By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Cameroon’s government has introduced a new timber mark that will appear on all legitimate wood products destined for European markets, in a move that aims to protect the Central African nation’s rich forests.
The certification scheme was conceived in line with a voluntary partnership agreement Cameroon signed with the European Union in 2010, pledging to ensure that all harvested timber exported to the EU is of legal origin.
"This logotype is like a legality verification system through which the government can ensure the traceability of timber from the forest to the market," said Samuel Ebia Ndongo, director of forests for the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife and coordinator of the new project. "At each step of the process, we can verify and certify from which forest a particular timber is coming."
Since February, qualifying wood is marked with the letters “EU FLEGT”. FLEGT refers to the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Action Plan, which includes measures to exclude illegal timber from markets, improve the supply of legal timber, and boost demand for responsible wood products.
Experts say the scheme should help check the deforestation that is making the country's environment more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
According to the government, Cameroon has around 24 million hectares of forest - equatorial forest, savannah forest, scrub and mangrove - stretching across three quarters of its territory.
Part of the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest forest ecosystem after the Amazon, Cameroon’s forests are disappearing at an annual rate of close to 1 percent.
Statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation show that, between 1990 and 2010, Cameroon lost almost 4.5 million hectares of forest cover, an average of 220,000 hectares each year.
The depletion of Cameroon's forests is contributing to extreme and unpredictable weather, which the country is struggling to cope with, environmental experts say.
Last September, for example, floods triggered by prolonged rains caused the collapse of the Lagdo Dam, killing hundreds of villagers in northern Cameroon and neighbouring Nigeria.
Farmers also report that climate change is disrupting the seasonal planting calendar. In the past three years, Cameroon's rainy season, which usually starts in June, has arrived as early as February.
MORE REFORMS NEEDED
While the timber certification scheme has generally been welcomed, some believe the government needs to think bigger if it is going to save Cameroon's forests and curb the effects of climate change.
“I think the institution of a logo or official stamp to check illegal forest exploitation and sale of timber is a positive step forward," said Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative, a coalition of organisations that supports the rights of rural peoples to access natural resources. "But the project by itself will not be adequate. Addressing the problem of forest governance and the fight against climate change requires state-wide reforms.”
Without reforms that cut across the different ministerial departments charged with forest rights and legal issues, achieving good forest governance in Cameroon will be an unattainable aspiration, as in many other African countries, White said.
A recent study by Cameroon’s National Steering Committee of Forest Control and Monitoring appears to confirm that view. In 2012, over 1 billion CFA francs ($2 million) were collected as dues for forest exploitation offences, indicating that illicit logging is still rampant in spite of Cameroon's agreement with the EU, the report said.
FARMING AND LOGGING
Many environmentalists believe the government deserves much of the blame for Cameroon's disappearing forests. Samuel Nguiffo, director of the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), a local NGO, points to the failure to apply forest laws, which in turn makes it hard to implement reforms.
“The forests of Cameroon have undergone an extensive conversion over the last decades," said Nguiffo. "Large areas have become agricultural lands, and logging concessions are now found in the heart of intact forests in the eastern and southern parts of the country.”
Research carried out by the CED in 2011 showed that illegal timber dealers routinely bribe government officials to continue doing business, he noted.
In recent years, the area annually opened up for logging has increased significantly, as has the number of species harvested, according to the CED. Its research shows that some 80 percent of forests have either been logged or allocated as logging concessions, mostly to French firms.
Cameroon was Africa's largest producer of timber in 2010, almost 60 percent of which was exported, according to a 2011 report by the Ministry of the Economy, Planning and Regional Development.
The forestry sector is the country’s second-largest export earner after oil, generating around 20 percent of export revenue and employing some 55,000 people, the report said. Cameroon could become a major exporter of timber and other wood products if it had better transport infrastructure, it added.
Nguiffo believes there are ways to profit from Cameroon's forests while also preserving them. But the multiple pressures on forest resources mean using them sustainably will require more than a certification scheme with a logotype, he said.
“Any meaningful reforms should enable people in the forest areas to make a living legally in a way that does not threaten resources and at the same time yields significant revenue for the state," he argued.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.
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