Uchenna Igwe in Nigeria, James Onono Ojok in Uganda and ZAM

Nigeria and Uganda | Into the woods

Western “green” funds used for “merrymaking with ministers” while forests are cut down

Amid hundreds of millions paid by donors to the Ugandan government for forest-saving projects, a powerful logging syndicate linked to the same government continues the desertification. In Nigeria, also despite much “green” funding, the government itself clears out the trees. Forest communities are impoverished in the process.

Selling out the trees and the poor

  • Forests in Nigeria and Uganda disappeared faster during anti-deforestation programmes
  • Amid millions spent to “save trees”, large elite timber logging networks were given free reign by authorities
  • Bans on using wood impoverished communities while letting timber tycoons off the hook

“We are hostages here,” says William Amanzuru, who tries to stop the felling of trees in northern Uganda’s Zoka Forest, where he lives. “They come with guns to tell you to cut your tree, but even without guns, the ten dollars they pay will already be enough. People here choose to eat either breakfast, lunch or dinner.”

Extra painful, says the local activist and chairman of Friends of Zoka Forest, is that the trees are being felled amid worsening heatwaves, wilting crops, and dying cattle. “The heat is unbearable; the food prices are sweeping up. We know we are harming ourselves, but what is the alternative? That is why I say we are hostages.” 

The “they” Amanzuru refers to are the timber loggers from the syndicates that have been deforesting northern Uganda for the past twenty or thirty years, mostly for charcoal, Uganda’s most-used cooking fuel, called “black gold” here. During this period, they have destroyed more than half of the tree cover in this region, once one of the green lungs of the world. According to several activist groups and an international research report, the kingpins are military and security top officials and politicians, even ministers. President Museveni himself, too, has pointed at “top security officials” in a recently promulgated, supposedly environmentally friendly, ban on the cutting of trees for charcoal burning in northern Uganda.

“The ban has simply eliminated the competition.”

“But they are still not acting against the syndicate. The ban has simply eliminated all competition for them,” says Amanzuru. “Because now small people and individuals get arrested while the trucks still pass through all roadblocks without a problem, at a rate of five per day here. I see them, I point at them, but the district military officers tell me they see nothing.”

His observations are confirmed by villagers ZAM interviewed in several other districts, all once heavily forested areas, now fast desertifying. Speaking in the sun amid land full of stumps, Ocen Procelia of Omel, Lumu Bosco of Amuru, and Bosco Oloya of Paicho Sub-County in Gulu are just some of the hundreds of local people here who go ever deeper into still-forested areas to cut trees for charcoal, burn them, then deliver the household fuel to the trucks. “We get two, three bags and find the trucks down the road, and sell them there,” they say. The ban has made the trucks in some areas go underground, “with bags of charcoal hidden under other goods,” but they still ride.

Army escorts

Arthur Owor of the activists group Save the Trees in Gulu, the region’s capital, says that, while army escorts of logging trucks were a common sight before last year’s ban, “now they just hide the load or allocate Uganda Revenue Authority and Forestry Commission stamps saying the wood is from Southern Sudan.” In contrast to the protection he says the syndicate receives, it is rather his own group that must fear the authorities. “It’s why we don’t register as an NGO. They can close you down once you do.” Uganda’s autocratic government has closed down many NGOs that spoke out already, he says. “The ones that remain just plant a few trees and are very careful not to upset the government.” 

The generals “could stop it if they wanted to.”

There are plenty of rumours about the syndicate kingpins, among which features, prominently, the name of President Museveni’s own brother, General Salim Saleh (born Caleb Akandwanaho). Saleh, the most powerful man in the army, has owned land here ever since his army bulldozed the forests in the early 2000s to flush out Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Associates of Saleh were often seen in northern Uganda after the war, when, despite many local protests, high ranking individuals in Uganda’s military and government, commonly nicknamed ‘the untouchables’, grabbed land in the region (see inter alia ZAM’s 2017 report "The general and the naked women" and this article on land grabs in northern Uganda) for their own farms and plantations. 

