New evidence reveals an EU timber rush in one of the world’s most fragile nations fuels local instability and bolsters Putin’s invasion of Ukraine
- A logging firm allegedly controlled by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group is among the shady outfits supplying Europe’s record wood imports from the Central African Republic (CAR), Earthsight can reveal.
- Shipment records we obtained provide the first evidence of the transport of Wagner-linked timber to two European Union nations, France and Denmark.
- The trade embroils a company listed on London’s AIM stock exchange that was part of a national delegation at the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow.
- The Kremlin-aligned private army and its founder, a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, are under Western sanctions over human rights atrocities in war-torn countries including the African nation and Ukraine.
- France’s parliament last week voted to label the private army as a terrorist organisation, and Britain is reportedly poised to do the same.
- And yet, wood tied to the militia continued to be transported to the continent via Cameroon after leading European media outlets linked the militia to an obscure logging outfit.
- Profits from its business in CAR are helping fund Wagner’s brutal role in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
- The findings raise urgent questions for officials tasked with enforcing both ever-tightening restrictions on Russia and timber import rules.
- Europe’s growing trade in suspect CAR timber also highlights the challenges facing the EU’s incoming ban on deforestation-linked goods.
Russian mercenaries with close ties to President Vladimir Putin and a logging contractor exposed for funding African rebels help feed a barely-regulated European timber rush in one of the world’s poorest and most fragile countries, Earthsight can reveal.
Our investigation found that Europe’s scramble to exploit the Central African Republic’s forest wealth fuels local instability and bolsters Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Shipment records we obtained detail the flow of high-risk wood out of the resource-rich yet impoverished former French colony to the continent via Cameroon.
This new evidence shows that an obscure company reportedly controlled by the Russian Wagner paramilitary group supplied timber to European consumers. The trade embroils a firm listed on London’s AIM stock exchange that was part of a national delegation at the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow.
Wagner forces are operating in multiple war-torn countries including Ukraine and Sudan.1 Aided by fighters recruited from Russian prisons, they have played a pivotal role in recent offensives in Ukraine’s eastern Bakhmut region, the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
The United States, European Union, Britain and several other countries have placed sanctions on Wagner Group and its founder, a key Putin ally. France’s parliament last week voted to label the Russian private army as a terrorist organisation while also urging the EU to follow suit2, as Britain is reportedly already poised to do.3
In January, Washington named the group a “significant transnational criminal organization” in a move expanding restrictions on individuals and entities it said are involved in Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic.4
“Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” the US Treasury Department said in a statement accompanying the decision.
Customs data shows shipments of Wagner-linked wood to the EU continued after reports in leading European media outlets connected the mercenaries to forestry and timber firm Bois Rouge, which is not under sanctions nor officially listed as a Wagner outfit.
The data also reveals that SEFCA, a secretive logging contractor that was previously caught bankrolling rebels guilty of murder and war crimes, was the largest supplier of CAR timber to the EU last year. Large volumes of these goods entered Belgium, France and Italy.
SEFCA did not respond to a request for comment.
Earthsight’s findings not only raise urgent questions for officials tasked with implementing EU sanctions against the Wagner militia and its leader. They also reveal poor oversight of the bloc’s record imports of tropical hardwood from a fragile country with notoriously opaque forest governance.
This negligence has important implications for the planet’s climate, as rainforests in the Congo Basin, where the Central African Republic is located, store huge amounts of carbon. Land use change, principally deforestation, accounts for 12 to 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.5
The case highlights the challenges facing the EU’s incoming ban on goods linked to deforestation, which is set to replace import rules once hailed as a landmark against the illegal timber trade.
Russian president Vladimir Putin (left) pictured with Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin during a tour of Prigozhin’s Concord food catering factory in 2010.
Wagner Group, founded by Putin’s longtime confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin, is central to Moscow’s efforts to build influence and business in Africa.
Through a shadowy web of military and commercial interests, Prigozhin and his operatives have followed a familiar playbook in a number of African states to prop up friendly autocrats and secure lucrative rights to natural resources, including diamonds and gold.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner mercenaries have become a major presence since intervening to back President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in a civil war that has raged for over a decade. Its fighters led government forces in repelling a major rebel offensive in early 2021.
Military gains came at a cost. United Nations investigators documented accusations of atrocities committed by Russian mercenaries including civilian massacres and looting in a report to the Security Council published in June of that year.6
The UN report accuses Russian operatives, officially billed as unarmed military trainers, and their army allies of violations including “cases of excessive use of force, indiscriminate killings, the occupation of schools and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations”.7
Prigozhin, still sometimes called “Putin’s chef” for his catering firm’s Kremlin contracts, was reportedly linked to several companies employing the trainers.
The Russians were not just guns for hire. The UN report states that “Russian instructors had established a presence in the country’s key mining centres,” without elaborating.8 CNN investigations would later establish how Prigozhin-tied companies gained generous rights to explore for diamonds and gold in the Central African Republic and neighbouring Sudan.9,10
Forests also offered rich pickings, as American researchers and European reporters would reveal.
Prigozhin has issued a series of angry statements berating Russia’s military leadership in recent weeks.
Punitive restrictions imposed on Wagner Group and its founder have helped reveal their network of helpers and companies, which include entities in the Central African Republic. But last year evidence emerged that suggests the militia’s activities stretch further than the companies hit with sanctions.
In late June, The Sentry, a non-governmental organisation in Washington, accused Wagner mercenaries of involvement in the Central African Republic’s logging and timber trade through a company called Bois Rouge (French for “Red Wood”).11
In evidence submitted to the British House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee, The Sentry said it “received information” about the link but had no documentary evidence in support.
Citing a French media report, the nonprofit also noted that Wagner mercenaries were part of a Russian programme providing customs services in the African nation, “especially at the border with Cameroon”.12
The Sentry’s evidence followed rumours in the press and social media of the private army’s involvement in the African nation’s murky forestry sector.13,14
Unlike in other Congo Basin nations, not a single logging concession in the Central African Republic is inspected by international timber certification bodies. A bilateral deal with the EU to combat illegal logging and strengthen forest governance in the country, meanwhile, has been moribund for years.
The month after The Sentry’s evidence, in July 2022, a consortium of European journalists exposed how the Central African Republic’s government awarded the hitherto-unknown timber firm Bois Rouge logging rights on an area of tropical rainforest bigger than London and home to elephants, gorillas and leopards.15
Archived screenshot from Bois Rouge's now-removed website.
It was quite a feat for a company founded just two years prior. But reporting by the French nonprofit OpenFacto and European Investigative Collaborations, a network of international media, found this rapid rise was based more on geopolitics than business acumen.16,17
Their investigation, published in some of Europe’s leading news outlets, revealed that the obscure outfit registered in the Central African Republic in early 2019 and nominally managed by a local citizen is in fact controlled by a Russian national acting as its sales manager, who represented the firm at a timber industry conference in Shanghai.
Using publicly available information on the internet, All Eyes on Wagner, a monitoring project initiated by OpenFacto but now independent from it, described extensive connections between Bois Rouge, Russia, and entities tied to Wagner Group and its founder’s empire.18
It noted how Bois Rouge received the forestry concession barely a fortnight after Wagner mercenaries fighting alongside government troops recaptured the region where it is located from rebels in early 2021.
All Eyes On Wagner argued that the concession could generate “significant” profits for the firm – funds that could be sent back to Russia.
Its reporting partners also raised concerns Wagner-linked wood could well be entering Europe, given that Bois Rouge had yet to be recognised as a Wagner firm in the sanctions there.19
Now, evidence obtained by Earthsight reveals that’s exactly what happened.
A bombed building in Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Shipment records obtained by Earthsight show that Bois Rouge was the Central African Republic’s seventh largest exporter of wood to the EU last year.
More than half of the Wagner-tied outfit’s exports went to the EU – a far greater share than the eight per cent of the country’s overall timber exports sent to the bloc that year.
According to the records, Bois Rouge exported 465 cubic metres of sapele timber to the bloc in 2022. Earthsight estimates the materials, commonly used for doors and window frames, had a retail value of €3.4 million.20
The goods left the Central African Republic via the port city of Douala, in Cameroon, the shipment records show. The port is a transit hub for Wagner’s operations in Africa, online news outlet The Africa Report reported last August.21
From there, seven shipments of Wagner-linked wood arrived at the EU, six at Denmark and one at France. Two took place after the European media reports connecting Bois Rouge to the notorious Russian mercenaries.
Excerpt from shipment records showing the transport of Wagner-linked wood to EU countries France and Denmark last year.
Even though Bois Rouge is not specifically covered by Western sanctions, the well-publicised ties should have been reason enough for European companies to steer clear of it. Even before the connections made headlines across Europe, basic inquiries would have picked up rumours about Bois Rouge swirling around the small expatriate business and diplomatic community in CAR.
Yet the customs records note the transport of timber connected to the Russian private army in the month following the media reports, August 2022, to a French firm called Tropica-Bois22. The Nice-registered company was the largest single EU importer of wood from the Central African Republic last year, according to the records.
Asked for comment, Tropica-Bois’s manager, Jean Claude Billaud, said he was “very surprised” at Earthsight’s findings, which he called “incorrect”.
