In Gabon the majestic kevazingo tree, its tropical hardwood highly valued in Asia for upmarket furniture, is also held to be sacred by generations of forest dwellers in equatorial Africa.
Chopping down the kevazingo tree, which can grow to more than 500 years old, has been outlawed in Gabon since March, but that hasn’t eased environmental fears.
A loophole in the law allows the sale of the prized wood if felled trees were abandoned or seized from illegal loggers which environmentalists say only encourages further exploitation.
The ban on felling the trees is intended to “limit trafficking in this wood”, explains Simplice Nteme, the national director general of waterways and forests, which cover 85 percent of the west African country.
But for Martial, a 54-year-old resident of Oyem, capital of the northern Woleu-Ntem region, little has changed.
“They tell us that kevazingo is no longer cut, but we see lorries loaded with kevazingo logs leaving the forest to go to the capital Libreville,” he told AFP.
The government insists it is taking away kevazingo that is considered “abandoned” after lying on the ground for six months after being chopped down.
“Who can cut down a kevazingo tree and then just leave it there?” asks Marc Ona, president of the Gabonese environmental NGO Brainforest.
“We’ve noticed in long years of work that some companies or even villagers, sometimes with other accomplices, chop wood illegally, then recover it six months later as abandoned wood,” adds Luc Mathot, president of Conservation Justice, a group combatting wood trafficking and poaching in Gabon.
“So this is a way of laundering illegal wood,” he claims.
– Villagers blockade –
The heavy, dense kevazingo wood ranges in colour from pinkish red to ruddy brown. Chopping down an ancient giant is a major enterprise, from clearing the surrounding area to digging a ramp to hold the trunk when it falls.
More than 150 forestry firms have been welcomed to Gabon, where the industry accounts for about five percent of the gross domestic product.
Since 2014, timber companies have been legally obliged to give money to village committees to help pay for such services as schools and clinics.
In practice, locals may well end up mounting roadblocks to remind some loggers of this responsibility.
“It’s unfortunate, but we are often forced to put up a show of strength in order to be heard,” says Herve Allogo, a villager from Essong Medzome, near Oyem, manning a barricade of logs.
Timber firms tend to lay the blame for shortfalls in community support on internal constraints or outside factors, and also claim villagers lack information.
“Administration is slow, because projects must be approved at several levels,” says Sylvain Ibouanga Mbouma, a director of Compagnie Dan Gabon, a Chinese firm active in the north.
The state is keen to promote the wood processing industry inside Gabon, rather than export raw timber for value-added treatment elsewhere.
On a manufacturing estate near Libreville, massive kevazingo logs are taken in charge by Asian firms to be carved into furniture for foreign markets, says Kumar Mohan, who runs logistics for the Gabon Special Economic Zone (GSEZ).
The GSEZ — a partnership between the state and agri-business multinational Olam — earns 50,000 CFA francs (76 euros / $87) for each cubic metre (35 cubic feet) of the timber and the state receives 25 percent of the value of a log, Nteme says.
The price soars astronomically when logs have sufficient girth to yield products entirely carved out of a single chunk of wood. One cubic metre can then fetch anywhere between 400,000 CFA francs (610 euros) and 1.2 million CFA francs (1,800 euros), according to business sources.
Enterprising business people have moved in to claim a share of the earnings by being told to find and recover abandoned kevazingo wood and take it to a depot where it can be fetched by the GSEZ.
These individuals, who are usually members of the General Conferation of Small and Medium Businesses and Industries (CGPMEI) or the Collective of Gabonese Foresters and Industrial Workers (Cofiga), say they receive 30 percent of the value of a cubic metre.
They also say that they pass on 12 percent of the sum to villagers who identified the kevazingo for them in the first place.
Legally, however, kevazingo trees are the property of the state, which estimates that Gabon possesses five million cubic metres in viable resources.
– No new cutting down –
Since March and the chopping ban, Nteme’s national forestry agency says it has observed no new cutting down of kevazingo trees.
“At the latest, all the kevazingo wood will have been brought out by December and that will be the end,” the director says.
But CGPMEI chairman Emmanuel Nzue warns that “the vicious cycle in the kevazingo business is that the more international demand there is, the more illegal chopping there is.”
Before the joint venture with the GSEZ, Nzue sold kevazingo directly to Asian manufacturers who paid “in cash”, he says.
His business was founded on recovering illegally cut timber from the forest and was thus a legal activity, Nzue told AFP.
And most wood left on the ground of the forest is “of illegal origin”, according to Conservation Justice.
But Nzue also admits that the new restrictions on kevazingo may very well lead Asian clients to lose interest in this wood.