over 90% of regional rainfall. Their role in water recycling for local distribution is higher than that of the Amazon and the forests of North America.
Justino Sa, an environmental defender working to combat the devastation caused by the rosewood trade is interviewed by N1M. He explains what motivates him to continue his forest protection work despite death threats and intimidation.
After independence, Guinea-Bissau started to export wood. But in a sustainable way that respected the law. The law establishes how to harvest wood. But with the state coup in 2012, the situation worsened. There was a lack of control. They took advantage of that, to do what they did in 2014: they abusively cut down our forests.
It was based on this that we started to ask questions, we decided to begin this fight, to combat it directly. We went on the ground, to see the situation, as witnesses. We denounced it on the radio, on the television, and everywhere.
It’s an environmental crime. To cut trees in such an irresponsible manner, without respecting the rules, this damages the country, damages the generations to come.
And, there were many threats. But, we felt that I wasn’t doing harm to anyone. When you are defending your country, you feel at ease. I wasn’t scared. And I’m not going to be scared.
When a person enters into this type of situation you have to have courage, first-off. Not to let yourself be intimidated. Second, to have in your mind that everything that you are doing is for the good of your people. One day, you could be up against it, but tomorrow the truth will overcome. People will see that what you said yesterday was true. Having this mentality, it’s not easy to be afraid. That was my foundation.
The logging had an impact on the elections. One of the presidential candidates was tarnished. During the election campaigns, the Chinese provided cars to this candidate; people felt that he was one of those who destroyed our forests. A lot of of people didn’t vote for him because of the logging.
After the elections, there were changes. The government decided, through our denunciations, to pass a provisionary moratorium on logging.
But we didn’t stop there. We argued that the timber that had been cut, that had not yet been exported, should be exported for the benefit of the people who suffered from the logging.
Imagine it, if I brought you to see the containers in the stadium of the national guard. If you were to see – there are millions and millions of trunks there to be exported. They will be exported. Millions and millions will come in. But if you went to the customs to see the exact amount [of money] that came in, you won’t find it.
Where did those millions of francs go? Into individual peoples’ pockets. It can’t be like this.
We could export the wood to benefit those people who don’t have hospitals, who don’t have schools, who don’t have even painkillers to relieve their pain. The resources should be there to benefit the people. If there is no justice, then it creates conditions for people to continue to commit these crimes.
The people out there in the rural areas, they are the biggest victims. For those of us in the city, there’s no problem. If there is no rain, we can buy rice, import it to eat. But the ones out there, they aren’t able to do that.
But if you go there to change their minds, to convince them that they need to fight to protect their forests, they’re going to ask: what is your contribution? Because the loggers are strong. They go there and they buy the people, they pay. People let them enter because they were given a sack of rice. It’s paradoxical. I give authorization for someone to enter my forest to take out a container of wood worth millions, and in return I receive a sack of rice? It’s unthinkable.
But if there is no support, this is going to continue. If you go there and show them that this is not right, you have to support them so that they can stop allowing others to cut their forests.
This type of struggle is very difficult, even wanting to succeed, sometimes you lose patience. There has to be help for us to fight against these people. Without help, you can’t fight.
The people in the government – they are complicit in the logging. Who gives the licenses? The government. They are not going to be interested in stopping this. If they are complicit, they give the licenses, how can you get around it?
Through raising awareness campaigns, through direct action together with the people to show them that what we are doing today is going to harm their future as well, the future generations.
If our ancestors had accepted, had given their approval for logging, we wouldn’t be here. We’d all be dead. They left the forest for us, we also need to keep the forest for the next generations.
I continue to do the work, even though it affected my family. Even though my wife many times calls me out on it, asking me not to participate, I always continue. I have to fight.
If others fought for me to be here, I need to fight so that others can also be here. One day if someone comes to kill me, then kill me. But I am going to continue doing my work.
This country cost a lot of people their lives. A lot of people died because of this country. So why would we take our independence by force, fight to push the colonists out, if we are not going to fight to develop the country?
I am going to fight so that my children have a better life than mine. I studied by my own effort, because my father died very young, and my mother didn’t have the means to pay for my schooling. And this cost me — I struggled to get where I am. But I hope that my children don’t have to do what I did. I am fighting so that my children have a better life.
If you compare Guinea Bissau from the 1980s to the Guinea Bissau of today, it’s totally different. Different for better or worse? For the worse! The infrastructure is all ruined. But we continue to have people that when they assume government roles, instead of working to change the situation, they work only to benefit themselves.
This is bad. And the international community can’t allow this to happen. Guinea Bissau is not outside of the concern of these nations. We are in a world without frontiers. What happens in England has repercussions here in Guinea Bissau. What happens in the United States, has impacts here. We are condemned to live in permanent contact. We are all friends. There is only one world.
There are now 43 years of independence. 43 years: without roads, without schools, without health. But we have people that through Guinean resources, bought houses in Europe. We have children who studied in universities in Europe while people here don’t have schools. This is a paradox. That is why there needs to be support from the international community. About this — this effort to fight against the devastation of our forests and against the plundering of our seas.
Only in this way can we develop, because those are our key resources.
Our independence is not just to have a flag. Cabral [the leader of the independence movement] used to say, it’s not enough to have a flag and an anthem, independence has to have an impact on the life of the people. That’s to say, people need to live well.
I have my children, every day when they wake, they need at least to have a glass of milk to drink. There are many Guineans that don’t have anything to eat.
That’s why I want to ask that these denunciations are addressed; that this should impact the lives of the people. Because if not, it’s not worth it. I can talk and talk and talk and I die and things continue.