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JUBA - 16 Feb 2021

INTERVIEW: ‘Stop illegal logging in South Sudan’-CEPO’s Yakani

CEPO Executive Director Edmund Yakani
CEPO Executive Director Edmund Yakani

The Western Equatoria State government and TODAF Engineering and Civil Works Limited recently signed a deal worth 2.5 billion United States dollars for infrastructure development in the state. 

The agreement stipulates that TODAF Engineering and Civil Works Limited will harvest about 50 million trees for five years and build assorted infrastructure in the state.

But the environment ministry in Juba suspended the agreement stating that the process was illegal and it was not consulted. However, last week, the ministry and Western Equatoria State government agreed to review the agreement.

Radio Tamazuj sounded out Edmund Yakani, the Executive Director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO) about the deal and the environmental impact of logging in South Sudan.

Below are edited excerpts:

Q: What is your take as an activist on the ongoing logging in South Sudan?

A:  First of all the cutting of logs in South Sudan is illegal. If there is any company wanting to engage in cutting logs it must get approval from either the national or state parliament because cutting trees has an impact on our environment. One of the important things that these companies are supposed to do is that if they cut one tree they should plant two. They cannot continue cutting without planting. So they should not continue illegally cutting our trees.

If you follow, a week ago the state governor of Western Equatoria has agreed with a Ugandan Company called TODAF to cut 50 million trees for five years. The company agreed to provide developmental projects worth 2.5 billion dollars. But the problem with this project is that it has not been passed by the law. There was no law in place on how this project is going to be implemented. So if they are planning to cut 50 million trees for five years, what kind of benefits is the country going to gain? This has not been reflected in their agreement. Who will handle this benefit? It has also not been reflected.

Since these trees are natural resources, the local community should be given at least 2%. This was not also mentioned in the agreement. The agreement also is not clear whether the company will continue to cut these logs for years but will they be planting more trees? As I mentioned earlier there is an environmental impact on this. This has not been stated.

As civil society, we advocated with sons and daughters of the Equatoria region to stop this project. We said that this agreement has an impact on the environment. The second point is that the agreement is not clear about the benefit of the national government and the state and how the local community is going to benefit from this project. The other thing we said was that such a project of five years without proper approval from the parliament is not trusted. So, we engaged the national Minister of Environment and the project was suspended.

And if you look at those who are behind this project, they are not ordinary people. They are high ranking officials from the army from South Sudan or Uganda. We regard this as illegal trade because these are some of the practices that are contributing to prolonging the conflict in South Sudan. Whenever the war continues they are benefiting.

Now to prove this, a week ago we managed to stop this project, and last week in Radio Tamazuj reported that six Ugandans and four South Sudanese were arrested in Magwi for illegal logging. That means some people are threatening our forests in South Sudan. Our forest in Equatoria is under real threat from companies or from individuals who are engaged in illegal logging. For me, the national government is supposed to pass a law and whoever found cutting trees illegally should be regarded as criminals who are participating in prolonging the war in our country. If the conflict continues and there is no law in place for the next five years, our forest in Equatoria will be finished and the area will experience drought.

Q: If the national government has suspended the work of this company and they are unable to provide services to the local community, will you support this decision?

A: Sincerely speaking, the idea of a private company coming to invest in our natural resources should benefit the local community. There is no objection to that. I cannot judge because our government is unable to provide services to the people. So if this company comes and can provide services that are well and good. Our problem is about the implementation procedure of the project. They are not clear. That is why we said the project should be suspended and begin proper procedures that are clear and transparent. We don’t want to see some politicians use community contributions for their pocket and it becomes politicians' pocket contribution. We don’t want to see this happen in Western Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria, or in any other places like oil field production.

Q: Who is behind the TODAF Company? We heard that there are high ranking Ugandan officials who are shareholders, have you come across this? 

A: We heard that the Ugandan president’s in-law is a shareholder in this project. And if that is true, surely there will be high ranking South Sudanese officials. So this project does not have ordinary people. It is a project among top officials who influence managing the country's resources. This kind of people would prefer the war continue so that they can benefit from these resources because there is no proper government and there is no law in place to guide such projects in the country.

Q: South Sudan doesn’t have an environmental law in place which guides such kinds of companies in the country. What is your take on this?

A: Our government focuses much on acting laws that bring them money rather than laws that protect the lives of South Sudanese in the country. The first blame goes to the national government because they have failed to carry out their duties that are outlined in the constitution to enact environmental laws and regulations to protect our environment. If you take an example of the Upper Nile region, some companies work in the oilfield and they don’t focus on the environmental effect on the local community and their animals. The government has been silent on this and none of the companies were investigated on this. Chinese companies are working in Bentiu and none of them were called for an investigation. The government was silent and members of the parliament formed a committee and visited the area and they were unable to quote any law to charge these companies. So the national government should be blamed. The government is not taking its responsibility to provide services to the people. That is why private companies are using this opportunity. I can’t blame these private companies but they are using this vacuum and do whatever they want.

On the other side, the economic situation of our local citizens is bad. So they can enter into a deal with any private company without asking about transparency or providing services to the people.

So for me, I blame the central government for not playing their role as stipulated in the constitution. That is why these companies are making use of this chance after realizing there is a legal loophole in South Sudan. There are high ranking officials in the national government who are benefiting from this loophole and work for their interest.

Q: The oil-producing areas like Bentiu and others are not receiving the 2 percent from oil proceeds nor services and civil servants are not getting paid. What is the way forward?

A: You see when a private company plans to engage in such business, they should have enough money to compensate the local community in terms of services. But the big problem is with our leaders. They focus much on corruption without presenting transparency in such projects.

The 2% of the oil money would have helped in providing medication for children or to promote our environment. The Financial Act of South Sudan also mentions about 3% to be given to the state government.

Our South Sudanese leaders are so corrupt to the extent that they are not transparent. That is why citizens always think negatively about such agreements. Our oil has been flowing all these years but why civil servants are not paid for nearly six months, while the leaders are driving up and down in Landcruiser V8s. If there is no salary where are they getting the fuel to drive on Juba streets? They are also accompanied by many healthy bodyguards. Where are they eating from? Where are they getting the money for services?

So for me, I blame our leaders. They are not patriotic and are using the revenue of our natural resources for their interest. Not only that, but there are also other revenues from the airport, customs, and immigration. All this money would help the government to provide services to the people. So our leaders, including politicians or technocrats, eat the money and don’t provide citizens with services.

Q: Recently, the government introduced a note of one thousand South Sudanese pounds. Some people welcomed it but others criticized it. Do you think this move will improve the economy of the country?

A: If we have 1000 notes, prices will start at 50 SSP and above. They want prices to go high and we don’t know whose interests they are serving. So for me this note is useless and it will increase the burden on our normal citizens and we will never benefit from it.