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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Safeguarding Cameroon’s Rainforest

Air Date: Week of

Logging truck near Mbong Mbang, Cameroon. (Photo: Eric Whitney)

During the last 40 years the rainforest of Africa’s Congo Basin has been devastated by illegal logging and poaching. But pressure from countries that import lumber has led some of the region’s biggest logging companies to look at the environmental impacts of their business and make changes. Cameroon has some of Africa’s toughest logging regulations and is training the region’s first forest guardians. Eric Whitney reports from Cameroon.


CURWOOD: The destruction of the Amazon Basin rainforest in South America is well known here in the United States. But few people are aware that the world’s second largest rainforest, the Congo Basin in Africa, is in as much or even more trouble.

Now, there is a ray of hope for this corner of the world. Just this year, and for the first time, a major logging company in the Congo Basin met the world’s toughest standards for environmental responsibility. By the end of the year, a half a dozen companies in the Congo Basin could win this certification as well.

Eric Whitney reports from Cameroon, West Africa.


WHITNEY: From the side of a red clay road in Cameroon’s southeast province, the lush, humid, dark green rainforest seems to go on forever.


WHITNEY: And so do the logging trucks. Every day dozens of huge18-wheelers haul load after load of raw logs and cut timber to the Atlantic port at Douala. Most of the trucks carry 3 to 5 logs, but every now and then you’ll see a single, huge tree trunk taking up all of a truck’s capacity.


Logging truck near Mbong Mbang, Cameroon. (Photo: Eric Whitney)

WHITNEY: This has been going on for at least four decades in the Congo Basin, and until very recently, there was little to no control over how much timber was harvested. Corrupt governments, civil wars and consumer ignorance combined to exploit some 80% of the forest with little regard for the future. It’s only in the last decade that things have begun to change, says Susan Minnemeyer of the Global Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

MINNEMEYER: A lot of this is driven by discussions by the EU about banning wood imports from countries that participate in illegal logging. So companies that operate in central Africa are under a lot of pressure, first to prove that the wood that they produce is produced legally, and then beyond that, to show that it’s done in an environmentally sustainable manner.

WHITEY: The EU is, of course, the European Union, where about half of the big logs are headed. The other half go to Asia, where there is significantly less pressure for sustainably harvested wood. But the European market is big enough to get the attention of some of the region’s largest logging companies.


WHITNEY: Many of the companies operating in the Congo Basin are European owned. This Belgian-owned sawmill is a huge industrial presence, carved out of the towering trees. Stacks of raw logs 30 feet high sit on the bare ground awaiting transformation into planks and beams.

WHITNEY: Jules Esquiles is a manager here. He says his company, Groupe Decolvenare, has always practiced sustainable forestry.

ESQUILES: There haven’t been any changes in the way we exploit the forest. There haven’t been any changes in our relationship with local populations. The only thing we didn’t do for 30 years was to keep records. That’s the only thing we’re missing, proof.

WHITNEY: Because European consumers, and governments, increasingly want proof that the wood they buy comes from green sources, Decolvenare launched an expensive, multi-year effort to have its operation certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, a global non-profit group.

ESQUILES: FSC has it all, all. It’s the most difficult, the most expensive. It has all the inconveniences that are there. It’s really the highest level there is. The advantage they have is they’re recognized worldwide.

WHITNEY: Should it win FSC certification, Decolvenare would be only the second logging company in the Congo Basin region to do so. But about a half dozen others are in line, opening up their operations to independent observers who study and evaluate each company’s environmental and social impacts. Still, most logging in Cameroon and the Congo basin happens with little to no independent oversight.


WHITNEY: Not far from the Decolvenare sawmill the small town of Yokadouma is a bright, busy clearing in a sea of trees. Motorcycle taxis zip around dirt streets between rows of shacks made of rough-cut lumber. Electricity and running water are spotty.
The government’s representative here, Jean Paul Ongba, has few resources to monitor logging operations in the surrounding forest.

ONGBA: Our government doesn’t claim to be able to do 100% verification, but we are gradually working towards this goal.

WHITNEY: Still, Ongba says, Cameroon takes seriously its responsibility to safeguard healthy, productive forests and protect wildlife habitat. The Congo Basin is home to about 50% of Africa’s wildlife, and some 10,000 plants, about 3,000 of them found only here.

ONGBA: Government is looking ahead to the future and thinking of the future, because if we allow anarchy to reign, then there would be poaching, illegal logging, and future generations would no longer have this forest, nor would they have the animals around with them…. Experience has shown that where there has not been any such policy in place, there has been total anarchy and forests have disappeared in little time.

WHITNEY: Cameroon is generally regarded as being the most advanced in the Congo Basin in terms of regulating and monitoring logging. In 1996 the leaders of half-a-dozen Congo Basin countries met here for a rainforest summit, partially to satisfy World Bank requirements for better governance. All the countries now have more stringent rules on logging.

In 1999, the countries mapped out 15 new national parks and reserves totaling more than 17,000 square miles, an area about the size of Maryland and Connecticut combined. But paper parks are one thing, enforcing their protected status is another.


WHITNEY: This spring, under a blazing tropical sun on Yokadouma’s bare dirt town square, 23 new, “eco-guards” celebrated their graduation. The men, and one woman, are paid by the World Wildlife Fund. They patrol the country’s national parks and other forest areas, keeping an eye out for illegal activities.


