Rio+20: Balancing conservation and development key to conserving Cameroon’s forests

Cameroon’s Sangha Tri-National landscape contains some of the world’s most biodiverse forests but is also home to some of its poorest people. Conservation groups working in the area all aspire to achieve both conservation and development. The question being asked by Cameroon, and many countries making the leap towards a greener and more sustainable economy at this year’s Rio+ conference will be – what sort of conservation and what sort of development?

“Development is essential – these people’s lives must be improved. The present levels of poverty are unacceptable.  Furthermore , a rapidly increasing population of very poor people striving to extract a living from subsistence activities does not provide a context where any sort of conservation can succeed.  And the many micro-conservation-development projects promoted by NGOs that try to get people to make small improvements to their livelihoods simply do not work – they have no access to markets, to agricultural fertilisers, or to improved seeds and cannot get into the cash economy Development can only happen when the economy grows and infrastructure improves – and often this requires outside investment” said Jeff Sayer, scientist and author of a recent CIFOR study.

Sangha Tri-National (TNS), located in the Congo Basin, is remote. Around 20% of the population are Baka and related pygmy groups, who live on less than $1 per day. Since 2006 CIFOR scientists have been monitoring a set of development indicators in the TNS.  From 2006 to 2008 physical assets, such as housing quality, and human assets, such as quality of education, improved, however the global financial crisis in 2008 changed all that.

Up until 2008, the main investment in the area had been from forest harvesting companies. They built roads and provided jobs, either as direct employers or indirectly by supporting livelihoods, such as home gardens or selling bush meat, bananas, or other forest products. At a modest level they created markets for local labour, agricultural products and services, and interestingly there has been zero deforestation in the areas where they operate.

By late 2008, economic conditions began deteriorating and the global economic crisis hit worldwide demand for construction. Timber and logging companies in the area reacted by suspending activities and laying-off staff. People reacted by turning to collecting Non-timber forest products and bush meat but these became scarcer as hunting intensified Poaching and slash and burn agriculture provided the only means of survival . Baka pygmy communities – the poorest of the local people – said they experienced famine during much of 2009 and early 2010.

“Conservation groups are generally unhappy at the thought of industrial logging in forested areas, but in TNS, up until then, it had delivered the best balance between conservation and development. It put money into the economy, invested in infrastructure and protected the forest. However, as populations grow and demand for food increases, one of the biggest challenges will be ensuring that expanding industries, such as mining and industrial agriculture, do not tip that balance. Whether these industries can be accommodated into the landscape and provide development benefits without destroying any more forest than is necessary for their operations remains to be seen,” said Sayer.

Investigating these challenges, the CIFOR team explored possible future scenarios with local people. The best options seemed to be to welcome outside investment but to steer it to a limited number of development projects, and encourage people to move to these areas to seek employment. This is what has happened to some extent around existing logging camps and sawmills. Could this happen in other industries? Forest, agricultural industries and mining could create development hubs where social services could be concentrated in restricted areas.

One of the best conservation investments so far has been the promotion of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme among logging operations, argues the report. Not only were approved forests well conserved but the companies also provided better conditions for their staff and invested in the application of wildlife protection laws. Long-term investments also tended to maintain their operations at reduced levels during the tough times and therefore were slower to implement redundancies. Both conservation and development indicators seemed to do better around certified forest operations.

Throughout the period of the study NGOs have been implementing small scale, local sustainability initiatives. These projects did not in themselves raise people significantly out of poverty but they did, and still do, offer a vital point of interaction between local communities and the conservation community. They help negotiate better conditions for local communities, help to improve the education, skills and competencies of local people, and people involved in these micro projects will be better able to adapt to new opportunities that may arise in the future.

TNS already faces many of the pressures faced by all developing countries; how to reconcile the need to meet the increasing demands for food and fuel, whilst developing greener, more sustainable alternatives, and these pressures are likely to increase as the area experiences a growing boom in mining and the expansion in estate crops.  Rich diamonds, gold and iron reserves and the potential for oil palm production mean investment in these sectors is likely to transform the landscape.

“It seems improbable that Cameroon will forego the revenues generated by future mining and oil palm opportunities, therefore the need for conservation groups to engage with industries would seem to be imperative. The arrival of these industries may be very disruptive and could cause environmental and social problems – but ultimately we have to get the area through this transformative period and use this development to create local prosperity that is a prerequisite for achieving both conservation and development goals,” said Sayer.
Maya Thatcher and Catriona Moss | 29 May 2012 |

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