Date: Tue, 3 Aug 1999 22:05:06 -0500 (CDT)
From: email@example.com (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Conservationists Meet Increasing Resistance in Africa
/** headlines: 139.0 **/
Rumbles in the Jungle. Overview & Commentary
By Tim Judah, in Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 30 July 1999
Johannesburg (Mail and Guardian, July 30, 1999) - The conservationists are fighting to stop logging and hunting in the last rainforest in Central Africa. Trouble is, the residents don't agree. Tim Judah reports
This is the story of a new scramble for Africa; of pygmies, presidents and poachers locked in combat. Africans, Europeans, loggers, bankers and eco- warriors are all fighting for the soul of Central Africa. The struggle is for the continent's last great virgin forests, for money, for meat and mahogany. And the Mambele crossroads, deep in the rainforest of Cameroon, is on the front line.
Hundreds of kilometres from the sea, the crossroads is a cluster of houses, an inn, a bar and little else. It's hot here, and the rich red soil stains houses, clothes and almost everything else. Sunk in daytime torpor, you would be hard-pressed to guess that this settlement lies in the eye of the storm. Yet late into the night, the men and women of the local Bangando tribe sweat and stamp and sing: "Those foreigners... are coming to the forest ... to steal our parrots."
In the bar, two neatly dressed young Germans, guides for high-paying, would- be great white hunters, sip their beer. But Mambele is not known for its hunting. It's really just a truck stop. This is where drivers hauling precious cargos of wood stop to dine on rich monkey stews and to sleep the night. Some of the biggest and most valuable trees now on their way to the ports of the coast were seedlings at the time of the French Revolution. This is the wealth of the forest that the loggers have to come to harvest -or to pillage. But at Mambele, situated in a part of the forest designated as a future reserve, the locals can only look on in impotent rage. Not because their trees are being cut, but because they are not.
In Mambele, they are angry because the loggers who used to work here have gone. They have left, in part, because foreign conservationists have put pressure on the government to apply its own laws on forest conservation. But clearly, the message the conservationists would like to get through - that saving the rainforests will, indeed must, benefit the locals as well as future generations of humanity in general - is failing.
Hanging around the Good Samaritan Inn, Valentin Mikody, in his 30s, is watching a group of foreigners unload their car. Escaping the deafening Congolese and Cameroonian rhythms blaring from the bar, he clutches his beer bottle and, as a small crowd gathers around, he explains that he trained as an agricultural technician, but is now unemployed. "Because the logging companies left, there is no work here," he says, jabbing the air angrily.
In the minds of the Bangando, foreign do- gooders are the enemy. That may be, but unless logging is brought under control in Central Africa, this expanse of forest - 15 000 years in the making and second in size only to the Amazon - will be devastated, and gone by 2020. The statistics are terrifying. Across the world, the equivalent of 37 football pitches of tropical, primary forest is being felled every minute. In 1990, the volume of timber exported from the countries of the Congo Basin was 200 000m3. In 1997, it was two million cubic metres. Four million hectares of African tropical forest are destroyed every year.
At first sight, the destruction is far from evident. To get to the heart of the forest, you can either drive for days on dirt roads - or fly with Christ. To subsidise their work, a group of American missionaries will fly you across in their tiny plane. Pilot David Carman says, "We have the custom of beginning our flights with a prayer: Oh Lord, we thank you for the good weather you have blessed us with today. Tango Mike 123, over."
From a height of 1 100m, all you can see is trees. Nothing but trees. For hour after hour, you can fly across this extraordinary, monotonous landscape and kid yourself that no one could possibly be down there. But take a closer look, and sure enough, logging tracks spread like spindly tentacles across the forest. And where the loggers have worked and gone, the forest has returned. The tracks become scars of green as less valuable vegetation and trees grow back where the virgin forest has been felled.
In fact, say the experts, careful, selective logging - the chopping of one or two trees per hectare - is generally sustainable. But corruption means that the rules are rarely enforced, and too much wood is being taken out. At the same time, the uncontrolled opening of logging tracks has meant that the forest's wildlife is also being annihilated - literally eaten to extinction.
Even as heads of state sign up to conventions to save the forests and designate more land for reserves, the logging roads have already precipitated an ecological catastrophe for the region's wildlife. The people who live in the forest have always hunted. But with the forests more or less inaccessible, there was little possibility of commercial exploitation of the forest animals for what is called "bushmeat". All that has changed in the past five to 10 years.
