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The rise in Chinese companies operating in Cameroon's timber sector, combined with corrrupt law enforcement, have fuelled a surge in illegal logging

A rise in Chinese companies operating in Cameroon's timber sector, combined with weak law enforcement, have fuelled a surge in illegal logging that is fast depleting the nation's forests, experts warn.

But the government is hoping a new association it has set up for Chinese firms exploiting forests will strengthen links with officials and enable those companies to work within the law.

Every night, trucks laden with logs negotiate hundreds of kilometres of bumpy earth roads, headed to the port in Douala, Cameroon's commercial capital, where the wood - some of it logged illegally - is shipped to foreign markets.

"We have observed a surge in timber trade activities with the increased presence of Chinese business operators in the sector," said Bernard Njonga, coordinator of Cameroon-based NGO Support Service for Local Development Initiatives (SAILD).

"The illegal forest exploitation and logging business has been compounded by weak laws applied to some groups of persons and not others," he added.

Cameroon's forest loss, as in other countries in the Congo Basin, has increased in recent years.

According to Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring platform, Cameroon lost 657,000 hectares (1,623,482 acres) of forest between 2001 and 2014, with the annual rate of loss rising to around 141,000 hectares in 2014.

"The government does not respect its own laws and many forest malpractices go unpunished," said Augustine Njamnshi, Cameroon representative for the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.

Joseph Armathe Amougou, focal point for the U.N. climate change secretariat in Cameroon, said "laws must be strictly respected" if forest governance reform was to yield results.

Cameroon's government agrees there are some irregularities in the forestry sector, but says measures are in place to address the problem.

LED ASTRAY

Bruno Mfou'ou Mfou'ou, director of forestry in the ministry of forestry and wildlife, said many Chinese timber firms and dealers cannot communicate well in French or English, so they use intermediaries who dupe and mislead them into illegal activities.

"We have realised these Chinese investors fall prey to dubious individuals," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the launch of the Chinese Forest Exploiters Association in Douala last month.

The association, established in collaboration with Chinese officials, will enable Chinese operators "to deal with the government directly", he added.

Association spokesman Stephen Y.L. Chong said it would provide information and advice to members. "This will enable us to operate henceforth within the law in Cameroon," he said.

Forest governance in Cameroon has been reinforced since 2012, with heavy sanctions against violators of the law, Mfou'ou Mfou'ou said.

He cited the suspension of 27 forest exploitation companies in 2012, followed by seven others in 2014, because they lacked the correct exploitation licenses, decisions made in line with the 1994 forestry law.

"We have the obligation to ensure the sustainability of our natural resources for future generations, and this is a collective responsibility of both the public and the government," he said.

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Concord Essen

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