Cameroon’s Hidden Harvest

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Many thousands of families gain their livelihoods from selling timber for the domestic market. CIFOR/Charlie Pye-Smith

YAOUNDE, Cameroon (5 April, 2011)_The trade in illegally harvested timber provides a living for more than 45,000 people, a major source of income for corrupt officials and not a cent for the state. Follow this 5-part series as I explore Cameroon’s hidden harvest.

I have used pseudonyms to protect the identities of some of the people in Cameroon’s domestic timber industry who were interviewed.

Timber traders in Bertoua, the provincial capital of Cameroon’s East Region, face two main problems, according to Amadou, a local trader. The first – and you’ll hear the same complaint in markets throughout the country – is the shrinking supply of timber. During the past two decades, several local sawmills have closed down, which means that he and his colleagues have become increasingly reliant on timber supplied by small-scale chainsaw millers, most of whom are operating illegally.

“But the biggest problem we face,” says Amadou, “is harassment by government officials and their demand for informal payments.” This is a polite way of saying ‘bribes’.

Some of the timber which passes through Bertoua’s Kano market is sold to buyers in Yaoundé, the national capital, but most is destined for Chad, more than 1,250 kilometres to the north. It’s an expensive journey.

“There are about 20 barriers on the road between Bertoua and the border, manned by officials from the Ministry of Forests and Fauna (MINFOF), the gendarmes and the police, and the only way you get through is by paying them money,” says Amadou.

The officials know that most of the timber has been illegally harvested; if the merchants refuse to pay up, the officials refuse to let them pass.

Amadou estimates that informal payments at the road barriers can amount to 1.5 million CFA (€2300) a trip.

“That wipes out all the profit on a load of 50m³, so to make money we have to add another 30m³ of timber, which means each load is far in excess of the legal weight limit,” he says.

This provides another opportunity for government officials to demand money. To get past the five weighbridges between Bertoua and Chad, Amadou must pay a further 1 million CFA (€1500). This puts his informal payments for each journey up to 2.5 million CFA (€3850).

Listening to Amadou’s account of the journey are Paolo Cerutti and Guillaume Lescuyer, scientists based in the Yaoundé office of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Over the past two years, research by Cerutti, Lescuyer and their col-leagues has revealed that the illegal harvest of timber for domestic and regional markets is just as significant, in terms of volume, as the legal, export-oriented industrial harvest. It provides a living for three times as many people, as well as a significant source of income for corrupt government officials. However, unlike the industrial timber harvest, it provides no revenues, in the form of stumpage taxes and other fees, for the state.

Before leaving the market in Bertoua, Cerutti does a back-of-an-envelope calculation. Approximately 68,000 m³ of sawnwood is exported to Chad each year from East Region, with half going by rail, half by road. Around 40% comes from industrial sawmills; the rest is from chainsaw millers operating outside the law.

‘If you take Amadou’s figures, the merchants are required to pay bribes which amount to around 31,000 CFA (€47) per cubic metre,’ says Cerutti. ‘That means that the officials along the road are collecting around €1 million a year – a huge sum of money.’

Traders must frequently pay bribes to get past government check points.

None of this comes as a surprise to the CIFOR scientists, who have gathered testimony from more than 200 individuals about the way the informal payments system works. Although the payments are largely made to individuals working in the forests, at road barriers and in the markets, much of the money percolates upward in ‘brown envelopes,’ from the chef de poste and his officers to MINFOF’s higher officials.

CIFOR’s research suggests that corruption is now so deeply entrenched within MINFOF that any attempts to reform the law are likely to be vigorously contested by officials who supplement their income with bribes. The research has also highlighted other key problems related to the lack of any meaningful legal framework for the domestic timber sector. Uncontrolled harvesting could threaten future supplies of timber and, unlike export-oriented industrial production, the domestic trade provides no revenue for the state.

The significance of this story extends far beyond Cameroon. The government recently signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union under the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. It has pledged that by 2012 all timber harvested in the country will be of legal origin – not just the timber for export from industrial concessions. CIFOR research has found that around half the timber traded each year is not recorded by the official data collection systems, as it is harvested without logging titles. Furthermore, acquiring information from chainsaw millers is difficult within the current regulatory framework. This threatens the integrity of the agreement with the EU.

‘The goal of our research has been to provide data and analysis which we hope will help the government to introduce reforms to the forestry sector,’ says Lescuyer. ‘These reforms, we believe, should enable people in rural areas to make a living legally – rather than illegally – from the exploitation of timber, in ways that do not threaten the resource and at the same time yield significant revenues for the state.’

This text is part of CIFOR’s publication, “Cameroon’s hidden harvest” which can be downloaded in its entirety here.

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