By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
Stepping into the Bimbia-Bonadikombo community forest in Cameroon, the chatter and hooting from the people and cars in neighboring villages gives way to silence.
A guide and hunter Charles Mokwe, slashes through the thick canopy, slowly making his way along a trail of grass and bush marked with tracks of cutting grass and porcupine.
One could hear shrieks from both far and near. “Those are probably the sounds of animals,” Mokwe says.
“Though human encroachment has scared many animals to far distances, we still find some during our hunting expeditions.”
The Mount Cameroon forest project that includes the Bimbia -Bonadikombo community forest (BBCF)measuring 3.735 hectares, situated on the west flanks of Mt.Cameroon looks an ideal biodiversity conservation project in readiness for the country’s REDD+( reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and carbon sequestration) ambition.
The community forest is a biodiversity hotspot under a three way partnership between the local communities, the government, the Mount Cameroon Project [MCP] the coordinating body in Fako division of Cameroon’s South West region. The project, government says, is a biodiversity conservation strategy implemented through participatory land-use plan with mapped out areas for settlements, agriculture, community forests including a national park that has contributed significantly to the socio-economic development of the forest community in the area.
“The project is a people oriented conservation programme geared at improving on the livelihood of the local population,” says Eben Ebai Samuel, Southwest regional delegate for forestry and wildlife.
But just along the western edge of the Mt Cameroon Park, there are signs of trouble. Stakes are planted in the ground and a nursery nearby is filled with oil palm seedlings. This is part of an ambitious plan to expand the Cameroon Development Corporation, a Cameroonian palm oil company, to develop a 123,000-acre palm oil plantation next to the forest reserve. The project could possibly overlap with the forest in some places.
“This would be a disaster,” says Ekwoge Abwe, who works with the Ebo Forest Research Project with the help of village volunteers and funding from San Diego Zoo Global, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups. The office of their research project is located in the Botanic Gardens in Limbe.
“If this takes place, you would have a good chunk of the community forest disappearing,” Abwe says. “The habitat would be chopped down and exacting more pressure on species and leading to population declines and local extinctions. For those species that are not resilient, that may be the end.”
Cameroon is among a growing list of African nations following the foot-steps of Asian agro-industrial companies like in Malaysia and Indonesia, which have made hundreds of billions of dollars by converting huge tracts of rainforest into palm oil plantations. The two Southeast Asian countries produce about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil. This development is threatening community forest that has stood its own in forest conservation since the 1994 forestry laws.
“Our forests are in danger if government does not reinforce and apply the law to stop encroachers,” says chief Njie Masoki, chairman of the Bonadikombo traditional council.
Community and state co-management of protected forest areas were established in Cameroon following the 1994 forestry law as part of relatively new forest governance dynamic aimed at improving livelihood and reducing poverty especially among the forest community population. The community forest initiative involves the transfer of forest taxes to councils and communities, creation and management of council forest, guaranteeing rural communities access rights to their forest resources among other benefits.
However, though the Cameroon community forests initiatives were designed and implemented to meet the general objectives of forest management decentralization for democratic and community management, the expansion of agro-industrial plantations and the spread of management conflicts in many of these communities have shown that the broad expectations have largely not been met.
Cameroon lost 18 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, with an average annual decline of 0.9 percent, or 220,000 hectares, according to the State of the World’s Forests 2011 report issued by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
This runs counter to plans drawn up by the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC), which focuses on sustainable exploitation of the forest and its resources and Cameroon’s plans towards economic emergence with a two digit growth by 2035. Present economic growth stands at just 4.5 %.
Reports say much of the forest loss is due to increasing pressure from other sectors such as commercial and subsistence agriculture, other infrastructure development and especially palm oil plantations. For example, a 73,000 ha oil palm plantation has been allocated in a rich biodiversity forest area in Southwest Region of the country that is breeding conflict between the community and the palms oil company.
“These persistent conflicts between communities and palm oil or rubber plantation companies completely defeats the purpose of the community forest scheme,” Chief Njie says.
Community Forest in Cameroon
According to the 1994 forestry law, the involvement of grassroot community actors in the management of forest and wildlife resources is primordial to improve on the livelihood of the local population and save forest.
Community forestry emphasizes the roles of indigenous and local communities in conservation, and the importance of generating local livelihoods through sustainable forest use. This enable communities to manage and benefit from forests, so that forests can be recognized as a livelihoods asset that contributes to their continuing welfare.
“A community forest forms part of the non-permanent forest estate, which is covered by a management agreement between a village community and the Forestry Administration. Management of such forest – which should not exceed 5,000 ha – is the responsibility of the village community concerned, with the help or technical assistance of the Forestry Administration,” Article 3(11) of Decree says.
The law was the first in Central Africa to promote community forest management as a strategy to sustainably manage forests and promote local development. As of 2011, a total of 301 community forests covering over 1 million ha had some form of management agreement in place.
It provides for the establishment of community-managed hunting areas, council and community forests with the granting of royalties to councils and communities resident in forest management units and hunting areas. Statistics from the ministry of forestry and wildlife shows that about 43% of allocated community forests obtain an annual exploitation certificate each year while exploited volumes in local communities represent about 25% of authorized volumes.
Government officials however say these are carried out on the basis of established agreement between the state and the forest communities.
“On the basis of a management agreement signed with the state, villagers have the opportunity to manage and exploit the products of their community forests and realize opportunities for development,’’ says Eben Ebai Samuel, Southwest regional delegate for forestry and wildlife.
According to the Law, 40% of taxes levied from Forest Management Units like logging concessions go to municipalities and 10% to the local villages. The law also guarantees property rights of communal forests to municipalities and the rights of use of community forests to local villages. Government officials say the law is very clear on that even though local councils and villages as of now only benefit from logging concessions.
“Local villages and councils are entitled by law to use and sell all types of forest resources although in practice the main community forest benefits have been from commercial logging,” says Vincent Onana of the ministry of forestry and wildlife.
Environmentalists say the rights of communities must be respected.
“It is both the responsibility of the government and the companies to ensure that the rights and wellbeing of local communities are respected,” says Augustine Njamnshi of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.
Environmentalists are fighting on several fronts in Cameroon, where the government has pledged to expand palm oil production by more than 26 percent by 2018 as part of an effort to become a top exporter in Africa. That means an additional 25,000 acres of new plantations each year.
A Cameroonian company, Safacam, is developing plantations that appear to overlap with two reserves, according to Global Forest Watch. Greenpeace also claims that Sud-Cameroun Hevea, a company owned mostly by Singapore’s GMG, is developing rubber and palm oil plantations that threaten the Dja Faunal Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest and best protected rainforests in Africa.
Like Mt Cameroon, most community forest in Cameroon lacks the protection and funding of a national park like Dja Faunal. Even without the palm oil, the forests face a myriad of other threats, from raids by bush meat hunters trapping and shooting primates, antelopes and elephants, to incursions from illegal loggers, activities that challenge the countries REDD+ ambition.
Though the plantation officials and government argue the projects could provide good paying jobs and improve conditions in the villages lacking electricity, clean water and health care facilities environmentalists think they could be located far from the community forest reserve.
For Abwe, it’s hard to argue against jobs, but he hasn’t given up hope the plantation can be pushed back.
“We are encouraging the people to conserve what is left,” Abwe said. “Many villagers depend on the forest for their livelihood. If all the biodiversity goes, there will be nothing left for them.”
(This article was produced under the aegis of the CSE Media Fellowship Programme)