Because of the logging trails, locals and hunters from the cities and logging camps are decimating the forests. All manner of deer, monkeys, anteaters, chimpanzees and gorillas are being slaughtered. Elephants, too, are being killed. Most of this is for meat, but some is for traditional medicines and practices. For example, some people sprinkle powder made from dried gorilla hands into their baby's bath. They believe it will make them strong. Consequently, gorillas here are now teetering on the verge of extinction.
The bushmeat question is becoming more sensitive. African leaders are acutely aware of the negative publicity it is bringing. The problem, as with logging, is not that it exists, but that it is out of control. At a summit this March, the presidents and governments of seven Central African countries committed themselves to conserving the forest and its animals. In a vain attempt to hide the bushmeat problem from the visitors, Cameroonian police swept the markets of the capital, Yaound . You only had to drive out of town, though, to nearby Mbalmayo, to see the full extent of the trade. Here, monkeys were being cooked in restaurants, along with anteaters, porcupines, snakes and other creatures.
"Traditionally, the forest belongs to the people," says Thomas Bitye Mvondo, the government official in charge of enforcing hunting regulations. When he tries to make them pay for hunting permits and explain that some animals cannot be hunted, "they don't understand". Even if trying to tell people why there should be rules is difficult enough, Mvondo and his colleagues have no cars to go to the villages in anyway.
Across the region, there is confusion about what is permissible, and about the limits of enforcement. And, frankly, say many ecologists, local officials charged with enforcing the rules are far from keen to carry out their work. Economic decline has meant a fall in civil service salaries of up to 70% in real terms over the past 15 years. This means that many officials, far from playing gamekeeper, are the poachers themselves.
To counter this, some Western groups have begun to hire so-called ecoguards, who - officially, at least - work for their respective governments. There are 20 of them in Mambele, and the locals are far from pleased. "We get nothing from this reserve project," shouts the unemployed Valentin Mikody. "If the guards catch you with any meat, whatever it is, they confiscate it."
Just down the road, in a pygmy settlement, Eduard Ndzinge says that however his people may have lived for the past few thousand years, things are different now. "If we don't hunt, there's no money for clothes, there's no money to send the children to school or to send anyone to hospital."
Francois Bikoro, deputy editor of the Cameroonian magazine Africa Express, says that Africans are not interested in exchanging money and food today for the vague hope of something better tomorrow. Because of the logging roads, a man can sell prized gorilla meat to a passing truck driver. "If you say to a man you can't kill a gorilla, then replace it. Bring a school to him, a dispensary, give him some other activity."
Claude Martin, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (WWF), is clear that a balance must be struck between development and conservation. It was his organisation that hosted the March summit in Yaound which was chaired by the WWF's president emeritus, Prince Philip. "In West Africa, 90% of the rainforest is totally gone," says Martin. "It all happened in the past few decades. Opening up the untouched forest areas to road transport led to slash- and-burn farming, which has been to the detriment of the forest population."
Martin says it is essential to make people understand that the short- term gain of uncontrolled logging will inevitably lead to long-term loss. It's not an argument that has even begun to penetrate the consciousness of most people here. Francois Bikoro echoes the beliefs of many Central Africans when he says that not only is there more than enough timber, but that people like Martin are hypocritical and self- serving. "You destroyed your environment and got developed, now you want us to stop doing it! What do we get out of it? You have your TVs and your cars, but no trees. People want to know what they gain by conserving the forest."
For Martin, the answer is simple. "Why are these logging companies moving into Central Africa? Because there is nothing left in West Africa. There, the natural and economic capital of those countries is degraded. Nigeria is now a net importer of timber. The Ivory Coast once supported a major income from timber exports, as did Ghana. Most of that former forestland is not converted into agricultural use now, but is abandoned. There is poverty in former timber areas."
Logging has brought millions of dollars into Central Africa over the past few years. But, except for those who depend on the logging companies, few ordinary people see the benefits of all this money. In some circles, it is regarded as politically incorrect to refer to the real reason for this, or to even actually utter the "c" word: corruption.
In this part of the world, the president, rather than the government, has the final word. And that includes handing out concessions to foreign companies. This is often sought in partnership with the president's relations, allies and cronies. As they say in Cameroon: "Unless you have a brother at the top of the tree, you won't eat black plums."