Even now, Saleh and another general live here, as well as a former defence force commander, the head of military intelligence, and a minister. There is no indication that these individuals are personally involved in the syndicate, but, says Amanzuru, “They could stop the trucks if they wanted to.”  

A long ribbon of donors adorns the Environment Ministry’s website

Ironically, the Ugandan government that commands the army has received hundreds of millions of dollars in “green” funding to halt deforestation in the past two decades. A long ribbon of donors, from Australia to the EU to Canada to the UN, adorns the website footer of the country’s Ministry of Water and Environment. (see box Green Funding). But these projects, usually localised tree-planting or sustainable forestry efforts, have hardly made a dent in the deforestation, which has continued at a rate of 7-10% in the past two decades in the region, while the “black gold” trade roars.

Green funding and financing

Disclaimer: despite an extensive internet search we were unable to find much clarity amid the avalanche of voluminous project proposals, multi-funder, multi-year programmes, and intermittent reports. We also probably missed a lot, especially in the regional divisions per country. The below rough estimate therefore contains only country amounts, allocated from the early 2000s.



Tractors and caterpillar trucks

Moving focus from the east of Africa to the west, four thousand kilometres away, the Ebony, Apa, and Madrid hardwood trees of Oban Forest, a national park in Nigeria’s Cross River State, are very different from the Africana Afrizella and Shea Nut found in Uganda’s northern mountains, but the deforestation story follows the same beats. Except here, large agri-businesses openly and legally have received forest-clearing concessions from the government.

A dilapidated construction area in Oban Forest shows the remnants of a huge sawmill, placed there by the DANSA Agro Allied company in 2015. DANSA, which was granted a concession by the Cross River government in that year, was part of the stable of Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. Up to 2018, when it closed, the company was allowed to clear forest for a pineapple plantation, which, as the sawmill and many locals testify, turned into a fully-fledged timber-logging operation. “When you talk of the area that was given to Dangote, the acreage of land that he destroyed was enormous,” says local environmental activist Felix Itambu. “There were tractors, caterpillar trucks, and other equipment that created destruction with each print it made on the ground.”

The government received millions to “get ready” for forest protection

Here, too, the destruction took place amid a “green” project meant to halt deforestation in the state, where 50% of Nigeria’s remaining forest is located (only 10% of Nigeria’s original forest cover remains). In 2008, Nigeria received US$4 million from the UN “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD+) project, and later another US$3,7 million, also for REDD+, from the World Bank. These funds were for the project’s “readiness” phase, meant to improve the institutional capacity of the Nigerian government, so that it could then move on to curbing deforestation in Cross River. Theoretically, during this next phase, local communities would then be enabled to make a living from sustainable forest management with funds from so-called “carbon credits”. 

Police terror

But as millions were spent on workshops, trainings, commissions, consultancies, and conferences on state level to discuss the above and get “ready”, the Cross River government - like Uganda - started by simply policing local villages. It immediately imposed a total moratorium on all logging activities in the state and established an Anti-Deforestation Task Force (ATF), which went about enforcing the ban swiftly, violently, and selectively. 

A 2016 Premium Times article vividly described how local families with small timber businesses, who were on average using one sawing machine to provide wood to local markets and had been able to make decent lives for themselves in that way, quickly became impoverished. The Premium Times also reported that people were arrested even for cutting firewood in their own backyard for household cooking or eating bush mango or afang (a vegetable) from the forest. 

DANSA was loading out trucks of wood every day”

While the ATF sowed terror among the locals, the trucks of the large-scale loggers were legally allowed to leave. “If they [government officials] saw you with even one log of wood, they would arrest you, but DANSA was loading out trucks of wood every day,” says local environmental activist Felix Itambu. 

