(Business in Cameroon) - After many years of tergiversation, Cameroon has finally made up its mind about the management of the Ebo forest: "The government has definitively opted for the resettlement of the local population, combining logging and conservation," says an adviser to the Minister of Forests and Wildlife, Jules Doret Ndongo (center in photo). Straddling the Littoral (Nkam and Sanaga Maritime departments) and Centre (Mbam and Inoubou departments) regions, this area, which spans over 1,400 square kilometers (other sources estimate it to be 2,000 square kilometers), was depopulated during Cameroon's War of Independence (1955-1971). Indeed, on July 31, 1963, an administrative decision taken by the late Ferdinand Koungou Edima, then senior divisional officer of Nkam, categorized the Ebo forest as a no-dwelling zone to isolate the UPC fighters hiding there.
In the past few years, the forest has been the focus of diverging interests. Displaced populations ,the Banens, want to return to their villages and retain their customary rights to the forest. The government has its eyes set on forest revenues while logging companies are coveting the many species that can be found there and agri-food companies are eying its vast arable lands. NGOs are also in the race, campaigning for its preservation. In fact, between 2006 and 2012, the government tried to create a more than 141,000-hectare national park. However, the project failed because a large part of the population was against the park creation project, as revealed by Forest Minister Jules Doret Ndongo at a press briefing on July 22, 2020.
The government’s choice
He was thus trying to justify the categorization of part of that forest (68,385 hectares) as private state property and the creation of a forest management unit (FMU). A few weeks later, the decree issued on July 14, 2020, by Prime Minister Dion Nguté, creating the FMU and setting the private state property was withdrawn, following protests from the local population, supported by NGOs and other associations. On April 27, 2023, Joseph Dion Nguté signed a new decree classifying the same part of the Ebo forest in the State's private domain, with a view to making it "a timber production forest."
As in the decree of July 14, 2020, the classified area is now a FMU made up of two blocks. One of 51,816 hectares, located in the commune of Yingui in the Nkam division, and another of 16,569 hectares, located in the commune of Massok-Songloulou in the department of Sanaga Maritime. In the latter block, on June 29, the Ministry of Forests authorized forest company Sextransbois to harvest timber on 2,500 hectares of land. At the same time, we learn from authorized sources, meetings are being held at the Presidency of the Republic on "opening up the Ebo forest."
State Minister Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh even invited the Minister of Public Works, Emmanuel Nganou Djoumessi, to send representatives to a meeting that was to be held on June 27, 2023. It's not yet clear what came of that meeting.
The Minister of Forests’ office claims the current approach is different from the previous one. To prove their points, they cite Article 4 added to the April 27, 2023 decree. This article provides for the creation of enclaves on the land domain, delimiting the old villages identified when building the forest management plan. The same article includes facilitating “populations’ return to their villages” as one of the requirements in the concessionaire’s contractual obligations.
According to one of Jules Doret Ndongo's advisors, "the economic activities promoted through logging are designed to encourage the repopulation of the Ebo forest." The Ministry of Forests projects that around 1,000 jobs can be created with 115,000 metric cubes of timber harvested in the forest yearly. Local communities are expected to benefit from annual forest royalty revenues of CFAF2.7 billion over 10 years. "If we include indirect taxes and the possibility of other ecological activities to be developed, direct and indirect revenues could amount to nearly CFAF70 billion for the government, with significant benefits for locals,” we learn. For the Ministry of Forests, with that financial windfall, the government and local communities can build basic infrastructure to facilitate the return of displaced populations.
Part of the population grouped in the associaiton for the development of the Ebo Forest (Comité de développement de la forêt d’Ebo-CDFB) supports that government plan. The association whose membership includes part of the political and economic elite is presided by MP Samuel Moth (photo, left). Since the aborted 2020 process, the MP has been campaigning for the creation of a FMU, which he describes as "the cornerstone of sustainable and participatory forest management in Cameroon." He claims that "logging is not a land grab", but a way to open up the forest zone, create jobs, and generate resources for local development.
Not everyone sees things like that. Munen-Retour aux sources, which describes itself as "an association of sons and daughters of the Ebo land deportees," is outright opposed to it. Its president, His Majesty Victor Yetina (photo, right) has made numerous media appearances and met the press on several occasions in recent weeks. At one of those meetings, held in Yaoundé on July 18, 2023, Munen-Retour aux sources called for the withdrawal of the new decree issued by the Prime Minister. "We don't want to live in enclosed areas [a reference to the enclaves mentioned in the decree, editor’s note] which are also in the state’s private domain,” he said.
He doubts that logging will benefit the local population. "For over 70 years, there has been logging in the Nkam. There is a 14,000-hectare communal forest in Yingui, which has been exploited for nearly four years. And yet, it's the local populations who pay to maintain the road, there's not a single paracetamol tablet in the hospital, 70% of the high school staff have left because they can't afford it... If logging was a universal remedy, Yokadouma (Cameroon's largest forest commune, editor's note) would be the most developed town in the country," Victor Yetina asserts.
The Minister of Forests and Wildlife admits that there is a "contrast between our enormous forest wealth and the extreme poverty of the local population." According to the government official, this situation is mainly due to failures that need to be corrected in the local governance. "We want a land-use plan for the Ebo forest to ensure sustainable development. This plan will enable the rehabilitation of villages, the identification of areas critical for biodiversity and preservation, and the determination of other areas to be allocated for other uses,” Victor Yetina says, pointing out that the German Cooperation is ready to finance that plan.