IN THE RAINFOREST OF SOUTHEASTERN CAMEROON, Feb 2005 (Reuters) – Standing in a clearing by a pile of recently felled tree trunks, Edmond Fouda says life as a woodcutter has changed in recent years.

“Before, we went much faster,” he said, clutching a bottle of water in the searing heat. “It was really wild compared to now.”

Fouda’s bosses are among several logging firms working to be certified as responsible managers of the forest in southeastern Cameroon. This is the sort of initiative conservationists say could help save the world’s second biggest tropical forest region.

The companies have agreed to limit work to specific zones and fell only selected trees while leaving others to grow.

But others have not changed their ways and destroy the forest to produce timber in high demand in the West and Asia for construction materials and furniture, environmentalists say.

The tall ayous, sapele and other trees which cover this area are part of the rainforests of the Congo Basin, which stretches over some 200 million hectares (494 million acres) and six central African states. Only the Amazon has a larger tropical forest area.

The region is home to half of Africa’s wild animals, as well as more than known 10,000 plant species.

Elephants lumber through the thick vegetation looking for food, gorillas race across forest tracks as vehicles approach and insects chirp ceaselessly in the background.

If current trends continue, about 70 percent of these forests may be gone by 2040, says the global conservation group WWF, which is behind several big projects to protect the area.

New paths

The track which cuts through the lush forest to give Fouda’s crew access to the trees they are felling looks broad, more than enough for at least one big truck.

It would have been much wider before the firm, an Italian-owned company called SEFAC that has been criticised in the past by environmental groups, committed itself to sustainable forest management.

Once workers have taken the most mature trees from this block, they are required leave it to regenerate for 30 years.

To achieve certification by an independent body such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), timber firms must also treat workers decently and work with local communities.

“Logging isn’t like it was before,” said Fouda, who as the head of his team can make around 400,000 CFA francs ($770) a month, about 17 times Cameroon’s minimum wage. “We used to have to work a lot more to make this money.”

The leaders of the Congo Basin countries and neighbouring states pledged to promote sustainable forestry at a summit in Brazzaville, Congo Republic, on Feb. 5, but they will need to withstand substantial commercial pressure to succeed.

Logging is big business. Annual sales of Cameroon’s timber alone are between 500 billion CFA francs to 600 billion CFA francs ($990 million and $1.2 billion), experts estimate.

Entire ramshackle towns spring up around a sawmill, which can provide jobs, homes, electricity and trading opportunities, and are condemned to die if it closes.

Western pressure

But commercial pressure can work both ways. Some firms have adopted plans to win certification because more Western buyers – especially governments – are demanding it.

“We saw that it was necessary,” said Guy Decolvenaere, a Belgian 30-year veteran of the African timber industry and managing director of Decolvenaere Cameroon, at his sawmill near the village of Ndeng.

Decolvenaere hopes for more business with British and Dutch authorities in particular by working towards certification.

The business has pledged to do more for local people, including the Baka pygmies who inhabit the heart of the rainforest, and to help wildlife, for example by preserving elephants’ forest corridors.

WWF has trained Decolvenaere staff to use GPS satellite technology to pinpoint both the trees they plan to cut and the locations of animals they come across in their work.

“It gives us a better guarantee that the forests are being managed for the long term,” said Zacharie Nzooh Dongmo, a WWF wildlife monitoring specialist, referring to the decision to cooperate with the company.

Activists say some firms have a long way to go to win certification and many more have no interest in making the grade, particularly those supplying China’s booming economy.

Widespread illegal logging far outside designated zones has been met with little or no punishment, they say.

“It did not lead to meaningful sanctions at all,” said Filip Verbelen of Greenpeace. “That’s crystal clear in Cameroon.”

Greenpeace wants Western countries, whose aid is vital to the poor states of the Congo Basin, to apply pressure for an end to collusion between the offending firms and the authorities.

Local communities also complain that money paid by the logging companies to the state is often not used to help them. The law says 40 percent of concession fees should go to local councils and 10 percent to villages for development projects.

But there is little sign of it having been put to good use in Yokadouma, the biggest town in the forest region of southeastern Cameroon.

Streets are unpaved and unlit and homes have no electricity.

Yet the town has been receiving the huge amount in this poor country of 1 billion CFA francs ($1.92 million) a year, according to Samuel Nguiffo, secretary general of the Centre for Environment and Development, an independent Cameroonian group.

Other communities have done better at putting the money to good use, investing in wells and scholarships for poor children.

But watchdogs say some cash is clearly going into the pockets of local officials. Others are using it to run their administrations rather than fund development projects.

“That’s not what the law stipulates but that’s what’s being done,” Nguiffo said.

(c) Reuters News