For months, authorities in Cameroon were faced with pressure from conservationists to rescind a government contract that allowed the controversial harvesting of timber from a heritage forest.
On August 11, the Prime Minister’s office issued a cancellation decree. Fouda Seraphin Magloire, the Secretary-General in the PM’s office, said there were illegalities in allowing harvesting in the forest.
That move meant the classification of 68,385 hectares in the Nkam, Sanaga Maritime Division of the Littoral Region, South-western Cameroon, as private property had been cancelled and the plot reverted to government management.
“The procedure for classifying the portion of 65,007 hectares of forest located in the Nkam, constituting Forest Management Unit 07 005, to be suspended,” Mr Magloire said of another piece of land in the forest which had been affected by the previous controversial directive.
That the Cameroon government was going back on its own decision about a forest wasn’t a common feature.
But the reserve known as Ebo Forest is one of the last intact ones in central Africa, consisting of indigenous trees.
The controversial move to allow logging had opened it up to Chinese merchants, inciting the ante of the local Banen people and rights activists who argued their last refuge was being chipped away.
Still, down in the South region of the country, the home region of President Paul Biya, Sud-Cameroun Hévéa (Sudcam), a company controlled by a Chinese State-owned conglomerate, has decimated 25,000 acres of dense equatorial forest for a rubber plantation.
Timber from the concession was shipped to China, according to environmental rights organisations including Greenpeace Africa, which described the project as “by far the most devastating clearing for industrial agriculture in the Congo Basin.”
A report by the World Wide Fund [WWF] says deforestation in Cameroon and the wider central Africa region is not as bad as it is in South America or Asia, but that the lack of accurate data on logging means illegal harvesters could be profiting.
And China’s huge craving for logging products such as rosewood has made it a major destination for timber sourced from vulnerable areas in Africa—including even protected areas.
In Cameroon, the Sudcam concession, though considered a legal venture, is adjacent to Campo Ma’an National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site which is home to 26 species of medium and large mammals, including elephants, buffalos, great apes, panthers, Okapis, Chimps and pangolins.
Environmentalists fear lax regulations could influence operators to exceed limits.
Cameroon forms the Congo Basin, that also includes the Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon; all famed for their regular rainfall, rivers, swamps and dense forests.
“The unrelenting timber demand from around the world –- in particular, rapidly rising demand from China -- means the forests of the Congo Basin are being harvested at unprecedented rates,” said a bulletin from the WWF.
“Often, this is done unsustainably or not in accordance with local laws. Road-building by logging companies has also opened up remote areas of forests to poaching and illegal logging.”
According to the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), which promotes indigenous cultures and forests in Central Africa, China is now Cameroon’s biggest timber buyer, often shipping away raw logs as opposed to processed timber.
But tree felling is not just in Cameroon. In neighbouring Nigeria, the high demand for wood and logs by the international merchants has made commercial logging lucrative in the South West and South East, where hardwood of different species and values is found.
Legally, Nigerian states, not the federal government, are responsible for forest resources and many of them hitherto hire forest guards to prevent indiscriminate tree felling.
But merchants from China have been bringing lucrative deals which are too difficult to ignore.
Conservationists are unhappy with the illegal logging.
Dr Elias Williams, a conservationist in Lekki Phase 11, in Lagos, warned that the export market was eating into local needs.
“I am afraid to say that with the way logs are being felled in Nigeria, especially in the South West, a time is coming when it will be difficult for us as a nation to get planks for our consumption,” he told the Nation.
“There is no gain in saying that while people are felling these trees, there are no concerted efforts for their replenishment and that is why immature ones are being cut.”
Chairman of Okobaba Plank Sellers’ Association, Ebutte Metta, said Lagos State, Alhaji Ganiu Onikeku did admit those felling trees were not replacing them.
Normally, Central and West African hardwood trees like Rosewood and Oak take between 30 years and 40 years to mature.
“These days, what we see in the market are immature logs and the qualities of most planks in the market are questionable.”
As part of efforts to encourage tree planting, President Muhammadu Buhari, flagged off “Keep Kaduna Green Project” in 2016, part of the national ambition to get at least a quarter of the country covered with forests.
Nigerian officials say some 576 million trees are cut down annually without replacement, causing deforestation.
Half of the country’s forest cover has been wiped out in the last 40 years, the presidency says.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says Nigeria has just under 10 per cent of forest cover, or some 9 million hectares, but loses about 2.3 per cent of it per year.
Mr Buhari did admit then that there had been gradual desertification, erratic flooding and drought in some parts of the country.
In Ekiti State, farmers have persistently protested the indiscriminate harvest of timber wood.
Ezekiel Ojo, a cocoa farmer, decried an increase in the number of timber contractors indulging in the felling of trees in the area with impunity.
Illegal logging has been rampant in Nigeria’s tropical rainforest ecosystem because of its richness in desirable tropical hardwood timber species and fertile land, according to Mr Victori Oyerinde, an environmental expert in Abuja.
Since 2016, Nigeria has launched a series of national tree planting campaigns in six states in the South West (Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, Ekitii and Osun) and Edo state in the South, where more than 70 per cent of logs are produced.
Community elders have been asked to be the local eyes and ears on who fells trees without replanting. They work with security agents known as Amotekun to track down illegal loggers.
The challenge though, one official admitted, is how to fight the allure of the money China offers.
The danger, a study by Stanford University suggested earlier this year, are viruses that jump from animals to people, like the one responsible for Covid-19, which could become more prevalent as the clearing of forests leaves behind empty land.