“We have never bought, nor loaded any goods from [the] company Bois Rouge in CAR,” he said in an email, which provided no explanation for why the Wagner-linked logging outfit is the named exporter of the timber shipped to his company from Cameroon, as stated in the customs records.
The month after this shipment, September 2022, Bois Rouge sent a further batch of the tropical hardwood to the EU, this time to Denmark. The named buyer is a Turkish wood products shop.
Russian mercenaries provide security for Central African Republic president Faustin-Archange Touadéra.
Bois Rouge’s biggest EU customer before it was embroiled in scandal was WoodGroup ApS23, a Danish subsidiary of Woodbois Limited24, which is listed on London’s AIM stock exchange and was part of the Gabonese delegation at the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.25
According to the customs records, Bois Rouge sent three shipments of sapele timber to Woodbois’ Danish arm last year, two in April that year and another in mid-June.
Woodbois describes itself as a “leading global trader of African timber”26 on its website, which loudly trumpets its supposedly green credentials.
The most recent integrated report available on Woodbois’ website covers the year 2021. In it, the London-registered tropical timber trader also states its commitment to “ensuring ethical and fair conduct, and fighting corruption” – a vow that it says extends to both its logging operations and carefully-vetted suppliers.27
A closer look at the company casts doubt on these claims.
Woodbois was founded in 2004 by Zahid Abbas and Jacob Hansen, two former employees of Danish timber giant Dalhoff Larsen and Horneman (DLH).28
In 2009, watchdog groups including Global Witness and Greenpeace France filed a legal complaint against DLH for allegedly buying timber from Liberian firms complicit in human rights abuses associated with the regime of the warlord Charles Taylor.29,30
The complaint alleged that DLH purchased timber from 2002 to 2003. Woodbois’ two founder-directors worked at the company during this time, though there is no suggestion they were involved in the alleged dealings. (The public prosecutor of Montpellier dismissed the case in February 2013 as requiring “no further action”.31)
DLH was broken up and sold after further scandals. Meanwhile, Woodbois set its sights on Africa. It announced it had developed proprietary technology to “disrupt a high margin, archaic $4 billion African timber market” in a company presentation dated May 2020.32
Screenshot of UK tropical timber trader Woodbois' website.
Woodbois’ most recent integrated report portrays its logging concessions and sawmills in Gabon and Mozambique as ethical and sustainable, highlighting reforestation initiatives and the inclusion of women in its forestry operations.33
Yet figures contained in the same report show the company produced only two-fifths of the timber it sold that year, and that the remaining bulk came from third parties.34 Figures from previous years show past suppliers have included African firms located in dictatorships or countries beset by civil wars.35
In its published materials, Woodbois says it has a rigorous screening process for potential suppliers that includes a checklist of documents they must provide.36 Presumably, proof that a firm isn’t owned by an international criminal syndicate isn’t on that list. As early as 2018, the firm claimed that all these third-party suppliers were also “traceable”, but a closer examination of their announcements revealed this only meant traceable to the country of harvest, which is rather meaningless when it comes to ensuring legality or sustainability.37
How rigorously the firm monitors its third-party suppliers is also called into question by the suspicious consistency of the numbers about these suppliers it gives in its own annual reports. While these reports reveal that the list of countries from which the company sourced timber varied significantly between 2019 and 2021, every year the firm claimed to have the same number of supplier sawmills – 42 – with the proportion of those “third party certified” (29 per cent) also remaining unchanged.38 It is hard to see how both things can be true.
The minor details seem not to have negatively affected Woodbois’ balance sheet. The company reported profits of $6 million last year, up 69 per cent from the year before.39 Happy news for CEO Paul Dolan, who lives in a £4 million mansion in Hampshire, southern England.
Responding to Earthsight’s findings, Dolan did not explicitly address the supplies of Wagner-linked wood in 2022. Instead, he admitted to an unspecified “breach of internal processes” relating to the purchase of two shipping containers of timber from the Central African Republic in October the previous year.
In an email reply, Dolan gave no details on the supplier or wood species involved. The only further information he provided in his statement was that his company reported the sale to “the relevant authorities”, adding: “the contract of the individual responsible for the breach was terminated.”
He went on to say that last year Woodbois produced “the majority” of the timber it sold, and that so far this year nearly all sales have been from the company’s “own production”. This did not address why annual figures the company had published on its third-party suppliers had remained surprisingly consistent.
“We take all steps possible to ensure that the products we trade are legally and ethically sourced,” Dolan added. Closing, he pointed to his company’s “consistent” annual ranking as among the most transparent tropical timber firms on an online platform run by the Zoological Society of London.
United Nations secretary general António Guterres speaks during the COP26 climate summit held in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021.
