Verdant Cameroon boasts 20 million hectares of forest- nearly half of its national territory. It is Africa’s largest exporter of tropical hardwood to the European Union, most of which is sawn timber destined for Italy and Spain.

Though its reputation as an international timber exporter is well-known, its domestic timber market and trade have been documented only recently.

Cameroon’s national forest policies tend to ignore its existence, with no official data collected to assess 
the sector’s economic, environmental and social impacts, making the State the main loser in the growth of this informal sector.

This is ironic given the astounding volumes traded on this market, as well as the revenues generated from it. Research conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) indicates that if small-scale production of sawn wood sold on the domestic market is accounted for in national statistics, total national production would equal 4.3 million cubic meters per year- nearly double the official figures cited by the government.

Domestic chainsaw milling operations are vital to the well-being of tens of thousands of urban and rural Cameroonians. In recent years, this sector has become as important as the industrial forestry sector, creating 45,000 direct jobs and generating more than $54.6 million USD.

So why does this sector continue to operate in the shadows?

   Small-scale domestic chainsaw milling operations provide more than 45,000 direct jobs in Cameroon. Photo by: M. Edliadi/ CIFOR

Importance of definitions: ‘Informal’ vs. ‘illegal’

What exactly do we mean by the ‘domestic’ timber sector’? Traditionally, it refers to any logging activity that falls outside of the industrial, export-destined timber sector. It is generally practiced by smallholder farmers who use artisanal tools like axes or chainsaws to harvest wood from roadside forests. The entire value chain of this practice is characterized by informal practices, from felling trees to selling sawnwood.

Therein lies the problem. Laws do not exist to regulate these informal practices.

Calling these forest users ‘illegal’ would infer that they are willing to break the laws when in fact, these laws don’t exist. Although informal methods do not always respect the national regulations, they do not necessarily break the law either. For this reason, researchers prefer employing the term ‘informal’ rather than ‘illegal,’ as they do not want to punish smallholders who are devoid of criminal intent.

   A smallholder harvests timber. Photo by: M. Edliadi/ CIFOR
   Sawing wood for timber production. Photo by: M. Edliadi/ CIFOR
   An artisanal logger transports a freshly-sawn wood plank. Photo by: M. Edliadi/ CIFOR


In 1994, Cameroon adopted a new forest law 
that focused on the export-oriented industrial forestry sector. But timber produced through small-scale logging operations for the domestic market remained neglected. This kind of timber remains unrecorded in official statistics.

To add injury to the insult, the few logging permits available to smallholders were suspended from 1999 to 2006. This pushed people to work outside the legal framework, trying to supply a growing domestic demand that remains unfulfilled by the industrial sector to this day.

It’s a Catch-22. Artisanal loggers do not officially exist in the books, and yet are considered criminals in the eyes of the law.

   Wood sellers at the timber market in Douala, Cameroon. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Rampant corruption

Considering local forest users as criminals is an excuse for thousands of public officials, including the police and armed forces, to collect millions in bribes from smallholders.

The informal nature of the domestic timber trade has created a terrifying, inescapable payment system run by state agents for personal profit.

“They are abusive,” says Mefor Chrisantus, a smallholder who sells timber in the marketplace of Doula. “At every step of the value chain, you are faced with corruption. Officials will tell you that your wood is not legal and demand payment. What can I do? I am powerless. No laws exist to protect me.”

CIFOR research estimates that corrupt Cameroonian government officials collect upwards of $11 million USD per year in these informal payments.

   The volumes of timber traded on the domestic market are astounding- nearly 4.3 million cubic meters per year. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
   The transport of wood is often fraught with difficulties. Corrupt officials spring up at 'checkpoints' to demand payment on the roads. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
   Artisanal loggers exasperatedly await the day when they will finally be integrated into Cameroon's legal framework. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Most artisanal loggers want to pay taxes to the State because it would integrate them into the legal framework. But achieving this will not be easy, as it will require winning over individuals whose interests will not be served by the formalization of this sector.

“My greatest regret is that all the money goes into the pockets of fat cats while our government remains poor,” says Chrisantus.

“From our research, we gauge that most smallholders would have no problem in paying regular taxes under a legal framework,” says Paolo Cerutti, a scientist at CIFOR based in Cameroon and co-author of the study. “But it’s a Herculean task because there are thousands and thousands of people involved.”

“We are willing to pay a tax to the State in order for them to protect our industry,” says Effa Antoine, the National President of ANCOVA, an association established in 2012 to group together all the wood sellers in Cameroon with the aim to improve their working conditions. “We are not criminals. We want to contribute to the well-being of the State.”

   Aerial view of Douala's thriving domestic timber market. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

A long road ahead

Since early 2008, CIFOR scientists have been studying the domestic timber sector in Cameroon, alongside Gabon (Libreville), Republic of Congo (Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire), Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) and Central African Republic (Bangui) in Africa; Ecuador and Peru in Latin America; and Indonesia in Southeast Asia.

Cerutti and his colleagues are now moving beyond research to focus on capacity-building and engagement. Since 2015, they have worked closely with ANCOVA to facilitate dialogue between smallholder loggers and the State.

Under the recent Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, Cameroon signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU. This should result in the adoption of a traceability system to guarantee the legality of all products from forestry operations, whether they are sold on the international or domestic market.

It is a welcome first step to bring the tens of thousands of smallholders from the shadows into the light.

   An artisanal logger awaits customers in Douala's domestic timber market. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
   Planks of wood for sale in Douala's domestic timber market. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
   A long road lies ahead for the legalization of Cameroon's domestic timber market. Photo by: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

*With additional reporting by Fai Collins

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