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Can’t see the wood for the trees? Look again at the Congo Basin

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Issue date: 
May 10, 2011
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YAOUNDE, Cameroon (10 May, 2011)_The idiom denoting that too much attention is paid to detail, losing the big picture, can well be applied to the Congo Basin.  Export products, such as timber, dominate any superficial glance at the forests of the Congo Basin. Recent studies however argue that there is more to the forest – in this case of the 2nd largest tropical forest in the world – than just its trees as export products. A spate of recent publications highlight that there are massive hidden economies, mainly for domestic and regional consumption- that are largely hidden or ignored.

Whether from a perusal of academic literature or from a policy perspective, timber dominates. Current international and bilateral policy focuses predominately on exported timber, a handful of exported non-timber products, and more recently on carbon.

International agreements include the European Union’s Action Plan on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) and Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA), focussing on (legal) industrial timber exports. VPAs have been concluded with Cameroon, Republic of Congo and Gabon and under negotiation with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species targets the exports of a species in the region such as elephant ivory, leopard skins and the medical bark of Prunus africana trees.  Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) focuses on a trade of aid for reduced carbon emissions. However, the forest produces so much more than just this handful of export products.

The latest State of the Forest Congo Basin 2010, an exhaustive biannual appraisal of the state of the region’s forests, ecosystems, biodiversity, population and socio-economic situation, devotes a whole section to looking deeper into the forest and uncovering the large scale of commerce in four hidden products: fuelwood, bushmeat, non-timber forest products and domestic timber.

Take the fuelwood debate, a major issue in the 1970s and 80s, it has now largely fallen off the international political radar. Contrary to a common view of unbounded richness and vastness of the Congo Basin forests, fuelwood is perhaps one of the most insidious issues, leading to its gradual creep back onto national and the regional political agenda. High proportions (94% in DRC, 88% in CAR and 79% in Cameroon) of national energy production are derived from wood in the region. Used mainly for domestic use in cooking, but also industrial use, rising fuel prices and decreasing availability around urban areas has many implications. Not only the poorest are most the dependent upon wood-based energy, it has severe health impacts, and the sector provides large scale, mainly informal employment to many.

With fuelwood being a secondary driver of deforestation, there are significant implications for REDD, for climate change in fragile areas such as the wood savannahs of the Basin, as well as for biodiversity conservation with protected areas forming a source of timber.  The State of the Forest Chapter on NTFPs indicate that the vast majority of NTFPs used across the basin provide important contributions to household food and  medical needs, as well a cultural use and as multiple tools. The sector is also a major employer- for example in Cameroon more people work in the trade of a handful of the major products than in the industrial timber sector.

Bushmeat is another lucrative trade. Whilst exports to a hungry diaspora in Europe – highlighted recently by Chaber and colleagues – may previously have been underestimated, the domestic market in the Basin appears much larger and remains largely un-quantified. Much of the popular species of bushmeat traded are neither captured either in national statistics,  nor are captured by international trade conventions such as CITES – highlighted by Ringuet and colleagues in 2010.

Like other hidden forest products, bushmeat provides a vital source of nutrition, as well as providing significant employment and revenue for those involved in the trade. These conflicting aspects however have formed a contradictory crisis for conservation and development circles – highlighted by Elizabeth Bennett and colleagues and Robert Nasi and co-authors.

Another veiled forest product with particular international resonance is the domestic timber sector. In a special edition of ETFRN News, Rene Boot and Robert Nasi highlight how little has been known about the extent of local trade in tropical timber producing countries. The case studies on Africa show that local, small scale, often on site (i.e. sawing occurs largely in the forest), sawn timber production is significant, in some countries, such as DRC, exceeding industrial production and timber exports. The sector in the Congo Basin has profound impacts on forest resources and local livelihoods.

These issues are also eloquently highlighted for Cameroon in a recent book by Charlie Pye-Smith. Chainsaw milling (the on-site conversion of logs into lumber using chainsaws), supplies the major proportion of local timber markets with cheap lumber and offers socioeconomic opportunities to local people. Its contribution to rural economies is largely ignored in official statistics and policies. For many sawyers the activity provides the largest proportion of their annual revenues and in Cameroon for example, it employs three times the number of people than the industrial, export sector.

However, the sector is often associated with corruption and illegality – with 75% of timber in Cameroon harvested illegally, and individuals and enterprises sector are largely unregistered.  Regulating and controlling is a challenge due to the mobility of these operations and the informal nature of the sector. Boot and Nasi all emphasize the need to address the informal and local timber sector adequately within international agreements, to enable them to more meaningfully contribute to more sustainable forest management and effective and equitable socioeconomic development.

The implications of looking wider at the products of a forest have wider implications for international agreements. Trade instruments such as VPA and forest certification schemes are increasingly being used successfully to promote the legality and sustainability of timber production in the tropics, but unless they take account of not just domestic timber but other forest products – largely miss out on not only large volumes of timber, but also the completely different ways in forests are used, as well as the critical and direct importance of forest related revenues for local livelihoods. Equitably reconciling these diverse objectives will not be easy. But then, looking through a dense, humid forest is not easy either.

The African continent has some of the lowest rates of producing scientific articles in academic circles say Pouris and Pouris. These recent publications make an important contribution to changing this and to providing an alternative view of the ‘woods’ in the Congo Basin.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut