African Loggers Begin to See the Light in Forests
Author: Andrew Gray
"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, 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 stretch 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.
But 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.
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 should 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.
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.
It 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 t