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Wednesday, October 7, 1998 Published at 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK

World: Africa

Taxpayers' money helps destroy rainforests

Trees take up to 300 years to mature

Roger Harrabin reports from Cameroon

Watch Roger Harrabin's report from Cameroon
There is a wonderful mix of plants and animals here - more than a thousand species of trees alone. But the rich diversity is under threat, thanks partly to taxpayers from the European Union, including Britain.

The threat comes from a road into the rainforest which has been upgraded by Cameroon's government with funds from the EU.

[ image: The rainforests are home to a wonderful mix of plants and animals]
The rainforests are home to a wonderful mix of plants and animals
The World Bank and the African Development Bank refused to finance the upgrading.

They said it would accelerate logging and the hunting of endangered species. But the EU handed out the money without making any environmental assessment.

Steve Gartland, the World Wildlife Fund's man in Cameroon, says the inevitable is now happening.

"Road-building programmes tend to bring development into the forest areas. As soon as you get the forest areas opened up you get the poachers going in, leading to depletion of wildlife and deforestation," he said.

Sixty per cent of Cameroon's forests are already being exploited.

Some firms wreck the forest by bribing their way round laws permitting only selected mature trees to be cut. Others appear to play by the book - felling only the occasional large tree.

Forester Jean Francois Pagot admits that the most valuable species are being depleted because they're not being replanted.

He says: "The main reason is the long life of the trees. Some take two or three hundred years to fully mature - and no timber licence lasts that long - so the diversity of the forest is being eroded."

New road brings some benefits

[ image: Sick people can now get treatment in hospital and recover their health]
Sick people can now get treatment in hospital and recover their health
A farmer, Richard Lomie, has four wives and 21 children living in two one-room homes. The children share with the livestock.

For the farm business, road access is essential. He says: "I need money. Without the road, who'll come here to buy my coffee?"

According to Celestin Assam, mayor of a local town, the community is grateful. He says: "The road helps us. In the past if someone was sick we used not to be able to get them out. Now they can get treatment in hospital and recover their health."

But there is a social downside, too, particularly for the Baka pygmies who depend on the rainforest.

At one small Baka village in a clearing in the Dja forest, reserve women are preparing a meal - washing cassava - and peeling caterpillars.

A wriggling pile of 3-inch orange grubs can be seen on a mat of leaves on the bare earth floor.

[ image: Baka pygmies resort to eating caterpillars]
Baka pygmies resort to eating caterpillars
The Baka are finding it harder to get other sorts of meat since poachers started using the EU's road to sell their catch from the forest reserve.

One Baka said: "They killed elephants, gorillas, chimps, panthers, buffalos, deer - all in the reserve".

There is an irony here. EU taxpayers are funding wildlife conservation in this reserve as well as paying for the road which akes life easier for the poachers.

The EU is now funding anti-poaching education projects. But hunting wildlife is too lucrative for some to resist.

Conservationists say it is a typical problem caused by the EU's aid programme. They say aid from Brussels is often poorly administered and damaging to people at the sharp end - like the Baka.

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