Cameroon: Forest in Danger

The equatorial rainforest of southern Cameroon. Here, Daniel Enoudji grows cassava and cocoa.

Eight months ago, he encountered a group of timber traffickers taking his trees.

He didn't have time to react.

All that's left is the stumps: already covered over by vegetation.

DANIEL ENOUDJI: “It's a monstrous machine, I swear. The machinery they have and the organization of the whole operation ensure that it's a quick job. You just run back and forth. When the bulldozers go through your woodland - even though you spend all your time there - you can't get your bearings. You get lost.”

Fifty trees were stolen in broad daylight. Traffickers aim to seize the most valuable species: the moabi, the iroko, or the tally.

These tropical hardwoods, highly prized for furniture and decoration, are exported to Asia and Europe.

In France, 15% of imported timber comes from Cameroon: the largest producer of African wood.

But illegal, unregulated logging is on the rise, and now poses a real threat to this valuable economic and ecological resource.

As well as to the survival of indigenous communities, like the Bagueli.

The Centre for Development and the Environment, an NGO based in Yaoundé, actively fight against deforestation.

SAMUEL: “I would like you to put the Environment Act to one side.”

These activists attempt to enforce forestry laws, intended to supervise and regulate felling. This sector represents 5% of the country's GDP.

The largest logging companies are French, Lebanese, Chinese and Cameroonian, with some operating outside the law.

For 18 months, Flavien has been investigating the Cameroonian logging company, SBAC. He is convinced that they're illegally clearing the forest in the south of the country in order to sell the wood.

FLAVIEN, IN THE CAR: “If you want to conduct an investigation into what's going on in the forestry sector, you have to look into the remote areas where there's still a bit of wood.”
OTHER GUY IN CAR: “The traffickers are quieter there.”
FLAVIEN, IN THE CAR: “They're quiet.”

He has arranged to meet Daniel.

A teacher in Yaoundé for 20 years, Daniel returned to the forest 5 years ago to tend to his family's subsistence crops.

FLAVIEN: “They've overstepped the mark with this illegal logging.”

DANIEL: “They're bulldozer tracks you can see there. They're everywhere! Everywhere! All it takes is for it to lower its blade... Even if there's a tree this big, it will end up on the ground.”

SBAC have a felling licence issued by the government.

DANIEL: “Here's an abandoned block. This block, they just left it like this.”

A licence valid for certain species, and within a certain area. Here, however, we are more than 20 kilometres from the felling-zone granted to them.

FLAVIEN: “Everything that has been done here is illegal. You, here, you were not affected. Binbinda, Moundoum, Messé, were not affected.”

To monitor felling, forestry law requires that operators inscribe their licence number on all stumps. Here, there is no inscription to be found.

More often than not, the exploits of these companies are no secret.

FLAVIEN: “The chief ranger was aware of this operation.”
DANIEL: “He knew about it. He came here from time to time. They all knew about it.”
JOURNALIST: “They report to the department, these people?”

According to Flavien, there is no way the local authorities could be unaware of the practice.

DANIEL: “You see what they've written. I've never heard of VC 000 11 95...”

A bit further on, the crime has been disguised with a licence number.

But this one doesn't correspond to its sanctioned felling-zone.

Nevertheless, it has been stamped and approved by the local head of the forestry commission.

FLAVIEN: “The forestry commission is complicit. This is the mark of the supervisor. When a company behaves like this, it is because they have all of the official bodies behind them. They are not worried.”

Flavien claims SBAC have been able to take advantage of a number of hectares, illegally, for several months. Sold on, the wood can fetch between 5 and 8 hundred Euros per metre cubed. The profits amount to hundreds of thousands of Euros.

And SBAC didn't stop at Daniel's trees.

Ten growers have gathered to file a complaint against the company.

Among them, is Samuel.

He helped Flavien to gather the evidence collated in this file.

SAMUEL: “In the complaint, we take objection to...

the destruction of our cultivated land,

the non-payment of licence-fees,

felling outside sanctioned zones.

There were even some other offences that we found:

for example, they felled trees near waterways.”

The local administration did not respond.

So they decided to lodge the complaint with the Forestry Department. To no avail.

DANIEL: “With everything that's going on, we feel the effects of the corruption that reigns in this country. Because you're not going to tell me... These people who award titles to these companies, it is to them that we are complaining! And when you complain to them, you don't have a case. What do you think the poor villager is to do? The poor villager can only play the hand he is dealt. That said, the corruption goes from the bottom to the top. Starting with the authorities themselves.”

