Cameroon forests at the turning point

Posted on August, 27 1999

The south-eastern corner of Cameroon is still largely covered with forests, but poachers have been attracted to the area by the opening of roads by timber companies. Both the ecosystem and indigenous tribes are facing increasing pressure from these intruders
Mambele, Cameroon: From Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, it takes two hours to reach Kika in the south-eastern corner of the country. The forest cover in this part of the world looks infinite and it is hard to believe that it is under threat. This tropical forest of the Congo Basin is, in fact, second only to the Amazon.

In Kika, at the SIBAF (Societe industrielle des bois africains) sawmill, owned by the French group Bollore, hundreds of huge logs are waiting for shipment to Europe from Douala, the country's main port. A little more than a decade ago only 25 people lived in Kika, but SIBAF brought workers from other parts of the country, then built schools, health facilities and an airstrip. Today about 6,000 people work for SIBAF, but the timber company's future is far from secure. It has exploited almost all its concessions, and if it does not obtain new ones, the sawmill will close and Kika will become a ghost town.

The situation is complex. SIBAF's arrival in the region has affected the ecosystem and disrupted the traditions and lifestyle of the pygmy tribes  mostly Baka and Bangando  whose territories were taken over by immigrants. SIBAF's departure may mean environmental regeneration but it could lead to social decay. That is why the Cameroon Programme Office of the international conservation organization WWF launched the Jengi Initiative, a project aimed at managing protected areas and ensuring sustainable logging.

"Participation of local populations in community-based forest management is vital," says Stephane Orts, head of the project.

An important part of the project is independent certification of the forest concessions under the criteria of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). "Cameroon has very good forestry law and the Societe Generale de Surveillance, one of the independent certification bodies working for the FSC, is well established in the country," says Wale Adeleke, WWF Regional Forest Officer. "Now, to be successful, we need both better implementation of current legislation and a timber company ready to start a partnership."

However, convincing loggers to switch to certification is still a challenge. SIBAF's manager, Daniel Estoup, claims its activities are harmless to the environment. In Libongo, another logging settlement in the area, Ennio Dajelli, president of SETAF (Societe d'exploitations forestieres et agricoles du Cameroun), has nothing against certification "so long as it does not change current practices".

WWF has established a base camp in the small village of Mambele between Libongo and Kika, close to the 2,200 square kilometre Lobeke Reserve, where poaching is the biggest threat. "Loggers have opened hundreds of tracks around the reserve, a stroke of luck for hunters," says Dr Leonard Usongo, senior field biologist and WWF project leader.

Dr Usongo is assisted by Bertin Tchikangwa, a sociologist who works closely with local communities, and Dr Paul Robinson Nguegueu, a zoologist doing research in the Lobeke Reserve.

"We have installed a `mirador' in a swampy forest clearing to observe animals such as forest elephants, lowland gorillas, buffaloes and bongos when they come to drink," explains Dr Nguegueu. "But we are seeing fewer and fewer animals. When we are away, poachers even use the `mirador' to shoot the animals."

To prevent poaching, Dr Usongo has recruited 20 forest guards from local villages, creating new jobs in the area. The programme was welcomed by local communities. "Our ancestors lived and died in the forest where their spirits remain. But today, they are constantly disturbed," says a Baka villager. "Our trees are leaving on big trucks and we have no more meat."

Some of the pygmies who have traditionally lived in the forest are now so deprived that they help poachers when they are not poaching themselves. "The arrival of immigrants has completely changed the Baka's way of life," says Bertin Tchikangwa. "They have started to kill animals that they would never have killed before because they were sacred. It is essential to maintain this cultural heritage."

The importance of involving indigenous communities in saving these traditions, and of meeting the economic needs of the region while conserving its biodiversity was recognized by the Yaounde Declaration adopted at the Summit of Central African heads of state in March 1999. The Declaration will be used to monitor commitments made, such as the adoption of the principles of forest certification and measures against poaching. This Declaration is a source of hope for the future of the Congo Basin's forests.

(730 words)

*Olivier van Bogaert is a Press Officer with WWF International in Gland, Switzerland