/ 26 December 2005

Illegal logging threatens Cameroon’s forests

Traffic creeps along the coastal road to Douala, backed up behind a truck with five huge tree trunks slowly climbing the incline.

The timber the truck is carrying comes from the world’s second-biggest contiguous rainforest that stretches across several Central African states.

In a few weeks, it will be sold on the European market — possibly in the form of a cupboard.

Cameroon, on the west coast of Africa, relies heavily on its trade in tropical wood. No one knows for sure exactly how much it makes from these exports.

But according to estimates, about half is from trees illegally felled. Environmental activists have been protesting for years against such tropical rainforest logging.

The United Nations estimates rainforests are decreasing by about six million hectares a year.

”The rainforest in Cameroon is not just shrinking because trees are being cut down for export, but also because of agriculture clearing,” says Emmanuel Heuse, of the WWF.

”An increasing number of farmers are burning down forest to get land to feed their families,” he explains.

Cameroon already has a comprehensive set of laws protecting the rainforest while maintaining an economical business in logging.

”It’s okay for a country to exploit its resources,” says Heuse, ”but the problem is that the people get hardly any benefit from it.”

Large swathes of forest have been sold to timber companies that have to fulfil a range of conditions in order to stay in business.

They are allowed to cut down trees whose trunks have a diameter of between 60cm and 110cm, and only as many as can grow to maturity in 30 years. They also have to provide meat for their workers so these do not go hunting in the forest.

Hunting is not illegal in Cameroon as long as the meat is for the hunters’ own consumption — but the temptation for forestry workers to kill a gorilla or an ape to sell its meat is strong.

”The biggest problem is corruption,” says Klaus Schmidt-Corsitto, forestry expert with the German development organisation GTZ.

”Cameroon’s forestry management has thrown away millions and the money has landed in the pockets of a few politicians,” he says.

It is not difficult to get the right documents for timber that has been illegally cut down, as long as you know the right people to bribe.

In the meantime, the WWF has lowered its aspirations as to what can be done for Cameroon’s forests.

”It is unrealistic to save the whole rainforest,” says Heuse. ”We want the timber to be cut down at a sustainable rate and the income to be spread fairly.”

Dividing the economic benefits evenly is important, as it is impossible to tell by looking at the heavy transporters that block roads all over Cameroon whether the timber they carry is illegal, or who is profiting from it. — Sapa-DPA