Crippling bureaucracy keeps Congo’s chainsaw millers in legal quagmire

Photo by Terry Sunderland/CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (28 March 2012)_Small-scale chainsaw millers in the Republic of Congo risk losing their livelihoods as crippling bureaucracy makes sawyers unable to obtain the logging permits needed to meet the conditions of a new forestry agreement with the European Commission.

The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) requires all forest products to be legal and traceable by 2013, but according to a CIFOR Occasional Paper, the Congo’s current system of issuing permits to fell trees for the domestic market does little to encourage “informal” sawyers to abide by the law. Instead, applicants are discouraged by the endless “administrative hassles” and high costs, leaving the sector open to corruption.

“It is a typical trap that we found in all the countries we assessed: Cameroon; Gabon; the Republic of Congo; and the Central African Republic,” said Paolo Cerutti, CIFOR scientist and co-author of The domestic market for small-scale chainsaw milling in the Republic of Congo. “On one side, you have a real demand for such timber by the domestic market … [while] on the other, you have state officials who take advantage of the fact that chainsaw millers cannot get hold of legal logging titles.”

Sawyers who apply for special permits face a wait of several weeks before their request is approved, the report said. Official response times are rarely adhered to and costs tend to pile up. According to earlier research by Alain Noël Ampolo, permission to fell trees around the capital Brazzaville costs each sawyer roughly 400,000 CFA Francs (USD807), a sum which few can afford. Of those who can, many end up slipping into illegality. With monthly felling allocations limited to only five trees for commercial purposes, sawyers often use their permits for longer than they are valid and exceed their quotas.

It should come as little surprise then that out of 62 respondents, the scientists found only two (or 3 percent) holding any sort of logging permit at the time of the survey. All interviewees were small-scale chainsaw millers located near the cities of Pointe-Noire or Brazzaville.

This comes at a time when urban demand for timber is growing. Seeing a loophole in the supply chain, the paper said some regional offices of the Ministry of Forest Economy had introduced adaptive measures that were not fully in step with the law. This includes issuing riders to their official permits to cover zones – where timber is controlled by the regional offices – in which sawyers can fell and process a certain number of trees.

“Some state officials put in place a kind of ‘logging agreement’ with loggers … [while others] take advantage of the fact that chainsaw millers cannot get hold of legal logging titles, and ask for bribes all along the production chain,” Cerutti said.

Nevertheless, moves to professionalise the industry are already underway. Under the VPA, the Congo promises that by next year all wood production from forests will be monitored and legal, for both export and national consumption. The agreement aims to improve environmental governance and the sustainability of forest management.

This need to strengthen country-specific institutions to meet new sustainable development goals is also being addressed at this summer’s Rio+20 conference. During the three-day event, organisers hope to address issues concerning broader coherence and coordination between regional, national and local level governance.

Although the VPA has gathered much support, including from Ghana and Cameroon which have made similar promises, questions prevail over the agreement’s ability to transform the informal domestic timber economy. This is particularly worrying considering that the market has been largely ignored in the run up to the VPA’s implementation. Some fear that without being given the proper attention, such a drastic change could have negative impacts not only on a direct workforce estimated at about 50,000 in the countries assessed, but also on the rural economies they currently support.

“Chainsaw milling is a very important source for local economies, and thus any implementation of the VPA should be extremely cautious [so as] not to trade in the current benefits for a future imposed ‘legal’ status that could wipe these out, either by criminalising chainsaw millers or sending them out of business,” Guillaume Lescuyer, CIRAD/CIFOR scientist and co-author of the report, said.

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment!