Asian demand pressures Central Africa forests as global timber demand soars

Stricter European controls to ensure the legality of wood has diverted export to Asian countries.

Wed 18 Jan 23


From Forest News

As the global demand for wood soars and considering Central Africa’s large reserves, there is the very likelihood that timber exports, notably to China and other Asian countries, will ramp up pressure on the sub-region’s 200 million ha of dense humid forests; over half of which are unclassified, experts have posited in a new report.

In the last 10 years, timber exports to Europe from Central Africa have more than halved, falling from $US1.4 billion to $US600 million in value, according to the Central Africa Forest Observatory.

Much of Central Africa’s 4.2 million tonnes of wood over this period has gone to markets in Asia.

Nicolas Bayol… stricter European control measures to guarantee the legality of wood.

According to Nicolas Bayol, president of the trade association ATIBT Forest Industry Commission, and other researchers, who examined timber sector trends in the Congo Basin, the implementation of stricter European control measures to guarantee the legality of wood, notably the FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements, has driven wood export from Central Africa to Asia. This trend has positioned China as the sub-region’s first trading partner, with the country buying wood worth more than $US1 billion in 2019.

The researchers also advanced the growing lack of competitiveness of products from primary and secondary processing – which Central African countries mostly produce – as the reason for Europe’s lack of interest in sourcing from the sub-region. According to the researchers, European importers of raw logs, square-edged timber and scantlings now prefer to turn to competing semi-finished products from South America and Southeast Asia since they are cost effective in terms of storage, ready-to-use and can easily be transported by container.

Alain Ngoya Kessy, an independent forestry consultant and one of the contributors to the report, says despite measures taken to encourage forest operators to develop higher value-added products, the delay by Central African countries remains significant due to lack of infrastructures, non-standard transport cost and lack of training in timber-related jobs.

“This pushes operators to turn to markets in Asia and China which are less demanding in terms of quality,” he said.

It emerged from findings that timber production in Central African countries has relatively been stable in the last 25 years and was spared by the Covid pandemic, with production even growing in 2020 to exceed 8 million cub m.

The Gabon republic on the west coast of Central Australia, which unilaterally banned the export of raw logs, witnessed a drop in production from 2008 to 2012, when production began to pick up again.

In 2019, Gabon returned to its pre-1998 production level and in 2020 topped 3 million cub m, its level of harvesting before the log ban.

Across the sub-region, production remains highly concentrated on ‘flagship’ tropical species such as mahogany and other prized hardwoods, many used for their veneers.

Besides Gabon, which processes the entirety of its harvested timber, processing rate among countries of Central Africa varies: Cameroon, 70% of 2.5 million cub m; Central African Republic, 55% of 550,000 cub m; Congo, 55% of 1.8 million cub m; and Equatorial Guinea, 20% of 800,000 cub m. But most of the countries’ exports are largely dominated by primary processing.

For several years private certifications and institutional mechanisms have been introduced to incentivise timber producers to adhere to legal and sustainable management approaches. But such efforts in Central African countries have been thwarted by high implementation costs, low-paying markets and pressure from stakeholders, inadequate governance and difficulties in complying with regulatory requirements.

In 2018 certification dynamic changed. So far, Cameroon, Congo and the Central African Republic have signed FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements with the European Union, DR Congo and Gabon are in negotiation.

While certification schemes help to ensure that only legally harvested timber is traded, poor oversight of the timber sector in local markets – which accounts for a significant portion of timber harvest – undermines the sustainability of forest

resources and produces no direct benefits for Central African countries.

• Forest News is a global online forestry news platform.


Related Articles