Lush, tropical forests cover approximately 40 per cent of Cameroon, yet since 1990, more than three million hectares have been cleared – an area approximately the size of Belgium. The destruction is driven by agriculture, logging and mining, and has led to the loss of many local peoples’ livelihoods.
But communities are fighting back – and in some cases, winning. In less than one year, community resistance prevented about 300,000 hectares of forests, an area 28 times greater than Paris, from being destroyed. The combined mobilisation of local people alongside environmental, rights and rural development organisations resulted in the cancellation of three concession titles which were illegally allocated to companies for the industrial production of agricultural products such as cocoa, palm oil and rubber.
One of these victories was in the Ebo forest, crucial to the life of local communities, and the home of the famous chimpanzees that dig out termites with sticks and crack nuts with rocks. The State had earmarked 120,000 hectares for industrial agricultural exploitation, but local populations mobilised to oppose the plan and got it cancelled. Another victory was in the Ntem Valley, where the local people − among them, small cocoa producers − challenged the granting of their customary lands to an agro-industrial cocoa company. The Prime Minister ended up cancelling the decree.
The next big battle is near the Campo Ma’an National Park, where a questionable process has led to 60,000 hectares of forest land being degazetted and allocated to CamVert, a company new to palm oil exploitation. The project threatens the livelihoods of local populations, undermines Cameroon’s climate and conservation commitments, and carries the risk of water and groundwater contamination. But will communities succeed once again?
These victories are an incredible achievement and a testament not only to the determination of local communities, but also the force and power of civil society in Cameroon, who combine legal expertise, detailed research and deft advocacy to support people’s right to keep forests standing.
For nearly 25 years, civil society in Cameroon has been growing and become a powerful critical mass, one of the strongest in the region. This is partly a result of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) process, which has been ongoing in Cameroon for more than a decade and has enabled civil society to engage in an international process and increase their relations with the government.
The deliberative VPA process, set up to fight illegal logging, created space for multi-stakeholder dialogue. It gave civil society actors the chance not only to have a seat at the table but to also raise key issues such as transparency and the need for legal reforms and to participate meaningfully.
But if Cameroon’s forests are reaping the rewards of years of efforts to improve governance, then now is not the time to give up, argues civil society in Cameroon.
Justin Kamga, Forêts et développement rural (FODER) explains what needs to happen next, “To move the FLEGT-VPA forward, there should be real involvement of the Ministries according to their interests, whether it is the Ministry of Finance for forest taxation, the Ministry of Trade that manages the company applying for a FLEGT license, the Ministry in charge of the environment concerning impact of forestry activities, or the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.”
The FLEGT VPA process in Cameroon, once vibrant, has been in crisis for years. Taken aback by the level of disagreement, civil society “is trying to understand the deeper issues at stake so that it can put forward proposals and calm the atmosphere through stakeholder consultation,” explains Aristide Chacgom of Green Development Advocates.
FLEGT also offers lessons for other EU efforts to stem deforestation. If they are going to be successful, they must support civil society, which plays a major role in stalling companies and holding the government to account.
To make this point, several Cameroonian NGOs signed a recent statement on how to strengthen the EU’s biodiversity and climate leadership. “VPAs’ gains and lessons learned can inform future supply-side measures and partnership approaches on deforestation, forest degradation, the destruction of other ecosystems and biodiversity, and human rights abuses.” In the final weeks before the EU Zero Deforestation Supply Chains Regulation comes out, it is critical the EU listens to these voices on the ground.