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WHEN A COMMUNITY FOREST BECOMES A PRIVATE FARM

prunus.jpgOn the right flange of the winding road leading to Oku from Babungo is an extension of the ‘Shingaa Community Forest’’; one amongst the forests managed under the Community Forest Management (CFM) tenure system in Oku. This scene located on the slopes of the Kilum Mountain in the North West Region of Cameroon is an eye-witness replica of the saga of the adverse effects of corruption and land grabbing on the livelihood of a very fragile community with diminishing water resources. “We have been prevented from encroaching into this forest for farming activities since it was demarcated as a community forest; we have serious problems obtaining farm land for our growing farm families, yet we have never ventured into this forest because we understand that as a hilly community, this remains our last and only hope of a water source” remarked Ma Koneh, a polygamous family mother and farmer of Irish potatoes (Solanum spp) in the village of Kevu on the slopes of this mountain forest. Of recent the villagers were surprised when an unknown team of forest assailants started massive destruction of a portion of the community forest. They had removed the demarcation sign posts, and the “NO SMOKING” notice, extended and tagged these items further into the forest, cut down the trees, cleared the forest floor and gradually transformed the area into a farm. Several hectares of the fragile water catchment portion which was regenerated through a combined community tree planting effort were gone. It is alleged that a very rich and powerful elite has bought the land and immediately engaged rapid administrative procedures to obtain total and legal tenure rights. Failed institutional arrangements prior to recent conservation efforts have been the cause of deforestation and degradation in most of this forest. The efforts of the government’s forest conservation activities in Kilum area begun in the early 1930s. Such efforts were undertaken without involving the local communities, and in effect, the process ended up with progressive deforestation. Later, it was reported that about 50% of the forest was lost in a short time period, i.e., 1963 - 1986/87. At present there are only remnants of the forest patches; Kilum forest is the largest and most significant left in West-African Afro-montane forest. These critical loses, however, have brought in recent developments with regards to participatory conservation and management practices that contributed to the protection and preservation of the forest. In 1987, BirdLife International conducted an assessment along the Western Cameroon mountain ridges. This led to the set up of the Kilum Mountain Forest and the Ijim Mountain Forest projects launched in 1987 and 1992 respectively. The projects were carried out through joint collaboration between the project facilitators (BirdLife International and the government through the then Ministry of Environment and Forests, MINEF). The project’s agenda was to monitor the status of bird species especially the critically endangered Bannerman’s tauraco (Tauraco bannermani) to serve as indicator to the overall health of the forest as well as the desired status of biodiversity at large. In order to achieve the project’s aim, the project facilitators prioritized the need to demarcate the forest areas. Accordingly, the demarcation of community forests’ boundary was completed in 1991 at Kilum and 1992 at Ijim ( another fragment), in which these processes then gave rise to the unification of the two projects to work together under the umbrella of the ‘Kilum-Ijim Forest Project’ in 1995. The three major traditional leaders in this area remarkably the Fon of Oku, Fon of Nso and Fon of Kom met between the 1st and 3rd of June 1999, developed and signed a set of agreed wide indigenous rules for the Kilum-Ijim Forest. The project idea was also to organize smaller community forests for an ease of management through devolving legal Community Forest Management Institutions (FMIs) involving those villages close to the forest. In effect, in 1995–2000, over 25 smaller communities with forests were organized under the umbrella of the ‘Kilum-Ijim Forest Project’. These developments, therefore, yielded the success of the conservation project and CFM establishment in the Kilum-Ijim area. To ease management the average size allocated to a community was around 1200 hectares. Each community forest is characterized by a well- defined and demarcated boundary. The success of Community Forest Management rests on the diverse special interests of the concerned stakeholders. On the one hand, villages in Oku have strong interest to conserve the forest because it is a substantial and diverse source of their livelihood, indigenous cultural practice and watershed. On the other hand, the forest is a centre of attraction at the national and international levels. Thus, the community and other stakeholders have strong interests in protecting and conserving the forest for its significant and distinctive bio-cultural diversity, livelihood and watershed value. Therefore, it was the intersection of these special interests of user-groups that has yielded the success of the conservation project and the establishment of CFM in Oku and its environs. In effect, it is estimated that the forest regeneration greatly surpassed deforestation at a rate of 3.9%, and that the forest had increased by 10.6%, in which the success was due to the involvement of communities in direct management tasks and their appropriate reserve performance. The CFM in Oku operates in the form of three-party institutional arrangements that comprise: the traditional authorities (represented by the Fon, Kwifon and village heads); the local communities of the villages; and the government (represented by the MINFOF and other local NGOs). In the Kilum area deforestation due to commercial exploitation of forest products is also significant. For instance; more than 80% of the Prunus africana trees have been exploited for sale through sub-contracts of exploitation and sale to national and foreign commercial companies (The bark from the trees is transported to the PLANTECAM factory at Mutengene where it is extracted to produce a powder for export to a company in France) which is usually beyond the control of, and with little benefits to the local communities. Water sources are equally experiencing low output especially in the dry seasons in the face of the growing population. Based on findings collected through interview, it is revealed that serious corruption activities occurred during the last sale of the Prunus africana in Oku. This took place in 2008/2009, in which it is estimated tens of millions of CFA Francs was realized from the sale of Prunus africana tree-bark. Prunus harvesting activities take place approximately every three years. Previously, there has been selling of Prunus, however, the last selling witnessed a much larger quantity than the previous years, and serious corruption and malpractices prevailed. It is alleged that cola nut tree bark was added to the stocks by some illegal exploiters, some even felt down from tall trees in the forest and died. The exploitation of Prunus africana in the forest was unsustainably and illegally