While some youths in the sister countries of Senegal and The Gambia, as well as dealers in the illegal felling and selling of timbers in these countries, are making a living from the crumbs of the proceeds of the deal, big brother China, the rapidly growing investor and donor partner to Africa, is getting the lion’s share of the deal.
For centuries people in rural Gambia and Cassamance have lived a semi-buoyant life with their dense and rich forests, not really realizing the potential these forests have in store for them.
Whilst a new generation of wealth-starved youth has emerged and erratic rains that rendered poor harvests have left no light at the end of the tunnel for them and their families to grow what they eat, the youth segments of these regions have, for the past two years, been looking to the forest for survival.
About five years ago, at this time of the year, the proletariats and those living in the bottom of the heaps started hoarding, saving for the rainy days, and managing their seasonal earnings amidst soaring food prices in both local and regional markets.
This time around, the scene of life is a whole lot of a new ballgame: villagers at the Gambia-Cassamance border are living a glamorous life, driving luxurious motorbikes (Fedemco Riders), and many of them have jumped from the life of hand to mouth and have rather developed an extravagant lifestyle tantamount to that of Khlestakov in Nicolai Gogol’s 1836 satirical play – The government Inspector.
As it clearly appeared, many people situated at the border ends of Gambia-Cassamance are enjoying the cake at the disposal of their grandparents had they exploited the resources in its decades ago.
Middle-class and poor households have found solace in the business: they would purchase enough bags of rice and condiments to cover the next two to three months, when the food crisis will be at its peak.
The whole story goes and comes: the illegal business starts in Cassamance and ends in The Gambia. In Cassamance, energetic youth fell timbers illegally – illegally because Senegal has banned it – to make ‘fast-money’, as they call it.
“You can see every timber I [illegally] fell to the ground, I am expecting to earn a minimum of D500,” Malick Camara, a youth in his mid-twenties, told this paper.
In the illegal logging business, there is a division of labour. Those that fell the trees are not responsible for smuggling the logs into The Gambia; those that smuggle them do not load them in trucks; and those who load them do not own them, neither do they go and sell them.
Thus, to smuggle them into The Gambia, men use donkey and horse carts to ply 15-20km to have the logs into the country, where trucks are on the wait with other groups of young men to off-load from the carts and load in the trucks that are bound for the city. The centre for activities has now shifted from some parts of CRR South to URR, around the Jimara district.
Therefore, this tripartite choreography of the movement of the business is a clear indication that the real people fuelling this illegal business are pulling the strings behind doors: they do not want to be seen doing the real job, yet they cannot also let loose the gains in the business – a kick in the teeth for some people.
“They [the Senegalese authority] do appear surreptitiously and threaten to arrest us, but when we put our hands in our pockets, they let us go with a caution: ‘Don’t come back again’,” Musa Jallow, 23, told MarketPlace.
Musa’s job is to smuggle the timbers to The Gambia, but like many others, he is better off and now he buys five to ten logs of timber on the spot and smuggles them for himself into The Gambia and sells them at high cost.
“Sometimes when I am to smuggle for somebody with my donkey-cart, it takes me maximum two trips a day; and each trip costs a minimum of D700,” he added.
Jallow, like Camara, came from Saradou, a village in Cassamance, 5km from The Gambia, and settled in Sare-moussa in Cassamance purposely to smuggle logs to The Gambia.
We make money very quickly, but you can see when the Senegalese forest officials come, we have to run into the bush and hide, otherwise, we will rot in jails in Kolda – this shows you that we are in an illegal business,” Jallow explained.
Both Senegal and The Gambia have banned the illegal trading of timbers, yet the business has not ceased, and not without the knowledge of both governments’ responsible authorities.
A journey through the length and breadth of the country, using trans-Gambia highway will be an eye-opener to many that the timber business is gaining momentum: lines of timbers lying along the road, waiting to be transported to the city for China.
Whilst the face of poverty is gradually fading for three-thirds of these communities that have benefitted from the trade, important questions are: how long will this continue to impact on the people, and what negative impact does this have on the socio-economic lives of the few that have not benefitted.
Abdoulie Barry, a timber-made tycoon, tried to say something: “I know we have touched the lives of few people, by putting it in limbo: the rain shows no sign of giving farmers good harvest and this is partly blamed on our activities, that we have rendered the bush empty.
“If there would be a prolonged dry spell, the food crisis situation is feared coming again.
However, despite many farmers are tightening their belts and keeping fingers through bones in order to avert a replica of the previous season, a good number of them, especially those that have not benefitted from the logging, are having their hands on their heads, waiting to see the endgame.
Fears mounted in Cassamance that the Gambia government has said it will close its border to illegal timbers at the end of this month.