Cameroon's front-line forest guardians use technology to fight back

Villagers use digital cameras, smart phones and trackers to expose illegal logging in Ngwei’s dense forests. FERN/Madeleine Ngeunga

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

They have no electricity or running water and their forests have been under siege from illegal loggers, but villagers in Cameroon are fighting back with modern technology, writes Madeleine Ngeunga

The village elders call it SUHE. In forestry, specialists call it Faro. This brown wood found in tropical climes, including the forests of Ngwei, in Cameroon’s Littoral region, contains numerous therapeutic properties according to locals.

So for 70-year-old Luc Ndembè and others who live here, it made perfect sense to adopt the name SUHE for the association they started six years ago to heal the ‘sickness’ they see afflicting their forests. 

“SUHE treats skin conditions. It’s an antibiotic and has anti-poisonous properties. If you anoint yourself with its oil, you are protected. We want to protect ourselves against illegal loggers who pillage our forest resources”, explains Ndembè, president of the SUHE association.

These forest protectors live in Mapubi village in Ngwei, a locality within the Sanaga Maritime administrative district, which covers a surface area of around 93,000 square kilometres. Nearby is the main production centre for hydroelectricity in Cameroon, the vast Song lou lou dam.  Yet despite their proximity to this major power source, residents have no electricity or running water, relying on rivers or wells for the latter.

These everyday struggles are compounded by a menace which has scarred the area for as long as anyone can remember: the logging companies who illegally remove raw timber from the forests of Ngwei on an almost daily basis.

“Before I was born, our forests were already being exploited. We can see the wood simply passing through, but the people have nothing. The hydroelectric dam is located on our territory, so there are wires that pass through the forest. And yet our village doesn’t have electricity, or running water. In our entire village [Mapubi] we only have a single functioning well”, says Ndembè, anger seeping into his words.

His claims are backed up by the data.

According to the national municipal forum, Communes et Villes Unies Association, “nearly 55 per cent of the 28 villages in this district have no source of clean drinking water. Most of the population in these zones still get their water from free-flowing sources or even rivers.”

FACTORY-STYLE WORK

But rather than passively accept their fate, locals are defying the odds by changing it. And their main vehicle for doing so is the SUHE association.

SUHE members come from all sections of the community, including farmers and hunters. This groundswell of support is understandable given the considerable damage that these companies have inflicted on the wider Ngwei community’s 62,000 inhabitants.

Juliette Mandeng, wife of the Mapubi village’s main chief, is their eyes and ears, informing villagers of each new development.

“People from the logging companies cut down trees next to my field. When I enter the forest, the chainsaws fall silent. I only see Caterpillars [heavy machines]. As soon as I start working on my plot, I hear noises. If I’m not careful, a tree could fall on me, so I have to go work on another plot. As soon as I get home, I tell my husband that there are chainsaws and Caterpillars in the bush”, she says.

Members of the SUHE association getting ready to monitor the forests near their village. FERN/Madeleine Ngeunga

Sieur Mandeng, Juliette’s husband, explains how the men support the women through a vigilance committee. “Each of the 10 committee members monitors activity in the forest, as part of their daily routine. It could be chainsaw noises, abandoned logs in the forest or in the rivers or logging trucks that have fallen into waterways. As soon as they return to the village, they make a report”, Mandeng says. The information is then dispensed to him, and he passes it on to SUHE members to follow-up.

In Luc Ndembé’s living room, which doubles as the SUHE headquarters, members gather round on plastic chairs as Pascal Nlend Nlend, the secretary-general, registers the information they’ve uncovered. They follow a precise schedule, before community observers fan out over the territory to verify the allegations.

Wearing heavy boots and protective helmets, they criss-cross Ngwei’s dense forests, equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers, digital cameras and smartphones to track down illegal loggers.

“Once we receive the information, we go out in the field to check it. We register GPS coordinates and take pictures so that verification teams can locate the infraction easily,” explains Nlend Nlend, who as well as SUHE’s secretary-general is an observer himself.

NGO SUPPORT

The NGO Forêts et Développement Rural (FODER) assist SUHE with training and logistical support. The struggle to protect the forests of Ngwei has intensified over the past four years”, says Justin Kamga, FODER’s Program Head.

Ngwei’s inhabitants verify the legal status of any company entering their forests. The community is highly sensitive to illegal logging activity and their dedication and will to protect their forests using new technology is outstanding”, says Kamga.

In 2013, Ngwei residents first made contact with FODER, who have since helped train SUHE members, investing them with the knowledge and skills to better protect their forests.

Powerful evidence shows that one of the best ways to keep forests standing is for local people to take control. The Ngwei communities’ defence of their surrounding forests provides a vivid example.

Their story is also an illustration of one of the key features of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) timber trade deal that Cameroon signed with the EU in 2010, and which emphasises the roles of civil society and local communities in forest protection.

According to Luc Ndembè: “We’ve learned about the key issues that are part of the VPA with the European Union and about independent observation of forests. We now know about the role that communities can play in this process. We’ve learned how to detect illegal traffickers in our forests using intervention guidelines for a forest environment. Using these skills, our denunciations are bearing fruit, ranging from legal filings to fines.”

GETTING RESULTS

The SUHE association’s achievements include around twenty documented alerts, a dozen official letters about the companies (known as denunciations) sent to government administrations, and at least three cases where illegal logging companies have been sanctioned.

Earlier this year, for example, SUHE members alerted FODER about presumed illegal logging near the village of Logbii, which is also in Ngwei.

A few days later, a joint FODER - SUHE verification mission was organised.

In the field, the team found a haul of valuable hardwood logs: 16 unmarked Ekopbeli trunks, 16 cross-cut, unhauled Ekopbeli logs, three unmarked Azobe trunks, and three cut-to-length, unhauled Azobe logs. FODER immediately alerted the Ministry of Forests and Fauna about this “unauthorised operation in a forest belonging to the National Domain”.

Once verified, the Ministry ordered a legal case to be filed against the  timber operator. The company’s wood products were then seized and later sold at public auction.

A BEACON

This story – of local people exposing the logging companies destroying their forests and the authorities enforcing sanctions against them – is not, however, one which extends across Cameroon.

Illegal timber from the country is still finding its way on to the international market and much remains to be done to stop Cameroon’s forests disappearing at their current alarming rate.

The people of Ngwei, at least, are showing how it can be done. 

Madeleine Ngeunga is a correspondent for InfoCongo.org and blogs at madyngeunga.over-blog.com.

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