Illegal logging in Cameroon

Illegal Logging Case Study: Cameroon

By: Sarah Sra

Map of Cameroon, licensed CCBY-SA 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons

Cameroon is located at the junction of western and central Africa and is well known for its geological and cultural diversity. However, despite having achieved political and social stability, many Cameroonians still live below the poverty line. The authoritarian President, Paul Biya, has retained power in the country for over three decades. [1]. The country is also home to approximately 22 million hectares of tropical forests, making it a crucial component of the Congo Basin forest ecosystem and home to many endemic species [1]. Many Cameroonians rely on these forests as they provide an important source of revenue, employment and livelihoods, in addition to providing a number of important ecosystem services and habitat for over 9,000 plant species, 910 bird species and 320 mammal species [1]. Forests and non-timber forest products (NTFP) contribute largely to the economy by providing between 45,000 and 70,000 jobs and account for over 10% of the annual GDP [2] . Globally, Cameroon has become the sixth largest exporter of tropical timber and receives an annual revenue of 60 million US dollars from this industry [2] .

The forests are also home to nearly four million people who belong to Bantu ethnic groups, as well as the indigenous Pygmy people who comprise three large ethnic groups in the region: the Baka, the Bakola/Bagyeli and the Bedzan.[3] The traditional lifestyle of these Indigenous groups relies heavily on natural resources, including hunting and gathering which is typically done in territorial and egalitarian nomadic bands. However, they are increasingly adopting a sedentary lifestyle focusing on agriculture under the influence of multiple factors that have recently emerged, including wide spread deforestation, that has lead to a loss of resources that are essential for their biological and cultural well being. [3]

The country has struggled to recover from a great economic crisis that hit hard in the 1980's. This initially had lead to a neglect in implementing regulations in the forestry sector in order to favor industrial growth, which has continued into the present.[4] There have also been reported cases of intra-community conflicts in Cameroon, with local forest communities allegedly barricading logging trucks and holding forest workers hostage in forest camps.[2] .A conflict of precedence between village elites and traditional chiefs also exists in the eastern part of the country over authority in managing forest royalties [2]

An example of protests regarding issues of rights to resources can be seen in the resistance to the commercial harvesting of the Moabi tree by the Bantu people in Southern Cameroon. Since commercial logging began decades ago, members of local communities have continued to protect their trees against logging by leaving notes on the trunk with their names as well as physically threatening loggers with machetes. To avoid these conflicts, loggers have tried to offer compensation for cutting down these trees, but this has led to many reports of conflicts between family members who want to sell their trees, and those who are against it. These conflicts are usually gendered as well, with more men wanting to sell their rights to the trees. Women tend to rely more on the trees for medicine, food and income, while men generally benefit more from selling the tree rather than enjoying its ownership.[5] Uses of the Moabi Tree are discussed below in the "cultural" section under "Implications".

Illegal logging occurs when timber is harvested, transported, processed, bought or sold in violation of national or sub national laws.[6] In Cameroon, the law indicates six different types of logging permits that may be issued by the government:[7]

  1. Sales of standing volume - should not cover more than 2,500 hectares and last for a limited period of time (Section 55).
  2. Exploitation Permits - which are for the extraction of not more than 500 cubic meters of timber (Section 56).
  3. Individual Felling Authorization - the extraction of not more than 30 cubic meters of wood for non-commercial use (Section 57).
  4. Concessions - can include one or more Forest Management Units (FMA) and will be reviewed every three years and is for a specified volume of timber (Section 46).
  5. State Exploitation - via sale of standing volume or exploitation contract (Section 44).
  6. Wood Recovery Permit

It is estimated that Cameroon has approximately 600 native tree species. Illegal logging has contributed to 50 of these species being listed as critically endangered under the International Union For The Conservation Of Nature (IUCN) Red List, while 27 species are considered endangered and another 106 species are listed as vulnerable.[8]