RODRIGUE NGONZO: “Systematically, corruption affects the entire chain. We haven't come across, in our experience of working on the ground, a case where there was a service unaffected by corruption. We have always said that logging is quite a unique activity, insofar as it is always  visible. It is easy to notice it, it is easy to see it. You know if someone is cutting down trees. If you go to a control-post in the forest or on the road, you can tell that there is illegal activity going on within its jurisdiction just from the machinery and timber being moved around right before your eyes. If nothing's going on, there's something not quite right.”

The next morning, we headed west.

Rumour has it that these remote areas are to be plundered by the son of the president. The zone is protected. Logging is strictly prohibited. And yet, it isn't long before we see signs of an unauthorised site.

A group of young people from the same village as Daniel wait at the side of the road.

They claim to be growing cocoa in the forest. In fact, they are scouts paid to locate valuable species of tree to cut down.

A little further on, we catch sight of machinery – less than 300 metres away, sitting at the roadside. Without the slightest effort to disguise the operation, the raiders of the forest go on with their illicit felling.

Just 5% of Cameroon's ancient woodland remains - protected from all human activity.

A few years ago, Jean Liboz publicly raised the alarm. A former forester, now converted, the Frenchman realised the forest was in danger.

Attracted by adventure, the one-time bodyguard of the wife of General De Gaulle was among the first land-clearers of the 1970s.

JEAN LIBOZ: “It was adventure in the truest sense - because I was doing it ten years before the arrival of equipment like the chainsaw. Before, we just had handsaws and axes. With a scaffold at the foot of the tree, you could cut down the tree using an axe. Back then, the guys with the axes would be up on a scaffold made of pretty flimsy branches... The moment the tree gives way – if you're five metres up with an axe – what do you do? It really was an adventure.”

Twenty years later, and the global appetite for timber has accelerated the logging operation in Cameroon. The adventure over, the land-clearers have become the activists.

JEAN LIBOZ: “Forty years ago, we used to cut 8 to 10 species of tree. And we would pick the trees in the forest. We wouldn't cut them down if they were twisted. We picked the tree before felling it. Twenty years later, they'd cut 15 to 18 species. And now today, with the demand from the Asian market, they cut everything. Twisted, not twisted. Holes, no holes.”

In four decades, Jean has seen it all. From land-clearance to pillaging on an industrial scale. He has witnessed corruption take hold and fraud become the norm.

In 2008, he resolved to unveil the shameful practices of the industry. Aided by a French NGO, he undertook 36 months of investigations, before publishing an astonishing report.

JEAN LIBOZ: “The aim was to show the authorities that such fraud and corruption existed, and to try to put forward some ways of combating it.”

Despite his efforts, nothing has changed...

12:06 the road between Yaoundé and the port of Douala amply demonstrates. Trafficking is all around.

JEAN LIBOZ: “It's a Moabi. Export prohibited. So it's going to the port to do what? There's no sawmill at the port. It will be exported in a container.”

Since 1994, it has been illegal in Cameroon to export wood in this form. The legislation was introduced with a view to generating work for the country's sawmills. These large trunks must be lumbered before being sold. (- 12:49)

But a few kilometres from the port, an unexpected sight: we come across an entire stock of contraband trunks. We appear to be in a warehouse.

JEAN LIBOZ: “Ah, you've got a great catch there! Look at the trunks in that container! You've got a great catch there. Export prohibited!”

According to John, this is open-air fraud.

JEAN LIBOZ: “That's a loading bay, over there. This is where the trafficking begins. Once they've loaded the container, it will go back to the port as who-knows-what... but certainly not the cargo that is declared.”

Valuable wood-types are stashed in these containers. They will be sealed, before passing through customs under false declaration.

Everywhere Jean looks, he sees the tricks of the traffickers.

JEAN LIBOZ: “There you go, that's Bilinga. A whole batch of Bilinga.”

Bilinga: a species protected from felling.

JEAN LIBOZ: “All of these are well-known ploys that have been around for ages... But, you know. That's fine. It happens. It'll all be exported.”

To fully appreciate the extent of the trafficking, we must enter the port of Douala.

Within the perimeter: the highest concentration of valuable wood in Central Africa.

We obtain access through Daniel, John's fomer partner.

Discreetly, we head to the lumber yard. 80% of these batches are destined for the European market.

On the surface, everything seems above board - the wood has been duly numbered. Still, nearly 40% of this stock will have come from illegal logging.