A Cameroonian policeman with a weapon seized from a suspected poacher, Molundu, Cameroon. The suspect is sitting in the van behind the officer. (Photo: Eric Whitney)

WHITNEY: One of their biggest challenges after receiving their diplomas will be reducing the amount of poaching, both inside and outside the parks. Every year new logging roads push into previously inaccessible areas, making it easy for poachers to get in, kill animals, and ship them quickly to major cities where so-called “bushmeat” fetches high prices.

BONAVONTUE: I must say, the work of an eco guard has a lot of risk.

WHITNEY: Young, fit and thoughtful, Michel Bonavontue graduated with the first class of Cameroon’s eco guards in 2000.

BONAVONTUE: We have to arrest those who are well armed with automatic firearms… and in spite of that we still manage to arrest them, by being careful in the way we approach them.

WHITNEY: This newly graduated class of eco-guards doubles the number in Cameroon to 46. They patrol a thickly wooded area slightly larger than Arizona with few guns or vehicles. Cameroon welcomes World Wildlife Fund’s help in paying and outfitting the guards. It hopes to take over paying their salaries in a few years. But a major currency devaluation in the early 1990’s makes it tough for the government to meet even basic needs.
Tough financial times also push people out of the cities and into the forests to make a living. Desire Dontego Kafak came here from the city of Douala, on the other side of the country. He used to make his living as a poacher.

KAFAK: So, when I came down from the west to the southeast of Cameroon with a friend of my father who was a truck driver, then I realized that there were a lot of elephants around the area we were passing on the way. So I told him that the next trip that you’re coming down I will take along my rifle and I’ll be doing some poaching and I’ll be driving the tusks and the meat. I smoked the meat and we take it to Doulala so I can sell it and get some money.

WHITNEY: Desire used to kill 2-to-3 elephants a week. He says it was the only job he could find, and animals seemed plentiful in the forest.

KAFAK: Yeah, I wasn’t concerned about that. I wasn’t concerned. I thought there were many elephants in the forest, I can kill as many as I can to make my living.

WHITNEY: But then he met an American conservationist, who explained that elephants and other animals were quickly disappearing, that the forest as local people knew it was on the verge of collapse.

KAFAK: When he made me understand this and he was explaining the many advantages people can get from elephants – I mean, I was really having a storm – so that’s one of the reasons I said, OK, I’m going to give up this thing. No more hunting, and he said, OK, he’s going to see how he can get an alternative thing for me to be having some money, even if the money’s not much.

WHITNEY: Desire now works for World Wildlife Fund as a field assistant. He’s one of a handful of local people now making a living in conservation here.


WHITNEY: Inside Lobeke National Park, bird life flourishes. Grey parrots fly in flocks by the hundred, prehistoric looking hornbills are common. – And controls on poaching mean that numbers of other species, like gorilla and elephant, are rebounding as well. That means tourists are more likely to make the long trek to Cameroon’s remote new parks.

JEAN: It’s surprising that people come from so far just to watch animals and go back, but it provides me with the opportunity to work.

WHITNEY: Petit Jean is one of a couple of dozen local people who now make a little cash guiding tourists and carrying their supplies into the new parks. The relatively large populations of elephants and lowland gorillas that draw tourists here mean that it’s not safe, or legal, to enter the parks without guides.

At first, local people were skeptical about the new parks, which are off limits to hunting, agriculture and settlement. But now, Petit Jean says, people understand the parks’ role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

JEAN: I think the creation of the parks is a good thing in terms of conserving animals, because if the number of animals in the parks becomes high, it means these animals will not only remain in the park, but can come closer to our homes, and if we need some animals for food we won’t need to go far. It makes life easier for us.

WHITNEY: Beyond this still very fledgling eco-tourism trade, Cameroon is trying to share the benefits of conservation with local people more fairly, so more people have a stake in preserving the forests for future generations.


WHITNEY: Eya de le Mille shows off a new building that is being constructed with money from a new conservation initiative. It lets local people decide how to manage some of the forest in their area. Some communities keep their forests closed to all but subsistence hunting. Others lease them to guides who charge foreigners big money for sports hunting. The local committees get a cut, and invest in projects they prioritize, like clean water, schools or health clinics. De le Mille manages one of the local committees.

DE LE MILLE: One of the things we do in managing wildlife is sensitizing the local people. We have to make them understand that if the animals are no longer here, no sports hunter will come to get the area on lease, and we won’t have income.

WHITNEY: Sports hunters take far fewer animals than poachers, who generally kill as much as they can to supply city markets with bush meat. De le Mille says this gives local people incentive to help the small number of eco-guards in Cameroon.

DE LE MILLE: Our people serve as informants. We give information to the head of the forestry post who manages a group of eco-guards. So when we provide him with information about the presence of poachers in a particular area, he takes action.


WHITNEY: Back in Yokadouma, the town surrounded by the rainforest in Cameroon, youth day is celebrated every spring. All the school children in town put on their uniforms and parade through town, marching toward the future.


WHITNEY: The odds are increasing that this generation will still have some rainforest left to benefit from in the future. The governments of Cameroon and other countries in the Congo basin are trying to balance pressure to sell off the forests with the benefit of protecting it. The carrots and sticks being offered by governments and consumers in Europe are having a positive impact, but environmentalists say that until Asia starts demanding sustainably harvested wood, the forest will yield more money the old fashioned way- cutting it down.

For Living on Earth, I’m Eric Whitney in Yokadouma, Cameroon.



World Wildlife Fund – Central Africa Programme


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