Framing the Problem: A Forestry Perspective

While Cameroon has established a formal system of forest enterprises that are legally registered, rates of illegal logging in the country remain high. Although it can be difficult to quantify the amount of timber harvested illegally, a 2002 study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggests that 50-70% of timber is sourced in this manner.[6] The deforestation rate is high at about 1% annually, and many people in the informal sector rely on timber for fuel and subsistence. This informal extraction is also difficult to measure, but estimates suggest that it contributes to more than half of the timber that is harvested illegally. The rest is illegally logged by large companies in the formal sector.[7] Some permits are allocated only through a competitive bidding process, forcing companies to put a high price on concessions. To recover their costs, they often extract timber in areas that are five or six times their legally allotted areas, knowing that there is very weak monitoring and enforcement in place, and they also tend to out-compete companies that operate sustainably.[7] For instance, evidence suggests that as much as 50% of Cameroon's roundwood is harvested illegally, with the majority of the activity taking place within forests that are operated by concessions. [2] A report by Global Witness and Cameroon's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MINFOF) showed that in the 2002/2003 fiscal year more than 70,000 square meters were logged, in excess of what was allotted to concessionaires.[2] There is also a high domestic demand for wood that causes illegal loggers from the informal sector to encroach onto protected areas, as private individuals consume an estimated 200,000 square meters of illegal timber annually.[3] According to Global Forest Watch, Cameroon has lost 657,000 hectares of forest between 2001 and 2014.[9]

When discussing matters of illegal logging, the State holds an ambiguous power position for three main reasons:

  1. In order to attract foreign investment, the government takes little action when companies commit serious offences.[3]
  2. The State has a weak capacity to monitor and enforce legislation due to corruption and Structural Adjustment Policies that have reduced the number of civil servants and their salaries to monitor illegal activities.[3]
  3. Political elites and foreign operators often conspire to appropriate wealth generated from illegal timber extraction through bribery, corruption and transfer pricing, with adverse effects on the public and forest-dependent communities through a loss of revenue and royalty payments.[3]

The Issue of Land Tenure

According to customary institutions, local people, including both Bantu and Pygmy communities, have ownership rights over the land and all natural resources that are necessary for their daily survival. [3] However, these ancestral customs have been under threat since the colonial period when Germany announced that the country had many "vacant and ownerless lands" and used this claim as a tool to appropriate all land and resources by converting common pool resources into state and private property. After independence in 1960, the philosophy of colonial law had not been diminished, but was instead reformed by new laws in 1974 focusing on driving development. These laws benefitted the State while leaving little room for customary institutions.[2] Today, about 70% of the country is considered public land that is owned by the State, and the State acts as the custodian of the remaining 30% of national lands whose real owner is said to be the entire Cameroon nation. However, since the State claims to be the legal guardian of all land, the amount of land under direct state control is reported to be closer to 97% of national territory, with the exception of community forests and a few public forest anomalies.[10] This has lead to a long history of the State benefiting while local people continue to be disadvantaged. They are often denied claims to ancestral forest lands and have trouble obtaining land at all while the best land is given to large logging enterprises by the state.[2] A few local communities have use rights in small restricted areas.[11] However there are still many competing and overlapping claims to land between local communities and the State.

Ultimately, this means that Cameroonians are insecure in regards to land tenure. The government holds the authority to grant "unregistered land" (which is essentially most of the country's land mass) in absolute title, lease or exclusive occupancy licenses to loggers, miners, ranchers, biofuel interests or to itself as "state forests". This is allowed since laws fail to acknowledge customary land-holding as amounting to real property interests, which also means that customary owners are not paid market value for lands which the government appropriates for public purposes.[12] Additionally, the process for land registration makes it difficult for customary landowners to formally register in the system. The process is often remote, complex and expensive and is limited to lands that have been cleared, cultivated or physically settled.[12] This has been highly problematic as Bantu societies inhabit lands beyond cultivated or visibly occupied areas and contain large portions of forests that are collectively managed, while the Pygmy communities hunter-gatherer lifestyles have relatively little impact on the forest cover and thus make it difficult to establish their presence in a given area.[3] Therefore, this method of registration is not compatible with the traditional lifestyles of indigenous communities. Since unregistered land is made the de facto property of the state in the form of National Lands, local communities essentially become squatters on their traditional lands while the government's appropriation of these customary lands protects commercial and industrial production.[12] Millions of hectares of common property are excluded by this registration system which families, groups and villages have traditionally maintained as rangelands, wetlands or forests for sustainable livelihood support. The rights of those with the least amount of wealth and socio-institutional strength, such as the forest dwelling Pygmies, are the most abused in this system of governance.[12]

