By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
YAOUNDE, July 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A rise in Chinese companies operating in Cameroon's timber sector, combined with weak law enforcement, have fuelled a surge in illegal logging that is fast depleting the nation's forests, experts warn.
But the government is hoping a new association it has set up for Chinese firms exploiting forests will strengthen links with officials and enable those companies to work within the law.
Every night, trucks laden with logs negotiate hundreds of kilometres of bumpy earth roads, headed to the port in Douala, Cameroon's commercial capital, where the wood - some of it logged illegally - is shipped to foreign markets.
"We have observed a surge in timber trade activities with the increased presence of Chinese business operators in the sector," said Bernard Njonga, coordinator of Cameroon-based NGO Support Service for Local Development Initiatives (SAILD).
"The illegal forest exploitation and logging business has been compounded by weak laws applied to some groups of persons and not others," he added.
Cameroon's forest loss, as in other countries in the Congo Basin, has increased in recent years.
According to Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring platform, Cameroon lost 657,000 hectares (1,623,482 acres) of forest between 2001 and 2014, with the annual rate of loss rising to around 141,000 hectares in 2014.
"The government does not respect its own laws and many forest malpractices go unpunished," said Augustine Njamnshi, Cameroon representative for the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.
Joseph Armathe Amougou, focal point for the U.N. climate change secretariat in Cameroon, said "laws must be strictly respected" if forest governance reform was to yield results.
Cameroon's government agrees there are some irregularities in the forestry sector, but says measures are in place to address the problem.
Bruno Mfou'ou Mfou'ou, director of forestry in the ministry of forestry and wildlife, said many Chinese timber firms and dealers cannot communicate well in French or English, so they use intermediaries who dupe and mislead them into illegal activities.
"We have realised these Chinese investors fall prey to dubious individuals," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the launch of the Chinese Forest Exploiters Association in Douala last month.
The association, established in collaboration with Chinese officials, will enable Chinese operators "to deal with the government directly", he added.
Association spokesman Stephen Y.L. Chong said it would provide information and advice to members. "This will enable us to operate henceforth within the law in Cameroon," he said.
Forest governance in Cameroon has been reinforced since 2012, with heavy sanctions against violators of the law, Mfou'ou Mfou'ou said.
He cited the suspension of 27 forest exploitation companies in 2012, followed by seven others in 2014, because they lacked the correct exploitation licenses, decisions made in line with the 1994 forestry law.
"We have the obligation to ensure the sustainability of our natural resources for future generations, and this is a collective responsibility of both the public and the government," he said.
But authorities in some European states that import wood from Cameroon are not convinced its forest laws are being respected.
Cameroon was the main source of tropical wood imports to the European Union in 2014, at around a fifth of the total, followed closely by Malaysia, according to EU data.
Britain recently imposed, or warned of sanctions on 14 UK importers it believes to be sourcing wood from Cameroon linked to illegal logging, according to Greenpeace.
That followed a similar move by the Netherlands in March, demonstrating that timber from Cameroon is "coming under increasing scrutiny in international markets", the green group said.
"Cameroon's authorities must examine this new set of sanctions and start investigating the companies in question as a first step to tackle the illegality and corruption in the timber sector," said Eric Ini, forest campaigner for Greenpeace Africa.
In 2009, Cameroon appointed an independent monitor, Agreco-CEW, to oversee forest concession allocations. But its recommendations are not always followed, according to Samuel Nguiffo, head of the Cameroon-based Centre for Environment and Development (CED).
A May report from Greenpeace, for example, said Cameroon timber exporter Compagnie de Commerce et de Transport (CCT) had sourced wood from La Socamba, a company logging several kilometres outside its designated area, which it sold in Europe and China.
CCT and its suppliers now face an audit, which has yet to be officially announced, Greenpeace said at the end of June.
Many Chinese-funded investments in Cameroon, such as a deep-water port in Kribi and mining projects in forested areas, have provided access to natural resources being exploited by both Chinese and Cameroonian firms to satisfy Asian demand, CED's Nguiffo said.
He blamed China's growing environmental footprint in Cameroon partly on the government's heavy reliance on Chinese funding for infrastructure projects.
Since Cameroon launched an investment drive in 2010, China has become Cameroon's prime partner, investing more than $400 million per year, according to statistics from the African nation's ministry of economy, planning and regional development.
About 80 percent of the Chinese loans are for infrastructure such as roads, hydro-electric dams and seaports.
"This dependence has made the country vulnerable and the laws are hardly enforced," Nguiffo said.
In a June report, the World Bank noted that Cameroon's debt levels had increased markedly and a 2015 analysis prepared with the International Monetary Fund put the country at high risk of debt distress.
The increase in debt is the result of large outlays to deal with security threats in Cameroon's north and a boom in public investments - for which it is not clear whether the necessary returns will be generated, the bank said.
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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