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How A Zambia Town Was Transformed by Chinese Timber Business

The following article was written by Hezhu Zhang, a fellow at China House Kenya
As Chinese timber business in Africa has long been reprobated because of its damage to the environment and rural livelihood, a close case study of the development of a timber-industry-driven town in Zambian has been done recently. Hence the true impact of timber business on rural livelihood can be seen through a more detailed scope.
“I do not really feel impacts from the Chinese timber business, the forest is still there.” said Mary, a female M town resident who works as a maid in Chinese timber businessman’s rented house near forests. However, the impacts might be there, though not obvious for bystanders.
M town, an undeveloped agriculturally-based town locates in the northwest part of Zambia, near the boarder of Angola and D.R. Congo and is a key position of the Zambian opposition party. An estimated 1,4000 residents lives on an average income of 600-1000 dollars per family per year from farming. 80% of the population cannot find a stable job besides farming due to the extremely limited modern industries and businesses in M town. A high fertility rate of averagely seven children per family worsens the poverty, leading to the problem of dropout students. Surrounded by dense forests in a remote location, extremely poor transportation around M town worsens the situation, development was restraint due to the very little connect with the outside modern cities. In brief, most of the population have no job besides farming, and as a result, poverty is a problem the residents are facing.
This town was significantly transformed by Chinese timber business, in a way that many may find surprising.
1. A Chronicle of Chinese timber business influx
Back to 2006, some people in M town began to sense Chinese businessmen’s demand of timber and started to cut rosewood by hand-operated saws and transported timber to Lusaka.  In 2012, the first Chinese company TZ came and collected rosewood in large scale. In one year, this company finished most of the useable rosewood in the most nearby forest and left. Since then, more people in M town knew about timber demand, and thus began timber business of their own, though on a small scale without machines and the business was discontinuous.

Things changed in 2014, when ZMMZ, a timber company of an Indian owner came to M town, again doing timber business, but with chain saw machines, Lucas machine and large generators. As this company have bigger scale and hence, more employees and more influences. ZMMZ closed down in 2016 because of salary payment dispute with local workers. But more and more people began to raise money together to do machine-based timber business of a larger scale on their own.
In 2015 and 2016, another three Chinese company successively came, together with machines, tractors and trucks, accelerating the business largely in a very short time. The booming timber businesses have been bringing large amounts of jobs into M town.
2. Impact on rural livelihood
Many Get Hired
YL timber company came to M town in December, 2016. Workers started working in the forest since March and have been developing four different spots of forests around M town currently. Each spot has about 20 workers, including 5 chain saw operators and 15 general helpers. These workers mostly are from M town and villagers living inside the forests. YL is now hiring approximately 80 workers and another 40 workers are needed. When the timbers needed to be loaded, more temporary workers are needed. Another two companies have basically the same amount of workers. About 15 local owners run timber business on their own, each hiring about 40 workers. According to local industry insiders, about 700-900 jobs are offered in M town. According to interviews of M town residents, generally speaking, almost all the adult males in M town who don’t have a permanent job, have at least been temporarily worked in timber business. Considering the population in M town is about 1,4000 and large percentage of underage children, this statement is mainly convincing. In brief, timber industry has been a huge source of job offers for M town residents.

Salaries much more than farming
YL company’s employees in M town are paid when every 150 logs of timbers are ready for traffic, including being cut down, shaped into lumps and loaded onto the truck. For Every piece of timber, an operater is paid 5 kwacha and a general worker is paid 3 kwacha. When all machines and tractors are in good condition, 150 pieces can usually be finished in 5 days. However, works are often get suspended because tractors and machines can be damaged easily and repairing often takes extremely long time because machines are all imported from China or South Africa, thus spare parts if cannot be found in Lusaka, need to be send from abroad, which often takes weeks. Even if the needed spare parts can be found in Lusaka or Solwezy, it takes at least one –day’s drive. But approximately, operators get about 1,500-4,500 Kwacha per month (over 2500 US dollars per year)and general helpers get about 750-1000 Kwacha.

