Kribi — Forest dwellers forced off their land in southern Cameroon after it was leased to private companies have been allowed to return by the government, but many still fear for their livelihoods and the future of their homes.
"Our lands have been taken away from us (and) our forest, which is our main source of living, destroyed, forcing us stay in poverty," said Medjo Marcel, the village chief of Adjap, one of several villages affected by land takeovers.
"We (still) have no right to possession," Marcel added. "We cannot invest on the land for fear that foresters and other land grabbers may flush us out at any time."
Over the past decade Cameroon's government has leased more than 42,000 hectares (104,000 acres) of forest in the country's South region alone to companies like HEVECAM, a rubber production business, and ONADEF, a timber firm. It is part of a trend that has seen forest land in West and Central Africa made vulnerable to the kind of deforestation more commonly known in Indonesia and Brazil.
Critics say that lack of proper consultation and weak legal processes leave local communities displaced and impoverished, while the environmental effects have been devastating.
PYGMY COMMUNITY DISPLACED
The 5,000 or so inhabitants of five affected villages in the South region, as well as the Bagyeli pygmy community, were offered settlement on other land but say they cannot grow food or practise their traditional occupation as hunters there. Much of their former leased forest land is being cleared for planting.
After an outcry from the affected communities and pressure from civil society organisations, the government has returned 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of forest to the villagers, but with rights only to use the land, not to have full possession of it.
"In the classification of forest in Cameroon, the rights of the forest inhabitants are not respected," insisted Jean Calvin of Cameroon Ecology, a nongovernmental organisation.
The community members are not entitled to own or transfer the land, nor to veto potential investors, Calvin explained. This allows businesses to take forest land from its inhabitants, he said.
"We have been forced to move from our forest habitat to the village of Adjab where we have difficulties earning any income," lamented Mbah Martin, head of the Bagyeli pygmy community.
"(There are ) no animals to hunt, (and) our medicinal plants from the forest have all been destroyed," he said.
Environmental experts are critical of the government's welcoming attitude towards land investors and criticise the increasing displacement of forest communities.
"Land grabbing by heavy investors has caused rapid disappearance of resources, triggering massive movement of the population from resource-depleted zones to other areas where resources are available, causing conflict between communities," said Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), an international NGO.
NO BENEFITS FOR FOREST COMMUNITIES
According to a report published by the organisation, forest communities reap no benefits from the transactions that deprive them of their community lands.
"In the case of southern Cameroon, income from harvest and the sale of fruits has disappeared, hunting of bush meat as a source of protein was brought to a halt while sources of firewood and medicinal plants vanished, and land rights were lost without compensation," said RRI's Francoise Tiayon .
African governments have been chided for making efforts to protect the land rights of rural people and indigenous communities on the one hand, while rapidly ceding community forests and other lands for development with the other. These conflicting choices were the focus of two new reports by RRI and the 13th Regional Dialogue on Forests, Governance, and Climate Change which took place recently in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital.
"Some ministries (are) choosing to hand over natural resources to agribusiness and mining, and others seeking to protect the rights of their citizens and respect recent commitments," said RRI's White.
Samuel Nguiffo, secretary general of the Centre for Environment and Development in Cameroon said he believed government interest in development and exploiting resources outweighs interest in protecting vulnerable communities.
'GREED AND POWER'
"What communities on the ground in Cameroon see is no different from what is unfolding in other neighbouring countries in West and Central Africa," he said. "The slow pace of good intentions-the efforts to protect communities of subsistence farmers who have no wealth except for the land that they cultivate-has been overtaken by greed and power."
Michael Richards, a natural resources economist and author of the RRI report examining 18 large-scale African land acquisitions in the agriculture sector, noted that, "across Africa, weak governance and a lack of legal recognition and support for customary rights are inhibiting any real progress" in protecting forest communities.
The report lists a variety of problems, including a lack of consultation with communities in affected areas, coercion or political pressure, misleading or falsified documents, doubtful legality and poor transparency.
"If a free, prior, and informed consent process had been followed, it seems probable that in 17 out of the 18 cases I looked at, the communities would not have given their consent," Richards said.
Compared to other forested regions of the developing world, such as those in Latin America and Asia, Africa lags far behind in recognising community and customary rights to forest and land; giving control or ownership of forest areas to local and indigenous communities; and recognising the right of communities to exclude invaders.
Studies show that whereas one-quarter to one-third of forest land in Latin America and Asia is owned by communities and indigenous peoples or is designated for their use, this is true of only 2 percent of forest land in Africa, where almost all the land is managed by the government.
"So much human tragedy could be averted if land rights in Africa didn't erode so soon after they are established," said Phil René Oyono, an independent expert and author of the second RRI report.
"Yes, there has been a surge of new laws and reform processes since 2009," added Samuel Nguiffo, "but these efforts are too slow and do not meet the challenges presented by rapid development and exploitation in the extractive sector. Africans will not sit idly by as our future is handed over to the highest bidder."
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.