Congo Basin: Illegal Timber Exploitation

After the Amazon, the Congo Basin is the second largest tropical mass on our planet. Covering six African states, its intensive exploitation has become a source of revenue but also a source of conflict.

Four African wood-producing countries have committed themselves through the Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) to ensure the traceability of timber exported to the European Union. These bilateral trade agreements are part of a wider European commitment known as Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), which aims to improve forest governance and combat illegal logging.

This fight against the illegal exploitation of forests tries to meet multiple challenges – maintaining biodiversity and ecosystems, access to water, limiting soil degradation, carbon storage. Also, in social and economic matters. Indeed, according to the United Nations, about 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, particularly through hunting, firewood, medicinal plants and access to water. Forests are therefore first-line actors in terms of food security and poverty reduction.

Illegal logging is not small-scale. By 2015, Global Witness estimated that illegal logging worldwide generated over $10 billion, while the loss of profits due to massive corruption that is plaguing the forest sector is estimated at more than $29 billion according to Interpol in 2017. In the 1990s, during the civil war in Liberia, wood was used as a bargaining chip, involving no less than 17 loggers who allegedly participated in the arms trade during the conflict. More recently, in the Central African Republic, timber directly supported the financing of the Seleka and the war, according to the Global Witness report of 2015.

Cutting down tropical timber can therefore be very lucrative, like other natural resources in the Congo Basin. However, if the harvesting of trees is profitable (especially when the species obtained are prized), it is much more the conversion of these forests into agricultural land that attracts foreign investors in view of the world demand for palm oil. The expansion of plantations under way in Africa can become very problematic especially when uncontrolled, as evidenced by the case of Herakles Farms in Cameroon.

Playing on a weak or fuzzy right of land, large agro-industrial groups monopolize the lands of the local populations sometimes jeopardising the survival of communities. In so doing, the expansion of monocultures depletes soils, pollutes water, releases carbon dioxide from the logging of forests and drastically limits absorption capacity.

Since then, deforestation has been central to multiple strata of conflict. This is why the EU has undertaken bilateral agreements (VPAs) with timber-producing countries. The Republic of Cameroon joined this process (FLEGT) in 2010 which entered into force in 2011 following ratification by both parties. What is the current situation?

FLEGT, as implemented in Cameroon should lead to improvements. However, at the moment, it seems to be far from achieving its aims of legality and traceability.

In 2015, the journal Mediapart reported that the Commission was refusing to divulge information about the forestry sector of Cameroon. According to the audit, no Cameroonian or foreign forestry companies appeared ready to register (i.e. to provide supporting documentation for their exploitation). As a result, all timber felled in Cameroon and sold on the international market could not be considered legal. It was stated that the audit had one merit: it shed new light on the lack of organisation in the forestry sector and the inability of the system, with its almost institutionalised corruption, to even pretend that the forestry was legal.

Despite the difficult implementation of the Voluntary Partnership Agreements, many issues remain largely unresolved concerning the role accorded to the local communities whose land is exploited. While the VPAs have paved the way for a better understanding of the rights of communities, there are clearly inconsistencies in the forestry policy pursued by the Cameroonian government.

At the beginning of 2017, the new “finance law” in Cameroon reformed the annual forestry royalty. (AFR) and in particular the share of local communities. The AFR is essential because it allows local, regional and neighbouring villages to share in the income from the management of their forests in order to support local development. The annual forestry levy, which was previously set at 10% for the communities, was abolished in 2015 and 2016 and then restored to 6.75% thanks to the advocacy work partly carried out by FODER. Nevertheless, it is still below 10%.

This share in the communities is of paramount importance in that it allows them to finance their own projects (water points, roads, classrooms, etc.).

It is clear that reducing this levy for neighbouring communities will only increase the illegal exploitation of forests and also the social conflicts between forestry industry and local populations.

The process referred to in the Voluntary Partnership Agreement will never achieve its objective if local communities are implicitly encouraged to work illegally. Good forest governance cannot be conceived as marginalising and impoverishing local communities in favour of large industries (forestry, mining or agro-food) located in the territory.

The incompatibility of the talk and the instruments deployed reflect either a very poor understanding of the problem or a lack of political will to regulate the sector, whose first victims are the local people.

– Sara Cessans

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