DANIEL: “It's a cover-up. Basically, they take wood that is legal to sell, and then they take the unauthorised timber – which they cut using a chainsaw and then plane so that it is is suitable for export – and they mix it in with the wood that has come from sale.”

JOURNALIST: “Is this a widespread practice?”
DANIEL: “Oh yes, this is standard procedure. And not just in small firms; they also do it in the big organisations.”
JOURNALIST: “Have you done it?”
DANIEL: “Pardon?”
JOURNALIST: “Have you done it?”
DANIEL: “Yes, effectively. We've had to. That's how it is pretty much everywhere.”

DANIEL: “What's the advantage?”
JEAN LIBOZ: “Increasing your volume.”
DANIEL: “There you go. Thank you. There are orders, you have to meet demand. If you have an order for 'x' volume, you have to be able to satisfy your client. If, for example, you don't have any of a particular wood-type left in your stock because you've completely exhausted the quota for your forest – that is to say, the amount available in your forest – you have to look elsewhere. You say it came from your forest so that you can export it. That's how it is.”

Whitewashing: giving illegal activity a coat of legality.

DANIEL: “All parties are complicit. The idea of 'unlawfulness' simply doesn't exist if commercial companies and public services alike are involved. In order to put an end to it, there have to be water officers, forest officers, customs officers, all working in close collaboration. If one of them says no, it can't occur.”

JEAN LIBOZ: “So everyone is aware of it. From the smallest to the biggest.”

The illegal timber trade in Cameroon is worth 100 million Euros a year. But half of this is in the form of bribes. For the Cameroonian government, the shortfall in tax revenues is enormous: around 80 million Euros a year.

These timbers will soon be headed for major French ports – Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle. Timber that is often of dubious origin. According to Greenpeace, between 15 and 30% of all wood imported into Europe is done so illegally.

The spokesman for the Forestry Depertment does not deny the existence of corruption, but maintains that Cameroon is on the right track.

CYRIL ONANA: “We cannot refute the claims of corruption, but we can say that it is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. At the level of giving out titles, there is greater transparency. At the level of controlling logging operations, there is greater transparency. You only have to look at those involved in the system. But you have to recognise that the role of NGOs is to exaggerate the facts, and to condemn. They help the government to condemn what isn't right, as well. In order to bring a close to this chapter, we must acknowledge that many efforts have been made in these last few years.”

The European Union is helping the Cameroonian authorities to put in place a system of certification, guaranteeing the traceability of exports.

In five years, 10 million Euros has already been allocated.

This assistance has enabled the training of civil servants, and financed computer hardware for customs officials and other independent controls.

But despite the optimism of the new EU representative, they still have a long way to go.

FRANCOISE COLLET: “I can assure you that from my first encounters here, I get the impression that the Cameroonian authorities are extremely committed to what is, at the same time, if you like, their job, but also a battle. Let us be clear that it is a battle for them as well.

Particularly as a new threat looms: the conversion of forests into industrial farmland.

One case made headlines for four years. It bears the name of a highly speculative U.S. investment fund: Herakles.

In 2009, the company launched an intensive palm-oil production scheme.

The Cameroonian government at the time promised more than 70,000 hectares of forest, at one Euro a hectare. For the American firm, this was a lucrative investment. They cut down the native trees, planted palms, and sold the oil at an enormous profit.

The problem: 20,000 people live within this plot...

...and when the company began to clear the land, before even obtaining permission, the villagers rose up.

The government ordered Herakles to suspend its activities. For a year, everything has been at a standstill.

But Samuel, the director of the CDE, remains on his guard.

With Brendan, from Greenpeace, and Freddy, a cartographer, he monitors Herakles’ every move.

SAMUEL N’GUIFFO: “Nowadays, many of those seeking to buy land are not farmers, but rather financial speculators: people who have experience of the world of stocks and shares, but not necessarily of the world of agriculture, and who view the land as a commodity with which they can play the market. It’s extremely unusual. In doing so, the company deprives communities of the right to benefit from the land. And for these communities, that is a matter of life and death.”

Survival for some, business for others. As compensation for lands ceded for next to nothing, Herakles pledged to leave the felled timber to the Cameroonian State. A false promise, according to Greenpeace.

BRENDAN: “We have an open letter from September 2012, from the managing director, explaining that ‘we pay very low rent in exchange for granting the timber to the Cameroonian government’. And then in 2013, we have a presentation made to investors, which tells us that, in fact, this is not the case, that ‘we are going to export the wood, and make between 60 and 90 million dollars from it.’”

For Brendan, Herakles had always intended to export and sell the wood.

