Heavy, dark rain clouds were rolling in as we emerged at the top of a hill from the neatly planted rows of trees covered in moss and ferns. As far as the eye could see in every direction beneath the sagging clouds were oil palm trees. Lush and green, this plantation was representative of both a long history and uncertain future in Cameroon tied to large-scale agricultural production.
Cameroon—known as “Africa in miniature” given its resplendent cultural and ecological variation—harbors a rich and complex history. Like several other countries in the Congo basin region, Cameroon has a wealth of natural resources that have often been tied to a history of exploitation. German colonization began in the late 1800s, which was followed by split colonization in 1919 between French Cameroun and British Cameroon until the country achieved independence in 1960. Today, Cameroon remains officially bilingual with Anglophone and Francophone regions, in addition to over 280 languages spoken throughout the country. Unsurprisingly the country is home to people with a multitude of different interests and perspectives regarding future directions of Cameroon’s development agenda.
In southern Cameroon, dense forests and fertile soils offer an attractive setting for agricultural production. These same forested regions also provide income to individuals and communities via mining, logging, and the harvesting of non-timber forest products. Forests are deeply important places to many Cameroonians, rich in cultural and spiritual significance, and a significant source of food, medicine, and livelihood opportunities. Yet reconciling all of the many different users of these forests has proven to be exceedingly difficult as the government attempts to carry out a land use planning process. A development agenda rolled into the national Vision 2035 policy document pushes for increased expansion of the mining and agricultural sectors, with little mention of the forestry sector. Observers of the logging industry might be surprised given the long history of logging in the region, however when viewed with profit margins in mind industrial agriculture is potentially a sector for large profit growth. However, “potential” is a key word. Having spent two months interviewing and meeting with ministry officials, company employees across sectors, community members, and staff at various environmental and development non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it quickly became clear to me that although there is a great deal of opportunity for economic development gain from these sectors and the growing investment interest in the region, it remains to be seen who those gains will benefit, the extent to which they will be prolonged and how sustainable their impacts will be.
Officials from different ministries (e.g. ministry of mines, forests, agricultural or land tenure) have been known to refuse to attend the same functions or conferences as their counterparts, making any sort of dialogue difficult. And input from communities is rarely sought or incorporated into the decision-making process. Tackling the differences in scale of these many uses remains exceedingly difficult as well.
Sitting on the southern edge of the Dja forest reserve is a small village usually left off the maps. A woman, who owns one of the few restaurants in town and subsequently cooks for nearly the entire village, is referred to as la mère. She points to a poster hanging on the wall of her wooden walled, bare floored restaurant. The poster has illustrations of about 40 animal species under threat from poaching and overhunting. It was given to her by a local environmental organization in an effort to raise awareness of the threat of extinction these animals face. La mère uses it as a menu, referring to various illustrations to indicate which bushmeat she has cooked that day. The village is dotted with small agricultural plots where corn, beans, cassava, macabo, tomatoes, scotch bonnet peppers, bananas and plantains can all be found growing. A group of about ten Chinese men can be seen milling about their auberge in the evenings eating and smoking cigarettes after spending the day extracting gold at a nearby mine. After about 15 kilometers of walking along the road toward the forest we’re met by a river, where I and a local ecoguard convince three boys around the age of ten to lend us their pirogue, a traditional canoe, to make the crossing. Once on the other side, I am greeted by a couple who has hiked into the forest to attend a church service and two women who are spending their day collecting the pits of wild mangoes, which will later be sold and boiled down into a delicious sauce. One of the women is the wife of the village’s third-ranking chief. We hike along a trail for about 10 kilometers, moving deeper and deeper into the forest, when suddenly we step into an opening filled with banana trees. Not a half kilometer further and we come across oil palms and cocoa being cultivated under a thinned out forest canopy. After a few more minutes of hiking we’re greeted by a large family preparing a meal at their home in the middle of the forest. They live in the forest subsisting on their bounty and selling the rest at markets in nearby villages. Three community forests have been allocated in the area and have since elected a council of leaders to organize and carry out the process of obtaining permits and necessary machinery to selectively log. Independently this would be too costly an enterprise, in part given the high land area taxes and hefty cost of pocket bribes required to carry out the process. As we walk out of the forest, I happened to notice an ordinary stick jammed into the ground with a bit of paint toward the top. It was marking the edge of a logging concession boundary, directly adjacent to the area we had just visited.
Maps of Cameroon’s land allocation illustrate a country plastered with logging concessions, agricultural plantations, community and council forests, national parks and forest reserves, mining exploration areas and hunting zones. As the national government strives towards a more globally integrated economy, it will be faced with the task of reconciling the on-the-ground realities of these many different colored boundaries speckled across these maps. A recent conflict surrounding a large land deal with a New York based firm for an oil palm plantation in the southwest region of Cameroon made international headlines when it was confronted by angry local communities and environmental NGOs. People who had been left out of the decision-making process, concerned with their loss of land rights and access, joined forces with environmental organizations when the deal was leaked and the negative environmental consequences were realized. Tensions remain high and the opposing agendas of different interest groups have temporarily stagnated development of the plantation. However, as existing companies continue to expand their plantations and foreign companies continue to express interest in developing and investing in the region, a more reasoned strategy will be required if any gains are to be realized, be they social, economic, or environmental.
My research objectives in Cameroon, in remote sensing and land use change, aim to inform this type of strategy development by improving our understanding of agricultural expansion in the region and its impact on the forestry sector. One of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of this summer was in knowing that it was just the start to several years of research in the region. This is an exciting time for Cameroon, and many countries in Africa, as the world looks to the continent with an eye for investment. As my plane took off and punctured the dense rainclouds leaving the Congo basin behind, I sat deep in contemplation, already eager to return and continue working with colleagues in the area. Participating in the continued land use planning process and seeing what lies ahead will indeed be an adventure of its own.
Written by Elsa Ordway, 2014 CAS Summer Research Fellow, Ph.D. Environmental Earth System Science