English | French | Home

EU Involvement in Central Africa's Rainforests

MANY ARGUE THAT the Central African region is still subject to a system of neo-colonialism, perpetuated by the former colonial powers, foreign capital and a few powerful elites at national levels.11 France, Belgium, Germany, the UK and Spain all played a significant part in the colonial history of the region and all continue to be powerful partners in terms of trade in resources and the direction of macro-economic policies and conservation initiatives. They are joined in their endeavours by their EU partners, North America and multilateral development banks, notably the World Bank and IMF. There are countless instances that highlight which of the groups of countries — the colonial powers or their former colonies — maintain the balance of power, not least the structural adjustment policies and conditionalities imposed by creditors. President Omar Bongo of Gabon, one of the African leaders most closely allied with French administrations, is said to have described France without Africa as being like a car without petrol and that Africa without France was like a car without a driver.12 For the most part, the former colonial countries, together with the multilateral institutions of which they are a part and the transnational corporations that are headquartered in them, remain firmly in the driving seat, dictating the terms of development and conservation in the region.

Since their independence several decades ago, most of the six countries featured in this report — Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo (Brazzaville), Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Equatorial Guinea and Gabon — have experienced periods of often violent political turmoil. None have yet achieved a robust democracy founded on the full involvement of their citizens. All six countries find themselves unable to provide even basic levels of education and healthcare for many of their citizens. They all have enormous debt burdens, paying multilateral and bilateral creditors huge sums in debt repayments each year. These crippling debt repayments, a lack of democratic space for meaningful civil society involvement and corruption inhibit the emergence and implementation of policies that would facilitate ecologically sustainable and socially just development.

Forest management policies

Within this context, national governments have continued the forest exploitation policies introduced last century or earlier by the colonial powers. They are supported and encouraged in this by the multilateral and bilateral institutions, to whom they are heavily indebted, as part of the structural adjustment policies and economic liberalisation programmes imposed by these institutions as a condition of further lending. Thus, the primary goal of forest policies in the region is to promote industrial timber production for export by allocating most of the forest as logging concessions. The policy framework put in place to facilitate this level of industrial exploitation has little regard for local peoples’ needs and rights nor the capacity of a country’s institutions to monitor and enforce these policies. Forest laws themselves are often unclear or conflicting.

Regardless of the wider issues of socially just development, within this narrow view of forests as a source of timber, serious problems exist in the region’s forestry sector. National laws may set a minimum standard in terms of forestry management practices, but even reaching that minimum standard seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Governments do not have the capacity to monitor forestry companies’ operations nor to enforce legislation (not least because recent World Bank and IMF programmes have required reductions in the number of public employees and their salaries). Although on-the-ground data about forestry activities is scarce from all six countries, it is clear from Cameroon, where the trade’s activities have begun to be monitored more closely by civil society and the Ministry responsible for forests, that illegal logging and illegal trade in timber is rampant; in the East Province, where most timber production is currently taking place, it has been estimated that 50% of timber harvested is illegal.13 Given the weak or non-existent capacity of other national governments to monitor companies and enforce legislation, there is little to suppose that the situation is much different in the other countries of the region.

The recent influx of Asian private capital into the Central African forestry sector has brought more aggressive and more openly short-term logging to the area, with a greater variety of species being exploited in a short space of time, primarily for log exports.14 This approach has been compared unfavourably to the selective logging techniques practised by European forestry companies. Whilst those who advocate industrial timber exploitation in Central Africa’s forests argue that large concessions are required in order to practise sustainable forestry management techniques over a long period, selective logging techniques themselves are not proven to be sustainable, even in terms of sustained yields of timber over the long-term. Most European forestry companies practise selective logging, whereby they extract a few, high value timber species from the forest. Although this method of logging causes less damage to the canopy than clearcut logging, it is not without negative environmental consequences. The search for the best trees means that companies drive roads into relatively large areas of forest to extract just a few trees. This opens up the forest to commercial bushmeat hunters who have decimated wildlife in logging areas. The technique of selecting the largest trees of a particular species has consequences for local uses and for the maintenance of biodiversity, with the regeneration of the target species not guaranteed.

Despite legislation requiring increased downstream processing in-country, such as the production of sawn wood, veneer or other products, which would bring more revenue, the export of whole logs from the region still predominates, with the processing taking place elsewhere, mainly in Europe or Asia. But value-added processing policies bring problems of their own: demand for logs to supply large processing plants leads to increased pressure on the forests, fuelling unsustainable and illegal timber harvesting. Some argue that there is already over-capacity in Cameroon if the forests are not to be destroyed.

Some European companies have admitted that forestry operations have not been sustainable in Central Africa in the past: a director of French company Rougier stated in an interview with a French trade journal that, for the last 40 years, operations generally have mined the forest.15 This unsustainable harvesting has led to companies moving into new areas of rainforest over time, leaving a trail of forest degradation in their wake. Many of the companies that have been operating for decades in Central Africa are only now starting to draw up forest management plans, although often this work is subsidised and undertaken by third parties, such as bilateral government departments or international NGOs. It is not clear to what extent European companies which operate as sub-contractors can and do insist on sustainable forest management plans when they undertake logging on behalf of other concession holders.

