Cameroon: Massive, Coordinated Illegal Timber Logging Ring Uncovered, Entrenches Poverty on Forest-dependent Communities

Nadege is a 36-year-old smoked fish seller living in Kikai, a dusty, enclaved village in Cameroon’s eastern region. As a member of a forest-dependent community that rarely benefits from uncontrolled logging operations in the country, Nadege has decided to transform her once-forest-rich farmland into a cocoa plantation to guarantee the future of her five children.

“I went to my farm and discovered that it was logged by unknown individuals,” she said.

“We don’t want the (logging) companies here anymore. They have not been able to provide us what we asked of them—electricity, good roads, water, etc.”

Nadege’s frustration, a physical representation of the misery faced by forest-dependent communities in Cameroon, lays bare the phenomenon of illegal logging in the middle-class central African nation. 

Dai Loi log yard with a long line of delivery trucks coming in (C) Environmental Investigation Agency

A survey jointly conducted by the US-based Environmental Investigation Agency and the Cameroon NGO, the Centre for Environment and Development has revealed that a group of Vietnamese companies operating in Cameroon is at the centre of the booming illegal timber trade between Vietnam and Cameroon. Multiple sources told the team of undercover investigators that large African tali logs and Doussie (a tree species classified as vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List) now sell like hot cakes in Vietnam. The logs which are used to construct and renovate spiritual temples across the Southeast Asian country.

“We realized in the statistics that Vietnam became a growing destination of timber from Cameroon. In 2018 alone, about 30% of logs were exported from Cameroon to Vietnam. We wanted to understand the dynamics and legality of these exports,” said Samuel Nguiffo, Executive Secretary of the Centre for Environment and Development, Cameroon and member of the team of investigators.

“Most of the timber originates from illegal sources. Between 2014 and 2017, exporters from Cameroon reported 308 million dollars less than what was declared as imports in Vietnam. This is more than the USD 90 million annual taxes generated from logging activities in Cameroon when pieced together,” Mr. Nguiffo added.

Cameroonian tali logs processed for the renovation of a Buddhist temple in Vietnam (C) Environmental Investigation Agency

Forests and non-timber forest products contribute USD 780.4 million or 30% to Cameroon’s economy, and accounts for 5% of the annual Gross Domestic Product (Cameroon’s GDP was worth 38.76 billion US dollars in 2019) according to the country’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.

Yet, its people are among the planet’s poorest. At least 8 million Cameroonians live below the poverty line, living on less than one dollar per day, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics. The country has a population of 25 million people.

The report exposes the over 20 Vietnamese companies abusing Cameroonian workers—generally paying less than seven dollars per day and exploiting the dire economic situation in the country to reject demands for better working conditions.

“Communities are not benefitting from illegal logging. No taxes are levied on the timber, no money is given to the local communities,” Mr. Nguiffo said.

Most of the aborigines (Baka indigenous group in East Cameroon) from whose lands the timber is exploited live in hurts (C) Nalova Akua / Timescape Magazine

The report indicates that unprocessed logs account for the vast majority of the timber trade between Cameroon and Vietnam, creating little employment and little added value to the Cameroonian economy.

The timber trade flow between Cameroon—one of the largest African timber exporters and Vietnam—one of the largest Asian processing hubs is depicted as rife with seeming illegalities, --from logging to export, all of which have directly undermined forest governance in Cameroon.

The twenty Vietnamese companies present in Cameroon stand out for their modus operandi. Going by the undercover investigation, the companies do not directly exploit forests. Neither do they hold concessions through which the State entrusts the management of its forest heritage to the private sector. Rather, the companies are presented acting as discreet trading companies, laundering timber from illegal logging from small permits granted outside concessions.