Jengi fever: Forest management in the Congo Basin
By Olivier van Bogaert
Not so long ago we were exchanging insults with ecologists. Today we are working hand in hand with them – Guy Decolvenaere, GD-Groupe Decolvenaere
These are remarkable words of a Belgian entrepreneur with two logging concessions and two wood processing sites in the dense forests of south-east Cameroon who only several years ago saw environmental groups, like WWF, as an impediment to his company’s way of doing business.
When WWF set up a conservation project in 1998 in this part of Cameroon, with particular emphasis on sustainable forest management, the logging industry was not happy.
At that time management plans were rare within logging concessions throughout the 30,000km2 area that the project covers, with little consideration given to environmental concerns and unsustainable logging practices. But years of work on the ground by WWF to raise awareness on the issue, and to bridge the gap between local communities and multinational companies operating in the same area, have radically changed the picture, or the forest, as the case may be.
Today, in what seems like a complete turn around, Guy Decolvenaere’s company has in place management plans for its logging concessions, recently announcing that it will work with WWF's Central African Regional Programme Office (CARPO) towards forest certification and timber labelling using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards.
“We have chosen FSC certification because of its complete programme, namely forest exploitation, protection and respect of biodiversity, and social aspects that take into consideration the improved livelihood of local populations,” said Guy Decolvenaere, Director of GD-Decolvenaere in Cameroon. “We have also decided to work with WWF because not only are they experts in matters of sustainable forest management, they are permanently on the ground to give a helping hand.”
Decolvenaere is hoping to obtain a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label by the end of this year. When this happens, they will be the first logging company to receive such a label in tropical Africa.
WWF CARPO has been active in the south-east corner of Cameroon since the 1990s. The office’s Jengi Forest Programme, which works in forests covering around 12.5 per cent of Cameroon’s total land area, aims to ensure the sustainable management of the area’s biodiversity and to contribute to improving the living conditions of local people.
As a result of the project, half of the 22 logging concessions in the Jengi region now have approved management plans, with others awaiting the green light. But more importantly, some loggers, who once were focused on opening vast networks of roads into the forest to access the trees, will now lecture you on the virtues of sustainable forest management and responsible forestry — something unheard of in the past.
Some of the forest companies are even using sophisticated technology to minimize the ecological impact. Equipped with GPS satellite cybertrackers — a computerized tracking technology used by WWF for ecological monitoring and offered to logging companies — Decolvenaere's field scouts can easily pinpoint each tree species that has reached the allowable cutting size in their concession. Similarly, they are informed about ecologically sensitive areas and corridors used by animals such as elephants and great apes. Once the information is gathered and analyzed, they are able to reduce the number of forest roads and trail systems built into the forest to a strict minimum.
“We are using GPS cybertrackers to monitor wildlife,” explains Zacharie Nzooh Dongmo, a biologist who works for the Jengi Project.
“We trained Decolvenaere's staff to apply the same technology to their logging operations. We believe that it will help them manage the forest in a responsible way.”
Another company — SEFAC (Société d'Exploitations Forestières et Agricoles du Cameroun), a subsidiary of the Italian company Vasto Legno — is also using this tool.
Yaoundé, plus six
Generous pledges were made at the first Central African Heads of State Summit on Forests, held in March 1999, in Yaoundé, Cameroon (more commonly known as the Yaoundé Summit), which resulted in millions of hectares of new forest protected areas, and important cross-border cooperation to safeguard endangered wildlife.
Six years later, as leaders gathered for the second forest summit in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, WWF warned that two-thirds of the Congo Basin’s forests could be lost within fifty years if illegal logging continues at the current level.
“The Yaoundé Summit resulted in more pressure on logging companies,” said Guy Decolvenaere. “We feel that we now have to meet a higher demand for sustainable timber in Europe where we are exporting our wood products. We are convinced that the costs associated with the fulfilment of certification criteria will pay off in the long term."
Recent decisions by some European governments, such as the UK and the Netherlands, to purchase only certified timber for their public buildings is a major incentive for a company like Decolvenaere.
The Belgium firm harvests 25 different tree species — including sapelli, doussié, iroko, sipo and ayous — on its two concessions in Cameroon, which total 1,280km2. It mainly sells timber to northern and western Europe.