Forestry Laws

Laws regulating forestry were first established in 1973, with many revisions in the decades following. These laws have been focused on regulating this sector, but requiring very little transparency in the process. More recent objectives include a reduction in forest loss with an increased level of public participation to reduce pressures on forests, which have been delivered in over twenty legal decrees and orders since 1995.[12] An important change happened in 1994 when the government of Cameroon adopted a new Forestry Law and, at the time, became a leader in West African forest policy.[13]. The reform process involved a wide range of stakeholders—from international institutions like the World Bank, to a number of national political and economic actors, with the resulting forest code aiming to satisfy several conflicting interests.[13] It also recognized that forests have intrinsic value that should not be undermined or compromised for future generations.[11]

The development of community forests at this time was the result of a World Bank push to decentralize forest management while promoting logging management by local actors. The new 1994 Law also defined two major categories of forest. One is the permanent forest domain (PFD), which includes protected areas and logging concessions that have to be managed in a sustainable way so as to guarantee the long-term maintenance of forests. The second is the non-permanent forest domain (NPFD) which does not require the long-term maintenance of forests and includes ‘‘ventes de coupes” (sales of standing timber on a maximum of 2,500 ha) and community forests.[13] In Cameroon Community Forests can only be established in the NPFD, however they are still under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Forests. One major achievement of this law was a definition of community forest that enabled local populations to become the official managers with full use rights to forest resources that normally last for a 25-year period, although community forest status does not carry full and permanent property rights to the area allocated. There were also instruments in place for direct revenue sharing with communities and promises of infrastructure. However, it was reported that communities remained largely impoverished and seldom receive any benefits. For example, many local people still reside without electricity while timber companies receive power from private sources.[9]

These laws surrounding community forests were developed for communities to rely timber production, but this is not explicitly embodied into the law. Therefore, community forests tend to exist only in tropical forest regions, not in the mountainous or savanna regions of the north where, for example, Prunus africana is harvested for medicinal uses, not timber.[13] It is important to note that these community forests depend on timber production, but there is no provision made for community lands outside of this, meaning that customary land ownership does not exist in the eyes of the law. Land which is not built on or farmed cannot be registered by customary land owners.[12] When the community forest is finalized and logging authorization is delivered, communities have a choice of negotiating a contract with an external operator or managing operations and selling timber in the market.[13] However, few communities use the second option to manage their forests due largely to distance to markets, lack of market information and high transportation and transaction costs. The community therefore tends to opt for an agreement with an industrial operator and has a low degree of involvement. A lack of commercial logging skills also has a negative influence on the ability of the community to achieve higher levels of vertical integration.[13] Combined, these factors often exacerbate illegal logging in a country that already has weak monitoring and enforcement mechanisms in place. As of 2008, there were 135 fully operational community forest licenses that covered roughly 2% of forests.[2]

Framing the Problem: Layering Perspectives

The information above outlines the problems associated with illegal logging in Cameroon from the perspective of a forestry student. In this section we welcome contributions from other perspectives. Those interested in contributing to this case study may use the following questions as a guide:

  1. How do scholars and professionals outside of forestry conceptualize the practice of illegal logging in Cameroon?
  2. What are other possible ways of framing this problem?
  3. What special expertise, resources, or theoretical orientations might others bring to help us understand this phenomenon better?


Cameroon has consistently been rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world with a ranking of 138 out of 160 countries surveyed [14] . With respect to illegal logging, corruption is common and widespread. The government often demands a bribe for the provision of a service such as issuing a logging permit, while at the same time government officials and the private sector also develop methods to keep a greater portion of the revenue and deprive the government of its share [2] . Ethical standards to which concessionaires must adhere have not been set or practised by the government. Therefore, it has lost its credibility as an effective regulator and faces much criticsim when attempting to hold concessionaires accountable for illegal activities[2] .


Although Cameroon is considered to be a lower middle income country, poverty affects almost 40% of the population[15]. Unemployment rates are high, literacy rates are low and most people are subsistence farmers who work long, tedious hours for minimal pay. Little education means that they often lack the ability to complete the administrative requirements to participate in forestry activities in a legal manner, and tend to manufacture lower value commodity wood products like lumber and timber that generate less wealth and employment [2] .


Conflicts between different governmental ministries sometimes provide openings within the system that allow the operation of illegal logging. For instance, the Ministry of Environment and Nature Protection (MINEP) has a mandate to articulate, execute and assess the national policy in relation to the environment [2] . On the other hand, the forestry sector and its policies are formulated, evaluated and implemented by a different ministry - the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife. (MINFOF) [2] These inconsistencies can often lead to administrative gaps within the governance system which facilitates illegal activities.

Licensing Arrangements

The high costs of obtaining community forestry licenses provides a disincentive for small scale firms and individuals residing in forest communities to develop a management plan, register as an official business and operate legally [2] .The length of time it takes to process licenses is also a challenge to many applicants, especially those who depend on cash from logging revenues for daily survival and cannot afford to wait long periods of time. For example, members of the Payo community in the eastern part of the country report that their application for a community forest had been sitting in the capital city of Yaounde for a year without approval. [2] These types of legislative processes often exacerbate instances of illegal logging.

Example: China in Cameroon

In recent years there has been an increase in Chinese companies operating in Cameroon's timber sector which has fueled illegal logging and is rapidly depleting forests. Cameroon launched an investment drive in 2010, and China has become the main partner. China has invested more than $400 million USD annually, 80% of which is to be used for infrastructure such as roads, hydro-electric dams and seaports.[9] This has encouraged the government to issue many licenses to Chinese firms and allow the exploitation of natural resources. This dependency that has been created has made Cameroon vulnerable and reluctant to enforce laws violated by Chinese companies who extract copious amounts of timber to meet their own domestic demand.[3] This is occurring in several regions throughout the country.

Implications: A Forestry Perspective


In Cameroon, it is common for a few high value timber species to be extracted from the forest for commercial purposes, with six species representing almost 80% of timber production:[3]

  • Ayous (Triplochition scleroxylon)
  • Sapelli (Entandrophragma cylindricum)
  • Azobe (Lophira alata)
  • Frake (Terminalia superba)
  • Tali (Erythrophleum ivorense)
  • Iroko (Chlorophora excelsa)

Searching for specific tree species means that roads are often constructed into large forested areas to extract a few trees. This opens up new areas for human settlements, the development of agriculture and commercial hunting - all of which increase pressures on forests. While local communities have traditionally depended on bushmeat, a commercial trade in the industry has been relatively recent and has decimated many wildlife populations including rare and endangered species such as lowland gorillas and elephants.[3] High rates of deforestation also have negative impacts on climate change, while selecting certain species for harvest decreases biodiversity and the overall resiliency of the forest. In the northern part of the country, deforestation has been associated with increasing rates of soil erosion, desertification and a reduced quality of pastureland.[8] Although it is well known that foreign companies contribute largely to illegal logging, concessions continue to be issued as residents are promised an increase in infrastructure such as roads and electricity, and social services like education and healthcare that promise to increase their standard of living.


Based on the evidence presented above, it appears as though the main dilemma for lawmakers is regulating timber harvesting without deterring foreign investment. This becomes even more difficult when the budgets that are allocated are inadequate for the amount of monitoring and enforcement needed. Since 2010, more than half of all timber that is considered illegal is harvested by the informal sector, mostly for domestic consumption.[16] Although few local people have viable alternative options to meet their basic needs for energy, the government continues to label this this type of collection largely as illegal and issues very few timber permits for the informal sector. The government ultimately holds all authority to make and enforce decisions regarding forests.[8] A shift in power or inclusion of indigenous communities and local people in the decision making process would help to resolve some of the issues of illegal logging in the informal sector.


It is estimated that the government of Cameroon loses approximately 1.5 million Euros worth of timber each year due to illegal logging, a significant amount for a country that is often unable to provide adequate social services for its residents.[17] Three Dutch companies, Wijma, Reef and CIBEC, are known for operating illegally and have destroyed numerous villagers' subsistence cash crops with no compensation offered.[17] This continues to impoverish local people and further prevents them from having the financial resources to apply for community or logging licenses to compete in the local market. The consumers of illegal timber from Cameroon are mostly European nations. However the timber entering the majority of the EU countries is now considered to be high risk.[8] Therefore, certain types of timber from Cameroon are scarce in European markets, and are sold at a higher price.[17]


The Pygmy communities report experiencing a type of "spiritual prejudice" that is caused by illegal logging activities.[3] In the Baka cosmology, when God created the world that included humans and nature, listening to the bees was his favorite activity. Therefore, humans had to stay quiet so as not to disturb God. However, one day some Baka began to make noise in the forest and God punished them by turning them into wild animals. Noise that is associated with logging is therefore directly related to their religion and has a severe impact.[3] For the forest societies of Southern Cameroon, the moabi tree plays a crucial role for medicine, food, culture and economic value and people often resist its logging. Deceased bodies were traditionally placed at the bottom of the tree and left to decompose, rendering the tree a totem that embodied the power of the ancestor. More than 50 medicines can be made using the leaves, roots, sap and bark including treatments against painful menstruation, vaginal infections and postnatal care.[5] Fruits are consumed while seeds produce oil for consumption and sale, which is controlled almost exclusively by women from collection to commercialization. [3]

Implications: Layering Perspectives

The description above describes the implications from illegal logging in Cameroon from the perspective of a forestry student. In this section we welcome contributions from other perspectives. Those interested in contributing to this case study may use the following questions as a guide:

  1. How could someone from a different discipline or profession add to the implications above?
  2. What other implications become apparent when illegal logging is viewed through the lens of other disciplines and professions?
  3. What special expertise, resources, or theoretical orientations might others bring to help us better understand the implications associated with illegal logging in Cameroon?

Although progress in combating illegal logging remains slow, there are initiatives in place that attempt to mitigate this problem. Cameroon agreed to join the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1999, which includes protecting and monitoring the trade of two tree species - Pericopsis elata and Prunus africana.[18] Since 2012, there have been reports of improved forest governance with the implementation of sanctions against violators of national laws. For instanace, it was reported that 27 forest exploitation companies had been suspended in 2012 and 7 others in 2014 for operating with incorrect licenses.[9] Greenpeace Africa has also been pushing the government of Cameroon to hold independent and transparent audits of the Compagnie de Commerce et de Transport (CCT), who has a reputation for engaging in highly illegal and destructive practices, such as logging several kilometers outside of their legal logging titled area. They are pushing for proper sanctions when illegal activities have been confirmed as well as audits that will help to trace timber generated from illegal activities. [17] Timber from Cameroon is also coming under increased scrutiny in international markets, with Europe being the largest consumer of timber that is suspected to be sourced illegally. In 2010, Cameroon signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union (EU) which aims to strengthen forest governance, promote Cameroon's timber products and improve Cameroon's competitiveness in the international market. It also encourages investment in sustainable forest management and strengthens the capacity of forest stakeholders.[19] The country has been engaged with REDD+ since 2005, part of which aims to curb deforestation that is often linked with illegal logging.[20]

