Local governments in Cameroon have gained a bigger say in development decisions, a move that many hope will bring relief to farmers suffering the effects of extreme weather linked to climate change.
Farmers and local councils say that a decision by the government to devolve more development powers to local councils will lead to greater investment in maintaining farm-to-market roads, helping farmers avoid post-harvest crop loss, and supplying drinking water.
Cameroon's decentralization law was passed in July 2004, but the government says that a long-term economic crisis delayed its implementation. After economic growth picked up in 2009, a prime ministerial decree of July 2011 put in place mechanisms for implementing the law.
According to the decree, all ministerial departments have until 2015 to complete transfer of various administrative responsibilities to the local governments.
At a meeting with the minister of territorial administration and decentralization and the minister of agriculture in the capital, Yaounde, following legislative and municipal elections at the end of September, newly elected mayors and councillors were urged to give greater attention to the problems of farmers, who make up over 80 percent of the rural population.
"Decentralization entails (giving) more responsibilities to the local governments who now have a direct say on development issues," said agriculture minister Esimi Menye at the meeting, calling on mayors to increase their efforts to meet the needs of local populations, where farming is the predominant source of livelihoods.
"This should be the priority in the country now, so as to improve on agriculture output both in quality and quantity," Menye said.
DECLINE OF FARMING
Cameroon's agriculture sector, which in the early 1980s contributed more than 75 percent to the country's GDP, has within the last decade slumped to below 35 percent, according to government statistics.
Environment experts and farmers attribute the drop partly to the effects of climate change, which has not only reduced production levels but also compounded an already difficult working environment, leaving many farmers impoverished and despairing.
"Heavy and prolonged rains have led to the rapid deterioration of mostly earthen farm-to-market roads, making transportation of farm produce from the rural areas to the markets a perilous task," said Zachee Nzoungandembou, executive director of the Centre for Environment and Rural Transformation, a nongovernmental organisation in Limbe.
"In areas like the Northern region where temperatures are increasing due to global warming, harvested crops are exposed to excess heat and bacteria attack, leading to post-harvest loss and dwindling of farmers' income," he said.
Farmers express hope that decentralization will turn things around.
"With the coming of decentralization, we are looking forward to getting good road maintenance," said Helen Agbor, a farmer in the Mbankomo neighbourhood of Yaounde. "Most of our perishable products like plantains, vegetables and fruits rot on the way to the market because of the almost impassable nature of the roads. These difficulties I think should be the priorities of the local government authorities."
Farmers hope the decentralization policy will enable them to work closely with the councils to find local solutions to local problems.
"Most of our mayors and councillors are farmers too, so they better understand the difficulties we are going through," said John Achu, a maize farmer in Obala-Yaounde.
Achu explained that most farmers don't have access to banks for loans to expand their farms and buy pesticides.
Also, "we need modern food conservation infrastructures to protect our produce from the effects of extreme weather and destructive pests. These are projects that can best be handled by the local governments who master their communities and can best work hand in hand with farmers," he said.
The mayors believe that decentralization will help them generate political goodwill to help strengthen livelihoods, reinforce the fight against climate change and for food security, and improve health and education at the local level.
'A POSITION OF STRENGTH'
"Decentralization puts the local governments in a position of strength to foster development and help the local population better withstand the poverty challenge. The free hand to decide on our respective council development options was an important ingredient that was lacking in our administration at the local level, and this retarded growth and slowed down agricultural production," said Marie Ahidjo, mayor of Garoua 1 council.
"We are happy the government has understood that the emerging Cameroon we all yearn for will come from the bottom and not from above," said Daniel Matute, former mayor of Limbe 1 council and vice-president of the Cameroon Councils Against Climate Change Network. All 360 councils in the country are members of the network, which was created in 2010.
According to Matute, agriculture had long been the mainstay of Cameroon's economy but the sector was neglected by increasing government focus on energy production since the late 1980s.
"Our challenge now is to revamp our agriculture through a series of actions so that it regains its role as the prime mover of the economy," Matute said.
Key among these actions, according to Matute, is reinforcing the fight against the effects of climate change.
"We were told at the meeting with the minister in Yaounde to hence ensure that the yearly public investment budget allocated for projects (is) properly and entirely utilised at the local level, and we think this will permit us address some of these climate change challenges," he said.
Government statistics show that in 2011-2012 just 35 to 40 percent of the public investment budget for Cameroon's ten regions was spent, far below the target of 85 to 90 percent. Some leaders of civil-society organisations have blamed the low execution rate on over-centralization of administration, corruption, tribalism and poor governance.
"The low execution of the public investment budget is not surprising in a country where corruption and tribalism with impunity is the order of the day and where people put personal interest ahead of the general good," said Benard Njonga of the Citizens' Association to Protect Collective Interests, a Yaounde-based NGO.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.