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Durban - THE Richmond Municipality has lost millions of rands in revenue after the looting of its timber plantation since last month.

Following the discovery of the crime, the plantation was set alight on Saturday night, and again on Sunday evening, to destroy the evidence that timber had been stolen.

Opposition councillors estimate the municipality has lost about R13 million in revenue, an amount which would escalate if costs to rehabilitate the plantation were taken into consideration. They also claim that setting the plantation alight was intended to make it difficult to establish the exact amount lost in stolen timber.

Infighting among those involved in the looting - some believed to be councillors - was suspected to be a secondary reason for destroying the timber and plantation.

Timber from the council-owned plantation was delivered to paper producer Sappi’s Saiccor Mill, accompanied by documentation.

However, it is believed that large amounts of timber were sent to the mill purporting to be for Sappi, but with the revenue being diverted.

Acting municipal manager Sibusiso Mkhize said the issue surrounding the timber was bizarre as the plantation was set alight for a second time on Sunday.

Mkhize said yesterday that reports of illegal logging were received from as early as April. It is not clear whether the matter was reported to the police when suspicions were first raised.

He said the assumption that certain councillors were behind the theft could only be verified once police investigations were completed.

“As the accounting officer I have notified council about the matter and all councillors agreed to have a case opened, which was done. All this came to my attention during April 2019. The quantification of the loss and damage is not complete at this stage as some of the timber was burnt and not stolen,” said Mkhize.

Sappi KZN Forests general manager Duane Roothman said: “As soon as Sappi was made aware of allegations that timber from the Richmond Municipal plantations was being delivered on Sappi tickets to our Saiccor Mill, all deliveries from implicated suppliers were stopped immediately. After investigations and discussions with the police and the municipality, a permanent suspension of the contracts of spot timber suppliers, who had been found to have been implicated, was instituted.”

Roothman said internal investigations were under way to determine if any gross negligence or intentional action by Sappi’s employees had contributed to the issue.

“If such failure of adherence to controls, or transgressions are discovered, Sappi will institute the necessary steps. We will continue to ensure that our timber supply is from verifiable and reputable sources,” he said.

DA provincial spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural development Chris Pappas said the stolen timber was worth about R13 million. He said the DA had conducted an oversight inspection of the 500-hectare plantation after a tip-off about the theft.

“Immediately after our visit, the forest area under scrutiny was set alight and burned to the ground. Apart from the criminality involved, this is revenue that is now lost. The funds generated from this property should have been used to deliver services to the citizens of the Richmond municipality. Instead, politically-protected opportunists have benefited at the expense of all residents,” he said.

Pappas said the case should be dealt with by the Hawks.

The IFP’s Mzwandile Majozi said drastic action was needed to bring the operations at the plantation to normal.

Provincial police spokesperson Brigadier Jay Naicker said a case of theft was being investigated by the Richmond police after a “complainant” discovered unknown people cutting timber in the plantation.

Daily News