Central Africa

Salvation Through Certification?

Claude Martin, Director General of WWF International, warns that: "After stripping West Africa's tropical forests, timber companies have now set their sights on those of Central Africa. Perhaps the Forest Stewardship Council can avert a major disaster."

In little more than 40 years, says Martin, the forests of West Africa have been devastated by logging companies and the slash and burn farmers who clear the forests in their wake. Ghana, although it has lost much of its forests, has fared slightly better than most West African countries, many of which now face a shortage of timber for domestic use. Nigeria has become a net importer of timber following the devastation of its forests.

Martin says that the companies that plundered the forests of West Africa are now "hard at work in Cameroon, in Zaire, Gabon and the Central African Republic. Unscrupulous, the Food and Agriculture Organisation calls them, and it is not hard to see why."

Cameroon has 22 million hectares of forest -- nearly half its total area. However, the current deforestation rate is 200,000 ha. per year. Zaire's forest resources are even larger, and it may not be long before its deforestation rate rivals that of Cameroon.

In West Africa, says Martin, countries have gained little or nothing in return for the loss of their forests. "Part of the problem", he says, "is that former French colonies have continued to be dominated by foreign powers even after independence. In the Cote d'Ivoire, for instance, once Africa's leading timber exporter, even the first step of sawing the trunks was denied to the country of origin". When the forests disappeared, the French companies who did most of the damage, moved on to Cameroon, Gabon and the Central African Republic.

There is some hope, however, that with increased awareness can help stem the tide of destruction. The nations of Central Africa are showing some concern about the legacy that the logging industry may leave them. "Only last month", says Martin, "the Environment Ministry in Cameroon in cooperation with WWF introduced a pilot scheme for forest certification that could help to transform the way these vital resources are managed".

WWF, the World Resources Institute and timber organisations have cooperated to develop certification criteria to ensure consumers that "the wood they buy comes from forests that are properly managed according to recognized ecological, economic, and social standards".

The Forest Stewardship Council is overseeing the certification process, and it is the owners of the land who apply for certification. "The FSC approves the organizations carrying out the certification, and timber from sustainably managed forests carries a label to reassure the increasing numbers of green consumers that the products they are buying take full account of environmental concerns".

The aim of certification is to put an end to the devastation wrought by companies whose only interest is to extract as much timber as possible as quickly as they can. It is important that the timber industry comes to realise that its survival is dependent on the survival of the forests. The future should lie, Martin believes, in "permanent management of secondary forests and the replanting for future use of forest land that is already degraded". He hopes that the FSC's initiative in Cameroon "could mark the beginning of a process that will bring to a halt the swathe of destruction the timber industry has cut through the tropical forests of Africa".

For this to happen, Martin says, requires "the cooperation of consumers who really care about where their wood comes from, who are prepared to put their money where there environmental morals are. And given what has happened in their former African colonies, might I suggest that such a campaign would be particularly appropriate for the French?"

Source: WWF, August 13 1996.

Return to Contents