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Is Timber Smuggling Financing the Insurgency? A Look at the Evidence

Six and a half years on since the violence began, evidence for the illicit timber trade funding the insurgency is as weak as ever

Photo by Sarah Worth / Unsplash

Are illicit timber exports funding the insurgency in Cabo Delgado? According to the Mozambican government’s National Evaluation of the Risks of Financing of Terrorism, “the fact that the trafficking of timber and other forestry products happens in zones under terrorist threat suggests that this activity has been a source of income for the terrorists.” The report, dated December 2023 but only made public this year, added that “it is estimated that timber trafficking in Cabo Delgado brings in around 125 million meticais per month to the smugglers.” This figure, about $2m, came, however, with an important caveat that “there is no record of [smuggling’s] direct links to terrorism.”

This piece is taken from the Cabo Ligado Monthly report published on 28 June 2024:
Cabo Ligado Monthly: May 2024 — Cabo Ligado
May At A Glance Vital Stats ACLED records 31 insurgency-related political violence events in Cabo Delgado and Nampula provinces in May, resulting in at least 55 fatalities Of these events, 30 were incidents involving ISM, almost half of which targeted civilians Vital Trends IS

While illicit timber trade is a major problem in Cabo Delgado and Mozambique more broadly, evidence of it financing the insurgency is extremely sparse. Yet claims to the contrary persist. In May, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) also claimed in a report that the insurgency is funded by up to $2m per month from this illicit trade of natural resources. The figure has been in circulation for some years, with little evidence to back it up.

The figure of $2m a month seems to date back to a 2019 report published by the Institute for Social and Economic Studies (IESE). This was based on research carried out between November 2017 and February 2018 — between one and three months after the insurgency started in October 2017.

The IESE report stated that early funding for the insurgent group came from “an illicit local economy with links to clandestine networks trafficking in timber, charcoal, rubies, and ivory, among other products.”

As an estimate of how much could come in this way, the study cites unnamed sources who estimated that 50,000 “planks”, likely meaning logs, left Cabo Delgado each month and would be sold in Tanzania for MZN2,500 each. This was the basis for the figure for total revenue of MZN125m per month. The report went on to say that only “an insignificant portion” of income from illicit trade stayed in the hands of the insurgency’s local leaders in Cabo Delgado.

Subsequent research has not managed to tie the timber trade to the insurgency. Henry Tugendhat and Sérgio Chichava (the latter also of IESE) in 2021 refer to the IESE figure but quote a local expert on Mozambique’s timber trade as saying, “We were unable to link Chinese traders directly with al-Shabaab,” though the expert said, “We know that the timber harvested in areas controlled by the militants was sent to China and Vietnam.

In 2022, the Global Initiative on Transnational Organised Crime said that logging is taking place in areas under insurgent control, but emphasized: “There are no reports suggesting that al-Shabaab has been either involved in the logging trade directly or ‘taxing’ the trade systematically as a means of funding.”

The $2m per month estimate is also now six years old, during which time the insurgency has evolved significantly. However, it is still presented as reliable in the Mozambique government report and was most recently used in a report from the EIA in May 2024.

The EIA’s claims go beyond illicit timber. “The insurgents are known to have engaged in or taxed illicit trade in drugs, rubies, ivory, and timber, to finance their activities.” But the sources cited for this assertion are the Global Initiative report mentioned above, which said the opposite; and the Mozambique government’s National Evaluation, which also found no direct connection.

Six and a half years on since the violence began, evidence for the illicit timber trade funding the insurgency is as weak as ever. But there is no doubt that the trade exists and contributes to the poverty and inequality that plague Cabo Delgado. A better understanding of those issues, and measures to combat them, will be as important, if not more important, to ending the conflict in Cabo Delgado as the so far fruitless attempts to follow the money.