Timber logging drives JNIM’s expansion in Mali

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Timber logging is at the centre of Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’s (JNIM) rapid expansion into southern Mali – the government’s last major stronghold.

JNIM, established in 2017 and now the Sahel’s most prominent extremist network, is an alliance between al-Qaeda affiliates Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Mourabitoun, Macina Liberation Front (Katiba Macina) and Katiba Serma. Its involvement in logging has moved beyond financial gains and resource dominance, to becoming pivotal to its governance and expansion strategy.

JNIM portrays itself as being concerned about civilian livelihoods in a worsening economy by loosening restrictions around logging in the Baoulé reserves in southern Mali. Its expansion has already led to the control of large stretches of territory in central Mali’s Mopti, Segou and Timbuktu regions.

Security officials told the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) that JNIM’s long-term plan was to capture the capital, Bamako, and impose strict Sharia law countrywide and beyond. It’s also increasingly jostling with Tuareg separatists, who seek independence for northern Mali, for control of strategic routes, spaces and resources.

JNIM already has various branches operating in Burkina Faso and Niger, while others are extending their operational reach as far as northern parts of West Africa’s littoral states, such as Togo and Benin.

Illicit economies play a key role in JNIM’s expansion strategy, especially in securing resources and legitimacy in the areas under their control. There are various accounts of the group’s presence in and control of mining, logging and illicit trading sectors across the Sahel.

Mali has lost over 82% of its forest cover since 1960, with deforestation mainly caused by excessive logging, urbanisation and agricultural expansion. Much of the logging in Mali is carried out in the southern regions of Kayes, Koulikoro and Sikasso. It generated about US$13.8 million (CFA 8 billion) between 2019 and 2021 in Kéniéba municipality in the Kayes region alone. Truckloads of wood, often logged without government permits, are transported out of forest areas for construction, furniture manufacturing and charcoal production.

Since 2021, JNIM’s incursions into the southern regions have targeted the Baoulé reserves situated between Kayes and Koulikoro. The Baoulé biosphere reserves, which cover around a million hectares, are managed by Mali’s National Parks Department and the Forest Service. They have been listed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 1982, so they need special protection.

JNIM fighters are not involved in logging itself. Instead, they control the forest reserves and demand fees from illegal loggers wanting to access the area. JNIM did not initially ask for fees, loggers told ISS. This changed in 2022 when the militants began demanding access fees of about $8 (CFA 5000) monthly, or on a needs basis per cart. Accounts from forestry agents and loggers suggest the cash served to mobilise resources and acts as acknowledgement that JNIM controls the area.

Some loggers said they paid because logging was profitable and essential to their livelihoods. They also said it was easier to access the logging sites than before when government forestry agents restricted access and demanded fees for logging permits, which were often delayed.

JNIM also actively responded to grievances between loggers and bandits operating within the forest. Loggers provided the whereabouts of bandits to the insurgents, who were more proactive than security agents. People in the area told ISS that JNIM dislodged the bandits, often killing those who did not align with its dictates. JNIM’s response to this longstanding threat against the loggers was a significant move that further built relationships with communities seeking protection and better livelihoods.

This highlights how those involved in illicit economies often adapt to security situations by aligning with armed groups to maintain their source of livelihood.

The logging and export of Kosso – an endangered rosewood tree protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – from areas controlled by JNIM involves significant bribery of forestry agents and government officials. Chinese traders are also reportedly involved in large-scale logging and timber trafficking, particularly Kosso, from Mali to China.

About 220 000 Kosso logs were exported from Mali to China from 2020-22 to satisfy a growing demand for luxury furniture. The logs are transported by road to the port of Dakar in Senegal, where they are shipped to China. However, the extent to which Chinese traders and JNIM collaborators interact in the Baoulé reserves is uncertain.

Three factors perpetuate the illegal logging and export of timber from Mali: the country’s ongoing conflict and political instability; JNIM’s expansion and resource exploitation; and lack of state capacity to govern the country’s natural resources.

The conflict in Mali enables conditions in which criminal activity flourishes. The Malian junta and its newfound partner, the Russian paramilitary group Wagner (now Africa Corps), seems to be making some territorial gains in the northern and central regions. However, they are overstretched and struggling to address the complex crises extending towards the south, with attacks close to Bamako.

International partners should support the government in revitalising the 2015 Algiers peace deal as a medium- to long-term peace strategy. Addressing the grievances of Tuareg separatists and curtailing their occasional cooperation with extremist groups who seek to degrade government forces would help to return some stability to Mali.

JNIM’s expansion into southern Mali is linked to its ability to exploit community disagreements and the grievances of individuals and communities facing issues such as the conflict between pastoralists and sedentary farmers and modern slavery. Aggrieved groups and individuals, especially those with significant knowledge of the Baoulé forest areas, have joined JNIM’s ranks, thereby increasing its capacity to control logging areas.

Beyond securitised responses against the insurgents, deepening cooperation with local communities and civil society is an essential element in the government’s efforts to address community fractures and lessen support for extremists. This includes making it easier for loggers to obtain permits and protecting them from bandits.

Although Mali has restrictions against excessive logging, especially in forest reserves, including a 2020 export ban on Kosso logs, it has limited capacity to regulate the timber logging economy. This creates room for exploitation.

Given this, tackling corruption among state actors who turn a blind eye to Kosso log exports is critical. So, too, is engaging China and other key stakeholders to ensure strict adherence to logging and export restrictions. Without concerted efforts from state authorities, JNIM could consolidate its grip across forest areas in southern Mali, making it the key player in the lucrative timber economy.

Written by Christian Ani, Senior Researcher and Project Coordinator, ENACT, ISS.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.