Rebuilding Cameroon's forest wealth, tree by tree
"Reconciling conservation to livelihoods" is the motto of Ecological Balance, a NGO from Cameroon with a holistic approach to conservation and development. Since 2016, their work has served 10 communities around the Mt Cameroon National Park, with about 5'000 people, and led to the planting over 20'000 trees. Their approach includes reforestation and restoration work, coupled with education activities and other initiatives that increase the economic value of forest products and services, providing a tangible incentive to conserve these resources while improving livelihoods.
Cameroon includes circa 10% of the Congo Basin forest, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world according to the Global Forest Atlas. Although the country is still heavily forested, with a mix of intact primary rainforest, secondary forest and savanna, there is a continuous loss of natural forests (see figures from Global forest Watch). Human-induced deforestation is strongly associated with slash-and-burn agriculture and production of wood charcoal, hence the importance of improving livelihoods to give conservation efforts a chance to succeed.
Ecological Balance sees the forests as a store of local wealth for Cameroonians, particularly for rural women, since they can provide a year-round supply of food, medicine and cash through the sale of forest spices, nuts, fruits, tannins, herbs, etc. This was the traditional perspective, where the sustainable use of local resources was key to survival. However, due to socio-economical changes and the impact of deforestation (which reduces what's stored in the forests), the incentive to protect them has decreased over time. The next logical step for Ecological Balance was therefore to reawaken people's awareness of this wealth and bring the benefits back into everyday life. By increasing the perceived value, the commitment to sustainable use and long-lasting conservation should also increase.
As such, their projects focus on those more directly related to the forests, making them both beneficiaries and guardians of this natural asset. The Irvingia project (named after the bush mango) is focused on rural women, specially young girls, who rely on collecting and selling raw forest products. By training them to process these traditional products, moving up in the value chain, they can last longer and fetch a higher price. The Youth Entrepreneurship skill development project tackles youth unemployment as one of the drivers behind deforestation for charcoal production and other unsustainable uses. It provides them the skills to start and run businesses that require little seed capital, hoping to provide an alternative. Both projects bring concrete benefits while also showing the practical value and usefulness of education.
Creating change through education and sensitization is a key aspect of Ecological Balance's strategy. Talks, workshops, radio and TV appearances are used to explain in a clear and accessible way how ecosystems function and how human actions can have a positive or negative impact on their health and benefits. Other activities break out of the traditional models, making people more directly responsible for creating solutions. The School Conservation challenge (Play-Practice-Pitch) is a inter-school competition where students are given relevant knowledge and skills and then mentored while developing practical solutions that serve nature. These are then pitched and evaluated for an award. Similar participatory approaches are used in the interactions with communities and other groups.
To combat the actual loss of trees, there is also reforestation work in the Southwest Region of Cameroon. In the coastal areas, the deforestation of mangroves has increased the vulnerability of local populations to flooding. Initial activities are used to explain the importance of mangroves and the links between increased flooding and human activities. Next, a participatory process is used to create solutions that can be implemented by the villages to increase their resilience (land use, construction techniques). The mangrove restoration was started with the development of a local nursery and the planting of 15'000 seedlings in 2018.
Elsewhere in the region, another project tries to address water scarcity by restoring water catchments in the Buea Municipality , where over 96% of the population suffers from water scarcity since 2 decades due to the mismanagement of the resource. These water catchments areas have been affected by human encroachment and/or forest degradation caused by past eruptions from the Mt Cameroon volcano. The goal is to "rewild" 3 community forests that flank the Mt Cameroon National Park, in articulation with current community plans for forest management (reforestation) and village development (orchards for future cottage industries). The restoration work will use the Miyawaki method of forest regeneration, which can create dense native forests in a shorter time-frame by accelerating the natural plant succession stages (as described in this JSTOR article). This method relies on local materials and involves local communities and people of all age groups in tree planting. A pilot Miyawaki forest was created at the Bonduma water catchment (main one) in Buea in November 2019, with the planting of 600 trees of 7 native species. Besides recharging groundwater reserves, the restored forest will also serve for gathering non-timber forest products such as forest spices (bush mango seeds), fruits (bitter cola, pear), medicinal plants (Prunus bark), among others.