International financial assistance

Much of the drive towards industrial exploitation of Central Africa’s forests has arisen directly out of structural adjustment and liberalisation policies imposed by multilateral and bilateral creditors. France is one of the largest bilateral lenders and aid donors to the region and French companies play a significant part in exploiting the region’s forests (see table 1, page 11). Other EU member states, as well as the EU itself, have provided large amounts of financial assistance — as loans and grants — to Central African countries for decades. Funds are often used for the preparation of forest inventories, for assistance to EU forestry companies to draft forest management plans or for the establishment and running of conservation areas. The European Commission (EC) has made a number of policy statements regarding tropical forests, which have made it clear that the EC sees its role in the context of conserving tropical forests. In 1989, this included a strategy to establish actions with reference to timber trade, within which was foreseen the establishment of a code of conduct for European logging companies. 16 Despite being seen as a priority, this has not happened to date. In 1995, a Forest Protocol was added to the Lomé Convention (Protocol No 10). This Protocol requests, among other things, support to assist African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries to develop sustainable forest management, and stresses the need to get wood from sustainably managed forests onto the market.17 One of the EU’s largest conservation and sustainable development projects is the Conservation and Rational Utilisation of the Forest Ecosystems of Central Africa (ECOFAC), which operates in six protected areas in the region. The project was established in 1992 and has received US$ 33 million.

The World Bank has provided technical assistance for forestry sector reform, helping with the drafting of the current forestry law in Cameroon and the draft new forestry law in Gabon, for example. This technical assistance has been firmly based on supporting the development of the industrial timber sector, with the objective of improving the efficiency of timber extraction and in particular the capturing of economic rent from the sector. Whilst the competitive tendering process introduced into Cameroon may reduce, but not eliminate, corruption among civil servants and transnational employees, the fact that the bidding process is weighted in favour of financial rather than technical merit does not encourage the promotion of sustainable forestry management, and may indeed foster short-term profit-seeking over long-term sustainable forest management (see Cameroon).

By far the most important step towards assisting long-term sustainable development in these countries would be debt cancellation. Most debt is owed to the G7 group of countries, either directly or through the World Bank and IMF. Many of the countries in this report spend more on debt repayments than they do on health and education combined, and repay more money than they receive in grants each year. Some G7 countries have pledged to cancel at least some of the outstanding debt. The World Bank and IMF have established the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), which will cancel some, but not all, debt of some countries (see HIPC, below). Despite the levels of poverty in each of the countries in this report, only Cameroon has qualified to have some of its debt cancelled, although this is conditional on a number of factors, including institutional reform within government regarding the forestry sector.


The Heavily-Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) was established in 1996 by the World Bank and IMF and introduced the concept of "debt sustainability". Creditors assess how much of its debt a country can pay off over the medium- to long-term (sustainable debt) and then write-off the remainder (unsustainable debt). Only debts accrued before a certain date qualify for HIPC, not all debt. The measurement of "sustainable" debt is based mainly on the ratio of debt service payments to export earnings, not to a country's absolute poverty or its people's poverty.

To qualify for reductions, a country must spend six years engaged in strict economic reforms under IMF supervision. It must open itself up to foreign goods, privatise state-owned enterprises, deregulate its financial and banking sectors, cut public spending and implement a poverty reduction strategy. One of the central purposes of the HIPC Initiative is to encourage private investment. An estimated half of the HIPC -designated countries will not meet the reform targets and thus will not qualify for debt relief.

Offloading logs from the Congo Basin in the port of Leix§es, Portugal; July 2000


Europe has dominated the trade in timber from West and Central Africa for decades. As West Africa becomes logged out, the source of logs and rough sawn timber has shifted to elsewhere in Africa. Exports from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, for example, are in long-term decline. In Ghana, formerly a major supplier, 80% of the country’s sawmills are expected to close soon and the Ivory Coast now imports wood for processing. Cameroon has become the dominant African supplier of commercially important tree species, and an increasing proportion of African primary wood products, such as logs and rough sawn timber are predicted to come from the other countries of the Congo Basin, including the Central African Republic, Congo (Brazzaville), Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.18 As the major importer of timber from Central and West Africa for decades, Europe is complicit in this region-wide rolling programme of deforestation.

Exports from Central Africa have increased significantly in the 1990s. Much of this is due to increased exports to Asia. China is now the single largest importing country from the Congo Basin. The EU remains the largest consuming block, accounting for 64% of round wood equivalent exports in 1999. Exports to Asia are primarily of logs whilst the EU imports logs and processed timber. Within the EU, France is the largest importer of timber from Africa, followed by Spain, Italy and Portugal.19

Click here for Wood Exports from Congo Basin Countries from 1999

Illegal production and trade

A significant proportion of the timber from the Congo Basin region that is traded internationally is either being felled or exported illegally, a fact widely acknowledged by industry representatives and exporting country government officials and indicated by the discrepancies in the declared exports from producer countries and the declared imports by consumer countries. Cameroon’s declared exports of logs to Portugal in 1998 were 57,038 cubic metres, for instance, but Portugal declared imports from Cameroon of almost twice as much, 91,115 cubic metres. Congo (Brazzaville) declared exports of 37,731 cubic metres of logs to Italy in 1998, while Italy declared imports from Congo (Brazzaville) some three times higher at 119,102 cubic metres.20 Conflicting import/export statistics suggest bureaucratic inefficiency at best and significant illegal timber production and export at worst. Either way, the lost tax revenue to the exporting countries alone justifies the need for rigorous and transparent scrutiny.

