By Hope Nda
The Etinde Community Forest, a 4,806-hectare forest in Buea Subdivision, in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, has seen its survival threatened in recent years by increasing human encroachment activities, including construction.
This puts the livelihood of thousands of people who depend on the forest for food and shelter at risk.
Nature-centred non-governmental organisation, Women for Development, WOMEV, which has been taking actions to save the forest from extinction, says encroachment activities vary. They range from agriculture to hunting, illegal timber exploitation, building and construction, and re-demarcation of boundaries.
When WOMEV’s CEO, Quinta Betek Bakume, spoke to The Post on August 5, 2023, she stated that the forest landscapes had witnessed “rampant encroachment” in recent years. Most of this encroachment is done by people living around the forest.
“The forest is very important because majority of the community members are highly dependent on it for food, energy and materials for construction of homes, since they don’t have an alternative source of livelihood,” Quinta Bakume said.
The Etinde Community Forest spans across nine villages in Buea Subdivision: Bokwango, Etome, Lower Boando, Upper Boando, Ekonjo, Mapanja, Likombe, Bwassa, and Likoko Membia.
The forest is a combination of montane, coastal evergreen, mangroves and other lowland forest. It is endowed with a variety of species, including over 370 bird species, the African forest elephant, chimpanzee, putty-nosed monkey, yellow-backed duiker, among others. With this natural endowment, inhabitants of the forest area are constantly roaming it.
According to a 2022 study conducted in 10 villages surrounding the Etinde Community Forest, 32.4 percent of household income for people living in these villages comes from wood harvested from the forest.
This means a large proportion of these community members rely on the forest for cooking fuel and income. The pressure on the community forest is therefore huge.
But the most dangerous form of encroachment in the Etinde Community Forest is illegal sale of the forest land for construction activities. William Mbanda, Manager of the Etinde Community Forest, has been decrying this for years. He keeps reiterating to his fellow community members that the forest must be preserved because it is a legacy for their future generations.
“What we are doing here now, we are trying to fight for our future generation. Do something to leave a landmark. That is our own legacy that we have to leave for our own younger generation,” he told dozens of community members during one of WOMEV’s workshops in Buea recently.
William Mbanda said some people stubbornly demarcate and attempt to sell part of the forest area as plots for buildings. He warned that such persons risk prosecution because the Etinde Community Forest is a government-protected area.
“…This community forest was given to us by the government to manage, but some of our community members are attempting to sell part of it and the law is very straight: if you sell community forest, legal action will be taken against you. That is not our wish, but when you persist … everybody will face the law because we are not joking,” he warned.
In 2017, the forest’s managers released a “Simple Management Plan, SMP,” in which they mapped out five compartments of the forest, each of which was to be exploited after five years. But with time, people living around the forest have not respected this plan, said WOMEV CEO, Quinta Bakume.
“In the planning process, activities such as agriculture, hunting, illegal timber exploitation, encroachment, and re-demarcation of boundaries were identified as negative impacts on the forest. Irrespective of this, people are still creeping into Etinde Community Forest,” she said.
“Previously, people respected the limitations of this protected forest landscape, and encroachments of human activities in it were minimal. Despite the interventions by the forestry authorities and the local administration of Buea as well as some traditional authorities, the situation is persisting,” Quinta Bakume added.
To preserve the forest, her organisation, WOMEV, is implementing a project to economically empower inhabitants of the nine villages that share the Etinde Community Forest. She believes their attention could be diverted from exploiting the forest resources if they have alternative sources of livelihood.
WOMEV’s ongoing project has been acquainting the villagers with issues relating to forest encroachment, logging, deforestation, land grabbing, inappropriate forest policies and regulations, lack of land use planning and uncertainties in the land tenure system.
As part of the project, WOMEV recently organised a workshop with Chiefs of the nine villages that make up the Etinde Community Forest as well as other stakeholders concerned with managing the forest. Another workshop held at Mapanja Village featured dozens of people from the villages making up the community forest.
At the workshop, the organisation sensitised the stakeholders on encroachment and offered them alternative livelihood sources in view to discourage these communities from exploiting the protected forest.
“The aim of the workshop was to sensitise them on the ills of destroying the Etinde Community Forest and ways of reducing the encroachment and destruction of the Etinde Community Forest,” said Quinta Bakume.
While WOMEV continues fighting to preserve the Etinde Community Forest, supportive action from the government is needed. The 2022 study conducted around the community forest stated it more squarely: “In order to curtail reliance on forest and improve rural livelihoods, the government should invest in alternative domestic cooking energy sources, climate-smart agriculture, sustainable forestry, agroforestry and improve rural transport networks.”