Congo Basin Updates

Monday, 04 May 2020
Public and private Forestry sector’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in the Congo Basin


In the current global health crisis, Africa is the least affected continent with the fewest number of COVID-19 positive cases. However, the pandemic is present in Africa, particularly in South Africa, Egypt and Morocco.

In the countries of the Congo Basin, at the end of April 2020, 200 cases had been registered in Congo including 8 deaths, 211 cases including 3 deaths in Gabon, and in Cameroon 1,430 cases including 56 deaths.

As early as March 2020, in order to reduce the spread of the virus, the governments of these countries reacted promptly with numerous restrictive measures. In addition to containment measures and other prevention methods to curb the epidemic, governments in the subregion have put in place accompanying measures to support disadvantaged populations and mitigate the sudden collapse of commercial activities. These include the creation of solidarity funds, the establishment of food banks, the suspension of rents, the subsidization of water and electricity and various support schemes for small and medium businesses. Numerous private solidarity initiatives have also emerged. However, they are necessarily constrained by the limited financial resources of the region’s governments.

The forestry sector plays a critically important economic role in these Central African countries, providing around 2 million jobs across the region, and is often cited as the second biggest economic sector after mining and fossil fuel extraction. In Gabon, for example, the forestry sector accounts for 60% of GDP after excluding hydrocarbons and is one of the historical pillars of the Gabonese economy. The sector has therefore been the subject of special attention from the very beginning of the pandemic.

In the Gabonese forestry industry, specific measures have been taken. Forest operators are the only ones allowed to continue their activities during the current critical period for timber harvesting and processing. They must, however, prove that they have the capacity to implement certain appropriate measures, including a written procedure describing the company's COVID-19 emergency plan and the specific protection of workers according to the different types of activity sites. Gabon's Minister of the Environment and Water and Forests has also proposed certain financial incentives, including premiums on FSC wood for parastatal purchases.
In Congo, Gabon and Cameroon the forestry sector has been able to maintain its activities. Crisis meetings were held between the administrations, logging companies and unions. All mobilized and organized using all possible communication channels (telephone, emails, WhatsApp groups) to quickly find solutions to ensure business continuity.

The wood industry in Cameroon continues to work despite the difficulties. Thus, in order to deal with the economic impact of COVID 19 on companies, proposals from GICAM (Groupement Inter-patronal du Cameroun), employers' organizations and trade unions, including the G.F.B.C. for the timber sector, have been presented to the Ministry of Finance and the Tax Department. These are requests for support measures for companies in the fiscal, social, customs and monetary fields. The private timber sector plead the public authorities for a reduction in specific taxes (Annual Forest Royalty - Felling taxes - Export duties).

In all three countries, in primary and secondary wood processing, new orders are few and far between, and the number of contract postponements is increasing. The solidity of order books being strongly impacted, some companies are taking measures for technical unemployment. Others are encountering difficulties in implementing barrier measures. The timber sector in the countries of the Congo Basin is organizing itself as much as possible to deal with this crisis, the consequences of which directly impact an activity that is entirely dependent on international trade (Asia, European Union, USA).

The responsiveness and promptness of FSC-certified companies in implementing protocols to protect their workers must be acknowledged. The COVID-19 protocol of Rougier Gabon was the example shared by the Minister of Forest for all timber companies to follow as an example.

The FSC certified companies were among the first to provide masks and antibacterial gels to their workers and to order appropriate equipment to treat potential coronavirus victims in their health infrastructures. Interholco AG*, in northern Congo has appealed for international generosity to raise funds for the purchase of ventilators and other medical equipment.

For its part, the Programme for the Promotion of the Certified Exploitation of Forests (PPECF) has proposed an exceptional aid package of 250,000 euros to support the populations of villages dependent on the resources of the forests of the Congo Basin.

The fallout from the COVID-19 crisis will be severe for the economic health of companies and will have negative consequences on employment. The Economic Commission for Africa forecasts that growth is expected to increase from 3.2% to 1.8% as a result of the halt in trade with the affected economies of the European Union, China and the United States. Similarly, the fall in oil prices is contributing to the fragility of producer countries in the Congo Basin. These declines in oil revenues and forest product exports will reduce revenues and drastically impact the budgets of these states.

No one can predict the future to date and the demand for wood will depend on how the pandemic develops and is controlled globally. Hope can be seen in the gradual recovery of demand from China.

Interholco :

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