The Lengwe logging case ended in drama on Friday when the High Court rejected an appeal to overturn the original judgment, instead doubling prison sentences to up to 36 months behind bars. The forfeiture of the vehicles and logging equipment to the Malawi Government, valued at approximately $500,000, was also upheld.
35 men – including 2 Chinese, 22 Mozambican and 1 Mozambican-Portuguese National – had originally been convicted in May in what was Malawi’s largest ever recorded illegal logging case. 15 of the defendants chose to appeal, but as a result all had their prison sentences doubled rather than reduced, from either 12 to 24 months or 18 to 36 months.
Since the appeal and confirmation was heard in the High Court the precedent has now been set as ruling law, critically that first time offenders can be sent to prison and that their equipment can be forfeited. Courts across the country are now bound to use the judgment as case precedent in future.
An estimated 2000 hectares of woodland – equivalent to 2,440 football fields – had been deforested in 2016 alone, according to satellite imagery analysis of the immediate area around the arrest site in Lengwe National Park, Chikwawa, Southern Malawi. Roads and paths had been cleared up to 5km from the Mozambican border to extract the wood from deep inside Lengwe National park, causing substantial ecological damage.
The confiscated equipment, including six tractors, a fork lift truck, a bulldozer, a 30-tonne truck, a Land Cruiser, a Toyota Hilux, four motor bikes and a chain saw, reflected the scale of the operation.
Whilst the syndicate focused on large, high value Mopane trees, the associated disturbance also destroyed the surrounding habitat of an important catchment area of the Shire River, including the loss of up to one million trees. The roads had subsequently opened up the protected area to further degradation and extraction from illegal charcoal burners and poachers.
Malawi has the highest rate of deforestation in the SADC region and one of the highest in the world. Deforestation is a major contributor to soil erosion, river siltation, droughts, flash floods and loss of biodiversity which in turn can lead to crop failure and poor human health. Besides local demand for firewood, forests are being severely depleted by commercial logging syndicates operating illegally across Malawi in areas such as Chikangawa, Zomba and Dzalanyama.
The arrests were made by 7 scouts from the Department of National Parks & Wildlife who were patrolling the 88,000 hectare park in November last year. The suspects were placed on remand in Chichiri Prison until the case was finalized on 2nd May 2017 at Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrates Court by His Worship Ligowe, where sentencing was based on combined charges of illegally entering a protected area, illegally possessing and using prohibited weapons, and illegally disturbing protected species in a National Park. The appeal was heard by High Court Judge, Lady Justice Dorothy Kamanga.
For more information please contact Department of Parks and Wildlife.