YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Cameroon’s government has promised to investigate claims by Greenpeace Africa that large quantities of wood felled when forest land is converted for other uses, such as plantations, are reaching international markets illegally.
Responding to a statement issued by the environmental group on Aug. 20, the director of forests at the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, Mfou Mfou Bruno, said the timber trade between Cameroon and China does not contravene the law.
“To say that timber is sold in the Chinese market illegally with the complicity of the (Cameroon) ministry of forestry is an exaggeration,” Bruno told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We have been implementing sanctions against timber exploitation companies that violate the law and will continue to do so as part of our forest governance policy.”
He added that the forest minister would not hesitate to act if corrupt practices – like those alleged by Greenpeace Africa - are uncovered by the investigation.
In 2012, eight companies were sanctioned for failing to comply with the law, as were three other companies the following year after they illegally exploited and traded in two native timber species at risk of extinction.
Officials at the Chinese embassy in Yaounde said they had no knowledge of any illegal practices in the timber trade with Cameroon.
Cameroonian officials say forest activities contribute enormously to the state budget, and for that reason, the government pays attention to practices that might defraud its coffers.
According to government statistics, forest income increased from 4 billion ($7.86 million) to 40 billion fcfa between 1992 and 2012, with more stringent measures put in place to stop illegal logging and improve control of forest units.
In 2013 Cameroon adopted the Brazzaville Declaration that commits countries in the Congo Basin to sustainable and legal management of the rainforest and the timber trade.
Under the declaration, adopted jointly with timber industry representatives and civil society groups, partners must implement measures that improve timber tracking, transparency and forest governance.
The effort is geared at advancing and reinforcing the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) process, which is led by the EU, according to the declaration.
Greenpeace Africa said there is evidence that Uniprovince, a company owned by oil palm developer Herakles Farms, had cut at least 10,000 m3 of commercially valuable wood, while official documents from the port of Douala showed that a shipment of over 3,000 m3 had already left for the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang.
"Sadly it comes as no surprise to Greenpeace Africa to see this wood find its way to China despite all the evidence of its illegality," Irène Wabiwa, the group’s forest campaign manager, said in a statement.
In a report published in May, Greenpeace Africa documented how Uniprovince had obtained a vente de coupe (small-scale logging permit) without a public auction, in violation of Cameroonian law.
"Three different Cameroonian state prosecutors were given information proving Uniprovince's illegal logging operations, but no action has been taken to our knowledge," Wabiwa said.
"Cameroon's Ministry of Forestry and the EU, in charge of the implementation of the FLEGT Partnership Agreement, were also repeatedly informed, but unfortunately, it did not prevent the wood from being exported."
On Aug. 19, Greenpeace East Asia submitted the evidence to the competent authorities in China, asking them to investigate the Chinese company involved in importing the timber from Uniprovince.
According to Greenpeace, the case of the illegal logging permit obtained by Uniprovince is “just the tip of the iceberg”. There are strong indications that the allocation of 13 ventes de coupe earlier this year, to a variety of timber companies for operations in the Kribi area, had also failed to respect procedure, it added.
EXPORTS SHIFT TO CHINA
A large proportion of the wood from Cameroon's vente de coupe logging operations is destined for China, taking advantage of the fact that the Asian country doesn't yet have legislation in place to prevent imports of illegal timber, activists say.
"If these operations continue with total disregard for the law, it will undermine the credibility of the FLEGT partnership agreement ratified in December 2011, accelerate forest destruction, and deprive communities who depend on the forest for their livelihood in Cameroon," Wabiwa warned.
It is the responsibility of the Cameroon authorities and the EU to ensure that the partnership agreement is implemented and upheld in both letter and spirit.
Greenpeace Africa is demanding that the Cameroon authorities cancel the Uniprovince vente de coupe together with all illegal permits, and prevent illegally harvested timber from leaving Cameroon for the EU or any other destination.
All the wood that has been illegally harvested must be seized in Cameroon or at its destination, and those involved in granting the permits or using them should be prosecuted, the group said.
Cameroon’s forestry officials say that by signing the FLEGT, the government agreed to ensure wood traded within the country and shipped from Cameroon to the EU and other destinations worldwide contains no illegal timber.
According the forest ministry, the EU is Cameroon's main market for sawn timber – taking 80 percent – much of which goes to Italy and Spain. China is the main destination market for Cameroon’s log exports, accounting for 60 percent.
Cameroon, with over 20 million hectares of tropical forests, exports $481 million in timber and timber products, the majority of which - $362 million - is purchased by the 27 EU member states. Cameroon is also an important regional processing hub for tropical timber.
Experts with the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), a Cameroon-based NGO, said it would be very difficult for the government to admit that corruption is occurring in the timber trade with China.
“We all know that since the strict measures put in place after signing the FLEGT process, the timber market trend has increasingly deviated from Europe to China where restrictions are apparently relaxed,” said CED director Samuel Nguiffo.
“Even the government, which is in need of money for its ongoing heavy investment projects, prefers to trade with China now than Europe - but they will hardly say this in public."
Augustine Njamnshi, head of the Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme - Cameroon, said forest corruption would end only if Cameroon’s forestry laws are reinforced with heavy punitive measures.
(Editing by Megan Rowling: email@example.com)