Illegal logging funds public services in Cameroon

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Chainsaw milling is a skilled and frequently dangerous activity. Most chainsaw millers will be deaf by the time they are 40. Photo by Jean Pamphile Ondoua

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 researcher Edouard Essiane has to shout to make himself heard above the noise of the chainsaw.

‘You can see what a dangerous occupation this is, now you’re out here in the forest,’ he yells. ‘There’s a big risk of injury, and we frequently hear of people being seriously wounded or killed, either by their chainsaws or falling trees.’

Most chainsaw millers, he adds, will be deaf by the time they are 40.

With rain streaming down his back, a young man from the village of Djemiong, in East Region, skilfully slices planks from the trunk of a sapele tree that he felled the previous day. It will take him and his assistant two days to transform the tree into around 100 planks, each 2 m long and 40 cm wide. Porters, hired in the nearby village, will then carry them to the road. The chainsaw miller wears a T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, but no protective gear. Indeed, personal safety seems to be the least of his concerns.

‘The big problem for us is always the same – the officials from the Ministry of Forests,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes they force us to hand over some of the planks. Sometimes they demand cash payments.’

How much?

‘Il faut négocier.’ You have to negotiate.

You hear this phrase everywhere you go – in the forests, at the road barriers, in the markets. Often, forestry officials will begin by demanding 100-200 CFA (€0.15-0.30) a plank, but the miller will aim to get that down; if he succeeds then the truck loaded with this and other sapele trees will yield the officials around 40,000 CFA (€60). Compare this with their monthly wages of around 100,000 CFA (€150) and you can see what a profitable business this is for government officials. Once a deal is done, they often stamp the planks with a hammer embossed with MINFOF’s stamp, providing proof of ‘legality.’ In theory, this means that the timber can be dispatched without the chainsaw miller having to pay any further bribes. However, if a more senior official visits the work site, the miller will have to pay him off as well.

More than two-thirds of chainsaw millers interviewed by Essiane and his colleagues said that harassment by government officials was their biggest problem. Just 19% cited dangerous working conditions as their main concern and a mere 10% the difficulty in gaining legal title. The remaining 90% never even bothered to ask for a legal title. However, when you talk to the chainsaw millers it soon becomes clear that they deeply resent being forced to operate outside the law.

Mathieu Mbemouka is president of Les Verts, an association of chainsaw millers based in Mbang. Les Verts would much rather pay tax to the government than bribes to officials for the right to harvest timber.

A 40-minute drive down a dirt road from Djemiong brings you to a larger settlement, Mbang, and the headquarters of a 300,000-ha concession managed by a French-owned company, the Société Forestière Industrielle de la Doumé (SFID). Not long ago, SFID allowed local chainsaw millers to harvest and process any timber it had abandoned within its concession. However, MINFOF warned the company that this was against the law, and the practice was banned, much to the anger of loggers belonging to an association called Les Verts, or The Greens.

Now, the only way they can get any timber is by making deals with customary owners.

‘We get an order from one of our patrons in the city, find a suitable tree, offer the owner a certain amount of money and then tell the local MINFOF official,’ explains Mathieu Mbemouka, president of Les Verts. The official gives the loggers a piece of paper attesting that they have the droit d’usage, or personal authorisation, to fell the tree. These permits are not for commercial use, but the local MINFOF official, and everybody else, knows that the timber will be sold. The loggers pay him a cash fee – after negotia-tion, of course – and the work proceeds.

But that’s not the end of the harassment.

‘Once the timber has been harvested, we have to get it to the market,’ explains Gustave Bengono, another chainsaw miller in Mbang. ‘Every year, there seem to be more and more roadblocks, and the cost is passed down to the primary producers – which is us. That means that we get lower and lower prices.’

CIFOR’s research suggests that payments along the road vary not so much according to location, but according to which authority is demanding payment, with MINFOF officials charging around 25,000 CFA (€38) per truck.

The value of chainsaw milling to the rural economy is clear. Each team consists of four to five people – the chainsaw miller, his assistant and two or three porters. CIFOR research suggests that some 45,000 individuals living in rural areas gain their livelihoods from the trade.

‘Approximately half the cost of doing business – equivalent to 32,000 CFA (€50) for every cubic metre of timber – goes on local wages,’ says Lescuyer.

The economic influence of the domestic logging industry goes far beyond the forests. This shop sells and repairs chainsaws.

Then, of course, there are the ‘informal payments’, which represent about 9% of harvesting costs, according to CIFOR’s research. These include payments to officials from MINFOF and other government bodies, as well as payments demanded by local admin-istrations.

For example, in Akoeman Council, to the south of Yaoundé, chainsaw millers pay the mayor’s office an informal tax of 40,000 CFA (€60) per tree harvested and an annual tax of 100,000 CFA (€150) per chainsaw. At any one time there can be as many as 150 chainsaw millers operating in the council area.

These payments are greatly resented by the chainsaw millers – paying tax does not legitimise their activities – but they amount to approximately half of the municipality’s income. In short, illegal logging is helping to fund public services.

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