And if you don't have a brother at the top of the plum tree but you want to do business here, you had better buy one. Last year, a study of 85 countries by Transparency International, a German organisation, concluded that Cameroon was the most corrupt country on earth. That makes it hard to work here, but the WWF has opted for an unusual way of tackling the powers that be. It has formed an alliance with the World Bank, which means that Central African countries must live up to their commitments to conserve and manage the forests responsibly - or their relationships with international financial institutions will be affected.
Whether it works or not remains to be seen. After chairing the WWF conference in Yaound , Prince Philip toured the region with the organisation. Weeks later, an e-mail filtered out of the forest from a source that must remain nameless. It read: "A minister from here lied. He said that the WWF had a good chance of controlling the logging, when, in fact, he had already given a new logging concession to his French cronies. He also told the local population that he is intent on closing the WWF project, but he played right up to royalty and Claude Martin."
But if it remains to be seen whether the arm- twisting actually works, the conservationists are also applying discreet pressure on the loggers. They are telling people like Ennio Dajelli, whose company Groupe Sefac operates from Libongo, in eastern Cameroon, that co- operation, rather than confrontation, is the way forward. Odd behaviour for environmentalists? Not out here. This is hardwood realpolitik. If the word gets out that, for example, Italian companies are "raping" the forests, the damage to their sales would be enormous.
In fact, Dajelli's company has a good reputation. He has imported sophisticated computerised equipment, which means they can process the wood on the spot, to a very high quality. Not only does this provide jobs, but it increases the value of the product. Dajelli employs 1 000 people, but adds that this really means he is "feeding 10 000".
When he arrived in Libongo by boat 25 years ago, there was nothing but forest. Now there is a town, work, a doctor and a school. Still, everyone is far from happy. Even in the company-subsidised school, there are just two teachers for 190 six- to seven-year-olds. "Impossible!" says one mother, hanging back while the rest of the population of Libongo, ordered out by the police to the airstrip to greet Prince Philip's plane, danced in the sweltering tropical heat.
Later, workers watch as their boss entertains the prince. They complain about their salary and conditions. By Central African standards, their pay is good. Still, an employee tells me, "The union doesn't do anything. If you try and do something, it's out the door, so you just keep your mouth shut."
Dajelli is angered when I ask him about this. He points out that his problem is that, unlike in Europe, his workers and their families are "supported, assisted and educated by us. Our resources are engaged in supporting them."
If Libongo is Central Africa's answer to Port Sunlight, the 19th- century model village built by Lord Leverhulme for the workers from his soap factory on the Wirral peninsula, then Kika is its Klondike. Eighty kilometres from Libongo, the town is literally dying. Here, hemmed in by reserves, and the border of Congo (Brazzaville), a French logging concession is winding down its operations and laying off workers. In the past nine months, almost half of its 4 000-strong population has gone.
It is not just in Cameroon that the growing power of Western environmentalists can be felt. Eighty-five per cent of neighbouring Gabon is still covered by forest that contains more than 8 000 plant species, 150 types of mammal and more than 600 species of bird. In Gabon, a small, oil-rich country, the virgin forest runs down to the lagoons of the coast and to the seashore.
Take a boat across the N'Dogo lagoon, near the town of Gamba, and you can see, unchanged, what the Portuguese explorers of the 1470s must have seen. A coastline of impenetrable forest and mangrove swamps. This area is still so unspoiled that you can watch forest elephants swim the lagoon to get to the beach in search of salt. An extraordinary sight - and hardly one you would associate with a multinational like Shell.
Gamba is bizarre: a Shell company town full of expatriate Europeans linked to a relatively prosperous African community. Here, in the middle of the forest, are manicured lawns and nightclubs. Everyone and everything in Gamba depends on Shell. The company has two concessions, both onshore and in the forest. Flaring gas lights up the night sky at the Rabi field, the largest onshore oilfield in sub-Saharan Africa. Shell is also the largest oil operator in Gabon, where most of the export income is derived from crude oil.
Here, the problem is not one of preserving the forest from loggers, but of limiting the impact of oilfields on the environment. By making it hard to get to except by expensive flights, Shell and the Gabonese government have conspired to prevent Gamba becoming a magnet pulling people off the land and into shantytown unemployment.
