Buea — Cameroon's government is due to introduce legal reforms by the end of the year to redress weaknesses in its two-decade-old forestry legislation.
The new forest code will better protect rainforests and the rights of indigenous communities that rely on them, officials say.
They believe the 1994 forest laws are no longer fit to ensure the preservation of forests and respect for their inhabitants' rights, as exploitation of forest resources expands.
"Since 2010, the ministry of forestry and wildlife and other stakeholders have been revising the 1994 forest laws to get (them) adapted to international laws, and meet growing challenges in forest management, especially in the area of governance. Our revised draft code - that is nearly completed - will by the end of 2014 be sent to parliament to be voted into law," Cameroon's forestry minister, Philip Ngole Ngwese, told the opening of the annual meeting of MegaFlorestais, an international network of public forest agency leaders, in early May.
The gathering, held in Buea in southwest Cameroon, focused on forest tenure and governance, policy and regulation. It also discussed market and business trends affecting forest use, and how agencies should respond to new demand for land.
Ngwese said Cameroon's modified laws will mandate compliance with the principles of transparency in forest governance and clarification of land-tenure rights, in line with international norms.
"It is evident that with more transparency and better governance, Cameroon's rich forest reserves will be better protected and better used to sustain the population," the minister said.
According to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, the central-west African nation lost 4.4 million hectares (10.9 million acres), or 18 percent, of its forest cover between 1990 and 2012. Experts have blamed this on bad governance and weak law enforcement, resulting in a failure to control logging.
Government statistics show that the rate of deforestation in Cameroon has now been reduced to 200 hectares (500 acres) annually.
But Teodyl Nkuintchua of the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), a Cameroon-based NGO, said the government could not credibly claim such a drastic slowdown in deforestation when it is under fire internationally for leasing large areas of forest land to agribusinesses for oil palm plantations.
It is also developing a seaport at Kribi and hydroelectric plants at Memve'ele and Menkin, in forested parts of the country's south, Nkuintchua added.
CED head Samuel Nguiffo said the 1994 forest law does not recognise the rights of indigenous peoples to land, territories and resources they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used and acquired.
"It also fails to adequately protect the many interconnected social and economic rights relied on by the cultures and livelihoods of a range of forest-based communities and peoples, such as the right to food and protection from involuntary displacement," he added.
According to Nguiffo, companies are reaping the benefits of exploiting forest resources, while local communities suffer poverty without roads or health facilities.
"The reform of the Forest Code is an opportunity to redress these failures," he said.
International forest and land rights experts have welcomed Cameroon's move to update its laws.
"Managing forest responsibly is the best way to ensure a better future for the people," Andy White of the Rights and Resource Initiative (RRI), an international NGO, told Thomson Reuters Foundation at the Buea meeting.
White said Cameroon's forest code should be made consistent with international law.
"It should meet the challenges of rapid changes in citizens' demands, increased pressure on forest landscapes, and global trends affecting these lands in coming decades," he said.
According to Denis Koulanya Koutou, secretary-general at the ministry of forestry and wildlife, the new law will give forest communities a say in managing their local area and allow them to hunt a limited amount for food. Local councils will receive financial benefits from companies that exploit the forest to help pay for social development projects.
"The new law wholly takes into account the economic wellbeing of forest communities in line with international human rights law," Koulanya Koutou said.
According to the official, the government has also improved forest management through a voluntary partnership agreement (VPA) with the European Union under its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) mechanism, which prescribes that only legally harvested timber can be imported into the EU.
"The VPA is currently being implemented by a series of forest exploitation companies under the institution and legal supervision of the government.
The total Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified area in Cameroon has exceeded 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres)," Koulanya Koutou said. The FSC is an international NGO that certifies timber products from forests managed responsibly for environmental, social and economic benefits.
According to the RRI, public forest agencies officially control three quarters of the world's forest land.
"Changes are coming at a dramatically faster pace, and new - and sometimes radically different - approaches to forest governance are required," Tasso Azevedo, former director-general of the Brazilian Forest Service, said in a recent RRI editorial.
Azevedo highlighted the need to increase communication and coordination across ministries that have major impacts on forested areas.
Experts at the Buea meeting said governments should work in tandem with their partners - through dialogue, negotiation and exchange of best practice - to better preserve the world's forests.
The national members of the MegaFlorestais network are Russia, Brazil, Canada, the United States, China, the European Union, Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia, India, South Sudan, Indonesia, Peru, Mexico and Cameroon - which represent 75 percent of the world's forests.
"Forest ministries alone cannot guarantee the preservation and sustainable management of their forests," Doug Konkin, former deputy minister at the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in British Columbia, Canada, said in a statement released to coincide with the Buea gathering.
"Other ministries and agencies play pivotal roles in related decision making processes, such as the ongoing climate change negotiations, REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) and carbon sequestration, and bilateral trade agreements," he added.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.
Over the next two weeks, Thomson Reuters Foundation will run a series of articles looking at progress and challenges in developing nations' efforts to legislate on climate change.
The package comes ahead of the June 6-8 World Summit of Legislators 2014 in Mexico City, organised by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).