Examples of smuggling have been discovered in Cameroon. Cameroonian customs officials visited the Douala office of United Transport Cameroon (UTC), one of Cameroon’s leading road transport companies. The officials uncovered an export tax-evasion scheme for wood supposedly in transit from northern Congo but in fact of Cameroonian origin.21, 22 They arrested employees but higher authorities for some reason ordered the officials to release those accused.23 A recent World Bank report on the timber industry in Cameroon noted the practice of creating documents for Cameroonian timber to indicate that the timber originated from outside Cameroon and therefore was not liable to tax and other controls imposed on Cameroonian timber.24

Europe imports timber from sources that cannot be verified as legal and from companies that are known to be logging illegally in the Congo Basin. Some European companies supply and/or trade in logs that may have been illegally produced or exported. Once timber or logs have left the shores of the exporting country, there are no effective courses of action that the exporting country can take. Many developing countries have limited resources with which to enforce forest policies (not least because of limits on civil service employees by the IMF). Importers may be receiving stolen or fraudulently obtained goods.

Little has been done by consuming countries to address the issues of unsustainable levels of timber production and consumption, the trade in illegally felled logs and the smuggling of timber. Any contribution that independent certification could make to tackling these problems will be endangered if non-financial barriers to trade are reduced or prohibited under World Trade Organization non-tariff measures (NTMs) rules. Such NTMs might include eco-labelling and forest certification schemes, import and export quotas, log export bans, requirements for recycling, and subsidies.25 Prohibition of potentially beneficial measures would damage the prospects for the implementation of sustainable timber production, environmental integrity and poverty alleviation.


European companies directly or indirectly control most of the forests in Central Africa for timber exploitation, as concession holders and/or as sub-contractors (see maps pp. 34-39). The companies who undertake logging are often the main point of contact between local people and the outside world. They operate almost as a surrogate state in many remote places, and are looked upon as the main provider of basic services. However, this dependence on the relative benevolence of a handful of foreign-owned private companies is not a basis upon which sustainable development can be assured. The company profiles in Part III of this report indicate marked differences in European companies’ standards of operations, even by the same companies in different countries. The best claim to operate within the laws of each country, practise technically proficient harvesting, have committed to drawing up sustainable forest management plans and provide social infrastructure for workers. The worst are involved in illegal felling of timber and/or provide no discernible benefits to workers, other than poorly paid and insecure employment. Even the best, however, have some considerable way to go before their operations can be said to contribute to equitable long-term sustainable development for all local people that respects their rights and needs and ensures the integrity of forest ecosystems for future generations.

Table 1 identifies the major EU-based forestry companies that currently have logging operations in Central Africa. Other European-based companies also have significant involvement in the timber trade from the region. For example, the French transnational corporation, Pinault Printemps Redoute, and its subsidiary, Becob, used to have logging operations in the region until recently, and the group continues to be France’s top importer and processor of timber from Africa, Asia and Northern Europe.26

European companies have asserted their commitment to practising sustainable forest management in the future. Many are members of timber trade associations such as the Association Technique des Bois Tropicaux (ATIBT) and the related Interafrican Forest Industries Association (IFIA). One of ATIBT’s current priorities is sustainable management of tropical forests, and it plays an active role in international forums such as the Conference on the Dense and Humid Forest Ecosystems of Central Africa (CEFDHAC) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), as well as engaging in debates about timber certification.27 The current president of ATIBT has stated:

"European timber companies (timber industry) engaged in Africa are fighting against illegal felling of trees and illegal actions in forest use. Such actions have damaging effects not only for the forest but also for the trade, as companies working legally can never compete with those working illegally."28

Illegal timber production and trade is rampant in Central Africa, practices in which European companies, including ATIBT and IFIA members, are complicit.

In Cameroon, the only country in the region where rudimentary monitoring of the sector is being undertaken, formal penalties were imposed on several European companies in the year 2000 for infractions of forestry legislation (see Table 2). These reported infractions, however, are likely to be merely the tip of the iceberg, both in Cameroon and elsewhere in the region, given the institutional weaknesses in these countries. On the rare occasions when monitoring does take place, inspections are often cursory and the monitors are subject to intimidation. Most logging takes place without scrutiny while those operations that are monitored are often regulated "informally", with bribery being rife.

In conclusion, Europe, represented by governments, multilateral institutions and the private sector, shares an enormous responsibility in the management of forest resources in Central Africa. There is little evidence to date that the direction of forest policies is contributing to even the basic development goal of poverty alleviation, let alone long-term sustainable development. The six countries’ internal capacity to manage forest resources in the best interests of their citizens and to ensure the future integrity of forests is examined in part II.