The arrival of timber firm SOFHONY with a bag of promises to the forest communities of Djoameodjoh and Biba II in the Lomie subdivision in the Upper Nyong Division in eastern Cameroon a few years ago, brought much hope to Mr Ndovan Pial Felix and his family.
Life had always been a long struggle for the residents of Biba II Village on the periphery of the Dja reserve that hosts more than 1,500 known plant species.
The logging company promised improved livelihood for the poverty-mired communities and according to Mr Felix, it was like turning darkness into daylight.
“We were promised roads, schools, hospitals… and the hope that things will be better made us expectant and happy,” Mr Felix said.
But, his dream and those of the entire village did not last for long because SOFHONY failed to live up to its promise. The communities were today disillusioned and even poorer than they were before.
Like in Biba II, the residents of Cameroon’s dense equatorial forest that straddles the east, south and the centre have all bemoaned the fact that the timber companies have not kept their promises.
Traditional authorities blame the government for continuously failing to include the local authorities in their negotiations with investors.
“Local authorities and forest communities usually have little or no knowledge of what they are due at the beginning of such negotiations,” said Mr Paul Gbalene, a traditional ruler of Djoameodjoh, a mixed forest-dependent community of the Baka pygmies and Bantus.
They were thus calling for proper and transparent procedures that involve the locals from the beginning of every negotiation.
“Communities need to be properly sensitised on sustainable management of the forest and natural resources on which they depend for their livelihood,” said Mr Robinson Tanyi, a traditional ruler and president of the Federation of Community Forests in Cameroon (FEDEFCOM).
There was a proliferation of complaints of massive exploitation and non-respect of the rights of local forest communities in the Central African nation that is home to the second largest forest belt in the Congo Basin, with 22 million hectares of cover, experts say.
Reached a deal
In Lomie in the the east’s Upper Nyong Division where SOFOHNY was present, the conflict with the local community was evident.
After securing two “sales of standing volume” exploitation permits known in French as Ventes de Coupe in April 2013, the Chinese firm reached a deal with the local Djoameodjoh and Biba II communities to pay back $2.5 (FCFA 1,500) per cubic meter of wood exploited from their forest, community leader Mr Gbalene explained.
A truck transports timber from the forest in East Cameroon. Forest communities in the country have decried non-respect of promises by the logging companies. NDI EUGENE NDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
He said the company was supposed to open and maintain the enclaved local community’s road, “but you have seen for yourself what we have, is that a road?” he posed, saying the company was Chinese-owned, though its name was Cameroonian.
While the Djoameodjoh community was expecting $26,000 (FCFA16 million) for wood already harvested from their forest, SOFOHNY instead gave out 800 sheets of zinc valued at $6,500 (FCFA 4 million).
According to Mr Gbalene, the roofing sheets were not even given directly to the community as their agreement prescribes. It was instead remitted through the council, but finally ended in the local Lomie public treasury.
The picture was the same in Djoum in the Dja and Lobo Division in the south,
The indigenous Avebe community was angry with SIBOIS for non-respect of terms of a verbal agreement both parties reached in January 2016.
SIBOIS obtained a government permit and reached an agreement with the community to be paying FCFA 1000 ($2) per cubic meter of wood exploited from their forest, the traditional ruler and head of Avebe community, Mr Mbondjo Remy, explained.
“SIBOIS gave us $1,500 (FCFA900,000) and after felling the forest for about two months, they left, abandoning hundreds of already cut and stamped logs in the forest without giving a franc again,” the traditional ruler explained, saying the company also extended it activities outside its legal logging permit.
In Lembe Yezoum in the Upper Sanaga Division of the Centre region, the situation was probably worse for the local Endoum community. Besides the logs abandoned in the forest, CTA company has imposed a debt of about $113,000 (FCFA70 million) on the community.
“The company constructed a bridge and debited us, though the bridge was meant to facilitate the transportation of their wood. They said they had to deduct the money from what they owed us,” the president of the Endoum community forest management committee, Mr Timothée Engongomo Abomo, explained, saying CTA is a Chinese logging firm.
However, administrative authorities and representatives of some of the indicted companies do not agree with the complaints.
In the case of Djoameodjoh and SOFOHNY, the local Lomie sub-division authority, Mr Oumarou Housseini, admitted that the money paid by the company was delayed because of the 2013 municipal elections, but claimed that it was subsequently used to provide zinc for the community.
“When SOFOHNY brought the money in 2013, it was in the midst of the municipal and legislative elections and the mayor’s signature was invalid, reason why it was kept in the state treasury,” the administrative officer explained, saying the amount was $10,000) (FCFA 6 million).
A senior SOFHONY official, who only gave his name as Cheriff, denied the allegations that the firm owed the community money.
“We paid everything as agreed with the communities and we have the receipts. We paid about $34,000 (FCFA21 million) for one of our two permits,” Mr Cheriff said on phone.
He also denied that the logging firm was Chinese-owned.
“The company is not Chinese, Upper Nyong is not in China.”
Experts recommend the strengthening of the forest governance legislation and strict application to ensure transparency.
According to Forest Governance and Policies Expert Patrice Kamkuimo, some Chinese companies have little regard for Cameroonian forest law and the principles of sustainable management.
“Given the fact that some Chinese enterprises are profoundly tarnishing China’s image and investments in rural communities, it is important that China establish a policy banning the import of illegal timber,” Mr Kamkuimo said.
RECTRAD (French acronym), a network engaged in protection of the environment and sustainable management of forest ecosystems in Africa, says it had made attempts for a lasting solution to no avail.
The coordinator of the network and traditional ruler of the Bityili-Minko Village in the south, Mr Mvondo Bruno, said the Chinese embassy in Yaoundé promised to facilitate a meeting with the Chinese firms in Cameroon to check the activities of logging companies but the result of that promise was still being awaited.
The question of abuse of the rights of forest communities has become a global issue.
A May 2016 report <http://www.forestpeoples.org/topics/agribusiness/publication/2016/securing-forest-peoples-rights-and-tackling-deforestation-democ> by Forest Peoples Programme, highlights the many socio-environmental impacts and human rights violations that communities experience in association with forest loss in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yet globally, communities only hold legal ownership rights to 20 per cent of their customary lands, leaving the door open for states and private companies to reach in, evict villages and cut down the trees in order to exploit the treasures beneath, according to a March 2017 report by Greenpeace.