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

Destruction by Decree

Air Date: Week of

Alexa Dvorson reports from the West African nation of Cameroon on the continued rapid rate of rainforest deforestation there. Promises have been made and broken by European loggers about building schools and roads for the local inhabitants, and some Camerounians have protested and been jailed for their actions. Meanwhile, Dvorson explains that the country's President has vowed to be the leader in African timber exports.


CURWOOD: Long after most of the former colonial powers departed from Africa 30 years ago, France, Great Britain, and other European Community members have stayed on to log in West Africa. Africa's forests are now disappearing at a faster rate than any in the world, yet they receive the least public attention. Every year in Africa, a forest area the size of Switzerland disappears. With 75% of West Africa virtually logged out, the Europeans are now heading into the heart of the continent: the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Zaire. One of the African nations that has been hit hardest by deforestation in recent years is Cameroon. Experts say at the current rate, a child born today might see all of Cameroon's remaining forests disappear in his or her lifetime. Alexa Dvorson recently traveled to Cameroon to investigate.

(People singing)

DVORSON: In the lush, muddy outskirts of town, women of the Bamileke tribe, one of over 200 ethnic groups of Cameroon, weep and sing at sunset to mark the end of a grieving period after a family member has died. The ceremony lasts for hours. By the time it's over, the crying gives way to dancing and laughter. But when it comes to the forest in Cameroon, the grieving is far from over.

WOMAN: [Speaks in native language]
TRANSLATOR: What bothers me is that every time you look at the road, you see another logging truck taking our trees away, at least 100 trucks a day. But we never see any of the money, and this country is so poor and underdeveloped. We are friendly with the French, but they are robbing the riches our grandparents should be leaving to us, the children. They are taking our rights away with our riches. They just take everything and run.

DVORSON: Yaya is only 12, but he's seen enough to understand what the European timber industry is doing to his country. Not only is the tropical forest here vanishing at an even faster rate than in Southeast Asia and the Amazon. The impoverished local residents get next to nothing in return. But Tobias Mbenkum, an official at the Environment Ministry, says Cameroon has no choice but to oblige the Europeans.

MBENKUM: The forests are being exploited in order to alleviate poverty, and we are simply saying that the country is pushed and forced to depend on these resources in order to have a source of revenue for our people.

DVORSON: But it's widely known, isn't it, that Cameroon is hardly benefiting at all from the exploitation. It's the European companies who are getting rich, not you.

MBENKUM: You know, as a Cameroonian I feel very cheated. I think that the government could be described as being victim of circumstances.

(People singing)

DVORSON: Circumstances is shorthand for Africa's post-colonial legacy. Thirty-five years after independence, the French still maintain a strong political and economic grip on their former colonies south of the Sahara. But if the Cameroonian government appears a victim of these circumstances, it is only adding to the misery with its laissez-faire approach to French logging. The World Bank fully supports the Europeans in their harvest of African timber, and the post-colonial relationship gives France the lion's share of logging rights in Cameroon; over 70% of the timber companies are French. The logging industry employs about 20,000 Cameroonians, but the country derives little other economic benefit. Most of the profits and revenues are shipped overseas along with the logs, and the forest suffers as well.

(People singing)

DVORSON: Officially, Cameroon has tight controls on logging practices. But even though clear cutting is banned, many studies conclude the current practice of skimming, or selective cutting, is not sustainable. Huge areas of forests are often destroyed to locate and cut a single centuries-old tree. A detailed report by a Dutch university claims that the timber companies are not motivated to apply environmentally friendly techniques if they cost more in the short term. Forest inventory, replanting, or improved road construction do not figure anywhere in the loggers' activities. Even Joseph Besong of the Forestry Department's Licensing Division acknowledges that when he evaluates the French timber companies.

BESONG: Dynamic as loggers they meet the terms of their contracts very well. As protectors of the environment, it's a different matter. I don't think that's their goal. Somebody else has to protect the environment.

DVORSON: Who's it going to be.

BESONG: You, for example. (Laughs) Or Friends of the Earth. Why is there so much worry about forests being destroyed? I wish you'd see for yourself what's happening. It will give you a better picture.

(People gathered on a moving train)

DVORSON: Cameroon straddles West and Central Africa, where the continent appears on the map to bend at the waist just above the Equator. On a train ride across the country, the contrast between east and west is striking. In the west, population density is high. Most of the land has been logged out and converted to farmland. What remains of the forest is now a free-for-all. The scenery looks lush but it's scarred by local hunting and unauthorized tree felling. According to a report by Friends of the Earth titled Forests Foregone, the ecological decline in the western part of Cameroon is, like the rest of West Africa, too severe to recover. As we make our way east, the hilly landscape gives way to a flat expanse of tropical terrain. The forests in Cameroon's remote east province, which border those in the Congo and Central African Republic, are still partly intact. But doesn't Cameroon risk repeating in the east the fate of West Africa's forests which have all but vanished? I think back to my conversation with Joseph Besong, the forestry official. He was confident the logged areas would regenerate by themselves, and new legislation would protect much of the rest. He insisted conversion of forest to farmland was a good idea. As for logging's threat to Cameroon's unique biodiversity, with a loss of 2% of species every year, he just smiled. What kind of sustainability is more important, he asked: having more variety of birds and monkeys in your back yard? Or enough mangoes and yams to sustain a local community? In the world's poorest continent, he had a point.

(People yelling, children.)

DVORSON: Despite the change in terrain from west to east, the human landscape of hardship is universal. Even without getting off the train, it's clearly visible how much survival hangs by a thread for much of the population. For the 2 or 3 minutes the train stops at each station, haggard children rush onto the platform, clamoring to shove through the windows whatever they can sell to the passengers. Mangoes, bananas, bottled water, spicy ground fish wrapped in leaves.

(Children yelling; people conversing)

DVORSON: Their livelihoods revolve around this brief frenzy, with only 1 or 2 trains a day. Then we're gone. It's another 2 days travel by collective bush taxi, sardine style, to the village of Mbang in the heart of the forest. Max Francis grew up nearby.

(Tree frogs, bird calls)

FRANCIS: [Speaks in French]
TRANSLATOR: The forest is a divine gift; it's the wealth of nature all around you. I always regarded the forest as a place of lushness and liberty. You feel happy, you blossom like the plants. Nothing can disturb you, you feel free. There are many resources that could help people: the trees, animals, the rivers, everything that's alive in the forest. It's very beautiful. It's another world, very different from the one we are in right now.

(A hacksaw starts up and runs)

DVORSON: Max Francis knows both worlds: the untold wealth of the standing forest, with its natural pharmaceuticals and the staple fruit and oil of the moabi tree, and the calculated wealth of logging. He's a witness to one world succumbing to the other.

(Hacksaw continues)

DVORSON: Because of tree felling, the soil is degraded, waterlogged and eroded. So many areas have been opened by logging roads that the poaching of wild game, especially chimpanzees, is unprecedented. Still, there are jobs here. The village of Mbang is the site of one of the biggest logging operations in the country, owned by the French company SFID. Manager Pascale Mathieu heads the sawmill, which runs day and night.

(Sawing sounds from a mill)

MATHIEU: Very often, peoples are coming here and saying stop working. I say stop working? No, I don't what to stop working. And here I have 600 persons who don't want to stop working, because we eat every day. We want to work for a long time. Stop working? Why?

(A door creaks)

DVORSON: This bush outpost oversees one of only 2 European sawmills in the entire country, where wood is processed locally. Most of the logs are shipped out raw. Every 10 minutes we pass convoys on the brick red dirt road, carrying logs like giant corpses to waiting ships in the Atlantic bound for Europe. Some of the convoys are from neighboring countries, but most are from Cameroon. Every truckload is said to be worth about $20,000. Cameroon earns only around a fourth of what the trees are actually worth. It's the old cash crop syndrome: Third World prices decided by First World customers. And life has become harder than ever since the French devaluation of the West and Central African currency by half, 2 years ago. While the cost of living effectively doubled overnight for millions of people, French timber operators here made handsome profits. But even if the profits leave with the logs, there should at least be enough money in taxes left over to fund some form of environmental safeguards.

MATHIEU: We pay tax to be allowed to go in the forest to see if there is wood. You pay tax to have a license of exploitation. Then you pay taxes on every cubic meter that you cut. Then you pay tax on every cubic meter...

DVORSON: So where's the money? That's anyone's guess. Sawmill manager Pascale Mathieu estimates 90% of the European companies operating in Cameroon pay their taxes. But much of that money doesn't seem to land in the treasury; otherwise, Immanuell Koumbio, a local forestry official, would be able to monitor the loggers' activities. But he can hardly do his job without a vehicle, and he says there are no funds to buy him one.

KOUMBIO: [Speaks in French]
TRANSLATOR: Maybe the money takes some detours. Even if the timber companies pay a lot of tax, who knows where it ends up? It's anarchy in the forest. This disorder comes from a lack of control; this state doesn't give us enough support to do our work sufficiently, to keep an eye on the Europeans. So they do whatever they want.

DVORSON: Not enough control, too much bureaucracy. That's how Koumbio sums up the government's role. Too much bribery as well. In a country wracked by bankruptcy and corruption, officials like Immanuel Koumbio are powerless to control the loggers when they break the rules, and few authorities can resist a tidy payoff in exchange for a few extra unaccounted trees. But Koumbio's written pleas for help in the capitol Yaounde fall on deaf ears.

KOUMBIO: [Speaks in French]
TRANSLATOR: Oh, it's so hard for us. Of course we write. But it's just a waste of your mind. Because it's not our place to advise our bosses of what to do and what's going on. It's their decision. If the boss agrees to something and you disagree, you could lose your job.

DVORSON: Research by the Dutch university shows a high incidence of government ordered transfers of officials who report loggers' irregularities. At the Environment Ministry, Tobias Mbekum makes no attempt to mask the corruption that is fueling the cycle of environmental degradation, poverty, and moral crisis.

MBEKUM: Corruption is now at all levels. People can no longer resist the temptation. When you find salaries reduced by about 60% and then the devaluation comes. They are living below the poverty line. They are living below subsistence. This is the way it all begins.

