By Ruba Anabtawi
Ramallah, West Bank, Aug. 26, 2016 (Afaq Al-Bia Wa Tanmiyah)– At the onset of winter, woodcutters set out in the West Bank illegally to cut down trees, some of which are hundreds of years old.
This illegal logging has become a lucrative business in the West Bank since 2012 because of a steady rise in fuel prices and growing demand on woodfire, selling at $250 per ton.
The woodcutters are known to everyone. Anyone can call them at any time and ask them to cut down trees on private land or in 104 public nature reserves, especially at night when forest rangers leave their posts.
To prove that illegal logging continues, this investigative reporter visited the Masilah nature reserve in Jenin on April 6, 2016. The reserve falls within area “B” in the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian National Authority.
She found no rangers and counted 10 ancient oak trees that were cut down.
Three weeks later, this reporter returned to the same reserve only to find that five more trees had been removed.
The so-called “execution” of the green zone is taking place although the law sets a year-long jail sentence and up to JD 1,000 in fines for offenders. On the ground, however, the reality is different as punishments remain “symbolic” while officials reach out to mosque preachers to stop the “massacre of trees”.
This reporter reviewed 20 cases from the last three years in which local authorities had prosecuted citizens for illegal logging. However, none of the cases concluded with prison sentences and the maximum fine did not exceed JD 50. This has allowed repeat offenders to continue.
As an example, an “assault” that took place last year on a tree that was more than four hundred years old saw the presiding judge release the offender from jail on a bail of $25.
The reporter discovered a total of 194 cases that were dealt with from 2012 to the date of publication. The cases were distributed as follows: Ramallah (88 cases), the Hebron Governorate (44 cases), Nablus (30 cases), Salfit (30 cases) and Tulkarem (2 cases).
In comparison, areas such as Jericho, Bethlehem, Qalqilya, Jenin and Tubas did not have any court cases on file — though Jericho is known to have many nature reserves.
According to the databases of the Ministry of Agriculture, there are 104 nature reserves, ranging between 100 to 63,000 acres. The largest is in Tubas, at 63,000 acres, followed by 41,500 acres in Jenin and 11,000 acres in Hebron.
These nature reserves are divided into two kinds: Natural reserves that consist of Oak, Carob, Pistachia and Al-Saris trees and “cultivated reserves” that consist of Aleppo pine, Canary and Cypress trees.
The “assaults” are equal on both kinds of reserves. But the greater damage happens in cultivated reserves where trees are either burnt down of removed making it difficult for replanting efforts, according to the Ministry of Agriculture’s Director of Forests and Nature Reserves Husam Talib.
The Beginning of this investigation
This five-month old investigation also showed that trafficking in illegal timber peaked in 2012 when fuel prices of petrol, diesel, kerosene and gas reached a record high. Though prices have gone down since then, the cost of these commodities remain higher than in non-oil producing neighbours like Jordan and Lebanon, because of a complex system of taxation shared between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
These price increases went hand in hand with the mass-acquisition of wood heaters, a budgetary decision that however opened questions as to the origin of the woodfire feeding these heaters due to the limited green zones in the West Bank.
The green zones are estimated to amount to 4% of the lands controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, comprising 5,860 square kilometres, or 21% of what used to be historic Palestine.
Then comes the next question: Is the timber being cut and transported under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture? Or is it imported from abroad, in order to sell to those reliant on stoves. The price of these stoves ranges between $40 for metal-made stoves and over $3000 for masonry ovens in a country whose average daily wage is $25.
The demand for this type of heating comes from Palestinians of all walks of life, and correspond with published national statistics.
According to 2013 statistics provided by Abdullah Azzam – PBS Director of Energy Count – timber imported from Jordan only amounted to 10,150 tons compared to the 329,864 tons cut down locally. An environmentally-friendly local alternative in peat (produced from olive waste) and numbered at 20,000 tons.
Demand for more timber has in turn bolstered the sales of handsaws, which have risen to $200 per handsaw over the last three years. According to dealers in the West Bank, between 200 and 300 handsaws are sold each winter at eleven industrial tool stores.
The price of timber sold locally varies between $100 to $250 per ton. The highest prices for firewood are in the cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, which has enticed woodcutters to ship there in hopes of better profits according to local customs officials. There, locals are happy to buy tons of firewood, usually preferring oak and olive timber for their quick flammability. Otherwise, almond, cypress, pine and other types are also in demand.
