WASHINGTON-D.C. – Following a three year investigation in Cameroon and Vietnam, the Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement (CED) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released today Tainted Timber, Tarnished Temples, a report showing how several Vietnamese companies operating in Cameroon are at the heart of a booming illegal timber trade between Cameroon and Vietnam. CED and EIA’s report include evidence of illegal harvest, laundering schemes covered by paperwork, misdeclaration, and widespread violations of Cameroonian export and labor laws. Timber traffickers’ operations undermine current efforts to combat the import of illegal timber into Vietnam. Additionally, the illegal timber trade has defiled many Vietnamese temples, where Cameroonian timber has become increasingly central to construction and renovation projects.
In recent years, the timber trade between the Congo Basin and Vietnam has exploded, linking the future of some of the world’s last remaining intact forests to one of the fastest growing Asian timber processing hubs. In 2005, the Congo Basin accounted for seven percent of Vietnam’s timber imports by value; by 2019, this figure had jumped to 73 percent. Cameroon is by far the largest timber exporter from the Congo Basin to Vietnam, and now the leading country for sourcing tropical logs, accounting for 37 percent of the tropical logs imported by Vietnam between 2017 and 2019, valued at over US$880 million.
CED-EIA joint report shows how Vietnamese trading companies operating in Cameroon are at the heart of this booming trade. Undercover investigators were told by managers from several of these trading companies, as well as from Vietnamese importers, about the many illegalities that have tarnished this supply chain. These include illegal logging operations in the buffer zone of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and, the violation of the Cameroonian partial log export ban and regulation that limits the size of processed products allowed for export, as well as labor violations.
“The breadth of illegalities we uncovered is alarming, as are the negative consequences for the forests, the people, and the economy of Cameroon,” said Lisa Handy, EIA’s Director of Forest Campaigns. “Traffickers fundamentally undermine the longstanding efforts toward better forest governance in Cameroon, in particular under the Voluntary Partnership Agreement signed between Cameroon and the European Union.”
The trade between Cameroon and Vietnam is also characterized by a considerable declaration gap. Between 2014 and 2017, exporters from Cameroon reported US$308 million less than importers in Vietnam. This indicates massive potential loss of revenue for the Cameroonian State.
“The growth of the timber trade between Cameroon and Vietnam has not helped our country, it has literally harmed it,” explained Samuel Nguiffo, Secretary General of CED, based in Yaoundé. “There are many opportunities in front of us to turn the table and create a sector that helps our country, once we have stopped the wrongdoers and their enablers.” The recent operation launched by the General Direction of Customs in Cameroon against illegal export of timber could be critical.
Vietnam is directly and adversely impacted, in particular when Cameroonian logs from the tali (Erythrophleum ivorense) species have been used in temples. As one source told undercover investigators: “Tali is quite cheap, but it is durable. It can stay the same after hundreds of years. All the temples dated from five years back are built with African timber […] If you go to temples or communal temples you’ll see that they are all made from tali.”
The large import of illegal timber products from Cameroon poses a concrete and immediate challenge to the ongoing VPA process in Vietnam, as the country recently announced its Timber Legality Assurance System (VNTLAS), which entered into force on October 30, 2020. As undercover investigators learned from traffickers, in many instances, the illegal timber shipped from Cameroon to Vietnam has been laundered via paperwork illegally obtained from authorities. A joint investigation and prosecution of forest criminal networks between the Cameroonian and Vietnamese governments could be a promising next step to protect the Cameroonian forests and people, and Vietnamese spiritual sites.
In October, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) initiated an investigation into Vietnam’s acts, policies, and practices related to the import and use of timber that is illegally harvested or traded. Implementation of the US Lacey Act should also ensure that illegally sourced wood products are not entering the US market via Vietnam.