YAOUNDE, Cameroon (23 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.
In 1998, MINFOF’s powers to collect taxes from forestry operations were passed to the Ministry of Finance (MINFI), which now collects 15–20 billion CFA (€23–€30 million) a year in forestry taxes, largely from industrial timber concessions. The figure would be considerably higher if reforms were introduced for the domestic timber sector.
Isabelle Abouem, coordinator of MINFI’s Forestry Revenue Enhancement Programme, lists three compelling reasons why the government should consider formalising the domestic timber sector.
‘First, there is the fiscal argument,’ she says. ‘CIFOR’s research has given us an insight into how much timber is being traded for the domestic and regional markets and it is clear that even if we were to charge a modest tax – say, 3000 CFA per cubic metre (€4.60) – this would yield significant revenues for the state.’
CIFOR’s research and the testimony of those involved in the trade suggest that timber resources are declining in many parts of the country.
By formalising the trade, says Abouem, the government would be able to allocate small-scale permits in such a way as to ensure sustainable harvesting.
‘Finally, we shouldn’t ignore the psychological importance of introducing a system which gives people a legal right to harvest timber,’ she says. ‘If chainsaw millers and traders were issued with permits to harvest and trade timber, they would no longer feel the great weight of having to act illegally, or have to waste so much time and energy negotiating payments with officials.’
Talk to virtually anybody involved in chainsaw milling and the domestic timber trade and they will say much the same thing: they would like to operate legally; they would like to pay taxes to the state.
‘We want our activities to be formally recognised,’ explains Mbemouka, president of Les Verts in Mbang, ‘and we would much rather pay a tax per cubic metre than bribes to MINFOF officials. We even wrote a letter to MINFOF saying that that’s what we want.’
They never received a reply.
Sporadic attempts have been made to introduce a formal system of payments in the domestic timber sector, with varying degrees of failure. For example, in 2003, timber merchants in Messa Market, then the largest in Yaoundé, approached officials from MINFI and said they would be prepared to pay a tax on every cubic metre they sold. In return, they wanted paperwork which would prevent officials from MINFOF from harassing them and demanding bribes. MINFI welcomed the idea and traders agreed to a tax of 1,000 CFA (€1.50) per cubic metre.
‘In the end, this all came to nothing because people high up in MINFOF opposed the scheme,’ Cerutti says. ‘They argued that MINFI would be effectively legitimising an illegal trade, and I can understand their point of view. However, I think their real motive had nothing to do with that. They wanted to retain the status quo, which benefited MINFOF staff individually.’
In 2006, a scheme which involved timber traders paying volume-based taxes was launched in Bertoua. The Association des Transformateurs Artisanaux de Bois de Lom et Djerem (ASTRABOLD) entered into a formal agreement with MINFOF’s regional delegate that its members would pay taxes to both MINFOF and MINFI in return for legal recognition of their trade.
‘We identified the timber we wanted to harvest – say, 100 m³ of iroko,’ recalls Aboubakar Goni, the current president of AS-TRABOLD, ‘and told the regional delegate where it was, who it belonged to and so forth. We then agreed how much tax we would pay per cubic metre and the sum was deposited in the local Treasury. When we provided the evidence of payment to the regional delegate, he issued paperwork saying that we had paid the agreed taxes and had a legal right to proceed with the work.’
During an eight-month period, the timber traders paid taxes amounting to 36 million CFA (€55,000), divided between MINFI and MINFOF.
‘We were subject to much less harassment from the chef de poste and other government officials, precisely because we had the paperwork to prove that we were acting legally,’ says Aboubakar.
This all came to an end when MINFOF’s regional delegate, who had done so much to initiate the scheme, was transferred to the north of the country. When the new delegate arrived, Aboubakar and his colleagues visited him in the hope that the system would continue. The delegate said it was of no interest to him: the old way of doing things was swiftly reinstated.
‘At least the experience showed that it’s possible to establish a transparent system which benefits timber harvesters and traders, as well as the state,’ Aboubakar says.
Both at Messa Market in Yaoundé and in Bertoua, vested interests within MINFOF destroyed promising schemes.
‘It is true that there are some very powerful vested interests who will argue against change,’ says Cerutti. ‘But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there are many good, honest people working within MINFOF who are not on the take.’
So what measures are needed?
‘First, the government needs to provide a new legal framework for the domestic timber industry, one which is adapted both to people’s needs in rural areas and to the availability of timber,’ Cerutti says.
He suggests that the current licensing system (agréement à la profession) be revised, as chainsaw millers are currently expected to apply for the same licences as large-scale industrial operators. This requires a lengthy bureaucratic procedure, making the licence difficult to obtain. CIFOR’s research also suggests that access to logging titles, and thus to the resource, should be decentralised, as foreseen by the original 1994 law. Regional delegates within MINFOF could be given powers to award a certain number of small-scale logging titles each year, depending on the local availability of timber resources. These permits, awarded for clearly defined areas, could be auctioned to local chainsaw millers, and the process could be overseen by a commission made up of representatives of MINFOF, MINFI, the police, the gendarmerie, the territorial administration and local councils.
‘Whatever happens, officials from MINFOF – notably the chef de poste – and from other ministries will need to buy into the sys-tem, and it might make sense to give them more responsibilities in the allocation and control procedures, as well as allow them to take a premium out of the taxes raised,’ says Cerutti. ‘However, the new system must also hold them to account and apply strong sanctions when they take part in illegal activities.’
Any new legal framework will also need to be backed up by severe legal punishments of those who take or demand bribes. On the rare occasions when staff within MINFOF are subject to disciplinary measures, these generally involve nothing more than them being ‘relieved of their duties. More often than not, they are moved to similar posts in other regions and departments.
‘Much stronger sanctions are needed, including custodial sentences, if the government is going to successfully tackle corruption in the forestry sector,’ Cerutti says.
During recent years, Cameroon President Paul Biya and his prime minister have sent out repeated messages that corruption should no longer be tolerated in Cameroon. Visitors to Yaoundé for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Independence, in May 2010, were greeted by MINFI banners that read: ‘Corruption: a devastating canker worm against the development of our country.’
CIFOR’s research has shown that the domestic timber sector is controlled by an extensive network of corruption in which many MINFOF officials play an active role. In 2010, Cameroon signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the European Union guaranteeing, among other things, that all timber will be legally harvested by 2012. Without significant legal reform of the domestic timber sector, and of MINFOF, that is not going to happen.