The French presidency, which is hosting the summit on financing African economies on 18 May, is at the forefront of a shift in discourse on the ... continent. But its approach still has blind spots, says economist Carlos Lopes.
It represents the struggle of a country trying to balance developmental aspirations with ecological and cultural identity.
On one hand, there is a real need to use Cameroon’s natural resources as a path towards prosperity, which has seen the country sign agreements to exploit its most abundant resource, timber.
On the other hand, the threat deforestation poses to biodiversity and climate change forces a pause; just how much of our forest cover can we hand over to logging without also sacrificing the country’s and the continent’s resilience? In what ways are we compromising the well-being of our people by signing away ancestral homes and severing links to repositories of their cultures, histories and identities?
Sacred link to nature
I grew up in rural Cameroon in an age when my community’s link to the natural world was sacred. It was our source of identity. Everyone understood that the fate of the community was intertwined with the fate of the forest its wildlife. Like most communities in Africa, we had totem animals, with whom we had a close kinship relationship. The connections to these animals were spiritual. It was taboo to hunt or eat them, they were viewed to be of similar status to people.
This is the same spiritual connection that the Indigenous Banen community has with Ebo Forest. For this community, allowing loggers to come into the forest would not only mean the loss of a habitat on which they depend for food, water and medicines, it would also mean the loss of a spiritual and intimate connection to the forest, including ancestral burial grounds and a repository of their history and identity.
In addition, it would speed up the extinction of the critically endangered Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzees which show human-like dexterity in their use of sticks to fish for termites and clubs to break nuts open.
Forest for profit
The forest management model that the government of Cameroon had wanted to impose on Ebo is not new. Cameroon’s forests, part of the Congo Forest Basin, have long been a significant source of revenue for the government. Industrial logging dates back to colonial times. Around 40% of the country’s total forest cover is under forest management units for timber extraction.
These units were designed to promote rural development and to ensure sustainable management of forest resources. But they have been a source of conflict between the state and local communities, with communities arguing that forest management units dispossess them of their natural resources and alienate them from ancestral lands.
Communities assert that they do not enjoy the economic benefits from timber exports since revenues are appropriated by a few members of the elite at the expense of the general public and the forest-dependent communities. According to the Centre for International Forest Research (CIFOR), the overall impact of the forest management units has been negative resulting in schisms between communities and authorities.
Time for change
It is time for a new natural resource management system for Cameroon’s bountiful forests, one which respects indigenous ownership and knowledge of these resources. The first step towards a new model is to prioritise the needs and aspirations of rural communities who depend on these resources for their survival but are often marginalized from economic decisions.
In the Dja Faunal Reserve, the African Wildlife Foundation is working closely with local communities to implement conservation initiatives that protect the forest and wildlife from over-exploitation while bringing much-needed economic benefits to the people.
We have mobilised local women to form groups to process non-timber forest products into skin care items such as soaps and creams. Through funding from the European Union, we help farmers to establish cooperatives to aggregate and sell sustainably farmed cocoa thereby reducing their reliance on logging and hunting to pay school fees or buy medicine.
Our work with rural communities shows that there are other ways to manage natural resources – ways that do not harm either our rich biodiversity for which this country is known, or the people who form the heart and soul of this great nation.
I applaud the government for reversing its decision about Ebo. It takes great leadership to change direction and open up the space for dialogue and consultations. My hope is that this heralds a new era of equality and prosperity. Cameroon has never had to choose between development and the environment. With proper planning, it can have both.
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