Between 2014 and 2017, The Gambia exported nearly 163 million US dollars-worth of rosewood, a rare and precious tree species, to China. During this time, Westwood, a Gambian company allegedly owned by Swiss national Nicolae Bogdan Buzaianu and former Gambian President Jammeh, had the exclusive license to export rosewood. The timber it exported was illegally felled in neighboring Casamance where the separatist armed group has been fighting the Senegalese army for decades. TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint with the Swiss Office of the Attorney General against Mr. Buzaianu accusing him of having pillaged conflict timber.
A TRIAL International Press Release
about the criminal complaint filed against Mr. Nicolae Bogdan Buzaianu
According to the criminal complaint (denonciation penale) filed by TRIAL International, Swiss businessman Nicolae Bogdan Buzaianu’s company was involved in the pillaging of precious rosewood from Casamance between 2014 and 2017. During this period, Westwood Company Ltd –which TRIAL International alleges Mr. Buzaianu co-founded with former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh– had a monopoly on the export of rosewood, a precious tropical wood from The Gambia. But with Gambian rosewood nearly depleted since 2011, most of the timber was actually imported from Casamance, a region in southern Senegal that borders The Gambia. For several decades, large areas of this region have been under the control of the separatist armed group, the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC).
‘Exploiting natural resources from a conflict zone is a war crime that must be punished. Without the pillaging of natural resources, many armed groups would have no means of financing their wars’, said Montse Ferrer, Senior Legal Advisor and Corporate Accountability Coordinator at TRIAL International. ‘Despite numerous documented cases of pillage, not a single conviction against corporate actors has been made since the end of World War II.’
TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint for pillage against Mr. Buzaianu in Switzerland with the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) in June 2019. ‘We have waited until today to go public because we wanted to give the Swiss prosecutorial authorities sufficient time to review the evidence and take decisive action against Mr. Buzaianu. We are hopeful that these steps have been taken and that the OAG is investigating the matter’, she added.
LOGGING THAT BENEFITS AN ARMED GROUP
Some estimates suggest that Senegal loses the equivalent of 40,000 hectares of forest per year, several dozen hectares of which are lost due to the illegal exploitation of rosewood in Casamance. This selective deforestation has led to a decrease in rainfall and increased desertification in the region. It has also led to conflicts between rebels and communities who can no longer use the forests for sustainable livelihoods.
Illegal logging of precious woods is problematic, as it undermines reforestation efforts in the region. According to the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), “in the village of Koudioube, the restoration of the community forest has helped to overcome conflicts.” Illegal logging has stopped, fruits and wildlife are abundant, and local people are once again able to sell forest products. Communities that used to fight each other are now working together.
A large share of the trafficking and logging has been taking place directly in the territory controlled by the MFDC for almost thirty years. ‘Westwood’s illegal activity is all the more serious because it contributed to an illegal timber trade that has historically financed the MFDC. Equally striking is that this trade has had such a negative impact on the lives of local people contributing directly to the deforestation of the region’, said Jennifer Triscone, Legal Advisor at TRIAL International. The armed group exercises de facto control over the precious wood industry by issuing logging authorizations and transport permits, and by ensuring the security of the latter. The rebels also illegally exploit and sell precious hardwood timber to finance their armed struggle: an illegal trade fuelled by demand from the global tropical hardwood market. | TRIAL International is a non-governmental organization fighting impunity for international crimes and supporting victims in their quest for justice.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION SUMMARY OF THE CASE
In June 2019, TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint against Swiss national Nicolae Bogdan Buzaianu, a close business associate of former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, for the alleged pillaging of protected, Senegalese rosewood. Between June 2014 and March 2017, Westwood, a Gambian company owned by entities affiliated to Mr. Buzaianu and former President Jammeh, allegedly exported over 315,000 tons of Pterocarpus erinaceus to China (roughly equivalent to USD 163 million). This precious rosewood species was illegally harvested from the neighboring Casamance region, where the armed group the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC), has been fighting the Senegalese army since the 1980s.
Yahya Jammeh as an ally, the MFDC was able to monopolize the timber trade in Lower Casamance, using its profits to finance its armed struggle. Westwood benefited generously from this trade, transferring its profits to individuals and companies associated with Former President Jammeh and Mr. Buzaianu. FILING’S STATEMENTS Ê A Swiss national partnered with –and benefited from– former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, accused by the Gambian Commission of Inquiry of having stolen millions of dollars in state funds. The MFDC exercised de facto control over the timber trade out of Lower Casamance by issuing authorizations for logging and transport permits and by providing safe passage to the timber traders. Westwood benefited generously from this trade, transferring millions of dollars in profits to individuals and companies associated with Former President Jammeh and Mr. Buzaianu. The illegal felling of rosewood has had a detrimental impact on the Senegalese forests, contributing to declines in rainfall and desertification, as well as preventing the sustainable livelihood of local communities.
© TRIAL International / Montse Ferrer TRIAL International filed the criminal complaint before the Swiss War Crimes Unit. This is the first case where illicit timber traders are accused of pillaging conflict resources in Switzerland; and if this case succeeds, it would be the first case anywhere to convict someone for the pillaging of timber or any natural resource. It is also a groundbreaking case as it seeks to use the existing international criminal legal framework to punish non-enumerated environmental crimes, a subset of crimes that go mostly unpunished, in part given the lack of applicable legal regimes.
References from the sidisanneh.blogspot.com on the subject of Westwood and suspected/possible resource flows:-
https://sidisanneh.blogspot.com/2016/10/how-westwood-company-ltd-and-yaya.html (Part I )
https://sidisanneh.blogspot.com/2016/10/how-westwood-company-ltd-and-yaya_26.html (Part II)