Illegal logging and the heart of darkness

Feature story - 22 April, 2003
Imagine looking up and seeing a thick canopy every shade of green, rays of sunlight streaming through leaves as birds twitter and chirp. The humidity is so thick it hangs like a fog over the damp plants on the ground. Something moves in the distance, you can't see what it is, maybe a gorilla? More likely an illegal logger who has come to take it all away.

Caught on the spot in Cameroon's rainfores an abandoned Wijma (GWZ) log illegally cut lies outside Wijma's valid cutting permit. The log has been fraudulently marked using the code of Wijma's valid cutting permit VC 09-04-59.

Tucked into the nook of Africa's western coastline, Cameroon's landscape is a contradiction of dry and vast savannahs in the north and humid, dense tropical forests in the south. Ecologically and culturally, Cameroon is extremely rich. More than 200 ethnic groups make their homes in Cameroon. And the area has a particularly high diversity of wildlife - over 400 mammal species, almost 700 bird species and countless species of plants.

But for how much longer will the communities and the animals enjoy their forest home? Cameroon's environment is under threat. The forests have seen extensive conversion over the last decades. Once lush tropical forests home to many species are now agricultural lands and logging concessions can be found deep in these ancient forests.

In this region, illegal and destructive logging practices are the norm and three Dutch companies are at the heart of the problem.

All three of these companies, Wijma, Reef and CIBEC operate illegally causing severe ecological, social and economic damage. Recent investigations in Cameroon reveal logging has damaged a significant area of tropical rainforest. This illegal logging has also robbed Cameroon of vital taxes since no tax has been paid for the illegally produced timber. All three illegal logging operations have destroyed numerous villagers' subsistence and cash crops. These communities received no compensation for their losses.

It is an industry operating outside the law without regret.

The logging company Wijma has used its legally allocated cutting permit to illegally access and log in areas well outside the official limits of their permit. A good cover in a vast area that is not easily accessible.

But using GPS co-ordinates, our investigations have provided evidence of an illegal road network, log ponds and abandoned logs over an area of about 14 km2. Preliminary estimates indicate that the illegally produced timber is worth about 1,5 million Euros.

In July 2002, working with Centre pour l'Environnement et le Developpement (CED) and Forests Monitor we discovered Wijma logging illegally in another area. This illegal logging operation destroyed many local community farms. Wijma publicly admitted logging illegally, however, to this day, the company is not willing to pay proper compensation to the local community for their losses.

Another company, Reef, has logged outside two legally allocated cutting permits. The population of Molongo Village, located inside an illegal logged area, was extremely angry with the company because it broke its promises to the village. The village population stopped the logging operation by blocking the logging road with palm trees and flowers. Our investigations also revealed a large illegal road network about five kilometres away from the limits of their most recent legal logging title.

CIBEC is a Cameroonian company with a Dutch director. One of its major customers is the Dutch timber trader Hupkes. CIBEC abused the "wood removal permits" of its business partner to organise large scale illegal logging operations in Cameroon.

Urgent action is needed to stop the illegal and destructive logging of Cameroon's last ancient rainforests.

Along with CED and Forests Monitor we are lobbying the Cameroon government to carry out an official assessment of the ecological, social and fiscal damages caused by the illegal logging operations, and to impose financial penalties on the companies operating illegally.

We also want the Cameroon and Dutch governments and the European Union to strengthen legislation against illegal logging and the trade in illegal timber, and make sure these laws are fully enforced.

What can you do?

Once African sawn timber arrives on the market, it is impossible for customers to verify whether it is legal. Logs from legal and illegal sources are easily mixed and could be processed together in Cameroon sawmills or at their destination. What you can do is make sure that any timber products you buy are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council™ or FSC®.

The FSC® is an international non-profit organisation that issues certificates for well managed forests and was created so that corporate buyers and individual consumers can identify products coming from responsible forest management. Look for the FSC® logo to the left on wood products to make sure you aren't buying forest destruction or supporting illegal logging around the world.