Box 1: The Woodcutters
|Wood loggers are not required to pay for any license for their business — only a $2 charge for each ton transported is expected by customs officials and the Ministry of Agriculture.Logging is a seasonal job only in wintertime, paying workers a daily wage of $20 – 25 and taking place on both private and public land, regardless of property lines. Prior to transportation, domestically cut timber is often mixed in with imports, a secret uncovered this reporter who investigated the lumberyards.According to customs officer Major Husam Khalayleh, woodcutters also do their best to take advantage of legal loopholes, saying: “A fine for them doesn’t exceed $50 for a shipment worth $1,000, and none of the timber shipped is ever confiscated even if illegally cut. As a result, we have no deterrence in place.”|
A table showing the prices of firewood-fed heaters, based on field research:
|Timber Type (By order of demand)||Price (in Ramallah)|
|Olive||$150 – $200|
|Oak||$100 – $ 150|
|Pine||$100 – $125|
|Carob||$100 – $125|
They Don’t Think Twice
In a separate investigation done in collaboration with an environmental activist (who will remain anonymous) this reporter contacted three different woodcutters in order to gauge the extent of their activities.
When called, all three expressed little concern or problems as to cutting down trees on either government or private land. In fact, they were more concerned over the proximity of the place where the work needs to be done to Israeli settlements than at the thought of meeting Palestinian forest rangers.
Separately, two other woodcutters contacted by this reporter agreed to cut down a tree in Ramallah on “personal property belonging to the activist’s family”. The agreement was followed up with a meeting at the location in question, where the activist cancelled the request by claiming that a sibling had refused to pay for cutting down the tree.
Box 2: The Lumber Yards
|Between 40 and 50 lumber yards exist, usually occupying vacant public land and selling timber of all kinds on a permanent or temporary basis every winter. Some move between neighbourhoods selling firewood from the back of their trucks. The Ministry of Economy is not able to provide concrete numbers on them because they usually are not licensed, according to Manal Farhan, Director General at the Ministry of Industry.In fact, according to an anonymous source from the police, they themselves do not intrude upon these lumber yards unless given explicit instruction from the Ministry of Agriculture. Unfortunately however, the Ministry is limited in both the follow-up process through it’s inspectors as well as the transportation and logging processes, which is overseen by the local municipalities and councils from where the timber is cut down.|
Between the cutting and pruning
The Ministry of Agriculture insists the pruned olive timber is the primary source of wood-fired heaters hailing from about 11 million olive trees in the West Bank, according to Samir Samara, the head of the Ramallah Directorate of Agriculture.
Statistics provided by the Ministry of Agriculture show that 27 trees were cut, 3 acres of forest trees were uprooted while a total of wood logging incidents were registered across 74 acres in 2013. Between 2014-2015, the same set of statistics claimed 71 trees had been cut and 100 acres of more recently planted trees was uprooted. Displays a slideshow of trees photographed, demonstrating the diversity of tree-life.
Ministry of Agriculture: Ramallah
Despite a growing yearly trend Samara “disagreed as to the extent of the problem” saying he believed the numbers did not reflect the general situation.However, Samara did note that there had been internal communication regarding the situation.
He cited suggestions passed on to the Ministry of Agriculture’s Deputy Secretary for Provincial Affairs in December 2015, supporting reforms to be made to the 2003 Agricultural Act to boost deterrence. It specifically called for the issuance of a certificate of approval by the local council where wood is being cut off.
Samara was hopeful that such reforms could control the issue before it could become a problem.Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture has written to the various mosque preachers in the West Bank to talk about the subject at main prayers stating that “there is a marked increase of assaulting forest and olive trees by citizens and municipalities during the implementation of infrastructure projects, which is adversely affecting the vegetation.”
Samara pointed to a letter from Ahmad Hanoon – Chief Prosecutor for Ramallah — referring to 88 prosecuted cases of illegal logging in the past four years in the area. He said that while many were still pending others had already been adjudicated, with convictions accruing as little as a week in jail and as much as three months. Fines ranged between JD 5 and JD 50.
Thaer Raabi, Head of the Ministry’s Nature Conservation Office, said judges involved into looking at these cases always handed out the minimum punishments outlined in the 2003 Act. These punishments reached as little as a day’s imprisonment and only a few dinars for fines.
The First Step
Thaer Tayeh, a Ministry of Agriculture official, acknowledged the growing encroachment on the forests and nature reserves, stating that the Ministry’s role was to assess the extent of the damage and submit it to the police.