According to the survey, 80 percent of workers in timber industry defined themselves as poor people. Town people who don’t work in timber industry also consider these workers as relatively poor people with a low social status. Salaries from timber industry is considerable, comparing with their income from farming. However, these salaries are often used on temporary need, such as consuming food, clothes, buying alcohol, drugs and gambling. In result, for a lot of people in timber business, salaries cannot be saved up as deposit and used in a more sustainable and life-changing ways.
3. “Crime rate has declined because the poor gets employed”—- Impact on society aspects
More consequent business & education
While some complain the salaries in timber business are too low to change life, others
Do make the a job a turning point of life.
Paul, a 27-year-old operator, was born in a quite poor family in S town, near the southern border of Zambia. He has been working with Mr. Lu, founder of YL company for 12 years. When Mr. Lu came to S town in 2006, Paul was only 15 years old and had just dropped out of school because of his father’s death and the following poverty. He gradually learned how to operating all kinds of machine and after 3 years of apprentice, he saved enough money to built a new house in 2009, with the sponsored building materials from Mr. Lu. After he married, his wife also worked with Mr. Lu as maid. Paul’s family gets only about 3000 Kwacha per year from their limited farm land. As an skillful operator with versatile technics, Paul earns about 2000 kwacha per month, which is the main income of his family. In 2010, he saved enough money to open a grocery shop and his wife runs the shop, which profits about 7000 kwacha per year. Now Paul is supporting three children and one of them has gone to primary school. As the forests in S town has almost finished exploiting, Paul came to M town with Mr. Lu. His goal for this year is to earn enough money to buy about 10 cows. Currently his family possesses 7 cows. He final goal is to earn enough money to by 50 cows from the job in timber business.
A lot of workers like Paul usually worked as operators for years and when saved enough money, their family starts small business and their living standard can be raised largely, which may also be seen as one of the reasons for the booming of small businesses in M town in recent 2 years. Sometimes, workers save money to go to school. For example, Issac, after working with Mr. Lu for 3 years, he saved enough money for his wife to go to college. Alfa, after working in Timber for 2 years, he saved enough money to study in a technical training school, thus become one of the few mechanics in M town.
Another interesting phenomenon in M town in recent 1-2 years is the appearance of machinery maintence shops and workers. Due to the booming of timber industry, supporting business are showing up. Currently. There’re two machienery maintence shops in M town, although in a very rudimentary condition and workers are former timber business workers. Even a lot of spare parts are said to be from used machines, trucks and tractors of some timber companies. Nevertheless, a potential industrial chain is starting to show up in M town, where very few indication of other industries have ever appear. However, most of the spare parts still cannot be found from local small shops.
Lower crime rate
One of the biggest impact the timber industry brings to M town is the drop of crime rate.According to Calvin, a security police officer in M town, the most obvious change in the recent 2-3 years, is the huge reduce of theft and robbery. About 2 years ago, each month 10-20 theft and robbery were recorded in M town. Nowadays each month only 2-3 cases would be recorded. Calvin explained that these theft were committed by extremely poor residents. Due to the relatively large amount of jobs timber business brought to M town, these desperately poor people find a way to earn basic spending.
4. “It damages forest much less than charcoal business” —– To what extent does timber business damage natural environment?
In the forest surrounding M town, abundant wild rosewood and red mukwa are the two types of hardwood Chinese look for, and red mukwa serves as a replacement of mukula because of their very similar appearance. According to interviews, residents nearby do not utilize these two types of trees at all. First because these wood are too hard and not suitable to be used as firewood or to produce charcoal. Second residents do not utilize any part of hardwood as medicine or food, which contradicts the statements of some reports.

Through interviews, all residents in M town welcome timber companies, basically because the business bring large numbers of jobs and considerable income and the timber business do not have any direct negative influence on residents’ livelihood. When talked about the impact of timber industry on the environment, residents and timber workers seem indifferent and a lot of them disprove the opinion that timber industry could be a threat to the existence of rosewood and red mukwa as species.
Although timber business is always linked with massive forest destruction, it might not be true
One of the main reason of their attitude is the working method of timber business. The government stipulation is that only trees with a more than 35cm diameter are allowed to be cut, so that smaller trees would be protected and keep growing. In the forest that being exploiting by YL companies’ workers, only trees with a more than 45cm diameter would be cut because logs smaller than 45 diameter would be too small after processed into lump and with low application value. Because of this, most of the trees, although being the target species, will not be cut and keep growing. On the other hand, when the larger ones are cut down, smaller ones around will be able to get more sunshine and nutrition in the ground and hence grow at a faster speed.
In the opinion of insiders of timber business, forests around M town have a relatively high density of trees with application value. Even so, when walking in the forest, trees that are big enough for cutting are usually quite far away from each other. From one useable tree to another often takes a 5 minutes’ walk. Roughly more than 90 percent of trees in the forests are too small for application. Comparing the part of forests already being exploited with parts that having been exploited yet roughly, no big difference can be seen because most of trees in he forest are not big enough for timber business.  Workers from another forest he worked before, reported that the density of usable trees in forests in the southwest part of Zambia are mostly much lower. From one tree to another may need 1000 meters and more. Comparing the part of forests already being exploited with parts that having been exploited yet roughly, no big difference can be seen because most of trees in he forest are not big enough for timber business.
Another main factor that lead to the destruction of forests is when using the tractors to drag logs out of the forests, tractors drive into the bush and run over all the trees on the way without making any distinction of the plants on the ground, which lead to considerable damage.
Whiteman from the forest department of Zambia has the same opinion. He thinks environmental consideration should not be the main concern of Zambian government and NGO’s sayings about environmental damage are a cover of economic benefits. Whereas others hold different views and thinking timber business is largely destroying the environment and influencing the climate change.
Hezhu Zhang is senior year undergraduate student at Fudan University and an intern at China House. In July and August 2017, she spent two months in Zambia researching Chinese timber business.

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