The shipments of timber tied to the Wagner militia formed part of a wider European scramble for tropical hardwood from one of the world’s poorest and most unstable nations.
The EU imported a record €16.76 million of timber from the Central African Republic last year, according to the most recent figures from the bloc’s statistics office Eurostat. That is up 58 per cent on the year before.
The flagship rules – soon to be replaced by tougher legislation that will also cover other deforestation-linked goods, such as soy, beef and coffee – require companies registered in EU member states to carry out due diligence on their supplies, to reduce the risk of importing or trading illegal goods to a “negligible” level.
Timber and other wood products from the Central African Republic clearly do not meet this threshold. But these goods continue to flow to the EU due to lax implementation and enforcement of the rules.
The customs records obtained by Earthsight show Belgium, France, Italy and Portugal accounted for the vast majority of the African nation’s sawn wood exports to the bloc. Seven other member states also received shipments.
The booming European market has been a boon for loggers and wood traders with shady reputations.
Every major timber producer operating in the Central African Republic, including the alleged Wagner puppet outfit Bois Rouge, reported sales to Europe last year, the shipping logs show.
The single biggest exporter was SEFCA, the Central African Republic’s largest logging firm. It is one of six firms in the country rated zero per cent for transparency on Open Timber Portal, a project by the World Resources Institute (WRI) environmental think-tank that allows wood vendors to check suppliers in the Congo Basin.40 (The Central African Republic’s highest-rated firm scores 48.57 per cent.)
An investigation by Global Witness revealed that in 2013 SEFCA paid hundreds of thousands of euros to the Seleka rebel group who briefly seized the country’s capital that year.41
Global Witness's 'Blood Timber' report revealed SEFCA paid bribes to African rebels in 2013.
The nonprofit reports that following the bloody coup the mainly Muslim insurgents “struck lucrative deals with logging companies that helped bankroll a fierce campaign of violence against the country’s population”.42
But this did not hinder SEFCA’s business with the EU, which accounted for a third of its export sales of logs and lumber last year.43 That is a higher market share than the national average.
SEFCA’s suspect wood flowed to a handful of European companies. Its biggest customers last year were Tropica-Bois, the French firm whose appetite for Central African hardwood included materials from the Wagner-linked loggers Bois Rouge, and the German-registered AB Timber Agency. Together, the pair imported large volumes of SEFCA timber into Belgium, France and Italy.
SEFCA and AB Timber Agency did not respond to a request for comment.
European Parliament in session. In April 2023 MEPs voted to adopt the EU regulation on deforestation-free products.
Europe’s surging and little scrutinised wood imports from the Central African Republic, as well as the firms supplying them, serve as a damning indictment of the continent’s failure to stop its businesses importing suspect wood.
Once hailed as a milestone in the fight against the illegal timber trade, the EU’s current timber regulation, known as EUTR, has been shown time after time to be beset by weak enforcement.
Earthsight has long documented these issues. Our most recent major investigation, published in November, revealed how some of Europe’s biggest furniture brands continued to buy goods from Belarus despite the EU stating in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that it was now “impossible” for these to be EUTR-compliant and that companies in the bloc must therefore halt such imports.44 Many of these products, we found, are even being made using the forced labour of political prisoners.
In December, the EU agreed an ambitious law to ban companies from selling wood, beef, coffee, palm oil and three other products linked to deforestation worldwide, so-called forest-risk commodities.45
It already has its own moniker in policy circles: EUDR, which stands for the EU Deforestation Regulation.
Like EUTR nearly a decade before it, the legislation, which has yet to come into force, was trumpeted as a global benchmark for protecting forests.46
It sets out a number of improvements aimed at addressing flaws in its predecessor, which it will eventually subsume. These include stronger penalties for rule breakers, mandatory information sharing between customs agencies and related authorities, and minimum requirements for compliance checks.47,48 It will also let the public sue monitoring bodies failing in their duties.49
Earthsight welcomed these measures, but cautioned that they alone will not ensure EUDR proves more effective than EUTR. In an opinion piece published today on our website, our director Sam Lawson argues Europe remains in danger of failing badly in its efforts to stop driving deforestation around the world. He writes that EUTR’s failures are more the result of an absence of political will than loopholes and technical flaws in the legislation.
The case of Russian mercenaries and shady traders in the Central African Republic offers a stark warning to the officials in Brussels and EU member states who will be tasked with enforcing the deforestation regulation. No ban, however ambitious or well-drafted, will stop the plunder of forests crucial to Earth’s climate, like the Congo Basin’s rainforests, to supply EU consumption unless the bloc’s member governments give its implementation and enforcement the seriousness, political support and funding it demands.
Otherwise, the only noticeable change will be a different letter on an acronym.