done in collaboration with individuals and stakeholders. This resulted to a ban in the local exploitation and exportation process even at the international level. The Prunus selling process is not very clear but usually the FMIs, and the traditional authority as well as local government officials such as government council (local government administration), local MINFOF authority and forest guards are supposed to be involved in the harvesting and selling processes. However, according to joint forestry management agreements, those directly contracting and supervising the sales must be the FMIs and MINFOF officials while other institutions have a monitoring role. During the last sale of the Prunus, therefore, the FMIs and MINFOF officials were responsible for embezzlement and mismanagement, while the local council, local civil administration, traditional authorities and powerful elites were responsible for negligence leading to damages on the community forests and misappropriation of community funds– that involves corruption and lack of transparency and accountability. Corruption activities occurred among these actors in a complex manner which was difficult to foresee or understand. However, the symptoms of the corruption often prevail at the stage of the benefit distribution processes, which is usually unfair and inequitable. Such corruption activities further provoked different reactions from the communities at large. For example; there was a boycott by some members of user-groups to participate in community development activities, while others were involved in illegal logging of Prunus. Many portions of the forest have suffered from severe degradation over the years. Most community members are still very dissatisfied with what happened. Similar networks of unsustainable Prunus africana harvesting have resurfaced between the ban periods and today; it is ongoing and nobody knows in clear terms what is happening. Attempts at identifying the culprits to know the truth have failed. No official information is communicated to the people. “People become very much engaged and involved in the sustainable management of community resources when they are communicated the rightful information through the rightful and official channels, we are faced with a situation where nobody knows what is really happening; I think this is organised crime”. Lamented Tah Kennette Konsum, director of an Oku community Based Organization called The Society for the Promotion of Initiatives in Sustainable Development and Welfare (SOPISDEW) working for the sustainable management of the forest resources in Oku. The tensions are still building and community members are promising to continue disengaging in community development issues. Over a key interactive Oku Community Radio program, it was very clear that something needs to be done. Voices were heard from within and without the Oku community. The Oku council had impounded some Prunus africana bark presumed to have been harvested from a village out of the community forest zones. It is hard to identify the rightful source of the bark under the present dispensation. It is alleged that trees were bought for as low as CFA 2000 and peeled entirely (skinning). Some members of the community are so frustrated at the silence over this matter. Some young men in two villages notably Mboh Village and Ngashie Village launched an attack on the forest with the intention of “deriving their own benefit”. It should be noted that the Kilum Mountain Community Forests produce one of the best qualities of honey in the world certified by the African Intellectual Property Rights Organization (AIPRO). The registered brand name for the honey is “Oku White Honey”. This product fetches a very high demand in and out of Oku and serves as a very valuable source of livelihood for the people. “Powerful elites are now pressuring to acquire part of the community forest land for their personal benefits in collaboration with local administrative services. This is helping to promote corruption and misappropriation of community resources in the face of local environmental and livelihood challenges. On whom are we going to lean on for our advocacy efforts?” Tah Kennette Konsum further bewailed. A CFM institution in Oku comprises rules that are partially: locally designed, clear, acceptable and enforceable. It also constitutes sanctioning norms, rules (e.g., the traditional village justice system, generally is applied in using and accessing the forest resource by user-group members), and conflict resolution mechanisms across user-groups. However, the CFM institutions lack accountability mechanisms to hold local government officials and the FMIs (elite community members) responsible. Thus, the CFM needs institutional arrangements within the forestry sector at national level. CFM should be strengthened through redesign of rules that comprise exclusion and accountability mechanisms to hold local elites and government officials responsible. Notwithstanding, SOPISDEW Director, Tah Kennette Konsum is proposing an emergency rescue plan for the sake of the security and welfare of the community and the community forests. According to him government or other agencies need to take an emergency action. He proposes an emergency “truth and reconciliation commission” involving all stakeholders with the following objectives: - Bring out all management issues related to the last harvesting and sales of Prunus africana, and those who were involved (community forest management audit). - Investigate and report where the money generated from the forest including the last sale of the Prunus was used or spent (community forest management audit). - Conduct an inventory of Prunus africana and other highly exploited species in the community forests (forest audit). - Reconcile all conflicting and disgruntled parties without any punishment (peaceful mediation). - Reorganize and revamp Community Forest Management Institutions and involve other local NGOs with the local council being a key stakeholder. The set-up should be based on the principles of volunteering, participation, good governance and results oriented management (enlarged community forest management platform with an eternal auditing system involving state and civil society) - Organize an enlarged Community Action Planning Workshop with all stakeholders with the technical expertise of the state services and NGOs in Oku. The action plan should be focused on forest regeneration, removal of exotic species, forest patrols, ecotourism, fire fighting, sustainable bee farming, seasonal hunting of rats, local medicinal plant collection, wild vegetable and fungus harvesting, and other regulated indigenous uses of the forest resources. Prunus harvesting should not be considered till at least 25 years. (Enlarged Multi-stakeholder Sustainable Community Forest Management Plan) - Engage private owners to follow the rightful and official procedures in managing threatened tree species in collaboration with the new platform (private ownership traceability) - Set-up a coordinating unit for collecting, disseminating and engaging appropriate traditional and administrative actions with respect to forest management (a Community Forests Management Technical Operations Unit)

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