The EU must use the tools at its disposal to encourage Cameroon to save Ebo forest
Cameroon’s Ebo forest, an intact high conservation value forest, was inaccessible until recently because of its fractured, often boggy landscape. The Cameroonian Government has, however, passed a controversial decree allowing logging to begin. Indigenous peoples, local communities and national NGOs are crying out. Given the EU Regulation on deforestation-free products (EUDR’s) requirements and Cameroon’s international climate and biodiversity commitments, logging must halt until Cameroon’s courts can decide the legality of this decree.
The Ebo forest is priceless. One of Cameroon’s rare, remaining old-growth forest landscapes, it is a sanctuary for many IUCN Red-listed species, also protected under Cameroonian wildlife laws, including a new gorilla subspecies, forest elephants, tool-using chimpanzees, one of the last two populations of critically endangered Preuss’ red colobus, and a dozen new species of flora. More than forty communities live on its outer edges, and depend on it for their livelihoods. In 2020, Global Forest Watch estimated that it stocked 35 million tonnes of carbon.
Ebo forest has been targeted previously. Following protests, a 2020 decree also aimed at logging was repealed at the request of Cameroon’s President. Construction began nonetheless on a road into the forest, under the pretext of ‘désenclavement’ (bringing the local communities out of isolation).
Local communities justifiably wish to be linked with each other and with nearby urban centres (Yabassi and the port town of Douala), but according to national NGOs, this road does not accomplish that: the chosen route goes from an adjacent logging concession straight to the forest’s centre, missing all the communities who reside on the outskirts, and falling short of helpful link-ups to urban centres. A Cameroonian independent forest monitoring mission led by FODER found several illegalities with the road: no social or environmental impact studies, no management plan for the linked logging concession, no prior community consultation, nor even the involvement of technical ministries to ensure the safety of the road and the – so far – 24 bridges that were built.
Road construction was suspended in 2022.
Not to be defeated, logging interests have returned. A new decree, 'Décret 2023/01630 du 27 avril 2023', classifies more than 68,000 hectares of the Banen’s ancestral lands in Ebo forest as property of the State, organised in a two-block forest management unit (FMU) destined for timber production. In one sweep, the communities have already lost their land rights, and the FMU clearly targets exploitation.
Playing again on communities’ valid desires, however, the decree promises a right to return to ancestral lands that communities had had to evacuate during 1963 conflicts surrounding Independence. But even this promise comes with a catch: the new decree does not define community rights, leaving them to be detailed in the logging company’s forest management plan. The company has three years in which to draw up the plan, during which logging can continue.
It is likely then that there will be little to return to by the time community rights are defined.
Weeks after the decree’s publication, civil society discovered that the FMU had already been awarded to Sextransbois enterprise, again without following domestic legal procedures, and a certificate of allowable cut had been issued. Logging is now underway. Compensation for local communities is not being discussed.
Given that the awards process was tainted under domestic law, the timber cannot legally be placed on EU markets (notably, FODER’s mission discovered a lumberyard of the Azobé species favoured especially by Dutch and Belgian construction markets). More broadly, Cameroon’s failure to ensure respect for its own domestic legislation, for community land rights, and for biodiversity and climate raises questions about Cameroon’s global commitments involving climate and biodiversity funding.
The Banen are challenging the 2023 decree in court. An interim halt to logging is urgently needed to preserve more sustainable forest uses that could genuinely benefit Ebo’s communities. Choosing the route for the road that was proposed by the communities themselves would allow agriculture and non-timber forest products to be sold in nearby towns, for instance, and offer ecotourism possibilities.
Such interim relief is unlikely to be prescribed without external encouragement. By the time a court decision is rendered, Ebo Forest and the communities and species depending on it will be heavily impacted. Whatever programmatic, diplomatic and legal weight can be brought to bear on the situation must urgently be deployed now, to uphold the voices and rights of the local communities and while something of Ebo forest remains to be saved.