Cameroon's Ebo forest is a biologically diverse area that is home to a rich selection of flora and to critically endangered primates, including the only population of chimpanzees in the world known to be able to crack nuts and extract termites with tools.
In July 2020, the Cameroon government designated the 141,706-hectare Ebo a Forest Management Unit (FMU) and approved a logging concession in the area. A few weeks later, in August 2020, much to the relief of conservationists who had opposed the plan, the government reversed the decision, issuing a decree stating that the plan to allow logging had been suspended.
The decision pleased many residents of the area as well.
“If they [the government] conclude to take the forest without talking to us, we will go into the forest and become rebels,” Chief Dekath Moise Nguile told me. “We will do what is happening in Bamenda,” he added, referring to a town in Cameroon’s troubled northwestern region.
‘Our parents are buried’ here!’
I had joined Chief Nguile, a local chief, for a visit to the Ebo forest, some six hours’ drive from Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon.
“There you have the trees, the gorillas and chimpanzees – our parents are buried there. It’s war that drove us to this place,” Nguile said referring to the settlement where residents of his village live and where he has a house. “We have our sacred places there that when we have problems, we go and pray.”
The trip on which I accompany Nguile is one of many he makes regularly to the forest, where his ancestral village is also located, one of 40 communities in the area.
On arrival at one community, we met Chief Emmanuel Belema, a community head, spreading out cocoa beans in front of his house on the edge of Ebo forest. Belema had learned about the July 2020 decision to open up the forest for logging from the radio, his only connection to the outside world.
“We are here waiting for the government. Before they exploit the forest they should tell us what they will give us. If there is nothing to help us, then we don’t know how we will respond to them,” Belema told me.
Belema believes that elites from his village who now live “in the big cities of Douala and Yaoundé” are the ones negotiating with the government to have the forest cut down for industrial use. “But we are the guardians of this forest,” he said, then paused for a while. “It worries us. We won’t be happy if that happens.”
Whether gold mining or logging, concession companies have long faced opposition from the residents of their areas of exploitation. This is partly because promises of sustainable management or the construction of amenities are never fulfilled. Add to that alleged land-grabbing and pollution by the French business group Bolloré in Cameroon’s Littoral region, and constant clashes between Chinese miners and locals in the gold-rich Eastern region.
Like Nguile, the area where Belema lives is not his original settlement. They relocated to this area, which hosts a community of about 200 people, because of a guerrilla war about 50 years ago.
Nguile’s clan was also among the victims of forced removal in the 1960s, when Cameroon’s government was fighting the rebel arm of the political party Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC). Because UPC members hid in the bushlands to carry out their hit-and-run operations, the state evacuated the natives of the area.
A place of amazing biodiversity
In February, I spoke on the phone to Dr. Ekwoge Abwe, a researcher with San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance for the Ebo Forest. “Ebo is considered an important tract of forest in the Gulf of Guinea biodiversity hotspot,” he told me.
Abwe has been working in the forest since 2004. In 2005, he and 13 others from a permanent research station in Ebo, observed and recorded a large population of Cameroon-Nigeria chimpanzees in the forest. The chimps are considered which are “the most threatened, with only between 3,500 and 9,000 of the animals left in the wild.”
Abwe told me that the Ebo is home to about 1,000 of the primates or 1/9 of the total world population. But what is more peculiar about the ones in Ebo, the researcher notes, is that “they are the only chimpanzees that crack nuts using tools and at the same fish for termites using tools.”
“Other populations do one, but the ones at Ebo do both which makes the forest a really, really unique area,” Abwe said, also noting that since 2005, 28 new plants have been discovered that are “endemic to the forest.”
Despite its rich biota and the fact that it holds 35 million tonnes of carbon, Cameroon’s government has dragged its feet on designating the zone a national park, a request conservationists have been making since 2005.
“These are some of the reasons we are advancing to the government,” Abwe told me. Instead of logging this area, we should think of other ways of generating alternative and sustainable revenues for the local communities.”
But increasing investments in timber in Cameroon, a sector formerly dominated by Europeans but now dominated by Chinese companies, do not guarantee Ebo’s safety, especially given the importance of timber production to Cameroon's economy.
In July 2020, around the time of the initial announcement, Cameroon's Minister of Forestry and Wildlife said the country had already preserved more than twice the 12% forest cover the United Nations requires, and that not all the trees in Ebo were not going to be felled. I visited Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife on February 25 to find out whether there was a chance that the forest could be opened to industrial logging in the future, but I found nobody there who would speak on the record.
Since the government suspended the logging plan, it has yet to say anything further. “These people [the concession companies], whom I may call vultures, are still looking on how to cut it,” Abwe said.
Until Ebo is designated a protected area, the forest remains fair game for those seeking to exploit its offerings.
Boris Karloff Batata contributed to this story.
Editor's note: On March 11, 2021, we updated the post to reflect the new name of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (formerly, San Diego Zoo Global’s Central Africa Programme). We also clarified that Dr. Abwe and 13 others, working from a permanent research observatory station in Ebo forest, recorded (not discovered) a huge population of wildlife primates.