Cameroon loses about US$60 000 000 a year through the illegal exploitation of timber. The billion-dollar trade may also be benefiting terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and separatist movements in Cameroon and Nigeria.
On 13 January 2021, 21 Nigerians were arrested in Donga-Mantung, the north-west border region of Cameroon, for the illegal exploitation of timber. The single arrest of so many suspects suggests an established transnational syndicate that can only be stopped through a strengthened domestic and coordinated regional response.
The supply chain involves a network of criminal groups and actors that cut across international frontiers. These include local community leaders and timber merchants who serve as middlemen, state officials, exporters, and industrialists in Europe and Asia.
A recent report shows that corruption by local officials and exploitation by Chinese businessmen drive the trade. They facilitate the illegal movement of timber from remote forests in Cameroon to illicit markets in Nigeria and on to sophisticated retail shops in Vietnam and China.
The Environmental Investigation Agency notes that much of the wood exported from Nigeria between 2014 and 2017 was illegally logged (harvested and exported) in violation of state and federal laws. Despite Nigeria’s ranking as second among the seven largest tropical wood-producing countries in Africa, significant quantities of this timber are sourced from Cameroon. The depletion of Nigeria’s own timber resources means it has moved from being a source-supply state to a transshipment state.
The wood is smuggled into Nigeria before being laundered through the domestic market and processed for export to various destinations in Asia and Europe. Over 1.4 million Kosso (rosewood) logs worth about US$300 million illegally sourced from Cameroon were shipped to China through Nigeria in 2017.
Cameroon’s forests span about 22 million hectares, with a range of ecosystem benefits that are vital resources for both biodiversity and economic development. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 815 species of flowering plants in the country are almost extinct. Twenty-six mammal species are classified as endangered or critically endangered in the country’s rainforests due to the illegal trafficking of timber. It is estimated that the Pan troglodytes ellioti population (a subspecies of chimpanzee inhabiting the rainforest along the Nigeria-Cameroon border) has decreased drastically.
Illegal logging also threatens the local livelihoods of small-scale loggers, who are permitted to engage in logging within a limited scope in the community forests, according to Cameroon’s 1994 forestry law. This law gives rural communities access rights to forest resources in or around their villages to enhance livelihood development and reduce poverty.
Taraba State shares a border with Cameroon and serves as the hub of wood racketeering in Nigeria. Due to poor forestry governance, weak monitoring, and corruption by state officials, its forest reserves have been depleted over the past decade.
A member of the Timber and Madrid Buyers Association of Nigeria in Taraba, who spoke to ENACT on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Kosso was no longer available in the state’s forest reserves. Illegal loggers have now moved into Cameroon’s forest reserves to meet the growing demands of foreign timber merchants.
Illegally logged timber from Donga-Mantung is trafficked to Bissaula in Nigeria. It is offloaded at Takum, a popular hub for timber products in Taraba, before being reloaded onto trucks and then trafficked through Benue and Kogi states to popular depots in Obollo-Afor in Enugu State and Sagamu in Ogun State. From there it is hauled to Onne and Lagos seaports and shipped to Hanoi in Vietnam, which also serves as the gateway to the Chinese timber markets in Asia.
Other factors driving timber trafficking include weak enforcement of relevant national laws and the lack of a bilateral response from Nigeria and Cameroon.
In March 2019, Cameroon’s Territorial Administration Minister Paul Atanga Nji issued a memo directing regional governors and divisional officers to ‘introduce disciplinary and/or criminal proceedings’ against officials involved in illegal logging and poaching. Analysts say ‘the memo was particularly targeted at traditional leaders involved in the acts.’ However, this memo seems to have had little impact on the illegal trafficking of timber.
Although forest certification shows potential for checking illegal logging and timber trafficking in Cameroon, lingering socio-political crises in the country’s anglophone regions limit the implementation of this certification.
The Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee (2011), which seeks to address the increasing loss of biodiversity, has remained dormant in the absence of an implementing institutional framework. The plan commits to acting on priorities such as the ‘prohibition of indiscriminate logging of timber.’ But it needs to identify areas where targeted conservation efforts can prohibit illegal logging and timber trafficking through robust bilateral law enforcement approaches.
Cameroon and Nigeria are state parties to the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Neither country has domesticated the treaty as yet, which would provide a supportive framework to address timber’s illegal exploitation and trafficking.
To effectively combat the challenges of illegal timber exploitation, Cameroon and Nigeria need a mutual political and operational commitment that uses existing bilateral frameworks, in both the environmental and criminal justice sectors.
The Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee for example provides a solid platform for this. However, the plan must be implemented urgently to stop illegal logging and timber trafficking through legislative, regulatory, and policy frameworks that are applicable in both countries.
The plan should be enhanced to identify priority areas where targeted conservation efforts can prohibit illegal logging and trafficking through robust bilateral law enforcement approaches. A list of actions needed to secure essential biodiversity resources (particularly flora and fauna) for sustainable development would be an important part of this.
The Cameroon-Nigeria Transborder Security Committee may be well placed to implement the plan and serve as an intelligence-sharing hub. This would provide real-time intelligence exchange and joint security patrols to boost multifaceted cooperation in combating the illegal exploitation of timber resources.
Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife and Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment would be in the best position to enact specific legislation in line with CITES to address the problem.
In addition to this legislation to promote ecological management of plant resources in line with the principle of environmental sustainability in the countries’ contiguous forests, these need to also align with existing legislation in both countries to address corruption by state actors.
Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa