This item was written by Philippe Chibani-Jacquot in Cameroon. (It is worth adding that Wijma had been called a 'Chainsaw Criminal' by Greenpeace in 2002.)
For the first time in Central Africa, a logging concession has been awarded an FSC certificate, which guarantees the sustainable management of forest resources. This certification has been criticised by environmental NGOs, who cite a number of weaknesses in the audit undertaken by the French certification company, Eurocertifor.
On 10 December 2005, a concession in the south of Cameroon run by the Wijma company, a subsidiary of the Dutch group Koninklijke Houthandel G. Wijma & Zonen B.V. in Kampen, obtained FSC certification. Since then, there has been some panic over the credibility of a label thus far considered to be the most reliable by NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Six months on from certification, conflicts continue between Wijma and the local communities over the boundaries between the concession and the community forests. A number of the criteria for the FSC standard are not being respected, such as the closure of tracks on plots already logged in order to prevent illegal logging, and wood being cut and abandoned in situ, which is comparable to illegal logging.
"Throughout the whole process, we got the impression that Eurocertifor (the French certification office, subsidiary of the giant BVQI) wanted to push on as quickly as possible, when nothing in Wijma's forest management, nor in its relations with the communities, seemed to justify it," explains Samuel Nguiffo, general secretary of the Centre pour l'Environnement et le Développement, a Cameroon NGO affiliated to Friends of the Earth. Eighteen months passed between the pre-audit (March 2004) and the issuing of the FSC certificate by Eurocertifor, when a period of three years is usually necessary. And despite the extensive demands for corrective action that were made after the initial audit in June 2005, the further audit report of November considered Wijma's progress sufficient to award the label.
"The fact that there are still things to be improved (after certification), makes the monitoring all the more credible," according to Antoine Huguet, who is responsible for logging within the BVQI certification department. "If everything had been perfect it would have seemed suspect." This statement is in contradiction with the nature of the FSC label, which describes itself as a performance label rather than a progressive approach like the ISO 14001 environmental management standard. "This is something that I just don't understand. I read the ten FSC principles on the Internet. But they are not all respected here," notes Verlaine Ndemengana, director of the NGO Saged, which is working on environmental management in Ma'an commune. She has been working with villagers from Tya Assono village since 2002, creating a community forest. "In 2005, Wijma came and put up signs demarcating its concession without consulting the local communities," she explains. The problem: the concession covers 200 ha of the community forest. Despite exchanges between the village association, Saged and Wijma, the operator will log in the area under dispute. As of the current time, no resolution has been proposed, in contradiction with one of the principles of the FSC standard on resolving conflicts with local populations.
Other boundary conflicts continue with villages bordering the concession. This is a paradox since, according to Eurocertifor's audit report, all conflicts had been resolved and a Development Plan Monitoring Committee had been created in order to deal with any misunderstandings and disputes that could arise. The monitoring committee, which includes representatives of the local and administrative authorities, all the villages and Wijma, was set up two years ago. Yet on the ground, the reality is less clear. "Near my village, I saw cut wood that was not marked and had been abandoned," (which is prohibited) recounts Simon Nomo, treasurer of the monitoring committee. "The committee should make a trip out to investigate this but we don't have the money." Ma'an communal authority has still not paid its contribution, whilst Wijma paid a cheque of one million CFA (around 1500 euros) at the start of May 2006 representing arrears to cover the first two years of its existence. In other words, the monitoring committee has never operated.
Throughout the villages visited and in meetings, Wijma's image is tarnished, even though everyone acknowledges the projects that have been funded with logging royalties paid by the company: a small school, churches renovated, school teachers' salaries paid...But too few inhabitants have found work with Wijma. Moreover, calculation of the royalties (there is a legal obligation to pay 1000 FCFA/ m3 to the districts) has not been undertaken with great transparency. "On several occasions we have stopped the loggers' trucks and noted an excess load (not approved) on the forms. The amount of the royalty is wrong," notes Hilaire Eyi Ella, chief of Bidjap village. "It is difficult to know the actual volume," explains Simon Nomo, "because no villagers have been trained as wood scalers and we haven't been able to monitor the load statements. Wijma has refused, replying that the royalties are a gift."
Following the criticism that has emerged around Wijma's certification, the monitoring audit to be conducted by Eurocertifor has been brought forward to 19 June, six months prior to the due date. It will take place in the presence of representatives from the Forest Stewardship Council. Important issues are at stake. The FSC may have gained a foothold in Latin America and in the forests of Asia but the largest forested area after the Amazon - the Congo Basin massif - has thus far remained devoid of all FSC labelling. Moreover, other forest certification standards are now appearing such as the PAFC (Pan African Forestry Certification), set up by a group of industrialists and already operational in Gabon. If the FSC label wishes to establish itself in Central Africa then some competition is to be feared.
As for the NGOs, Friends of the Earth has questioned its continuing support of the FSC if the Cameroon concession's certification is confirmed as it stands. For Hubert de Bonafos, head of the FSC accreditation programme, "It is important for us to demonstrate that FSC certification is credible and possible both in Central Africa and elsewhere. After the monitoring audit, we will produce a report and, if Eurocertifor has not respected the principles, we will establish demands for corrective action."