Large agri-businesses like DANSA are often granted concessions for “salvage logging,” ostensibly to clear land for plantations, but timber extraction and processing is so profitable that these “plantations” are often logging operations under a different name. Monoculture poses significant environmental harms to the native forests it supplants. In Cross River, it is the primary driver of deforestation.


More concessions

And it wasn’t only Dansa. In 2013, with the REDD+ readiness phase in full swing, Wilmar palm oil had received a concession too, encroaching on and polluting the forest with its waste. After that, large forest areas were cleared away by the state government for a cocoa plantation, a casino project, and a (later abandoned) superhighway. A 2022 report by a Nigerian research organisation found that at least 21 salvage logging companies and 55 private plantations have conducted unregulated timber extraction activities in the area.

The money “is shared among top officials”

Logging by those without concessions also continued. The State Forestry Commission, meant to monitor wood leaving the forest, was widely reported to be involved in corrupt activities, with one article from 2017 describing how an impounded truck with rare hardwood trees was ordered released by the Commission itself. In 2020, the chairman of the Anti-Deforestation Task Force accused the then-Forestry Commission chairman of releasing three impounded vehicles with wood. His successor, Forestry Commission director Frank Eja, stated in an African Arguments interview in January 2023 that the commission itself was still “helpless and handicapped” as “every day, over 120 trailers carrying timber leave the state by road alone.” He added that “each trailer must pay N500,000 (about US$1,100) as a fee” and alleged that this money ends up being shared among top officials in state government.  

As Eja was giving his interview in 2023, another green project had been ongoing for five years in Cross River state: US$20 million for sustainable fuel management, in partnership with the very same Forestry Commission. 

“We get nothing”

All we see when we visit Oban Forest, supposedly Cross River’s most protected forest area, in December 2023, is ongoing logging. “They [loggers] come to the community and say we want to extract ebony. And the community will tell them, give us 100,000 Naira for one year. They pay 100,000 and then go and extract ebony,” says a villager who asks to remain anonymous. 100,000 Naira is about US$87, an amount the man in Oban says is “nothing”. “They make 200,000 Naira from selling this same tree. It is hazardous. There is nothing that we are getting from it.” But there simply isn’t an alternative anymore.

“We pay US$400 for every truck”

The income stream from the logging to the Forestry Commission also keeps flowing. Though – to the relief of many – new Cross River Governor Ben Ayade lifted the moratorium on logging and dissolved the Anti-Deforestation Task Force in August last year, the Oban Forest is still covered by a national parks logging ban. “We pay 500,000 Naira, US$400, for every truck,” says logger John Agbor*, interviewed as he and his crew are loading the timber that they sawed over the past three months, camping here in the reserve. The Forestry Commission stamp imprinted “with an official hammer that bears the forest commission’s seal,” declares his load good to go. 

As we see the dawn rise over the forest, the truck fires up and leaves. It is one of what will be several today.

Political will

In Uganda, meanwhile, Permanent Secretary Alfred Okot Okidi of the Environment Ministry insists in an interview that his country has the “political will” to stop the illegal logging. “Maybe there are powerful people involved, but who in this country is more powerful than the President? The President is the one who has the political will. He has promised to allocate two thousand new environmental protection police officers to the country to fish out the culprits.” Currently there are only 161 environmental protection officers in Uganda. 

“Who is more powerful than the president?”

However, like in Nigeria, more police is unlikely to solve the problem. Besides bad governance, corruption, monoculture tenders and the power of resource-trading mafias, the main cause of the forest project failures may well be the economics of a patronage system, where state coffers are mostly filled from the sale of natural resources. Before the ban on logging, royalties from timber extraction in the forest reserves were shared 50/50 by the host communities and the Cross River state government. It had hoped to compensate that loss with the UNREDD+ financing, but that did not happen (see the complaint by the former Cross River spokesperson that “that money never reached us” in the comments box.)


