Timber projects in Congo Basin pose huge challenges

Posted on : Tuesday , 29th July 2014

COUNTRIES of Africa’s Congo Basin would like to grow richer by making and selling products from their abundant supply of timber, but experts see a path strewn with obstacles.

A first difficulty is that electrical power for sawmills and factories “is not available, because its production is problematic”, Emmanuel Ze Meka of the International Tropical Timber Organisation says.

“There is also a lack of transport infrastructure” and “taxation is too high”, he says, adding that an unqualified workforce needs much training.

Mr Ze Meka spoke last week on the sidelines of an international forum on the development of the Congo Basin wood industry, which covers much of west equatorial Africa and includes some of the world’s largest tropical rainforests.

Experts met for the forum in Republic of Congo’s capital Brazzaville to debate the pros and cons of banning raw timber exports in order to promote the development of local industries that offer products ranging from plywood to furniture.

Cameroon was the first country to ban the export of its valuable hardwood timber in the mid-1990s, but it rapidly eased up on the restrictions.

Since 2010, no raw timber has left Gabon, where logging was the main export earner until oil came onstream. But the country is having difficulty in finding outlets for its wood products because of stiff competition.

“Gabon isn’t a country with a big industrial tradition. Its industries are not capable of matching international competition.

“Their plywood isn’t competitive when faced with China’s,” says Alain Karsenty, who works for the France-based International Centre for Agronomic Research and Development.

In consequence, the part wood plays in Gabon’s gross domestic product has dropped by half, to 2.5%, and “tax returns from forestry have fallen 71%” since 2010, says Prosper Obame Ondo, head of the state agency that promotes wood products.

Mr Karsenty says “highly developed wood processing cannot be decreed” and Gabon’s industry has to be ready for it.

Since 2000, the average level of raw timber production across the Congo Basin has increased by 50% and accounts for 7.5-million cubic metres of logs per year, the Congo’s Forestry Minister Henri Djombo says. Overall an average of 54% of wood was being processed locally, compared with between 30% and 45% 13 years ago, he says.

The countries considered part of the Congo Basin are Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe.

A white paper published at the Brazzaville forum shows up “large differences” between countries. “In Cameroon, almost 75% of the timber production is processed locally”, while in the Republic of Congo, “the rate varies, depending on the year, between 51% and 65%”.

“These relatively high rates are the result of deliberate policy,” the document says.

It adds that “in the Congo Basin, it is often more profitable for companies to export logs transported over hundreds of kilometres … than to export sawn and factory-worked wood”.

Nevertheless, taking wood processing to a high level is one of the goals of a plan that the Congo Basin nations signed in 2005, aimed at reaching a sustainable management of their forests, subject to widespread illegal logging.

The local manufacture of wood products could help countries to create jobs and to diversify their economies, which are often overdependent on a handful of export products.

“The development of the wood industry is one of the ways to attain a growth rate in two figures and an unemployment rate in one figure,” says Honore Tabouna, an expert in the Economic Community of Central African States.

However, to reach that goal, Mr Djombo says, governments would have “to clean up the business climate” by tackling corruption and “adopt attractive tax incentives”.

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