Determining the rate of tropical deforestation is notoriously difficult with estimates varying wildly depending on their source. For example, rates can be calculated from the volume of logs and sawn timber exported, forest concessions awarded, the change in forest area (observed from the ground or from satellites), national and sub-national statistics from government and independent bodies, and from the scaling up of detailed small-scale studies. All typically give very different results.
What is thought to be almost certain is that the rates based on national statistics, used to build up the widely-used FAO “State of the World’s Forests” reports, are underestimates. This is partly because in many tropical countries corruption, weak governments and limited resources combine to enable profligate illegal logging and land clearance for agriculture to take place. It is also due to a process called degradation, sometimes known as cryptic deforestation, whereby small numbers of trees are removed from an area of forest without total clearance taking place. The resulting logs are often used for local construction purposes or for fuel, but are sometimes sold as timber too. Degradation is exceedingly hard to estimate, as it is largely invisible to satellite data. Increasingly also the boundary between the two is becoming blurred, with increasing prices for tropical timber allowing small illegal logging companies to take out the most valuable logs from a forest at a small scale, resulting in no clear-felling but a significant loss of timber and carbon from the forest, and significant disturbance.
During a recent research trip to southern Cameroon in partnership with scientists from UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research, members of Global Green Carbon team saw this process first hand. There were brazen examples of illegal logging activities, including large roads (not on any maps) built by the illegal logging companies, in the forests around the Dja Reserve.
These roads, and many other roads going through the forests in this area, have clear logging side roads branching off. In our 48-hours in the area we identified over 30 such paths in one general region.
Travelling along such logging paths one can find stumps of large timber trees, as well as large piles of sawn planks and clearings for creating temporary sawmills.
Local communities told us that trucks came to pick up these planks at night in order to avoid checkpoints, but in general this activity appears very open. The local communities do not like this theft of their principle asset, but are powerless to stop it. If allowed to continue unchecked, it will threaten their traditional way of life.
Despite this there is still incredible biodiversity and large expanses of forest left in Cameroon; but the current rate of forest loss is unsustainable, and charismatic species like the threatened Black-Cast Hornbill will be lost.
The worry is that continued logging activities will soon encroach on this Dja reserve itself, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Already the increased access roads built by loggers into the forests around the reserve are providing access for hunters, who are depleting the large mammals living in the park dramatically.
The government of Cameroon, like that of many other tropical countries, does not have the resources to prevent such deforestation or poaching. Even if the government were able to truly prevent forest loss it is necessary to create new, sustainable livelihood opportunities for the local communities. The initial training and continued support for such efforts should be provided by a “payment for ecosystem services” system (PES), where members of the rich world can transfer money to these communities in return for the services of carbon storage, ecosystem function, climate stabilization and biodiversity conservation provided for the whole world. Such a system is REDD+: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, now a policy priority in negotiations in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.