It started as a throw-away line from Uganda’s president in an Executive Order addressing cattle-rustling, with no clear bearing on treated timber.
Within months, the issue had escalated into a full-blown ban on all timber exports – and there is still little understanding of precisely how, or why.
President Yoweri Museveni’s Executive Order No 3 of 2023 dealt mostly with the country’s cattle-rustling problem, yet within that 18-page document lay the few crucial words. You had to look hard for them, but they were there, on page 14: ‘In order to save the environment and also the reputation of the National Resistance Movement [Uganda’s ruling party], I, therefore, hereby ban the cutting of trees for charcoal burning.”
Further details followed, extending the ban. In a statement released in July, the Senior Commissioner of Police, Enanga Fred, confirmed that “only factories processing timber within Uganda for production of plywoods,(sic) furniture, and other value-added products, should be allowed to operate, but with sustainable tree planting and harvesting plans.”
“All timber traders, transporters, middlemen and locals … are warned that it is now an illegality to export timber out of the country.”
He added: “All timber traders, transporters, middlemen and locals, who often work in complex networks to facilitate the illegal transportation of timber across our land or water borders, are warned that it is now an illegality to export timber out of the country.”
The impact on the timber industry has been immense – and, in some respects, irreparable.
“It’s all really about deforestation,” explained Darren Marillier, Dolphin Bay’s Business Development Manager for Africa. “There’s a significant amount of deforestation taking place in Uganda – not in the formal sector where our customers operate, but more in the form of plundering indigenous forests.”
Uganda’s deforestation problem is a national crisis. According to the non-profit organisation Global Forest Watch, Uganda lost 23% of its tree cover between 2002 and 2020. The country lost 736km² of forest in 2021 alone. “Uganda has only 10% forest cover now,” warned Leonard Okello, the CEO of the Kamapala-based Uhuru Institute for Social Development, speaking to Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation. “This is dangerous, as deforestation causes severe drought and devastating floods, which affect crops and temperature.”
“However,” said Darren, “instead of addressing the problem of the deforestation of indigenous woodland directly, the Ugandan government has placed a blanket ban on exporting all wood products. That has cast a very wide net, which has had a massive negative impact on Dolphin Bay’s customers. One customer with operations in Uganda told me they’d be lucky if they hit 7% of their sales target this month. That’s how severe the problem is.”
John Ferguson, MD of the Busoga Forestry Company, tells a similar story. “We had to temporarily close our sawmill and are now operating at 40% capacity,” he said, adding that the company has had to put a hard stop on at least one very valuable export contract.
“The government is obviously trying to protect Uganda’s indigenous timber resources, but the interpretation has expanded to include all timber products,” he added. “There’s no cohesion or understanding between the various ministries as to what timber products are. We fail to see the logic as one is allowed to export plywood, woodchips, and sawdust as well as pallets, but one can’t export the sawn timber that the sawdust comes from.”
In late August 2023, President Museveni sought to clarify the ban, but his remarks only deepened the confusion. “I said nobody should export timber which is unprocessed,” he said. “So if you are a furniture maker, that is what you want. (sic) Keep the timber and make the furniture here [in Uganda]. So, if you want to export, you export the furniture, not the timber.”
“The government is obviously trying to protect Uganda’s indigenous timber resources, but the interpretation has expanded to include all timber products.”
By that reasoning businesses like Busoga, The New Forests Company and other treated timber companies should be clear to export locally produced treated timber poles to clients in other countries. Yet while limited interim permission has been granted for the exportation of treated transmission poles, the ban on timber exports still stands. “Nobody knows why the export of sawn timber products have been banned,” said Ferguson. “It’s incredibly unfair.”
Darren said that the Ugandan authorities are steadily granting dispensations to formal businesses that will allow them to take their businesses off hold. “They’re not there yet, but as we speak to our clients in Uganda, they are confident that the authorities will focus on the intended targets of the ban and that exports of sustainable timber stocks will resume.”
In the meantime, Uganda’s timber yards have millions of dollars’ worth of treated poles sitting and waiting, while timber company employees are staying home without pay and their employers are being forced to cancel contracts and – in some cases – shut up shop entirely.