7 August 2015

Cameroon's Pledge to Combat Illegal Logging Needs More Action and More Transparency

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Everyone - as the old adage goes - has their problems. Cameroon is no different in that regard and chief among them is the plague of illegal logging.

Ships containing illegally felled or suspect timber head to markets in Europe, China and elsewhere each year. The legacy is destroyed forests, destroyed livelihoods, lost revenue and broken promises.

But it is said that the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one. The government of Cameroon seemingly took this step some time ago and in 2010 signed what is known as a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union (EU).

The agreement was devised to tackle illegal trade in timber at source and to promote the long term goal of sustainable forest management.

Next week the Joint Implementation Council (JIC) - a body comprised of representatives from the EU delegation team and the Cameroon government including the Minister for Forestry - are due to meet in Yaoundé concerning the state of play with regards to VPA implementation.

There is plenty to discuss. While addressing, overcoming and solving problems can often be a lengthy journey, fundamentally the will to do so always has to be there. When looking at the progress in implementing and enforcing Cameroon's VPA then it is easy to think that the will to really ensure the agreement functions as it should is sorely lacking.

A key indicator is the chronic lack of transparency in the process. In principle the implementation should be collaborative, involving partners including civil society. An annex of the agreement stipulates that official reports concerning its progress must be published and made available to the public. However local NGOs have been consistently kept in the dark about progress, despite regular calls for information to be provided. Even a bare minimum of details would lend credibility to the process but they are few and far between.

This lack of transparency harkens back to how things worked prior to the VPA. Management of forests and their resources were entirely the domain of the government and access to information was scarce at best. Despite the new commitment to transparency, old habits die hard and the authorities still decide ultimately what information is released and, more pertinently, what is not.

The publication of forestry offenses and the fines handed out (whether they were ever paid or not is another matter) was commonplace long before the ratification of the VPA. An organisation of NGOs involved in the forest sector produced a list of information which the Cameroon government is required to publish but has not and in not doing so undermines both specific articles of the partnership agreement and the entire process.

Another example of information being withheld is the report from the Independent Auditor that focused specifically on the process for awarding logging permits. A good year after its completion it shows no sign of being declared to the world.

In our 2014 report, Licence to Launder, Greenpeace revealed how one such permit was illegally awarded to Uniprovince, a company acting as a front for Herakles Farms, a US company attempting to develop a palm oil plantation in a heavily forested part of south west Cameroon, despite the opposition of local communities and the fact they were operating and clearing forest without a legal land lease.

We sent a letter to the forestry ministry concerning this irregularity in May 2014 but have received no response and the illegal timber remains at large.

It is crucial that the gaps and failings in the process are addressed and acknowledged. For instance, we have urged both the EU and Cameroon to include timber that is the result of forest conversion in the VPA implementation mechanisms, because excluding it seriously undermines the goal to promote sustainable forest management. EU experts should address this issue at the meetings next week if the Cameroonian government isn't willing to table solutions in their own right.

When the government began the process to reform the forestry sector and its legislation, civil society organisations were made to feel involved and encouraged to contribute inputs and recommendations. Speak to most NGOs in the country today and they will tell you they know neither the stage the reform process is at nor whether their recommendation will take place nor when the new laws and reforms will be made public.

This has to change. Civil society organisations are a key conduit between local communities suffering the consequences of illegal logging and the authorities responsible for protecting Cameroon's forests and managing the forestry sector.

If the mechanisms to protect the country's environment and forested areas remains flawed then all of the government and EU's affirmations of commitment to reform and improvement will be revealed as nothing but bluster.

Eric Ini is a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Africa

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