Scandal has implications for new law meant to address EU role in deforestation overseas
May 16, 2023 – A logging firm allegedly controlled by Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary group and another exposed for funding African rebels are feeding a barely-regulated European timber rush in one of the world’s poorest and most fragile countries.
A new investigation by London-based NGO Earthsight reveals how Europe’s scramble to exploit the Central African Republic’s forest wealth fuels local instability and bolsters Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Shipment records scrutinised by Earthsight provide the first evidence of the transport of Wagner-linked timber to the European Union. 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.
Founded by a Russian oligarch dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’, Wagner Group has played a pivotal role in recent battles in eastern Ukraine. The militia and its founder are under Western sanctions over human rights atrocities in war-torn nations including Ukraine and the Central African Republic.
France’s parliament last week voted to designate Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation while urging the EU to follow suit, as Britain is reportedly poised to do.
The records show timber with alleged ties to the private army continued to be shipped to the EU via Cameroon after European media outlets last July connected the mercenaries to an obscure local logging outfit, Bois Rouge. The forestry firm is not yet officially listed as a Wagner entity under Western sanctions, but a growing wealth of evidence suggests it should be.
The shipments form part of record European imports of timber from the Central African Republic. The EU imported €16.76 million of such goods last year, according to the most recent figures from the bloc’s statistics office Eurostat, up 58 per cent on the previous year.
Data analysed by Earthsight shows that Bois Rouge was the Central African Republic’s seventh largest exporter of wood to the EU last year, with shipments destined for both France and Denmark. More than half of the Wagner-tied outfit’s exports went to the bloc.
Bois Rouge exported 465 cubic metres of sapele timber to the bloc in 2022, shipment records show. Earthsight estimates the materials, commonly used for doors and window frames, had a retail value of €3.4 million.
Earthsight Director Sam Lawson said: “Our disturbing findings not only raise urgent questions for officials tasked with enforcing 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.”
Data viewed by Earthsight also reveals that SEFCA, a secretive logging contractor previously accused of 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 Earthsight’s request for comment.
Earthsight’s discoveries about the growing trade in suspect CAR timber highlight the challenges facing the EU’s incoming ban on deforestation-linked goods such as beef, coffee and palm oil.
Land use change, principally deforestation, accounts for 12 to 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest driver of that deforestation is global demand for these commodities, and the EU is among the largest markets. The new law is meant to address this. But the example of CAR shows an existing EU law meant to ensure its imports of wood are clean is not working.
In an opinion piece also published to coincide with the new law passing, Lawson argues that the CAR case, along with other scandals including one involving wood furniture from penal colonies in Belarus, are proof that greater political will is essential if the new law is to prove effective. “If the buying stops, the cutting can too. But with the clock ticking loudly towards runaway climate change”, he said, “to be meaningful this law has to work right from the get-go.”
Notes to editors:
- Earthsight is a UK-based non-profit organisation that uses in-depth investigations to expose environmental and social crime, injustice and the links to global consumption.
- The full analysis can be read here. It includes company responses to Earthsight’s findings.
- An op-ed by Earthsight’s Sam Lawson on the incoming EU Deforestation Regulation can be read here.
Photos can be downloaded here.