KADEY, Cameroon, Feb 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In an
innovative push to combat illegal logging and the corruption
that enables it, community volunteers in Cameroon are being
trained to use smartphones to take geo-tagged images of freshly
cut stumps and relay the information to the authorities.
Under a partnership between the government and environmental
groups, young people are using satellite-linked phones to
document tree-cutting in areas where logging is not allowed.
They can then upload the photos and make toll-free calls to
report the suspicious activity, not just to the police and
forest ministry, but also to the National Anti-Corruption
Commission, said Bangya Dieudonne, a forestry and wildlife
official in Kadey, in the country's East Region.
"Getting these three institutions informed makes it
difficult for forest exploitation criminals to bribe their way
through," he said.
Training frontline forest defenders aims to reduce illegal
deforestation, which is depriving the government of billions of
CFA francs in income, hurting communities that make their living
from the forest, and making the country more vulnerable to the
effects of climate change, officials said.
With corruption continuing to hamper forest management, new
and stronger measures are needed, Dieudonne said.
So far, more than 100 people have been trained as community
"forest defenders" in the East Region and other areas where
logging has been especially prevalent, officials said.
The training has been organised in collaboration with FODER
(Forest and Rural Development), a Cameroonian group that works
with communities to monitor forest activities, combat corruption
and improve governance of forests. The Rainforest Foundation UK
is also supporting the project.
Rodrique Ngozo, FODER's chief of programmes, said the forest
defenders would act as whistle-blowers under the legal
protection of the government.
Such work can be risky, however. Global Witness, an
international human rights organisation, documented 185 killings
of people defending their forests, land or rivers across 16
countries in 2015, the highest annual death toll on record.
Eric Tah of Cameroon wildlife law enforcement organisation
LAGA, which works with the government, described the forest
defenders' work as "a tough job".
"You must be committed to do it and the government is aware
of the dangers involved," he said.
Security has been beefed up by deploying elite soldiers in
forested areas to support forest guards and community defenders
in their efforts to stop illegal operators, he added.
'IN THEIR OWN BEST INTEREST'
Despite the danger, involving communities in reporting
illegal logging can be an effective way to curb it, not least
because most people living in or near forests depend on them and
have a strong interest in their protection, experts say.
"The forest people are the most vulnerable to the effects of
forest exploitation and climate change," said Manfred Epanda,
Cameroon coordinator for the African Wildlife Foundation.
"They depend on these forest resources for their livelihood
and so, when involved in the control of their own resources,
they do so in the best interest of their community and the
future of their children."
Volunteers say they are expected to pass on what they have
learned to others in their communities.
"We have been trained not only to monitor illegal and
corrupt activities in our forest but also to train others to
better fight illegal logging," said Bertrand Eyoum, one of the
new forest observers in Kadey.
The training has given local people a better understanding
of the importance of their forest resources and the need to
fight corruption, he added.
A report by the Congo Basin Forest Partnership says
corruption is "promoting illegality in the sector with serious
consequences for the environment, local communities and the
state's budgetary revenues".
Timber is Cameroon's second most important export commodity
after crude oil, according to government statistics. In past
decades, logging has accelerated, attracting Chinese, Lebanese,
French and other foreign companies.
The presence of many timber firms, combined with a failure
to apply forestry laws, has fuelled a surge in illegal
activities, experts say. Training volunteers is seen as a good
step, but much more needs to be done to curb illegal
deforestation, they argue.
"The government needs to streamline its forest governance
reforms by putting an end to impunity," said Richard Eba'a Atyi
of CIFOR, an international forest research organisation.
Anicet Ngomin, the forest and wildlife ministry's head of
monitoring for reforestation, said the government was assessing
the gravity of the illegal logging problem and seeking ways to
get communities involved in protection efforts, particularly
since the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
"Empowered people, capable of taking action and contributing
to the protection of their forest resources, will certainly help
in the fight against forest resource depletion," Ngomin said.
In October last year, the government reinstated payments of
10 percent of annual forestry royalties to local communities.
Those payments had been suspended in 2014 after a new tax regime
allocated the money to councils instead.
Officials say progress is being made in cracking down on
illegal logging. Last November, the government suspended the
concessions of 23 logging companies and two community interest
groups working on forest issues for six months.
The government said they were guilty of unauthorised
logging, fraudulent use of documents, and failure to comply with
contractual obligations and technical operating standards.
Earlier in 2016, Cameroon also suspended the licences of
four logging companies, issued 35 other companies with warning
notices and generated 54.2 million CFA francs ($88,139) in fines
related to illegal forest activities.
"These suspensions are the latest in the government's
growing efforts to tackle illegality and reinforce governance in
the forest sector," said Philip Ngole Ngwese, Cameroon's
minister of forestry and wildlife, at September's observance of
International Anti-Corruption Day in Yaounde.
($1 = 614.9400 CFA francs)
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by James Baer and
Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation,
the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking
and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)