Cameroon timber trade: High risk, low reward

Stockpile of timber in the Herakles Farms Talangaye palm oil concession near Nguti. 07/21/2013 © Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace

The fight against illegal logging in Cameroon has been a long one – 10 years in fact. Therefore the conclusion from the influential think tank Chatham House that this all seems to have had very little result must have been hard to swallow for everyone concerned.

In its investigation – the results of which were published yesterday – Chatham House examined the extent of illegal logging and its associated trade and the response. It found that progress has stalled since 2010, with illegal activity accounting for nearly a third of all timber felled.

The checklist of failure is a lengthy one: The proposed reform of the forestry sector’s legislative framework is incomplete, the availability of information on forestry projects is inadequate, transparency and enforcement in the sector are very weak and on top of it all corruption remains rampant with little political will around for change.

At Greenpeace, these findings came sadly, as absolutely no surprise. We have been waving a big flag over many of these issues for a long time, both to the necessary authorities in Cameroon and to the European Union, a key player. Sadly and unsurprisingly again we have had little response. If such a status quo on these issues continues, whether willingly or unwillingly, it will remain a major stumbling block to any worthwhile progress in the battle against illegal logging.

As an example of some of the frustrations, in the report “Licence to launder” we revealed how a US palm oil company, Herakles Farms, aims to benefit from the commercialisation of wood from forest clearance to create its plantation – a lot of it felled illegally. This is despite the fact the company publicly claimed it would not make money from its timber and that it was granted a permit to sell the wood with no transparency in the procedure. Cameroon law, however, stipulates that such titles can only be allocated by public auction.

Three different state prosecutors were given the information proving this illegality but no action has been taken and suddenly the Ministry of Forestry claimed the permit was legal after all.

Oil palm nursery in a Herakles Farm's concession area. 11/09/2012 © Greenpeace / Alex Yallop

This example is illustrative of the lack of political will of Cameroon for change and for the broader trend of the export of wood that results from forest clearance to make space for commercial agriculture, mining and infrastructure. The Chatham House report touches explicitly on the growing problem of logging taking place for large infrastructure projects without any permits.

Large quantities of wood extracted from forest “conversion” projects are reaching international markets illegally, in full knowledge of Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and the EU. Such destruction of forests also undermines the credibility of the FLEGT partnership agreement ratified in December 2011.

Another trend the Chatham House identifies is the shift in markets for products and wood destined for the timber sector, namely away from the EU towards China.

It therefore important for that country’s relevant authorities to tackle illegal timber imports as it obvious unsanctioned shipments to China is more and more a key driver for illegal logging in Cameroon and other countries in the Congo Basin.

Another worrying thing about the findings in the Chatham House report is that they echo many of the worrying trends highlighted in the think tank’s report on the Democratic Republic of Congo released only a year ago. Similarly Greenpeace was lacking in surprise at those findings and similarly we have long warned of the existing problems. It is evident that throughout the Congo Basin not enough is being done to stop illegal logging and that the world’s second-largest rainforested area and the many communities who depend on it will continue to be threatened.

Companies in Europe need to ensure they fulfill all requirements in the European Union Timber Regulation, the law that came into force in 2013 aimed at stopping illegal timber being placed on the European market. Timber from Cameroon should be treated as high risk and traders should built in additional checks and balances to avoid being liable and prosecuted.

This year both the EUTR and the FLEGT action plan will be reviewed by the European Commision. We urge the commission to seriously address the loopholes in the agreement with Cameroon and the lack of implementation and enforcement by EU member states. If these are not being dealt with both legislation will be nothing more than a paper tiger and the forests and communities of the Congo Basin will ultimately be the ones who continue to suffer.

Hilde Stroot is the Forest Campaign Leader at Greenpeace Netherlands.

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