Guardians of the Forest

SIT - Nkolenyeng Field Work (Nov) 110

By Elias Estabrook

“I was a forestier, a timber worker. I used to cut down wood in the bush. I worked in the sawmill. But when I am here, I have already forgotten all that. I have abandoned the timber business.” Cedric sat across from me in the living room, the front door and window open to relieve the midday heat. As the sunshine dried his newest harvest of cocoa beans on a wooden crafted platform, he compared his years of labor in the timber industry to his current life as a farmer here in Nkolenyeng, a village in the south of Cameroon.

Undoubtedly, he financially profited from his direct employment in one of the industries cutting down Cameroon’s tropical forests. However, he conceded the destructive mentality that accompanied this exploitation of forest resources. “When you cut down trees, it’s to go sell it. You don’t even look back at what you’ve left behind. [Imagine], I cut the wood and I leave to go sell. It’s my money, and I put it in my pocket. The damages—you don’t look at them.”

Today, Cedric is a cocoa farmer in Nkolenyeng, and a leading participant in a local project to sustainably manage the surrounding forest.

This forest management project would not have been possible, were it not for Nkolenyeng’s unique history. Ten years ago, the village was still in the process of securing greater legal control over its surrounding forest area, the land it has customarily used for generations. The village aimed to take advantage of a novel governance structure outlined in Cameroon’s 1994 Forest Law, called a “community forest”, or forêt communautaire. This structure theoretically guaranteed 100 percent of benefits from a forest’s economic output to the local community. In 2005, the people of Nkolenyeng submitted an application to the national Cameroonian government, asking to designate a tract of their forest as a “community forest.” Ultimately, the national government authorized a tract of 2,575 acres as La Forêt Communautaire de Nkolenyeng. Finally in control of their swath of forest, the people of Nkolenyeng faced an unusual choice: how would they define the destiny of their forest going forward?

Initially, from 2007 to 2008, the community experimented with timber exploitation, contracting a company to bring in equipment and vehicles to clear tracts of the community forest. But these efforts faltered and returned no benefits to the community. Many tree trunks ready for delivery instead lay unretrieved where they were cut.

Timber exploitation might have made Nkolenyeng a far more industrial place. It might have looked like Djoum, the closest town (about 30 miles, or 43 kilometers, away), which has paved roads, gas stations, and a hotel.

And yet such developments have come with costs for the surrounding forest. “It’s bad over there,” Cedric lamented. “Especially in the areas where they are felling trees in the bush. They don’t leave anything, they cut everything. If you go to where they cut down the wood, it’s empty.”

Cleared landscapes like these have grave consequences for the ecosystem and those humans who depend on it. As trees are cleared, the loss of their root systems unleashes soil erosion, and the loss of their canopy inhibits moisture retention in the sun-scorched soil. Hunters, trappers, and gatherers also notice the diminishing plant and animal biodiversity, as deforestation erases acres of habitat.

Cedric said that, in Djoum, at least fifty timber trucks were filled every day. “In Nkolenyeng, that isn’t the case,” he insisted. “We don’t cut down trees here.” Indeed, heading towards Djoum on the dirt roads from the north, our bush taxi slipped past roaring flatbed trucks carrying timber. Over several hours, I counted at least fifteen, all on their way to urban processing and distribution facilities. Rarely do local populations see much direct economic benefit coming in; they mostly just see these extracted resources moving out. Despite the conspicuous infrastructural development on Djoum’s main road, if the town’s timber industry is anything like those of other Cameroonian timber towns, then Djoum’s population must receive almost no money from the lumber trade.

Spurred by the absence of local community benefits from formal forestry sector activities, several organizations intervened. In 2010, after consulting with an international conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) and a Cameroonian NGO based in the nation’s capital, Yaoundé, Nkolenyeng opted for a novel model for managing the forest resources of its community forest. Known as Payment for Environmental Services (PES), this new model aims to incentivize sustainable management of the forest by compensating the community for the efforts it makes to keep the forest intact. As they farm and hunt around the forest, the people of Nkolenyeng provide an “environmental service” by leaving trees standing; in return, a donor evaluates the extent of the conservation and makes “payments” accordingly.

