Understanding local forest needs in Cameroon
In the village of Nkolbibanda, 50 kilometers south of the Cameroon capital of
Yaoundé, CIFOR research is providing a better understanding of the environmental
needs and priorities of the communities living next to the Ottotomo Forest
Covering an area of 2,950 hectares, the Reserve was gazetted by the French
colonial government in 1930 and remains off-limits to human activities other
than the occasional collecting of non-timber forest products.
The inhabitants of Nkolbibanda belong to the Ewondo ethnic group and are largely
dependent upon agriculture for food and income. Their primary sources of food
include shifting cultivation, some plantation crops such as cocoa and
increasingly palm oil, traditional forest products and bush meats such as palm
rats, porcupines and antelope.
At the time the reserve was gazetted, traditional territories were not taken
into account, including those traditionally accessed by the people of
Nkolbibanda. But in the past 15-20 years, the population in the area has grown
considerably, putting considerable pressure on local natural resources and
resulting in increasing levels of conflict between communities and the reserve
CIFOR has been playing a leading role in improving relations between local
communities, local NGO's and forest administrators. The current
Multidisciplinary Landscape Assessment (MLA) project, led by CIFOR researcher
Marieke Sassen, aims to enhance this process.
"We hope the outcomes of this project will serve as a basis for improved
dialogue between all stakeholders, and lead to better decisions about the
management of the reserve and the surrounding area," Sassen said.
Using an approach developed in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, Sassen and her team
of researchers undertook a survey in 2003 involving both conventional
biodiversity surveys and an assessment of local people's needs and perceptions.
The MLA approach aims at enhancing the understanding between development
practitioners, local policy makers and forest communities. It will also help
improve policy decisions that affect the local population and enhance the long
term sustainability of the forest and it's inhabitants.
Marieke and her team have used a variety of research methods to explore the
importance people attach to their tropical rainforest landscape. Conducted with
men and women, both young and old, these methods include different forms of
meetings. For example, 'Community Meetings' help compile historical data such as
land use and village history, while 'Exercise Meetings' provide a "valuation" of
landscape elements and animal species and their uses. Other techniques include
participatory Mapping Meetings and Field Surveys and require building high
levels of collaboration and trust with participants.
Not surprisingly, the initial analysis of survey results has shown that the
forest is the second most important landscape unit behind the village. This
raises one of the most challenging aspects of CIFOR's research: how to help
villagers find the right balance between improving their food production and
their need to sustain forests as an important source of land and of products
that can be harvested?
People are aware of forest functions. They know, for example, that trees
"protect" the forest, how seed dispersal is necessary for tree regeneration and
how certain animals play an important role in this. They also know which
activities damage the forest; including many they practice themselves, like
cutting down trees and burning. However, when it comes to their own activities,
they feel they do not have a choice if they want to practice agriculture and
sustain themselves. As one elder men said, "That is just the way we are, we eat
(something) until it is finished and then we just find something else". Sassen
says this demonstrates now people have their own ways of adapting to changing
They also blame outsiders for damage to the forest by cutting down trees
illegally in the reserve and on their land, or by poaching game or using poison
to catch fish. Marieke said many respondents spoke of this "outsider" issue,
arguing that while they should not have to change their own traditional
activities, certain activities by outsiders should be prohibited.
Driving the increasing level of unsustainable practices has been the dramatic
rise in recent years of the price of goods associated with the cash economy.
Basic essentials such as soap, petroleum, matches and children's schooling place
an increasing burden on the villagers to find cash.
One of the major challenges is to develop sustainable practices within the
forestry reserve. Paramount to this is ensuring constructive dialogue at all
levels between stakeholders. CIFOR is assisting this by aligning the current and
future needs of forest mangers and villagers, as well as assisting policy makers
to work closely with stakeholders.
"We give as much information as possible to the community and provide
explanations about how involvement in the research will benefit them in the long
term. It is important to overcome any levels of mistrust. Sure, it's too early
to give a definite thumbs up to the MLA project. But I think I can safely say
CIFOR's work is improving relations between NGO's, forest managers and local
villagers. I hope that by building on this and past CIFOR activities, we can
influence future decisions about the management of the reserve." MH
CIFOR's MLA research in Cameroon is supported by the European Commission,
Association Terre de Development, the University of Yaounde, and ONADEF - the
Cameroon Government's forestry service.