The Ebo forest in Cameroon spans 200,000 hectares and is home to the indigenous Banen community who depend on the forest for food, water, medicines, as well as cultural heritage and identity.
In March 2020, two government concessions were announced in order to classify the area as a forest management unit to ultimately allow for major logging operations. In response, ILC's members, including COMAID and CED, joined a group of civil society actors, environmentalists, researchers, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other actors working to reverse the concession. While in August 2020, the Prime Minister announced the halting of the concessions, communities are still working to ensure that the Government adherents to this commitment.
On this International Forest Day, we talked to Samuel Nguiffo from CED to understand what Ebo forest means to the local communities and what they have been doing to protect it.
What does Ebo forest mean to local communities?
Ebo forest is not very far from Douala, the biggest city of central Africa. It’s a miracle that the forest is still intact. For the communities, it means a lot in terms of historical, economic and cultural importance. Historically, this is one of the places where there was a high presence of colonial administration, especially the French administration, but the Germans were also there before the I World War so it is still possible today to see some of the evidence of their presence in the past. It’s like a living museum for the young generations.
Historically that forest was home to tens of villages and going back there it is possible to see the evidence of the presence of those villages that had been there for so many years. For the communities of Ebo, many of their ancestors have been buried in that area so there is a very clear connection between the communities living today and that area.
In addition to that, there is a lot of culture connected to that forest. Many chiefs and people from the area told us that the forest is sacred and that they would like it to be preserved. For the very first time in my life, and I have been working on forest issues in Africa for the past 30 years, I saw communities struggling very hard to have their forest, their customary forest, be established as a protected area by the State. Often we have a different fight, usually we have communities fighting to have their forest not being gazetted as protected areas so they can continue their activities there. But in this case the chiefs and the communities have been struggling for more than 7 years to have the forest getting the highest level of protection by the Cameroonian authorities. This is unique but it also means that the communities find it very important to protect that place for the longest period possible.
What did communities do when their forest was opened to logging?
So, when the area was opened to logging activities we saw communities getting very concerned. They got organized, they started public campaigns, met with journalists, local authorities, national authorities. They even met with the Minister and with the Secretary General at the PM office to make their point very clear: “We don’t want this forest to be open to logging, we want this forest to be protected because it’s so important to us to keep this forest as part of our culture and history.”
The second avenue was going to court to challenge the decision of the Minister of Forestry to open this portion of forest to logging. I think it’s important to mention these two avenues that they used: they used a political avenue making their point very clear to the public opinion, taking them as witness of their fight, and to the government authorities, those who took the decision and those who had the power to revert the decision. And at the same time, they took a legal avenue to challenge the decision in court, proving that they also had a legal point and not just political will. We provided support legally and politically.
Finally the decision was taken to withdraw the decision to open the space for logging. Communities were very happy but also very much concerned because they had the clear feeling that they had won the battle but not the war: the decision says ‘suspension of the process’ and not ‘cancellation’. They had to get ready for a possible continuation of the war.
For me, this case is too important and would definitely serve as a precedent for many other communities fighting in Cameroon and in the rest of the Congo basin to protect their forest, protect their rights.
Two years later, how is the situation now?
Two years later, the forest is still being threatened. There is no decision to re-open the space to logging but there is still a lot of pressure on the intact forest, a lot of demand for logging space. The fear is that at any time there could be a decision to re-open this file and for us it’s important that the government takes a very clear stand saying that they will not open forests to logging, not only this one but in general. Logging has not proven to be lucrative enough for the State, nor for the communities - it doesn’t provide the expected economic development to communities. So, if this has not worked for development and it’s not working for climate change and for biodiversity conservation, probably there is a need to press pause on granting new logging concessions and start thinking about how to best manage the forest that we have.
What is CED doing to make sure that the concessions don’t start again?
We have been working with communities but also with NGOs in the area and with journalists to make sure that the point is very well understood that opening new forests to logging is not the solution and should not be happening. We have been trying to make sure that not only Ebo but other forests too are preserved. Climate change matters, biodiversity protection matters and communities need to be able to use their forest - there needs to be other ways for the State to manage their forests.