Last updated April 2010 
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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 Reserve.

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 management.

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 conditions.

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.