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[OPINION] Reimagine governance of the commons: Women & communities as restoration leaders

Africa is one of the world’s last frontiers of biodiversity – housing roughly one fifth of the planet’s known species of mammals, birds, and plants. An abundance of life flourishes in diverse ecosystems across the continent. The Congo Basin – the world’s second largest tropical rainforest and the lungs of Africa – is found in Central Africa. It covers roughly 300 million hectares of land across six countries: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the DRC, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.

Tropical forests are vital carbon sinks – storing more carbon than they release. Not only are they a natural solution to the climate crisis, forests are also home to biodiversity and provide a range of livelihood benefits (e.g. food, fuel, shelter, etc.). And yet, many of our forests are in danger with human activities (e.g. agriculture, logging, oil exploration, etc.) driving deforestation and degradation. 

At COP26 in November 2021, world leaders from 141 countries committed to stop and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. This was done by signing the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. The declaration is testimony to growing international recognition that forests are key to meeting global climate goals and must be at the heart of a just, green recovery from COVID-19. 

However, as the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration and recent reports acknowledge, communities’ rights and livelihoods are key to preserving forests and their biodiversity. Among Cameroonian climate activists, there is a growing desire for the rights and voices of women, youth, and communities to be included in the decisions that affect their forests and their future.

Cameroon’s disappearing forests

Cameroon is one of the 32 African countries that signed the declaration at COP26. The dense, majestic forests that stretch across the country are the third-largest in the Congo Basin, following those in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon.  

However, in recent decades, Cameroon has witnessed a devastating surge in forest loss and degradation. Monitoring and data from the Global Forest Watch reveals that the country lost 97% of its humid primary rainforest between 2001 and 2019. Key drivers placing Cameroon’s forest under pressure include climate change, land degradation, migration patterns, commercial land use, and ineffective land and natural resource governance that undermines communities power and rights over their land. 

Who owns the land?

Land issues in Cameroon remain complex, contested, and rooted in its colonial history. With its legal system based on French civil law, English common law, and customary law, the country is a powerful example of the damaging interplay between the legacies of colonialism, land tenure, and contested land issues. Poor land rights, often referred to as land tenure insecurity, for women and communities is a major challenge across rural Cameroon. Where women do not have full rights to property, Indigenous and rural communities have rights to use forest resources but lack ownership over the land, leaving them at risk of losing their land and livelihoods. 

As Climate Reality Leader, Ewi Lamma points out in her statement, a major concern is the inconsistencies between Cameroon’s commitments at the international level and what occurs at the local level. Despite being a signatory of  the forest declaration at COP26, Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife announced a call for tenders in March 2022 – the prize: 5 logging concessions in the Eastern and Central regions of Cameroon, amounting to roughly 400,000 hectares.  On top of violating international commitments, these concessions once again place the profits of big business over protecting biodiverse forests and the local communities who depend on them. 

African Voices for Africa’s Forests: Women, communities, and Indigenous knowledge  key to forest restoration

Set in Limbe, Cameroon, African Climate Reality Project’s film African Voices for Africa’s Forests tells the story of Ewi Stephanie Lamma. The 29 year old works with Forests, Resources, and People to encourage local communities, women, and youth to use their voices and participate in decision-making processes to protect and restore their local forests. Through her work, Ewi is reframing how we think about governance of the commons (e.g land, water, soil, etc.) and addressing issues of rights, ownership, and gender norms. Her message is simple – local people  must be consulted through free, prior, and informed consent processes before development projects take place. 

Growing research shows that roughly 80% of the world’s remaining forest biodiversity is found in land managed by Indigenous peoples, demonstrating their importance as custodians of land. Ewi works with the Bimbia community outside Limbe, who have learned to take from nature only what is needed for their livelihoods, allowing for its regeneration and the continued support of life. 

Climate Reality Leader, Sunday Geofrey, also works with women and rural communities to play an active role in the protection of Cameroon’s forests. He is the Central Africa Regional Coordinator for the African Climate Reality Project and founder of Support Humanity Cameroon (SUHUCAM).

Over the course of four years, Sunday has  activated over 300 volunteers to plant over 10,000 trees in the Bamunkumbit Integrated Community Forest and restored 151 hectares of land in Bamunkumbit community,North West Cameroon. He leads a livelihood project with 30+ Indigenous Mbororo women, restoring degraded ecosystems, farm and pastoral lands,, and establishing food gardens using agroecology principles to enhance food security and alleviate extreme poverty. 

The Way Forward: COP 27 and Beyond

With less than a month until COP27, political will, adequate financing, and meaningful community involvement remain stumbling blocks to driving the Glasgow declaration forward. 

Countries, like Cameroon, that have signed the declaration need to turn their pledges into concrete, transparent, and inclusive action with benefits for people and forests. Together with Climate Leaders Ewi and Sunday, African Climate Reality Project is calling for governments, corporations and public finance institutions to deliver on the following: 

Embed inclusivity into forest governance and decision making platforms by meaningfully involving and ensuring participation from rural women, youth, traditional leaders, and Indigenous peoples. 

Adopt or strengthen land and forest tenure rights for women, communities, and Indigenous peoples. With clear rights and security of tenure, people are more likely to invest in long-term sustainable practices, such as reforestation, agroforestry, or agroecology. 

Boost climate finance for forest protection in Africa: The Congo Basin only received 11% of international funding for sustainable forest management between 2008 and 2017. Further financing is needed but must be transparent, directed to community centred initiatives/institutions, prioritise monitoring and evaluation, and enforce zero-deforestation supply chains (including new logging concessions). 

Climate education

Creating spaces for climate education in schools and communities to create awareness about how everyday actions impact forests and how to  take action to protect forests and people.  

Now, more than ever, there is a need to reframe the concept of development and reimagine how we govern the commons (e.g. forests, land, water, etc.), and more importantly, who is best suited to protect and use these resources sustainably to meet current and future generations needs. 

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