Mbalmayo — Cameroon's government has published a guide outlining good practice for initiatives to protect the African country's rich rainforests and reduce emissions from deforestation.
Presenting the guide to groups involved in forest management, environment minister Pierre Hele said it was noteworthy because it had been drafted with the participation of indigenous and local communities in the country's five agro-ecological zones.
Put together in collaboration with WWF, the German development agency GIZ and the Cameroon Centre for Environment and Development (CED), the document is meant to inform the design of programmes under the fledgling U.N.-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) scheme.
Work on the new Cameroon guide also reviewed processes for gaining the "Free, Prior and Informed Consent" (FPIC) of communities affected by environmental projects around the world, Hele added.
"We are happy that Cameroon now has a standard document in matters of consultation of the population within the framework of the REDD+ process," the minister told the launch event in Mbalmayo in the Centre Region in January.
REDD+ is an international effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands, while managing them sustainably.
Cameroon's forests play a vital role in the national economy and local livelihoods, as well as helping to stabilise the climate through absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, Hele pointed out.
Environmental experts say that until now Cameroon has lacked a comprehensive, practical guide to obtaining the consent of indigenous and forest communities during the development and implementation of projects and activities linked to REDD+.
"The local forest communities always feel cheated in matters of forest resource operations carried out by the government," said Fobissie Kalame, Central Africa regional coordinator for forests and climate change at WWF.
Kalame said the involvement of communities would provide some degree of confidence in REDD+ activities, which Cameroon has been pursuing since 2008.
The guide, together with a national forest map launched in 2012, are resources that should enable the Cameroon government to move towards more effective and inclusive forest management, experts say.
But REDD+ will not be successful unless it involves all those with stake in the forestry, water and mining sectors, they argue.
"Without dialogue, transparency and the participation of the different stakeholders, the REDD+ process can bring a lot of misgivings, and its good intentions can be turned into a nightmare," warned Augustine Njamnshi, executive director of the Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme (BDCP Cameroon). "Governance is a critical part of REDD+."
So far activists say there have been no formal consultations using the FPIC process in Cameroon. However, there have been discussions between the forestry ministry, the local administration and forest communities resulting in joint forest management plans.
According to Teodyl Nkuintchua, an anthropologist and programme coordinator at CED, after a protest by the Bagyeli forest community in Cameroon's South Region in 2010, negotiations led to a solution for managing the Campo Ma'an National Park.
Although the government had declared their forest a protected area, the community secured the right to carry out limited hunting and firewood collection in the park. The local council would receive one third of the royalties from taxes paid by visitors and researchers.
Nkuintchua also cited the case of the Adjab community in the same region. After forest land was handed by the government to HEVECAM, an agro-industrial rubber plantation company, talks between the government, the Adjab and Cameroon Ecology, a local NGO, led to part of the land being handed back to the Adjab in 2012.
Nkuintchua said a clear FPIC process has yet to be included in the country's forest law, despite pressure from civil society groups for the government to do so.
HOW TO COMMUNICATE
Joseph Amougou, head of the climate change focal point at the Ministry of Environment, said the information in the new guide would help strengthen the country's REDD+ strategy.
"Cameroon, in developing the REDD+ project, needs to have concrete information to facilitate decision-making, and for government to give better orientation in the activities to be carried out," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As well as providing some data on Cameroon's forests, the guide identifies steps for gaining local consent for REDD+ projects.
They include establishing a technical team, analysing the physical, socio-economic and legal contexts, and developing an information and communications strategy.
There is also advice on how to carry out negotiations, provide information, hold sensitisation meetings, formalise agreements between parties, develop roadmaps, and conduct monitoring, verification and evaluation.
Those seeking the consent of indigenous people and local communities for projects that affect their lands and livelihoods should respect principles - including the absence of force, pressure, unwanted obligation, manipulation and intimidation, the guide says.
They should also provide full information on their activities far enough in advance, and make sure communities agree or approve proposals.
NO AUTHORITY TO ENFORCE
While experts have welcomed the new guidelines, some say it remains unclear whether they will lead to actual improvements on the ground.
"The positive thing is that FPIC is there, which is a start. The problem is that they are guidelines, so no one has the authority to impose these practices on any companies that do REDD+," said Jerome Lewis, an anthropologist specialising in Central Africa at University College London.
According to CIFOR Cameroon, a forest research organisation, REDD+ offers an opportunity for different groups involved in forest management to benefit financially from carbon credits sold on the international market.
"The participation of Cameroon and other countries of the Congo Basin forest area in the REDD+ process is very important because of the key role this forest plays in stabilising the global climate. The protection and sustainable management of the Congo Basin forest helps with the absorption of carbon," BDCP's Njamnshi explained.
According to information from the ministry of forestry and wildlife, Cameroon's forests are the second largest in Africa, covering more than 23 million hectares (57 million acres). They account for more than 6 percent of the nation's GDP, the highest percentage of all countries in the Congo Basin, providing services and sustenance both directly and indirectly to local communities and city dwellers alike.
But Cameroon lost a net 416,500 hectares of forest cover from 2001 to 2012, data from Global Forest Watch shows.
A rise in poaching activities, mining, oil palm plantations and illegal logging are harming Cameroon's forests, with an estimated one third of all rainforest species at risk of extinction by 2100, according to CIFOR-Cameroon.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.