MAPUTO, Mozambique’s Minister of Land, Environment and Rural Development, Celso Correia, has confirmed that 150,000 cubic metres of timber seized so far in “Operation Trunk” in the north and centre of the country, will be sold to the highest bidder at public auction, according to a report in the independent newssheet, Mediafax.

“Operation Trunk” was launched in March to check illegal timber operations and so far more than 120 timber yards have been inspected, while illegal operations were discovered in 75 per cent of them. Many of these illegalities were found in timber yards owned by Chinese citizens, added the report published Monday.

Speaking to timber operators at a meeting in Maputo last week, Correia said the wood would be sold at auction, and the condition for participation in the auction is that the buyers must be willing to use the wood to make school desks. It is hoped that the seized timber will produce 800,000 desks, sufficient to meet the requirements of the national education system for at least the coming year.

Correia’s announcement may go some way towards mollifying legal timber operators who were horrified by his Tuesday declaration that all logging is banned for the next three months — April, May and June. Since the first quarter of the year is already a closed season for logging, this means there is now a six-month ban on logging.

This move is intended to provide time to re-organize the timber industry and protect the country’s forests from the ravages of uncontrolled logging. But the timber companies protested that the three-month ban will cause them huge losses.

One operator, Narciso Eusebio, told Correia at the meeting that it was “unthinkable” for his company to sit back for three months and produce nothing. “We have electricity and water bills and wages to pay. How are we going to pay these bills, if we are not working? Some of us work in yards that we have rented. How are we going to pay the monthly rent?”

A second timber operator, Jose Cardoso, said “we don’t have any timber in stock. We have contracts for more than a year with some companies. But now we are banned from working, and we are being treated like bandits just because there are some dishonest operators”.

Correia listened to the complaints, but told his audience that the decision for a three month ban on logging had been taken and would not be changed. What was at stake, he said, was the interests of all Mozambicans and not of this or that individual. Without this measure, he warned, within a couple of years there would be no forest left in Mozambique.

“It’s a real problem”, he said, “because there are honest operators who are being prejudiced. We must separate the interest of individuals from the public interest. The moment demands maturity. The results of Operation Trunk reveal a desolate and unacceptable scenario of the devastation of our forests.

“During Operation Trunk, we found total anarchy in the way forestry operators were working, which shows flagrant impunity, and that’s why we decided to suspend for 90 days the start of the forestry exploitation period.”

The ban has been welcomed among environmentalists. The co-ordinator of the Forest Programme of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Mozambque, Rito Mabunda, congratulated the government on the ban. He believed that the three-month period for re-organizing the timber industry would allow for sustainable exploitation of forestry resources.

He warned that it was imperative to strengthen inspection activities to prevent illegal loggers continuing to cut down trees during the three-month ban.

Both Operation Trunk and the ban only affect the central and northern provinces. That is because there has already been severe deforestation in the southern provinces of Maputo, Gaza and Inhambane, where there are no substantial hardwood forests left.