Forestry: between a rock and a hard place

Buying certified 'ethical' tropical wood. This is what an increasing number of environmentally and socially conscious European consumers are looking for. But even with FSC certification, this ethical stance cannot be imposed from above. It is developed with patience in a local African context which can prove to be complex and delicate. To gain a good understanding of this, Réflexions followed in the footsteps of the various forestry certification protagonists in the East of Cameroon. Among them, Jean-Louis Doucet, head of the Laboratoire de Foresterie des Régions Tropicales et Subtropicales of Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech.

Plantations CamerounThe machete blow is sharp and accurate. Accompanied by his nurseryman, Professor Jean-Louis Doucet clears a path through the plantation which sprawls on the edge of the forest track. Everywhere he has to step over tangled weeds which are prone to invading young tree plants. 'It's a shame about the Doussie trees,’ laments the forestry engineer, head of the Laboratoire de Foresterie des régions tropicales et subtropicales of  Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech. ‘They are being smothered and are probably going to die. As for the Afara tree, it should pull through...’ And yes, fast action is needed to clear the young trees to enable them to grow in full daylight. The upkeep of tree plantations  cannot be improvised, particularly in the middle of a dense rainforest. Techniques have to be carefully considered and are based on carefully codified experimental measures. Further on, Professor Doucet sticks his blade to the left and right into the bark of older trees, taking advantage of this field visit to update his colleague's knowledge. Depending on the colour of the sap, the way in which it forms (sometimes in a spurt), its smell, even its taste, we can identify the family, even the species of the tree in the undergrowth: Euphorbiaceae, Caesalpiniaceae and so on.

Welcome to plantation number 8 of the Pallisco company, located somewhere between Mindourou and Makalaya, in the heart of the dense rainforests of Eastern Cameroon. That is in the middle of the tropical zone of the Congo Basin. In a few weeks, the records of this French company which exploits thousands of hectares awarded as a forestry concession by the Cameroon State will be scrutinised by the FSC (The Forest Stewardship Council), a measure which combines economic, social and environmental objectives. Areas of land such as this one will probably be surveyed from one end to the other for inspection purposes. Everything will be checked and analysed according to ten principles and the multiple FSC criteria and indicators.

The focus of the auditors' attention is the forest management plan which sets out, tree by tree and land parcel by land parcel, what can be chopped down in the next thirty years. It is only after this annual inspection that the logging companies will be sure that they can continue to sell their tropical timber - Sapele, Iroko, Afzelia, Afromosia... - with a small tree-shaped logo, the one which certifies the sustainable management of the forest of origin for the European consumer. 'With the scientific and technical help of our laboratory, Pallisco replants the most commercially viable species using innovative techniques', explains Jean-Louis Doucet. We focus on tree fall gaps to allow tree cover to regrow quite quickly, as well as the degraded, so-called 'secondary' forests, where current vegetation is due to, usually very old, human presence. But it is clear that maintaining biodiversity - both of flora and fauna - in the long term is also one of the key principles of the FSC. This is why we have to choose the tree species to be replanted very carefully, according to criteria that are not exclusively economic. Yet most of them remain relatively unknown. Hence our efforts to gain a better understanding of their ecology, their modes of reproduction, their genetic diversity and so on.'

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