Last Friday (December 7) I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, to work with Fern’s longstanding partner, the Centre for Environment and Development (CED). The purpose of my visit was to formalise our 2019 plans for how to continue our joint efforts to protect Cameroon’s rapidly disappearing forests, strengthen the rights of the people who live in them, and improve forest governance. My friend and colleague Priso Regis Christo, a staff member at CED and coordinator of our ConNGOs Project, was to pick me up to start working that very night. But he never made it to the airport. His car was hit by a logging truck and he died before arriving at the hospital. The driver of the truck ran away, fearing retaliation of an angry crowd.
The life of a young father of three small children - aged five, three and one - and a husband to a lovely wife was erased. In an instant, 35-year-old Priso’s family, friends and colleagues are left behind, shocked and bewildered. We are all asking how could such a tragedy have happened?
The road to Yaoundé’s international airport is notorious, and the scene of numerous fatalities. This is the second deadly accident on the same road by the same company in a single month.
The disastrous condition of one of Yaoundé’s main roads, the speed of the lorry, the recklessness of the driver, and the lack of access to medical care, all reflect a deeper malaise in Cameroon. This is a country with an average of 16,600 road accidents a year: accidents which kill more than 1,000 people annually according to official figures, and more than 6,000 according to the World Health Organisation.
Priso’s death is a tragic illustration of how Cameroon’s poor governance and culture of impunity puts its population at risk: Priso would have been alive if logging companies were held accountable when they fail to respect the law. And the poor governance which causes such a high death toll on Cameroon’s roads, is mirrored in the way the country manages its natural resources, including its tropical forests.
This week marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (article 1) and that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (article 3).
Yet it seems that some people on this earth are less equal and less protected than others – and, for all of us left behind, it is a cruel injustice that Priso was one of them.
Priso was a charming, positive and caring man who dedicated many years of his life to make the world a better place. He was committed to fighting to keep Cameroon’s forests standing, to respect the rights of communities, and to improve forest governance and access for all to renewable energy.
There is a terrible irony that a man who worked to protect forests and people, was killed by a logging truck; that someone who worked to make Cameroon’s forest sector accountable was killed by its recklessness.
Illegal logging remains rife in Cameroon, and my country, Belgium, is one of the main importers of Cameroonian timber within the European Union (EU). Despite the fact that the EU and Cameroon signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in 2010 and the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) has been in force since 2013, illegal logging has not been curbed. On the contrary, it is on the rise in Cameroon: destroying forests, ruining peoples’ lives and worsening climate change.
Priso was on the right side of history in resisting this.
I had the chance to work with him on Community Forest management, a project to help communities decide how to manage forests so that it improves their livelihoods while keeping the forest standing.
Tonight (December 14), I will take the plane back to Brussels, the Headquarters of the European Union (EU), leaving the same airport where I waited for Priso on a dark, warm night a week ago.
When Priso came to Brussels for the first time in March this year, joining other campaigners from tropical forested countries around the world, on a European Lobby tour to meet policymakers at the Commission, the European Parliament and in Bonn and Paris, we discussed what the EU can do to improve forest governance and address deforestation in tropical forested countries.
A fitting legacy for Priso’s life and work would be for those responsible within the European Commission and policymakers in Belgium and other European countries, to give their full attention to the fight of illegal logging in Cameroon, and to step up action on implementing the VPA as well as the EUTR.
My thoughts are with Priso’s wife Larissa and children, his family, his dear friends and wonderful colleagues.
Priso’s big smile, his infectious humour and positivity will be missed dearly – as will his commitment to the cause of improving Cameroon’s human rights and protecting its forests. It is up to us to ensure his fight to protect the forest continues.