Yaounde — Just over a decade ago, Cameroon drafted a law that was intended to regulate commercial use of the country's forests. In spite of this, corruption and uncontrolled exploitation are putting forest areas at risk, say non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The 1994 Law on the Regulation of Forests, Fauna and Fishing contains clauses that limit logging, with a view to protecting the environment. Those who wish to exploit Cameroon's forests must obtain permits from the Ministry of Forests and Fauna.
The forestry law also requires loggers to plant trees, to ensure that resources are not permanently depleted.
Nonetheless, "The law opened the way for all sorts of logging schemes and racketeering," Roland Bengono, an economist at the forests and fauna ministry, told IPS.
He alleges that officials in charge of issuing permits extort money from loggers, a claim echoed by certain company representatives interviewed by IPS. "You have to spend a lot to get your license granted," said one of the loggers.
In addition, NGOs allege that permits are often granted to front companies controlled by public and military officials -- this to allow them to circumvent constitutional provisions that prevent civil servants from doing business. The eagerness of government officials to profit from the logging industry is attributed to declining revenues in the cocoa and coffee sectors: these commodities used to be Cameroon's main export products after petroleum.
A staffer at the Centre for the Environment and Development, located in the capital of Yaounde, told IPS that NGOs are reluctant to name companies accused of perpetrating corruption in the logging industry "for fear of reprisals." The police shy away from investigating the matter as well, he added, because those who are profiting illegally from logging allegedly include senior police officials.
Companies which try to steer clear of corruption apparently also find themselves in the cross-hairs.
"If you don't want to behave like them, you'll get slapped with frivolous fees...Or, the possibility of getting your permit withdrawn will quickly persuade you to think otherwise," Conrentin Mballa, an executive at the Hazim Logging Company, told IPS. "This unfortunately contributes even further to the looting of the forest and the perpetuation of corruption."
According to the Programme to Secure Forestry Receipts, established in 2000, fees paid to the public treasury by logging companies brought in 98 million dollars in 2004. Half of that amount was supposed to have been reinvested in rural communities and those adjacent to logging areas.
However, NGOs which monitor the forestry sector claim that little of this money has made its way to those in need.
"Barely 20 percent of the money received is invested in local development," says Patrice Bigombe Logo, director of the Yaounde-based Research and Action Centre for Sustainable Development in Central Africa. "The rest is used (for)...the personal profit of local elites."
As an example of this trend, he cites the case of Yokadouma, a rural village some 400 kilometres east of Yaounde. Its budget rose from just under 30,000 dollars fifteen years ago to about 780,000 dollars in 2004. But rarely, Bigombe told IPS, are new roads or other facilities built in the village.
Last year, Cameroon was classed as the African country seen to be the second-most corrupt of those surveyed for the Corruption Perceptions Index. This list is published annually by Transparency International, an anti-graft watchdog based in Berlin. Only Nigeria fared worse in the 2004 index.
In a report issued earlier this year, British-based NGO Global Witness alleged that close to 700,000 cubic metres of wood are being harvested illegally each year in Cameroon. This is made possible by the willingness of officials to certify Cameroonian logs as having come from the Central African Republic or Congo. (Global Witness investigates the relations between resource exploitation and rights abuse, in countries around the world.)
Similar allegations are heard in other quarters.
"We're asked for bribes amounting to millions of CFA francs, and we often pay these out," a French national involved in the logging industry, who asked to remain anonymous, told IPS. "This allows firms to avoid paying logging taxes, and taxes for the port of Douala which are imposed for trade relating to Cameroonian wood."
"We'd like to uphold the law. But, what would you have us do when it is ministry officials themselves who are harassing us?"
From Douala, logs are shipped to Europe and Asia. In addition to French firms, Swiss, Belgian, Chinese and Italian companies have logging concessions in Cameroon.
A senior civil servant in the forests and fauna ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity maintained that action would be taken against officials who were shown to be corrupt.
To date, a number of port officials found guilty of graft have been dismissed -- while a French logging company, Bolloré, was fined almost 12,000 dollars in 2001 for illegal activities.