Of course, a box of cash was not just air- dropped into this little rainforest village. Rather, the presiding NGOs introduced a structure of payment distribution across various groups. In partnership with these NGOs and a government agro-forestry program, the community of Nkolenyeng launched a set of activity groups and social benefit groups, which would put the payments to work. The activity groups covered such income-generating trades as beekeeping, sustainable cocoa agriculture, and collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP) in the forest. Together, these nine groups would receive half of the PES project’s budget over a five-year period, so long as the community forest consistently received highest marks for sustainable management from the evaluator, a third-party environmental consultant.

Under the budgeting guidelines of the PES project, the other half of the total allocated payments would be allocated to a “civil project,” a program customized to the community’s needs. After thorough consultation, all community members present at a village-wide assembly voted to implement an electrification project with the funding. And so, the community contracted a utility company with a nearby regional office to install several electrical generators and a grid of elevated power lines that spans the length of the village.

“When other chiefs visit Nkolenyeng [and see our electrical grid], they see the village is developing. We have always been a model village for others,” claimed Nkolenyeng’s traditional chief, Emmanuel. Roger, a cocoa farmer, echoed this assertion. He insisted that the village’s electrified general stores and bars attracted people from the surrounding villages, bolstering the economic development of Nkolenyeng.

Today, however, several rotted electrical poles lie in disrepair, and the generators are not running. As of December 2014, the community had not yet raised the funds to undertake repairs, despite widespread complaints about the state of the infrastructure.

By this point in time, the activity groups have received two payments. In agriculturally-productive stretches of the forest, some farmers are increasing their harvest and their revenue. Thanks to an improved variety of cocoa tree, introduced by the presiding Cameroonian NGO and associated agroforestry experts, the farmers who have planted its seedlings are now seeing pods emerge year-round. Christian, a seasoned cocoa farmer and head of the cocoa “activity group,” believes this investment shows great promise for the community members who took a leap of faith and planted this new variety in their groves. “Ça donne déjà,” he said. “It’s already showing results.”

However, the boosted economic output of cocoa-farming, a longtime practice for the majority of the population, is an exception; other activities have not experienced a lasting positive impact from PES payments. The activity groups aimed to turn a profit and reimburse the village’s forest management association, the keeper of the PES funds. Christian, the head of the cocoa-growing group, likened them to a revolving fund for microloans. Rarely, though, did the groups produce any revenue or replenish the PES funds. “The money that is provided disappears just like that, and we see nothing,” Christian explained. “We want to see the impacts on the ground. Let’s say if you give the money to the cocoa-growing group, we take the money, and we must then reimburse it. It should not disappear.”

Absent this compensation through PES, how does the community fare? The people of Nkolenyeng draw many natural resources from the forest and have customarily done so for decades, without necessarily damaging the ecological integrity of the forest. The villagers cite the fertile soils, the non-timber products—nuts, wild fruits, and medicinal plants—and the expansive area to hunt and trap animals as among the virtues of the rainforest that surrounds them. “The forest brings us many goods,” summarized Roger, the cocoa farmer, as we sat on a bench overlooking the village’s central road. “But the community does not know how to manage them well, so that the whole community will be satisfied,” he confessed.

Although the payments to activity groups largely seem to have failed their purpose, the upfront investment by NGOs in agroforestry training for improved growing practices and alternative activities, such as beekeeping, gave the community members exciting and hopeful opportunities. Most people’s disappointment about the current state of affairs, however, tempers their former optimism. But despite the grim financial state of the PES project, there remain residents like Fabienne, Roger, and Cedric, who, empowered by new knowledge and skills, are resolute in their intention to farm more sustainably, and to never turn back to clearing their precious forest.

Asked whether the forest should be conserved, several villagers insisted that they could not imagine another way. “Here in our community, even if the PES project doesn’t run any more, we will always conserve our forest because of the future of our children,” one woman, Fabienne, reasoned as she sliced cassava in her smoky kitchen. “They won’t have any trees if we clear the entire forest. That’s why we protect our community forest.”

Elias Estabrook ’16 is a Political Science major in Pierson College. Contact him at