(People singing)

DVORSON: This cycle of poverty and corruption is the story of resource exploitation all over Africa. But the legacy here is unique because this is the first African country to stage any local resistance to European logging. That's a risky business in a nation most consider repressive and authoritarian. President Paul Biya, who is backed by the French government, has vowed to make Cameroon Africa's biggest timber exporter. He does not like opposition. Even people staging peaceful protests, whether political or environmental, have been jailed or beaten. The recent execution of the environmental activist Ken Saro-wiwa in neighboring Nigeria might serve as a warning to Cameroonians not to stage too many eco-battles in their own country.

YOUMBI: When you are weak you have to accept that you are weak. With the political condition in Cameroon, what is the position of the Cameroonian? It is to sit down and wait. We are waiting for whom to change our situation?

DVORSON: A local affiliate of Friends of the Earth in Cameroon is fighting a losing battle led by Augustine Youmbi. His is a 3-way struggle to reach the government, the loggers, and the villagers on the edge of survival.

YOUMBI: I can only do a little I can. First help people and secondly you can talk about the ecology.

DVORSON: Is it hard to bring across an environmental message to them? To people who think that the notion of ecology is a northern idea from the developed countries that doesn't have anything to do with the reality here? People have lived with the force all their lives, so they think that it will never go away?

YOUMBI: It is very hard to communicate to them, because their poverty is not the same like in Europe. Now, what people need is to survive. When someone doesn't have money to buy something to eat, don't talk to him about ecology; he would say you are stupid, and in this context the ecological message is very, very hard to transmit.

DVORSON: But what about transmitting it to the Europeans?

YOUMBI: Oh! People in Europe are more interested by the profit they take from the wood exploitation in Africa, than the protection of forests. That is the problem.

(People singing)

DVORSON: Originally, a limited timber harvest seemed like a good idea to the villagers. They could benefit from a few more roads to ease the transport of badly needed goods, like clothing, soap, and fuel. But nowadays, conflicts between loggers and local communities seem as common as the logging itself. Companies like SFID refuse to initiate or pay for any reforestation programs. They say it shouldn't be their responsibility. In exchange for permission to enter the forest, logging companies originally offered to repair roads, build schools, and set up health clinics. But after years of broken promises and mistreatment, a few villages took to sabotaging the French operations, blocking roads and setting fire to logging trucks. Attoka Matton, an elder resident of Mbang, has never taken part in such actions. But he's given up even trying to reason peacefully with the Europeans.

MATTON: [Speaks in French]
TRANSLATOR: What could I say to them that would make any difference? I'm no more important than a splinter of wood. A little mosquito out here. We don't want anything for free, just to see our children trained so they could work for a living. I am saying this because we villagers are the most miserable of everyone now. Those people exploiting our forests, couldn't they at least maintain the roads and bridges for us, build a few small schools for our children? That would help. But they've simply forgotten us.

(Radio music)

DVORSON: But as he drives back to his plush, air-conditioned quarters in Mbang, sawmill manager Pascale Mathieu says it's not his job to help the local people. He's a logger, he explains with an apologetic grin, not a charity mission. Above his dining room table with a buzzer to summon his housekeeper, he has a wall-sized map of Africa, with tiny tacks indicating the areas his company has already logged and where he might go next. He's weary of reporters and environmentalists asking him the impossible: to stop logging. And he dismisses the complaints of villagers like Attoka Matton as irrelevant.

MATHIEU: The person saying this is not a person you can easily speak with, because it's not a person that knows exactly the situation. When he can see big trucks with logs and the sawmill and lots of money. It's something very spectacular. He has never seen so much money in his village, and he says I must have my part. This is his problem.

DVORSON: But they're still a human being, and they still have a right --

MATHIEU: Yes of course it's a human being, but living in another civilization completely. How can you speak of economic problem, world market of the wood, of environment? What do they know of environment?


DVORSON: Perhaps more than Pascale Mathieu supposes. Max Francis, who worked for Mathieu's company for a while, soon became disillusioned and quit. He says he's seen enough of the French and the marginal salaries they pay the local workers. His own uncle was imprisoned for months after staging nonviolent resistance to the logging in his own village. Max Francis asked me to take this message back to Europe.

FRANCIS: [Speaks in French]
TRANSLATION: It's not I who created these trees; it's God. So the forest belongs to everyone. In the strictest sense, the wood in this local area should be ours, and if we can't consume it all, it's perfectly all right if you want to come and take some. But please do it rationally and not savagely. Don't take everything. You say you are only taking a little, but I see stacks of it rotting and burning. If you could log in another way, we would say nothing, but this is awful. Because these are the only riches we have left. What will happen tomorrow if you take everything today? That's my message to my European brothers.

(Frogs croaking; other animals)

DVORSON: Cameroon's nickname is Africa in Miniature because its diverse landscapes contain something of every natural feature in this continent. But if the European loggers continue their African timber harvest with the same profit motive as before, a forest in miniature may be all that eventually remains. For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Mbang, East Cameroon.



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