the forest from the trees

Snapshot of the Campo Ma'an Model Forest

I was humming along to my ipod on the bus trip back to Yaoundé this afternoon to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” …

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
An arm and a leg just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.

After tagging along with the Canadian Cooperation office (CIDA/ACDI) and colleagues from the Africa Model Forest Network for a quick trip to the model forest site, the lyrics were singing a different tune to me.

I was all prepared to write a report on what I witnessed, but in reality, there was much more to the forest than the trees – there are people too.  When a tree falls in the model forest, you know it makes a sound because the people can tell you.  Their lives are so interconnected to the forest, there isn’t much to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.

A less romantic way of expressing this is: if the forest fails, these people will have no way to thrive.  If the people fail the forest, we all lose.

I say this because going into this trip to Kribi, Niete and Campo, I knew we were walking into many different conflict situations.  You can’t conserve a forest without considering how people depend on it for survival.  You can’t allow the development of a deep-sea port that will undoubtedly enrich the Cameroonian economy without having to displace people and, by consequence, cause hardship.  But you can hear the people affected tell you they have loads of ideas as to what they need to do to bring about economic change in their lives.

We visited Hevecam, a company that manages 18,000 hectares of hevea (rubber), has 4200 workers in 12 villages within the territory, plus supporting one more village.  On the other end of the spectrum, we also met with the president of a women’s plateforme who talked about some of the women growing 1 to 2 hectares of corn.

Whether the actors in the model forests are giants like Hevecam or like the individual women in the associations, each has to contend with challenges.  Hevecam sees a lot of theft of the raw hevea that is subsequently sold in Nigeria for a higher price.  The women have to plant more corn than they know they can sell because they will lose some to the hedgehogs and monkeys who like to feast on them.  This says nothing of course to poaching of forest animals – for profit and subsistence – clearing large portions of forests, unsound environmental practices and internal conflicts between the wide variety of actors in the model forests.

For my part, speaking with the women’s groups proved the most useful.  While not representative of all of the livelihoods related initiatives in the Campo-Ma’an model forest, they have been a very strong voice since 2005.  They absolutely and categorically refuse to have any activities entertained that would not be accessible to the 7 plateformes.  As they put it: “if you have 7 children, you cannot send only 3 to school and deny the others an education”.  Point taken.

In those few days of visits, I listened to what they said and have interpreted their requests into marching orders for the work in improving sustainable livelihoods.  They want to have support in developing entrepreneurship, project and enterprise management plus they always want it done with a heightened sense of transparency, equality and accessibility.  Requests heard.

Maybe with just the right theme song, we shall hum along together and meet their towering expectations! …and perhaps really see the forest from the trees.

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~ by Caroline Spira on May 11, 2011.

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