Secrets of the Central African bush trade

Written by Walter van Opzeeland

In his famous novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ published in 1902, Joseph Conrad writes about a river boat captain in Central Africa encountering the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of cruel European treatment of Africans in the ivory trade and the darkness in every human being that causes them to commit heinous acts of evil. More than a century later, the colonials have left, but illegal forest trade and corruption is still widespread in the Congo basin, the second largest rain forest area in the world after the Amazon. But is it all ‘darkness, as the informal forest trade also provides employment and livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people?

“Little research has gone into what is actually going on in this informal industry and what this means for sustainable forest management,” said Paolo Cerutti of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) during the ITTO/AFF Forest Policy day held at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi on 28 June 2012. Scientists decided to take a closer look to find out how this system of informal logging and informal taxes (bribes), as Cerutti prefers to call them, works.

They discovered that forest policies in many timber-producing countries in Central-Africa mainly focus on forest management carried out by industrial, large-scale, export-oriented logging companies operating in the formal economy. However, more than 60% of the sawn wood production in the area is produced by small chainsaw logging operators who mostly work in the informal economy. This sector remains officially unknown in many countries, and its production is recorded neither in national nor in international databases. “How can we manage something sustainably if we do not know about it?” the CIFOR scientist Cerutti asks rhetorically, adding, “This trade provides a source of income for hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas.” It is estimated that around 50% of income generated in informal logging benefits rural communities directly.

In a study that started in 2008 the CIFOR scientists found that informal chainsaw logging in Central Africa is a ‘Wild West’ industry with bribes collected ‘all along the value chain from production and transport to the markets. Corrupt officials are helped by a fuzzy legal system that fosters confusion on the ground—and have ways to pressure any stalwart state officials wishing to stick to the letter of the law. This has implications for how researchers can influence policy makers Cerutti says, “How do you deliver information officials do not want to hear? They are often not interested in the data, because fuzziness is a tool to maintain the profitable system.”

Corruption is therefore a potential root cause of forest policy failure, the scientists conclude. Sanctions against corruption, such as moving officials to other parts of the country, are often inadequate—because the bad elements are able to continue their practices in another place. Moreover, there are no incentives to change mind-sets of the often low-paid officials having to deal with the valuable informal timber trade.

The bush meat trade

In the same forests of Central Africa another illegal activity is taking place: the bush meat trade. In a presentation during the IUFRO/FORNESSA conference held at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi from 26 to 29 June 2012, CIFOR scientist Robert Nasi looked at Gender issues and bush meat. The researchers found that it is mostly men who do the hunting and transport, but the majority of wholesalers and traders are women. There is also a difference in ways they spent the money made in the trade. Women tend to buy food, whereas men spend most of the money on alcohol and cigarettes. The sexes also differ in taste for bush meat, with men in Cameroon for example preferring fox and gorilla, and the majority of women elephant meat. A surprising result considering that it is officially forbidden to hunt and eat bush meat. But the reality on the ground is clearly different, with some restaurants using posters of protected species as menu cards. The researchers point out in a yet unpublished study that understanding different gender roles in the bush meat trade is key to develop measures for change, as it helps target messages that reach relevant audiences, both male and female. “This is important,” says Robert Nasi, “because bush meat is unsustainable in the long term the way it is managed now.”

But what are the policy options for changing the unsustainable practices of the bush meat trade and informal logging in the Central African forests? Robert Nasi is in favour of removal of a blanket ban on hunting: “If bush meat consumption in the Congo Basin was to be replaced by locally produced beef, an area as large as 25 million hectares might have to be converted to pastures,” he says. Therefore Nasi suggests promoting sustainable management of bush meat: Let’s manage what can be managed and protect what needs protection.

Paolo Cerutti argues that sustainable forest management is also the only way to secure timber supplies in Central Africa for the future. “For the moment the trees that the market is interested in are still there, but very soon they will be gone. Therefore we have to put policies in place that promote sustainable forest management, to guarantee future supply.” He is working closely with top officials at the forest ministry to make this change happen, and notes: We can now talk about things that could not be discussed in the past. We want to put policies in place for sustainable forest management that protect the livelihoods of small-scale commercial chainsaw loggers and could benefit the state as well by bringing in millions more in revenue.


Other related articles:

The IUFRO-FORNESSA Regional Congress.

Online carbon technology demonstration set to help farmers.

Can REDD make Africa greener.


Walter van Opzeeland

Walter is an independent communications consultant with almost ten years experience in writing about agricultural research for development in Africa. He worked as a global communications officer for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) from 2003 to 2006. For the past five years he he has been working as a freelance communications and project management consultant for various international organizations and NGOs in East-Africa. Walter has a Masters in Industrial Engineering & Management and he did a postgraduate course in Journalism, both in the Netherlands.

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