“We never got that money”

Asked why Nigeria’s Cross River state cut large forests areas for polluting and logging business partners in the midst of a REDD+ preparation phase, former state government spokesman Christian Ita says “we never got that (REDD+) money,” adding that “spending on consultants by the UN doesn’t amount to giving money to the state.” Nigerian “focal person for REDD+” Bridget Nkor said in response to questions that the “programme was not a failure since capacity and readiness were built (…) but funds were never released to the state for further activities.” She also said that “issues of communities worse off after the programme should never arise” since (the programme) was “never implemented.”  

From Uganda, only army spokesperson Akiki Deo responded, saying that regarding “officers who were allegedly involved in logging, unfortunately no one came to substantiate or incriminate them” and that “the military leaders residing in the area are there like any other citizens.” Asked whether he had passed on specific questions inviting General Salim Saleh, the president’s brother, to comment on allegations regarding his involvement in timber logging, Deo said “he (Saleh) doesn’t speak to the media.” In both countries, most state officials who were asked to comment did not respond to questions sent by email and whatsapp. Neither did the World Bank, the FAO, or the UN REDD+ secretariat.

The European Union delegation in Uganda wrote in response to questions that “support to the forestry sector is (…) not focused on the implementation of a few isolated projects, but on a more integrated approach to forests (within) sustainable and inclusive national development” and that “since 2004 with the support from the EU, about 80,000 ha have been established (…) placing Uganda ahead of other East African countries in terms of availability of wood resources.” It added that the “EU supports the government (…) to address gaps such as weak regulation, limited skills, inappropriate practices, and lack of tools and systems and that “the EU is fully committed to support (…) a transition to modern, affordable, clean, renewable energy” in Uganda.

On the Ugandan side, local districts that previously made money from forest taxes, and who have now lost that source of revenue, may well look for bribes in return for stamps and permits. Moreover, how can the charcoal trade in this country really be stopped if most citizens, 70% at latest count, still need it for cooking? Since the ban issued by the President, charcoal prices have risen steeply here in the north, where 40% of the “black gold” for sale in the capital Kampala comes from, further feeding the tree-cutting frenzy.

“In this country there is one table where the ministers and generals eat”

“We need alternative income, and we need electricity,” says Zoka Forest activist William Amanzuru. “But we don’t get the irrigation that would help us to plant and farm, let alone electricity. Our president doesn’t come with plans and timelines for such development. In this country we only have one large table where the ministers and generals eat, and all around them their officials are thronging for crumbs.”

A thin rim of trees

Since Uganda and Nigeria began receiving funds for curbing deforestation, the loss of tree cover and primary forests have both increased significantly.   



 Amanzuru believes that, as long as the state functions the way it does, its green donor partnerships are just “merrymaking at conferences.” He says, “The Environment Ministry website is not Uganda. That is window shopping with people who bring money to the ministry. They take pictures and smile at fancy hotels, where the minister speaks. The minister will talk at the COP (1) on how Uganda has a charcoal ban and they will visit with dozens of people, but there won’t be anyone from here. People here don’t even know that that is happening.” The only solution he sees is direct support to local communities. “If they can help us with irrigation, that will be great.” 

The beneficiaries are rich and well-connected

Fellow activist Arthur Owor of Save the Trees in Gulu district agrees that small initiatives that partner directly with communities help more, even if on a very limited scale, than the big programmes that suffer from “elite capture,” as he puts it. “All these (projects from the Environment Ministry website) will sound like news to the locals.” His group knows of some beneficiaries, he says, but they “are rich and well connected.” The last observation echoes a statement by district official Martin Anywar in Kitgum, a hundred kilometers up the north east, that a recent FAO US$5 million tree planting programme in his area allocated funds to “people who are already rich.” 

As we leave Gulu’s forest district, we see a thin rim of just planted trees on the riverside. It is the one sign of a project implemented by the Environment Ministry that we have come across.

*Name changed

  1. COP, which stands for Conference of the Parties, is an annual meeting where United Nations member states convene to assess progress in dealing with climate change.

The Nigerian part of this story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.