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YAOUNDE, Cameroon (14 November, 2012)_Shirtless and muscular, his skin flecked with specks of sawdust, 58 year-old Dieudonné Ngomo* wields his chainsaw with casual ease. Guided by nothing but oily black lines drawn along the fallen tree at his feet, he expertly cuts a straight plank from the trunk.
“I won’t lie to you – we do this in secret,” he says.
“But it is based on this that the whole country lives. Almost everyone lives from this.”
“We find wood everywhere, in the fallows, in the cacao fields, in the forests,” he says.
But it is not easy work. Ngomo’s chainsaw has injured him many times – and even once access to timber has been negotiated and the planks are safely out of the forest, it is a long and difficult road to get them to market in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.
State officials often stop the trucks and demand ‘informal payments’ before the wood is allowed through, or find the loggers in the forest and fine them.
Ngomo says he wants to obtain a logging permit – but says no one can ever explain how to go about getting one.
“We do not even understand what we have to do exactly. If we had the means to obtain these documents it would be so much easier for us,” he says.
But legal or illegal, Ngomo says rural people won’t lay down their chainsaws.
“It is a job that helps a lot of people, I guarantee this to you. If you think of the carriers, the cutters – it really allows a lot of families to live,” Ngomo says, hefting a plank onto the head of a waiting teenager.
“If I make planks like these, someone else can carry 10 planks a day out of the forest, and gain 5000 CFA Francs [US $10]; and the same over 2 or 3 weeks: here we have saved a family!”
“Not everyone is able to create a cacao plantation, a man might not be able to be a sawyer, but his strength enables him to be carrier,” he says.
“And this allows him to survive.”
Ngomo is forced to operate outside the law, because all timber cut for Cameroon’s domestic market remains poorly governed. When Cameroon implemented a logging code in the 1990s, it focused on wood harvested for export.
“We prefer to call them informal loggers, rather than illegal,” says Paolo Cerutti, a scientist from Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who is studying the issue.
“The problem is in many of these countries where we conduct research, the law is not adapted to the operations that small-scale loggers conduct, making it difficult to be clear about what is legal and what is illegal.”
Cerutti and other scientists from CIFOR and CIRAD (Centre for International Cooperation on Agricultural Research for Development) spent four years studying Cameroon’s internal, informal, timber market, and discovered that it was far larger than expected.
In fact, it is the same size as the formal export market.
“It was not only a surprise for us but also for the administration and for the people we work with in Cameroon,” says CIFOR and CIRAD scientist Guillaume Lescuyer.
“The volumes are very important, and moreover it’s the same for some other countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, where the informal chain is much broader than the formal one.”
This has enormous implications for the governments of Cameroon and other Congo Basin countries, says Lescuyer – especially because many of them are now committed to eradicating illegal logging.
In 2010, Cameroon, like the Republic of Congo before it, signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU under the FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan, pledging to eliminate illegal logging from both its export and domestic markets by 2012.
But when the agreement was signed, the full extent and dynamics of the informal domestic market were not yet known.
Denis Koulagna Koutou, the Secretary General of Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, agrees it’s a big challenge – but his department has made reform a priority.
“The are a lot of anomalies in this sector. Our commitment [under FLEGT] is that we cannot clean up the exporting sector without considering the local market,” he says.
“We are a country that wants to develop; that means we will embark on public works, and build housing for the population; and for these, we need wood.”
“We want to start standardising all timber-related activities.”
Koulagna Koutou says the new research findings have been very valuable.
“We cannot have a sustainable development of our natural resources without viable data,” he says.
“CIFOR was the first in the sub-region to embark on a long-term study, good quantitative research which has allowed us to identify where there are problems.”
“I think that’s very fundamental: the role of research in the sustainable management of natural resources.”
In addition to the statistics, CIFOR and CIRAD have given policy advice to the Cameroonian government, to assist them to try to legalise the informal domestic timber market.
“We have proposed they implement a ‘small-scale timber permit’, which should match the small-scale logger practices now, and then try to implement more sustainable management of these resources,” says Lescuyer.
“For formal logging there is a kind of regulatory framework that sets out sustainable forest management requirements, according to the regulations of Cameroon – but at the moment, informal logging is completely out of this formal framework,” he says.
“It’s a discussion,” adds Cerutti.
“Because we are not politicians, sometimes we don’t know the political background to a situation, so they are the ones telling us this option is possible, or that is not possible, because of these reasons.”
“I think there is good ground for collaboration.”
CIFOR scientist Edouard Essiane Mendoula also worked on the project.
“It’s obvious that the changes will come slowly,” he says.
“But we can already feel a change.”
Like a lottery
In the forests and in the urban sale yards, informal timber traders are waiting for their work to be recognised under the law.
Amadou Hayakou* oversees the daily business in one of Yaounde’s many timber markets. He was elected Market Chief by the 65 people, mostly women, who work there.
“We do not wish to work illegally, we are waiting to become legal,” he says.
“Illegal wood is like a lottery – perhaps today you can make a living, but tomorrow, the day after, who knows?”
He says people would prefer to pay set taxes than run the gauntlet of unpredictable ‘informal payments’ on the way to market.
“When it is legal, you buy the wood at the sawmill, and if you invest two million [CFA Francs – US $4000] you can be sure that whatever happens, you will retrieve your two million, you will never be arrested, your wood will never be confiscated.”
* Names have been changed.
For more stories from the Congo Basin, click here.
The Pro-Formal project (Policy and regulatory options to recognise and better integrate the domestic timber sector in tropical countries) is funded by the European Commission and forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.