Civil society organizations and public interest groups have long led campaigns to educate consumers about the environmental impact of individual choices in products such as furniture, food and clothes. Most of these efforts, however, have focused on the Global North. Certainly, there is an enormous potential for impact due to the high purchasing power of its citizens, but consumption patterns are changing, and awareness-raising efforts must come in stride.
In the past decade the Center for International for Forestry Research/World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) has conducted numerous studies across sub-Saharan Africa to better understand national consumption of forest products, especially timber. Researchers found that while hardwood exports play a significant role in the economy of tropical countries, in terms of volume, domestic markets are equally important, and sometimes even more so. The difference is that national production and trade is largely informal and unaccounted for.
In the case of Cameroon, one of Africa’s top timber producers, studies indicate that if all wood sold on the domestic market was included in national statistics, total national production would equal 4.3 million cubic meters per year – nearly double the official figures cited by the government. The main use of timber in Cameroon is for construction and furniture. For middle- and upper-class city dwellers, products made of expensive hardwood are status symbols. However, research by CIFOR-ICRAF shows that only 12 to 18 percent of wood products, including such hardwood, sold in the cities of Douala and Yaoundé – Cameroon’s most populous urban centers – are currently of legal origin.
“Cameroon has a booming middle class that is increasingly buying more timber for their homes. There is therefore a huge opportunity to start changing the mentality of these new consumers,” said Guillaume Lescuyer, an associate researcher at CIFOR-ICRAF who has worked in Cameroon for two decades. Under the slogan “Legal wood is great” (Le bois légal, c’est génial in French), CIFOR-ICRAF has partnered with Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF) to carry out a public campaign to educate consumers and change individual behaviors. Launched in June 2021, the campaign will use mass media like television and radio, as well as social networks like Facebook and Twitter, to reach those population segments more likely to embrace sustainability.
Building on experience
This campaign is the continuation of a first effort carried out in 2018. Numerous awareness-raising activities were organized online and in Yaoundé’s wood markets to study buyers’ receptiveness to the campaign messages. A survey demonstrated that there was a significant positive effect on the declared intention to purchase legally sourced timber. The study did not consider actual changes in consumption, though. Since legal products are more expensive than their standard competitors, purchasing intentions might not always lead to behavioral changes.
“Nevertheless, it was an important encouragement to keep working in this direction,” said Lescuyer. “We then received support from the European Union through the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme to carry out a second campaign.”
A chicken and egg situation
While CIFOR-ICRAF and MINFOF’s efforts might create an interest in consumers, the reality is that in Cameroon, it is difficult to trace the origin of wood in the market. Thus, it is questionable if widespread availability of legal timber should be guaranteed first.
“In Cameroon there is not a straightforward procedure, label or certificate that can certify where and how timber is produced,” said Lescuyer. “Overall, there is little awareness on the importance of implementing such mechanisms.”
According to Lescuyer, however, demand drives supply. “If consumers start asking for timber of legal origin, providers will listen and start offering it. For us, this is an important first step.”
Other measures are also coming soon. MINFOF, for example, is currently working on a web platform that will help connect buyers and producers of timber of legal origin, simplifying the task for interested consumers.