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Cameroon: The EU and international actors must help communities defend their ancestral forests

7 May 2024

Cameroon: The EU and international actors must help communities defend their ancestral forests

Despite the efforts, the endless talks, and the international agreements, large-scale industrial deforestation continues unabated in Cameroon, nudged along by the Cameroonian government and under the tolerant gaze of international donors. The devastation goes hand in hand with trampling the human rights of Indigenous and local communities, dispossession of their ancestral lands, destruction of carbon sinks and damage to a biodiversity that is as emblematic as it is extraordinary. Cameroon’s communities have had enough. It is a matter of everyone’s credibility to make full use of exchanges and regulatory tools – including the EU Regulation on deforestation-free products (EUDR), the recent Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), and the Sustainable Cocoa Initiative discussions – to put an end to it.  

Two examples encapsulate the problem.  

In the Campo Ma’an region, a Key Biodiversity Area, high conservation value forests are being felled to give way to palm oil plantations – a commodity covered by the EUDR. A crucial wildlife corridor, this forest is the customary home of the Bagyeli people and the Mvae and Iyasa communities, who depend on it for their livelihoods. The project threatens 60,000 hectares (ha), 40,000 of which are allocated to a single company (Camvert, for which the 20,000 ha are reserved, foreseeing an extension); it was set up without consultation, free, prior and informed consent, or fair and equitable compensation. The processes for granting logging permits and creating the plantation were riddled with illegalities, and permits for sales of standing timber exceed the limits of the concession. 

Communities are trying to defend themselves: seven Indigenous Bagyeli communities affected by the plantations lodged a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In August 2023, CERD asked Cameroon to suspend or revoke the concession as it was likely in breach of its obligation to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet the destruction continues: according to Cameroonian civil society, by March 2024 some 8,000 ha had disappeared.  

The Ebo forest, ancestral home to some forty communities of the Banen people and a rare pearl of biodiversity, is suffering a similar heartbreak. A refuge for several species featured on the IUCN red list and in class A of Cameroon’s wildlife protection regime, the Ebo forest is also vital for Cameroon’s climate commitments; it contains an estimated 35 million tonne carbon stock.  

Ebo forest has long been a target of the government and forestry companies, and of international and press outrage. An initial decree authorising logging was cancelled at the request of the President, but before its suspension, an illegal 26 km-long road had already pierced the forest. 

In April 2023, with the stroke of a pen, the Banen lands became state property, open to industrial exploitation, with no right of return for the Banen. The government adopted a decree creating two Forest Management Units covering more than 130,000 ha – after ‘consultations’ that did not comply with international law, and following an irregular procedure: no public call for tender, no meeting of the inter-ministerial allocation committee, and no offer to the lowest financial and technical bidder. 

Here again, the communities are attempting to defend themselves. The Banen launched legal proceedings to demand the withdrawal of the industrial exploitation permit, but while the case is wending its way through the courts, the felling of trees is under way.  

Samuel N’Guiffo, of Cameroon’s Centre de l’Environnement et du Développement, says: “The current changes to the rules governing European countries towards which our products are destined should make our government think twice. The risk is that, if the government continues in this way, our country will be classified as high risk for deforestation and push traders and investors away from our country. ”  

It is well past time to put an end to bad governance. Supported by domestic and international civil society, in a letter addressed to the Cameroonian government and the ministries of the European Commission and its Member States, the communities are calling on the relevant actors to intervene. The Central African Forest Initiative should also ensure that it directs its funding to halting the destruction of key areas and that community rights figure in all its agreements and investments. Communities alone cannot stem the tide of non-compliance with multiple domestic and international human rights and environmental protection obligations. Everyone must insist on the application of the law and true progress.

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This article was edited by Nicole Gérard.

Categories: News, Forest Watch, Cameroon

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