Forest Plunder Shifts to Central Africa

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Does history really repeat itself? In a little more than four decades, the tropical rain forests of West Africa have been devastated by the timber industry and by the slash and burn farmers who moved in when the loggers moved out. Now, it seems, the same thing is about to happen in Central Africa unless something is done to stop it – and soon.

Ghana has learned the painful lesson that even selective logging is not a sustainable strategy and the relatively small areas of forest that remain are now fairly well-managed. The same is not true of some other West African countries, which now face the problem of where to find timber to meet domestic demand, let alone to export. They may find themselves looking to Nigeria as an example, though not a positive one: the country has been a timber exporter these many years.

And today, the companies that have helped to wreak havoc in countries such as Cote d’Ivoire are hard at work in Cameroon, in Zaire, Gabon and the Central African Republic. Unscrupulous, the Food and Agriculture Organisation calls them, and it is not hard to see why.

Cameroon has extensive forest resources, with some 22 million hectares covering nearly half its land area. Until two years ago, the country’s seven million hectares open to exploitation produced a little more than two million cubic metres of wood a year. Now the plunder of the timber companies contributes to an annual deforestation rate of 200,000 hectares. How long will it be before the same is true in Zaire, even richer in exploitable wood?

It is not as if the trade does much for the countries that ultimately suffer. Part of the problem is that former French colonies have continued to be dominated by foreign powers even after independence. In Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, once Africa’s leading timber exporter, even the first step of sawing the trunks was denied to the country of origin. Now, as timber exports from Cote d’Ivoire have declined, the French companies that dominated the business are to be found in Cameroon, Gabon, and the Central African Republic, while the German giant Danzer Group has switched its activities to Zaire.

But if the logging companies’ methods have not changed, the countries in which they operate are at last beginning to see the threats to their precious forests. The Environment Ministry in Cameroon in cooperation with WWF has introduced a pilot scheme for forest certification that could help to transform the way these vital resources are managed.

Certification follows criteria developed by WWF, the World Resource Institute, and timber organisations to show consumers that the wood they buy comes from forests that are properly managed according to recognised ecological, economic, and social standards. It is not intended to be a barrier to trade in timber, but to ensure that destruction does not follow in its wake.

Nor is it a standard applied from outside. The international Forest Stewardship Council – composed of representatives from 25 countries – oversees the certification process according to agreed principles that take account of the rights of local communities in managing their own lands. In other words, it is the people to whom the forests belong who apply for certification. The FSC approves the organisations carrying out the certification, and the timber from sustainably managed forests carries a label to reassure the increasing numbers of green consumers that the products they are buying take full account of environmental concerns.

The aim, of course, is ultimately to stop the careless activities of those timber companies whose only thought is to extract as much as they can before moving on to what for them are merely new sources of profit. Timber production must no longer depend on the continuous opening up of primary forests: the damage is often greater than our ecological systems can stand and will end up ruining far more than just the short-sighted loggers when their business is exhausted.

The industry must see, as its more enlightened sectors are already beginning to, that both its livelihood and the environment will be best served through the permanent management of secondary forests and the replanting for future use of forest land that is already degraded.

It is perhaps too late for Cote d’Ivoire and some other West African countries. What is left may be saved, but what has gone can hardly be replaced. In Cameroon, however, the first small step has been taken. The Forest Stewardship Council certification could mark the beginning of a process that will halt the swathe of destruction the timber industry has cut through the tropical forests of Africa.

So history may not repeat itself, after all. But that will depend on more than just labels stuck on lumber. It needs the cooperation of consumers who really care about where their wood comes from, who are prepared to put their money where their environmental morals are.

And given what has happened in their former African colonies, might I suggest that such a campaign would be particularly appropriate for the French?

Dr. Claude Martin,
Director General, WWF,
Reporting for WWF FEATURES

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