“What happens after that is the prerogative of the judiciary and the prosecution as both parties consider the assessment of the Ministry of Agriculture and determine suitable punishment.” (Attachment models for assessing the damage to the trees in their own territory)
In response, this reporter offered a video of woodcutters filmed undercover in which they are seen cutting down a pine tree. According to the environmental activist who cooperated with this reporter, the pine tree’s timber was cut and sold for wood-fired heaters. Video Display (Pine tree being cut down)
After watching the video, a debate ensued between the reporter and Tahir Tayeh as to where and when the tree had been cut down, and whether it had therefore been illegal.
When asked about permits for logging, Tayeh stated that such permits were provided by the local municipalities, but that it was rarely asked for when cutting down trees on private land.Elsewhere in Ramallah, Azmi Salman – Director of the Forest and Nature Reserves Service – said that rangers were constantly manning their assigned areas, hence, there was no encroachment in and around Ramallah beyond one or two incidents each year.
When shown the filmed evidence of wrongdoing, Azmi contacted the chief ranger, asking “Why did not you let me know?”.
Box 3: The Nature Reserves and the Settlements
|According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Israeli occupation and settlements in the West Bank since 1967 have contributed to the destruction of 51,000 acres. This is most notable in Jabal Abu Ghneim, where in 1996 2,085 acres were destroyed.According to the Palestinian Applied Research Institute, forests decreased 29% between 1974 and 2007. This was a result of the construction of settlements and the creation of closed military zones.|
Customs: We do the arrests. The rest is up to the Ministry
Major Husam Khalayleh said that customs officials do prevent major shipments of timber from being sold in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture.
He specifically talked about timber being transported from the north to the southern cities (such as Bethlehem and Hebron). He said a total of 16 arrests were made in 2015 compared to a total of 12 in the first three months of 2016. This, he said, is a sign of increased trafficking of timber over the last two winters.
Many Forests According to information provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, 42 forest rangers are currently employed. Individually or in pairs of two, the rangers are assigned to various forests and are expected to patrol them for any criminal activity.
They also coordinate with local law enforcement officers. Many are assigned between one to three forests. These rangers have over the last year recorded 12 cases of “assaults” on their assigned forests. But there have been no reports of assaults against the rangers themselves by woodcutters.
Moreover, the number of attacks reported by rangers are less than the number of attacks listed in prosecution cases or from the accounts of customs control.Who is the Ranger?
Palestinian forest rangers receive a monthly salary between $400 – $600 depending on their level of education and professional experience. They are provided with suitable light clothing and shoes, and sometimes mobile phones. But they are not given any means of transport such as a tractors or trucks due to budgetary limits.
Despite dedication to their routines and schedules, some said they have been attacked by Israeli settlers and arrested by the Israeli Defence Forces Tubas when crossing between forests via Israeli-occupied lands.Hussam Talib has suggested that the biggest obstacle to the work of rangers is their lack of education.
The professional quality of the rangers could be improved by mandating a minimum of a Bachelors in science, preferably focused on dendrology (the study of trees). Coupled with increasing the number of active rangers from 43 to 62, the West Bank could reach the international standard of one forest ranger per 1,000 acres. In addition, rangers need to be given modern gear: Walkie-talkies, watch-towers and mountain SUVs to increase effectiveness across the West Bank.
Where are the Rangers?
Mohammed Mahasneh, Director of the Environment Quality Authority (EQA), however, says that the forest rangers hardly seem to exist. By his own accounting, he has looked for rangers every time he visited Hebron’s nature reserve but could not find them because they could not travel fast.
According to Mahasneh, the budget is the biggest obstacle to improving the work of rangers and increasing their numbers.
In the absence of complete control over the forests and nature reserves, the Ministry of Agriculture has decided to encourage imports by reducing duties on firewood fees by ($30 cents) per ton starting last year, to sway woodcutters having to deal with the transfer fees of $2 per ton for local timber.
Despite attempts to curb the phenomenon of these attacks, the nature reserves continue to be infringed upon, especially in the winter seasons, as fireplaces become more commonly used.
This problem continues to threaten soil erosion and biodiversity in the West Bank. It is exacerbated by the continued occupation and control of vital resources in the West Bank, resources that could support the development of the Palestinian territories.
These factors are causing great damage to the West Bank’s nature reserves as Israel bulldozes tens of thousands of trees across thousands of acres.
This investigation was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and translated into English by Nicolas Awad.