John Barry, Shell Gabon's managing director, seems nervous in the presence of a journalist. After all, big companies put the interests of shareholders above those of swimming elephants. The question is: how best to do it? Shell Gabon has called in the WWF and is helping them work in Gamba.
Asked if he thinks French companies are as ecologically conscious as British ones, Barry lets the cat out of the bag: Shell is courting environmentalists because it needs them. According to Barry, the "negative impact" of certain "operations" - the Brent Spa oil rig and Nigeria - have pushed Shell "further along this route than others".
In Nigeria, Shell helped open up the delta areas of Ogoniland. This led to a quadrupling of the population, ecological disaster, Ogoni unrest, the execution of activist Ken Saro- Wiwa and, eventually, calls for a consumer boycott of Shell petrol. It does not take a genius to work out why the WWF is courted in Gamba and why Shell is happy to collaborate. The jury is still out on whether such cosy collaboration between environmentalists and business will work.
Walk for an hour through the forest in the Dzanga-Sangha reserve in the south-western tip of the Central African Republic (wedged between Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville), wade through rivers, and you might find Andrea Turkalo. Working for the New York Zoological Society's Wildlife Conservation Society, she has been studying the forest elephants here for several years. She believes that, in this region alone, there are 4 000 of them - she can identify 2 500, and has given names to them all.
Whispering in a hide above a natural clearing in the forest, we watch the elephants come down to find salt under the mud. This reserve and park was supposed to be a showcase of how tourism could support a community where loggers once provided jobs and poachers' meat. In fact, it has shown just how hard it is. Tourists rarely come because of past political instability, unreliable transport and the remoteness of the place.
Turkalo admits that many locals regret that there is no more logging here. Later, as night falls on her encampment, she says gloomily: "Conservation does not work. The economics are against it. Imagine being an African. When you wake up, what do you think about? Food. You have to either kill or buy something. Besides, chopping down trees is sexy work. People liked the noise."
Turkalo lives alone, apart from a detachment of pygmy guards. Tonight, they are away, but for company she has her friend Louis Sarno, from New Jersey, who spends months at a time with the pygmies. Bats make strange whooping noises and the stars are diamond-bright in this lonely place with no light or pollution to obscure them. Another foreign environmentalist who lives in the region complains that, although poaching is down, local officials still get pygmies to hunt elephants for them. "I know who is doing it," he says, "but I can't say anything or I'll be out of the country."
Recently, the redoubtable Turkalo found herself under attack from robbers. They demanded money, and she went into her house to get it. When she came out, she found they had fled. "They thought I was going to get a gun," she says disdainfully. When it comes to hunters and poachers, her lip curls. "There's a place up north where there was a lot of hunting and poaching, but they killed everything. They are still waiting for people to come back to hunt, but they won't - because there is nothing left."
"I used to hunt everything," says Joseph Melloh. He is a bit of a rarity: a commercial poacher who became a conservationist. He used to make R400 a day in a country where the average wage is R220 a month. Melloh now collaborates with Englishman Chris Mitchell, director of the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund. He has created an orphanage in Yaound 's Mvog Betsi Zoo for young chimpanzees and other animals brought in once their parents have been killed for meat.
In the forest, says Mitchell, "the loggers hire hunters but only give them two or three cartridges. So they go for big animals such as gorillas." The logging trucks also provide an opportunity for hunters to sell meat to the truckers, who sell it on in the towns. "Where logging goes, the hunters follow."
As if the devastation wrought by the consequences of logging were not enough, this widespread consumption of forest apes, due to the opening of logging roads, may have triggered the spread of Aids. Hopping about in Mitchell's zoo are two monkeys infected with SIV, the ape equivalent of HIV. The virus does not develop into Aids. However, many scientists now believe that the species- jump to humans began when SIV-infected monkeys became available as food in cities.
And who knows what else is lurking up there in the forest? In Gabon, a recent outbreak of Ebola fever, which killed 13 people, was traced to their having eaten a chimpanzee. While we speak, another monkey is brought into the zoo. According to Mitchell, chimpanzees and several other large mammals will be extinct here in five to 10 years. y It's a race against time to save the forests now. To save the animals, but also to bring jobs and development to Central Africa. As Fran ois Bikoro of Africa Express says, the struggle for forests, to conserve them and their wildlife, is really a struggle for power "which begins with schools and hospitals. Give us schools and hospitals, and we'll give you your reserves."
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