Brendan now hears that the President has personally authorised Herakles to relaunch its operations.

BRENDAN: “I’ve just learnt that the President has signed the decree for Herakles.”

Even though the agreement curtails the ambitions of the investment fund – granting 20,000 hectares for a probationary period of three years – it is a serious setback for Greenpeace and the CDE.

SAMUEL N’GUIFFO: “This is a dangerous signal to send out to investors. Because the message we’re giving them is that you can make mistakes - you can make lots of mistakes, big mistakes - and still be in a position to do well out of it, to stay in the game. And I don’t think this is the message we ought to be sending out to investors nowadays.”

But in Yaoundé, the spokesman for the Forestry Department takes a rather different view.

CYRIL ONANA: “I think we have to give the benefit of the doubt to an investor who wants to develop our agriculture. Cameroon is committed to intensive farming. We ought to wait, and judge them by their results. We have no concerns regarding the ability and determination of this particular investor to successfully implement their planned agricultural projects.”

RODRIGUE NGOZO: “There is a constant tension between the need for the government to increase investment at the national level, to develop the country, to promote economic growth; and on the other hand, to protect communities, safeguard people’s rights, and meet the basic needs of local populations.”

By law, all woodland in Cameroon belongs to the State.

But communities claim a 'customary' right to land they have occupied for generations.

Samuel is attempting to resolve this age-old contention.

On the west coast of Cameroon, he mediates between the government and forest's indigenous population: the Bagueli.

Accompanied by Moses, he pays a visit to one of their communities. These native people were the first to be faced with the reality of deforestation.

MOSES: “Six years ago, the road we've just taken was barely a trail. You couldn't go along it on a moped. And now, as you can see, the forest has vanished, and it's all been converted into a rubber plantation. And basically, that's all the forest that's left for the communities on this side... where they can hunt. After that, there's no more forest. Because on the other side, over there, if you go a bit further, that's oil-palm. And on this side here, it's rubber. So what future is there for these communities?”

On one side, rubber. On the other, oil-palms as far as the eye can see.

More than 3,500 hectares cleared to make way for intensive farming.

And in the middle, the Bagueli: trying to survive off just a few hectares of woodland.

This morning, the rain – very rare for the dry season – has put a stop to any activity.

WOMAN 1: “The way in which we used to live when there was still forest

is not the same as how we live now.

Before, we lived off the bounty of the forest. We ate well.”

WOMAN 2: “Back then, our parents fed us bush meats and forest fruits.

When you went into a Bagueli home, you would find all sorts of meats, like wild boar.

Now we only eat vegetables and taro leaves.

For anything else, you have to go to the market

and I usually don't have enough to buy more than a single fish to feed my whole family.

Pauline's son, Tonton, leaves the village on a lowly hunting mission. The big game have long since disappeared.

To feed themselves, the Bagueli have been forced to fall back on more meagre prey.

Along with the trees, the villagers' traditional remedies have also been taken away. Unable to treat them, Coralie lost two children at a very young age.

WOMAN 2: “We no longer have the plants to treat malaria or stomach aches. They've all been cut down by Socapalm.

They used to be over there, where there are now oil-palm fields.

Today, when someone's sick,

I have to try to remember where I last saw the plant that can treat them.”

The river that was once buried deep in the forest, now adjoins the plantation. Fertilizers and pesticides run into it.

MAN: “We can't draw from it anymore.

It's too dirty.”

The Bagueli must look further afield for drinking water. But there is no guarantee it is truly safe.

Five years ago, half of the villagers left. They joined another community, in denser woodland.

SAMUEL N'GUIFFO: “So why have you stayed here? Why haven't you all gone over there?”

WOMAN: “Because of our grandparents. People who have died here. We can't just leave, and abandon them. They have a power over us too. If we leave them, there will be a war. Bad things will happen.

This is our village. We were born here, and we must stay here.”

According to Bagueli belief, to break the physical link between the living and the dead is to expose yourself to grave dangers. For Tonton, Pauline and the others, time is running out.

SAMUEL N'GUIFFO: “These are cultures that are doomed to disappear, and doomed to disappear very soon. The people will be forced to live in a foreign culture, for which they will not be prepared, and to which they will have great difficulty adapting.”

It will take seven centuries to restore the native forest in Cameroon - if mankind allows it to return.

The only hope for now is that the sacrifice of this ecosystem to the forces of globalisation will bring about an awakening of conscience. The Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon's closest neighbours, are only just setting out down the path of exploiting their vast and ancient woodlands.

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