In south-east Cameroon, all logging concessions are now divided in 2.5km2 plots where loggers can only harvest timber in one plot per year. This is a major improvement given past practices of indiscriminate and unlimited logging that was dominated by the timber rush ideology of "as much as possible, as fast as possible".
Logging companies seeking certification have also committed themselves to combating poaching and smuggling of wildlife, and the illicit bushmeat trade — other major problems facing the future of the Congo Basin and an issue directly related to forest protection.
“Central Africa is a model for the entire world on how to reach across borders to tackle the tough issues that are threatening wildlife, forests, and the livelihoods of local communities,” said Dr Claude Martin, Director of WWF International, who attended the Yaoundé follow-up summit in Brazzaville.
It’s not just about trees
The Congo Basin forests contain more than half of Africa's animal species, including most of the forest elephants left on the continent and the entire world population of lowland gorillas. Loggers have often been perceived as the poachers' most natural allies, especially as logging trucks are the main channels of transporting illegal bushmeat from the forest to the country's major cities. Truck drivers sell the meat in the markets of Yaoundé and Douala where it attracts a high price.
But, this is changing.
“Once every three months, there are unannounced controls in Decolvenaere's concessions,” said Dongmo. “This gives us some guarantee that a company is not involved in any illicit activity.”
Decolvenaere has also engaged in an ambitious social programme to complement the company’s application for FSC certification. Hygiene and security has also been improved both in processing facilities and in the neighbouring villages. In total, 500 people depend on activities of the logging company to earn a living. The company offers free housing, electricity and drinking water to its workers. An unskilled worker earns about 60,000CFA (approximately €90) a month, three times Cameroon's minimum wage. A more skilled worker can earn twice that amount.
“We think that we already meet most of the standards of environmentally and socially responsible forest management. We pay our staffs well and we want them to share our goal of being a responsible environmental company,” Decolvenaere added.
The south-east forests of Cameroon are home to many indigenous ethnic groups, including the hunter-gatherer Baka pygmies, who have to deal with the realities of the modern world and the multinational logging companies operating on their traditional hunting lands. For the Baka, the forest is their source of life as they rely heavily on forests products for their subsistence. With reduced access to many parts of the forest, Decolvenaere often meets with the disenfranchised Baka pygmies to identify problems and to discuss solutions. Recently, the pygmies have asked for building materials for their small villages.
Decolvenaere is also supporting other local communities in the surrounding area with a small-scale cattle-breeding programme that provides meat at producing costs.
“This is an alternative to bushmeat, and another way to reduce poaching,” said Isaac Ayache, Manager of Decolvenaere's site at Ndeng, near the area’s main town, Yokadouma.
Such cooperation has greatly facilitated the integration of wildlife concerns into forest management. In addition, WWF, in collaboration with committed forest companies have already done wildlife inventories in six logging concessions, and areas of high value for conservation have been identified in seven concessions. A database to monitor the long-term status of wildlife populations has also been set up in most of the 22 logging concessions, which are owned by ten companies.
“We can look proudly at what we have achieved in good forest management practices over the past six years. However, we must also acknowledge that there are still many challenges ahead,” said Dongmo, the Jengi project’s biologist. “We need to convince more logging companies to switch to responsible forestry, and national laws and regulations must also be better enforced if we want sustainable forest management to become the only reality on the ground.”
*Olivier van Bogaert is a Senior Press Officer at WWF International
• The second Heads of State Forest Summit was held from 4–5 February 2005 in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. The signing of Africa’s first ever region-wide conservation treaty, and an agreement to protect over seven per cent of the Congo Basin forests were the main results of the Summit.
• At the Summit, Cameroon, Gabon and Congo signed a tri-national agreement that will protect 14.6 million hectares of forests comprising Dja, Boumba Bek and Nki, Odzala and Minkebe National Parks. The protection is equivalent of 7.5 per cent of the entire Congo Basin. Also signed at the Summit was an accord allowing free movement of park staffs to facilitate trans-boundary collaboration between Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Republic of Congo in the Sangha Tri-National Conservation Area. This means that park staff can work across international borders to combat poaching, trans-frontier bushmeat trade and illegal logging.
• The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent, non-profit, NGO based in Bonn, Germany. The Council provides standard setting, trademark assurance, and accreditation services to companies and organizations interested in responsible forestry. Founded in 1993, FSC’s mission is to promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests.