Cameroon’s secret domestic timber underworld exposed

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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.

CIFOR began researching illegal logging in Cameroon in 2003. Originally, the focus was on the industrial timber sector, including comparing export figures with production on large-scale forestry concessions. However, it soon became apparent that something was missing from the reams of data gathered by MINFOF.

CIFOR scientist Edouard Essiane (right) with a timber trader in Yaoundé. Faces have been hidden to protect the identities of people interviewed.

‘There was absolutely nothing about the domestic supply of timber, although you only had to travel around Yaoundé to see that this was significant,’ Cerutti says. ‘Roadside timber markets were springing up and expanding all over the city to satisfy the con-struction boom.’

CIFOR’s research also revealed discrepancies between harvesting and export figures. Exports frequently exceeded documented harvests.

‘When we began the research on the domestic and regional markets in 2008, there were three questions we wanted to answer,’ says Cerutti. ‘How much timber was being harvested? Who was producing the timber? Where was it coming from?’

Data collection began in Cameroon and Gabon, and was later extended to various large cities in the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Cameroon the research involved a detailed analysis of trading activities in more than 1200 timber depots in 50 markets in Yaoundé, Bertoua, Douala, Kumba and Limbé, and interviews with 261 chainsaw millers operating in 70 councils. An army of hired hands – among them timber traders, students and MINFOF staff gathered data which enabled CIFOR and MINFOF to gain a detailed understanding of how the domestic timber market works.

‘We were amazed by what we found,’ Cerutti says. ‘The amount of timber traded was much higher than we anticipated, with the entire sector operating as a parallel economy outside the law.’

Since 1996, the amount of timber harvested to supply the domestic and regional market has increased by a factor of almost 10. In 1996, the harvest was around 250,000 m³ a year RWE (round wood equivalent). By 2002, it had risen to 1 million m³ RWE. CIFOR’s latest data suggest that it is now 2.1 million m³ – roughly the same as the amount of timber legally harvested for export by major concession holders. Just over a quarter of the domestic and regional supply comes from industrial ‘scraps’: timber produced by large-scale concessions of insufficient quality for export. The remainder, equivalent to an annual harvest of 700,000 m³ of sawnwood, comes from chainsaw millers operating without any legal title.

The 1994 Forest Law, which governs forestry activities in Cameroon, primarily focuses on large-scale, export-oriented production. When the law was formulated, this made sense: the country was in the throes of an economic crisis and domestic demand for timber had fallen dramatically. In addition to encouraging sustainable forest management on industrial concessions, the new law sought to promote greater participation of national interests in the timber industry. It incorporated measures to promote community forestry and redistribute some of the taxes paid by industrial logging companies to local councils and villages, and introduced several types of logging title reserved for Cameroonians. These included exploitation permits, to last a maximum of one year for a harvest not exceeding 500 m³, and personal logging authorisations, not to exceed three months and a volume of 30 m³. Of these, only the former could be used for commercial gain. As it turned out, few chainsaw millers applied for exploitation permits during the 1990s, and most sourced timber from locations where they could claim some sort of user right, often negotiated with the true customary owners of the trees in question.

A message from the Ministry of Finance. Photo by Paolo Cerutti

In 1999, the government suspended all small-scale logging titles. The suspension was primarily introduced to tackle widespread illegal logging and corrupt behaviour by industrial companies operating with Timber Recovery Permits, which were designed to allow forest clearance before development activities.

‘Unfortunately, the government also decided to suspend the only logging titles which could benefit small-scale producers, even though the titles themselves hadn’t been the cause of the problem,’ says Cerutti.

The ban, which remained in place until 2006, did nothing to reduce the scale of the harvest. In fact, timber production for the domestic market rose dramatically.

When the suspension was lifted in 2006, MINFOF decided to auction approximately 50 exploitation permits. These were to be delivered by an interministerial commission based in Yaoundé, rather than by regional delegates, as in the past. This made little sense to chainsaw millers, many of whom operate hundreds of kilometres away from the capital, and no applications were made for the permits.

‘Can you imagine a chainsaw miller travelling all the way to Yaoundé to make an application which would take weeks to approve?’ asks Cerutti. ‘It was just never going to happen.’

The suspension of small-scale logging permits established new layers of corruption within the Ministry of Forests, according to Cerutti, as staff working in the districts and regions developed an extensive network of rent collection from chainsaw millers and timber traders.

‘It was now in their interest to retain a system from which they themselves were key beneficiaries,’ says Cerutti.

Their ability to extort money would be reduced by any system that encouraged chainsaw millers to apply for, and gain, legal titles to harvest timber. To understand precisely how the system works, and why reform will be so difficult, it is necessary to look at what happens in the forests, on the roads and in the markets.

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

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