Recommendations: A Forestry Perspective

Illegal logging is a widespread and complicated issue throughout Cameroon. Although the government has attempted to make progress in combating this issue, evidence suggests that such commitments may be made to please international donors while implementing effective solutions on the ground level is still an ongoing challenge. Steps to move forward should include much more transparency in the entire process of forest governance, and accountability for those who operate illegally. Strengthening institutions in terms of staff, funding and organization would also be beneficial, while de-centralizing services would make it easier for remote groups to get support and assistance with issues relating to forest management. Community involvement in the decision making process, especially from Indigenous groups, may help to mitigate some of these issues and start to build trust and cooperation between local groups and the state. Since more than half of all illegal logging is done by the informal sector, it is important to address poverty and meeting the energy needs of local groups which are driving factors behind much of the illegal timber harvesting. Combating poverty would also decrease dependence on foreign investment to provide services that increase the standard of living for Cameroonians. Recognizing land tenure insecurities and customary rights would further help to decrease conflicts and competing claims over land and encourage sustainable management of forest resources. More responsibility should also be shifted onto consumers. The international demand for certain species drives illegal logging, yet many nations continue to import timber that is likely to be derived from illegal sources. Increasing transparency in the supply chain and imposing sanctions may help to pressure the government of Cameroon to effectively monitor the forestry sector.

Recommendations: Layering Perspectives

What recommendations might someone from another discipline or profession make to combat the issue of illegal logging in Cameroon? Examples might include:

  • Law
  • Geography
  • Environmental Science
  • Social Justice
  • Economics
  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Philosophy
  1. World Resources Institute (2016) The Governance of Forests Initiative:Cameroon. Retrieved from
  2. Kozak, Robert, A. & Alemagi, Dieudonne (2010) Illegal logging in Cameroon: Causes and the path forward. Forest Policy and Economics. Vol 12 (8) 554-561
  3. Robinson, Djeukam (2008). Forestry and Communities in Cameroon.Centre for Environment and Development (CED), Yaoundé, Cameroon. Retrieved from
  4. Cerutti, Paolo Omar, Tacconi, Luca, Lescuyer, Guillaume, Nasi, Robert (2012). Cameroon's Hidden Harvest: Commercial Chainsaw Logging, Corruption, and Livelihoods. Society and Natural Resources. Vol 26, (5), pages 539-553
  5. 5.05.1 Veuthey, Sandra., Gerber, Julien-Francois (2010). Logging conflicts in Southern Cameroon: A feminist ecological economics perspective. Ecological economics. Vol 70, (2) pages 170-177
  6. 6.06.1 World Wildlife Fund (2016). Illegal Logging. Retrieved from
  7. Forests Monitor. Cameroon: Political, social and economic framework. Retrieved from
  8. Mongabay (2006). Tropical Rainforests: Cameroon. Retrieved from
  9. Reuters (2016). Cameroon moves to curb forest loss linked to Chinese investment. Retrieved from
  10. Samuel Assembe-Mvondo, Carol J. P. Colfer, Maria Brockhaus & Raphael Tsanga (2014) Review of the legal ownership status of national lands in Cameroon: A more nuanced view, Development Studies Research, 1:1, 148-160, DOI: 10.1080/21665095.2014.927739
  11. 11.011.1 IUCN (2011). Governance of Ecosystem Services: Lessons learned from Cameroon, China, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Retrieved from
  12. Wily, Liz Alden (2010). Whose land is it? The status of customary land tenure in Cameroon. Centre for Environment and Development (FERN). Retrieved from
  13. Ezzine, Driss., Perez, Manuel., Sayer, Jeffrey. A., Lescuyer, Guillaume., Nasi, Robert., Karsenty, Alain (2009). External Influences on and Conditions for Community Logging Management in Cameroon. Vol 37 (2), pages 445-456
  14. Transparency International (2015). Corruption by Country:Cameroon. Retrieved from
  15. The World Bank (2016). Cameroon Data. Retrieved from
  16. Modern Ghana (2015). Illegal logging is still a struggle in Cameroon. Retrieved from
  17. Greenpeace International (2003). Illegal logging and the heart of darkness. Retrieved from
  18. Forest Legality Alliance (2012). Cameroon laws and regulations. Retrieved from
  19. EU FLEGT Facility (2014). VPA Countries:Cameroon. Retrieved from
  20. The REDD Desk (2013). REDD in Cameroon. Retrieved from

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Post image: Elephants around a tree in Waza National Park, Cameroon, licensed CC BY-SA 1.0 on Wikimedia Commons