World Rainforest Movement

The Africa Forest Law Enforcement and Governance process: Promises and realities

The African Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (AFLEG) process quickly succeeded the Asia process – even though, at the time (and still) actual practical outcomes of the Asia FLEG have remained elusive.

AFLEG was proposed and driven forward by the US State Department, and supported financially by the World Bank, though it was never clear what the exact purpose or expected outcomes of the process would be. The only definite ‘event’ was to be an Inter-Ministerial AFLEG ‘summit’, but even the preparations for this were chaotic. The Ministerial summit was repeatedly postponed, evidently because the would-be host – the Cameroonian government – was ‘not ready’, as well as because of post-9/11 fears of possible terrorist attacks.

NGOs, and some governments, had pointed out before the meeting that it was very difficult to foresee how the conference could produce any meaningful outcomes unless they took account of the vast range of different circumstances experienced across a highly diverse African continent. NGOs, and some governments, argued that it would be necessary for any Ministerial declaration or action plan to distinguish, for example, the ‘illegal’ destruction of trees by goats or for firewood in the semi-deserts of, say, Niger, from the need to tackle the highly organised international crime in which is mired much of the timber industry in the rainforests of the Congo Basin.

As it was, this all fell on deaf ears. The 30-action-point Ministerial declaration issued by the summit – which eventually took place in Yaounde in October 2003, was extremely general, essentially impossible to implement, and condemned by African NGOs.

With the help of the Rainforest Foundation, Forests Monitor and CED from Cameroon, NGOs from the Congo Basin region prepared a series of detailed case studies setting out examples of the problems the region’s governments needed to tackle. One of the key conclusions reached by the various authors of the report was that simply ‘strengthening enforcement’ of African forest laws would not be very useful, because the laws are largely anti-environment, anti-poor and anti-community. Despite this document being widely considered as the most substantive input to the meeting, it elicited no response – at the time or at any time subsequently – from either the governments or the international agencies supporting AFLEG [].

Of course, the Ministerial summit should have been the start of the process, rather than its effective conclusion. Ministerial declarations in any context usually have to be treated with much caution; in the Congo Basin, there has been a long and dismal history of worthy Ministerial statements on forestry management and conservation resulting in zero action. The AFLEG process appears to be no exception; very little has actually happened subsequent to the Ministerial meeting.

The UK government’s Department for International Development has funded IUCN to lead a ‘multi-stakeholder’ follow-up process, but it is not clear what, if anything has yet been achieved. Meanwhile, the European Union has targeted some African countries, including Cameroon, for bilateral discussions on a ‘voluntary partnership agreements’ – though such agreements would require a consensus on a definition of ‘legality’, something which, in the African context, is likely to prove extremely problematic.

Setting aside doubts as to whether AFLEG can deliver any meaningful action even within its own narrow remit, such an approach completely neglects to deal with all of the serious and underlying problems of forest management in many parts of Africa; even legal industrial logging operations are environmentally, socially and economically unsustainable. The most urgent need is for reform of forest tenure systems that, at present, almost universally marginalise the poor and forest-dependent, in favour of large industrial logging interests.

Even assuming that AFLEG has some practical outcomes, there are serious concerns about the likely long term consequences. As the UK meeting with Cameroonian politicians recently noted, the companies responding to public and political pressure are “overwhelmingly European- or internationally-owned rather than indigenous companies”. This points to another danger – that the ‘legality debate’ could be a way of larger companies further consolidating their holdings, in the same way that, historically, logging companies worldwide have snuffed out their smaller-scale competition through restrictive legislation concerning annual allowable cuts, levels of processing, and more recently, ‘sustainability’. The problem has then been that, once vast areas of forest have been accumulated into the hands of a few companies, these companies tend to dominate all further policy processes, over-riding democracy, and effectively blocking any possibility of more diverse forest uses.

But a much greater short-term problem confronts the AFLEG process. Despite the lack of any substantive action on illegal logging as a result of AFLEG, there has been a tendency for international agencies to subsume the whole debate on forestry in Africa in terms of the ‘FLEG’ process. For example, at a recent meeting between the UK government and Cameroonian parliamentarians, it was stated that “the EU FLEG-T [Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, the European Union process linked to the FLEG processes] is now the main coordinated mechanism by which European member state governments will address forestry problems in timber producing developing countries” [Chatham House briefing on visit to UK by Cameroonian Parliamentary delegation]. Although it is recognised that ‘consensus’ is still elusive, the assumption is that technical solutions can be found to deal with any problems.

What this overlooks is the underlying reason for the rampant ‘illegality’ in the African timber industry; that the industry is an integral and essential part of corrupt patron-client political systems, including at the highest levels of authority. For some African leaders and senior officials, logging concessions are at once a means of converting public goods into private wealth, of rewarding political cronies and buying-off political enemies, of pacifying rebels and military challenges, of funding ‘election’ campaigns, of quelling civil unrest, of provoking civil unrest, of capturing donor money…

In some countries, the highest levels of government are implicated. In Cameroon, for example, repeated reports by the official Independent Observer of the forest sector – Global Witness – have shown that the family of President Biya is involved in illegal logging operations – yet the international community has failed to take any meaningful action against the culprits. In Gabon, it was recently found not only that President Bongo, his family, and every single important government minister holds logging concessions, but also that they had all failed to pay the prescribed taxes and were therefore operating illegally.

Such problems cannot be tackled through EU FLEG-T ‘voluntary partnership agreements’ or indeed by any other ‘technical fix’. They can only be tackled through determined political action at the highest level, and a willingness to confront some of Africa’s most entrenched political elite. Unfortunately, at the moment, all Congo Basin regimes are the ‘darlings’ of Europe and, for different geo-political reasons, the USA, and there is little prospect that the likes of Presidents Biya or Bongo, or their dynastic successors, will be challenged.

In this context, the ‘AFLEG process’ could be seen as a cynical attempt to appear to be ‘doing something’, even though it is well understood by its backers that little or nothing could possibly result from it. At worst, by helping to legitimise large logging companies, it could serve to undermine the prospects of alternative, less destructive, and more developmentally beneficial ways of managing Africa’s forests. Rather than helping Africa’s bandit logging companies to market their timber, the international community should be looking now at how those forests can be managed for the direct benefit of the people living in and around them and depending on them for their livelihoods.

By Simon Counsell, Rainforest Foundation UK, e-mail:,