Cameroon’s push for agricultural expansion devastates Indigenous communities and wildlife

Members of communities affected by agro-industrial expansion. Photo by Greenpeace Africa, used with permission.

Land grabbing is a major concern for communities in forested zones in Cameroon, where the government granted concessions to create large-scale industrial agriculture projects. Local communities say this deprives them of their traditional way of life, which includes subsistence farming and using the forest for foraging and rituals. As a result, members of 30 communities threatened by agro-industrial expansion, including the Indigenous Bakas of the East Cameroon region, came together to write a list of grievances urging the government to finalize a new land reform.

The present land law, which dates back to 1974, does not recognize the traditional right of local communities to land.

The group is also demanding the integration of Indigenous and local populations in all decision-making processes concerning their land.

Nkolo Thade, 43, of Nyabibete village in Djoum, South Region of Cameroon, is the president of Adebaka, an association created by the Baka people to defend their cause.

Thade, a father of five, was emotional as he spoke about the forest. “We are in danger. Our power is diminishing as our heritage is disappearing because the forest is disappearing. If the forest disappears, we are nothing.”

He said there is a possibility of the Baka people “being left with only the name, a history, if Ejengui, the spirit that inhabits the forest, disappears.”

Thade is concerned that Sud Cameroun Hevea SA (SUDCAM) has transformed swaths of forest into rubber farms, coupled with forest exploitation. SUDCAM has been felling trees to plant rubber trees from the village of Meyomessala to Mintom in the southern region of Cameroon — a distance of 229 km (143 miles). He said, this is negatively impacting the communities: “We are asking the government to return our forest and help us protect it. We need the forest to teach our children our culture.” 

According to Andre Awouma from Nyata village in Djoum, in the South Region, who is the head of Abaguelli, an association dedicated to preserving Baka culture, the forest is many things to them — their inheritance, pharmacy, and supermarket. Previously, the Bakas would trek about 5 km (3 miles) into the forest to set traps, collect non-forest timber products, and perform their traditional rites. With the ongoing agro-industrial expansion and logging, the journey to a forest is much longer — about 50 km (31 miles). 

Nkolo Thade and Andre Awouma. Photo by Leocadia Bongben, used with permission.

Down south in Campo, CAMVERT, an agro-industrial company planting palms for oil production has cleared roughly 40,000 ha (98,842 acres) of the approximately 60,000 ha (148,263 acres) of forest at risk. The woodland, traditionally occupied by the Indigenous Bagyeli people, is home to about 6,000 people, the Mvae and Iyasa tribal groups whose livelihood is fishing and agriculture. 

Martin Ndongo, a tribal leader of a village in Campo, told Global Voices the project had been implemented without some communities’ free, prior, and informed consent or just compensation and with no impact assessment studies.

Ndongo claims CAMVERT has destroyed the Elephant Corridor, forcing the elephants to wander about the villages destroying farmland and crops. He said the elephants can no longer travel towards the forest and back during the rainy and dry seasons. 

The case of the Ebo Forest is an example of opening up intact forests for logging. In 2020, the government had to withdraw the decree classifying the area as a forestry concession (under FMU 07 005) after protests from Banen communities, scientists, and civil society organizations globally. In reaction to international outrage, requests, and publications, including from the EU Head of Delegation and ambassadors of several European countries, civil society, and an independent forest monitoring mission from the NGO, Foret et Developpement Rural (FODER) highlighting various illegal logging actions, a road project was halted after it had penetrated 26 km (16 miles) of forest.

His Majesty Yetina, leader of the Banen community and president of the Banen association, MUNEN Retour aux sources said, “Our grievances are directed to the government. Ebo forest is the greatest asset of the Banen people, whom I represent here. The road project at the moment does not serve the interests of the Banen community but rather serves the savage exploitation of timber and the intensification of poaching. We want development, but only if it's sustainable. This forest is a precious heritage we wish to pass on to future generations and contribute to limiting global warming.”

‘High risk for deforestation’

On April 25, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Greenpeace, addressed an open letter to the foreign affairs ministries of the UK, Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, the US, Norway, Sweden, and their embassies, and the European Union warning that Cameroon is a high-risk country for deforestation and degradation. They also copied the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) secretariat and the president.

“We are writing to express our concerns about the large-scale deforestation for agri-business plantations and the degradation of forests due to illegal industrial logging in Cameroon. These issues are intertwined with the violation of human rights of local communities and Indigenous peoples in Cameroon, stemming from poor governance within Cameroon and internationally,” the nine NGOs wrote.

The NGOs warned that newly planted palms are replacing the high conservation value and high carbon stock forests. They pointed to the government's neglect of national legislation and commitment to international conventions for forests, climate, biodiversity, and human rights.

In an interview, Fabrice Lamfu, a Greenpeace Africa campaigner, told Global Voices, “Forest communities are under pressure from all sides, the greatest of which is the encroachment on their traditional lands. Agro-industries and other extractive industries are profiting from these lands, while communities struggle to make ends meet.”

He said one of the key ways of resolving this impasse is land reform “because the current land legislation is 50 years old and, by extension, outdated and incapable of addressing today's social and economic needs,”

He said, however, that “through timber tracking and documentation, we are identifying the financial institutions associated with the projects and would tell them with evidence the impact of where they are investing.”

Through the efforts of Greenpeace and other NGOs, the initial opening of Ebo to logging was suspended. The original area allocated to CAMVERT was reduced, the same for SUDCAM in the East Region and Herakles farms from 73,000 ha (180,386 acres) to 20,000 ha (49421 acres) in the southwestern region.

Are foreign NGOs tarnishing the government’s image?

The minister of forestry and wildlife, Jules Doret Ndongo, reacted to the open letter from NGOs, saying it was an attempt to tarnish Cameroon's image and undermine biodiversity conservation efforts:

“Their approach is based on the well-known stereotypes, their hallmark: deforestation, violation of Indigenous peoples’ rights, and illegal exploitation of forests, respectively, in the area where the CAMVERT agro-industrial palm oil plantation project is being set up in the Ocean division and its implications for the Campo Ma'an National Park (human/wildlife conflict), as well as the classification of two (2) Forest Management Units (FMU) in the EBO forest massif.”

Minister Doret Ndongo stated that protected areas in Cameroon cover 9,837,310 ha (24,308,522 acres) or 20.71 percent of the national territory, well above the United Nations target of 12 percent. Cameroon's 6 percent rate of deforestation is among the lowest in the Congo Basin sub-region, and he contended that supporting agro-industrial growth was a strategy to reduce Cameroon's 160,000-ton deficit in palm oil production.

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