By Amindeh Blaise Atabong
Since March, bulldozers have opened around 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, of dirt road running north from the village of Kopongo in Cameroon across a forestry concession and into the heart of Ebo Forest. A group calling itself the Ebo Forest Development Committee (CDFE) is behind the project, and says the road is needed to connect villages around Ebo — communities displaced from the forest proper a generation ago — and stimulate the local economy. Conservationists say the road will serve only to expose the forest to illegal logging. The ministry of forestry purports to know nothing about the entire project.
Ebo Forest covers 200,000 hectares (490,000 acres) of biodiverse lowland and montane forest in southwestern Cameroon. It’s home to many threatened species, including forest elephants, gorillas and a population of Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees — of particular interest to researchers because of their use of sticks to harvest termites’ nests and stones as tools to crack nuts open. People living in the areas surrounding the forest rely on it for food, fuel, and herbs.
An aerial view of Ebo Forest. Image courtesy Daniel Mfossa / San-Diego Global Zoo / GWC.
The CDFE, whose members are drawn from the ranks of local politicians and businessmen, held a ceremony to launch their project in the village of Ndokbaembi in May. In a letter announcing the launch, CDFE executive president Samuel Dieudonné Moth, who is also a member of parliament for Nkam division, said the group had approached undisclosed “private operators” to build the road. A local news outlet, Journal du Cameroun, reported that the road is being built by a logging company.
Moth wrote that the road was “very important and symbolic for the Banen people” who were expelled from Ebo Forest beginning in the late 1950s by colonial authorities during Cameroon’s struggle for independence. Reached by phone, Moth told Mongabay that the CDFE will forge ahead with the road project “even if it means digging it with our hands,” but did not respond to further questions.
May’s launch was also attended by the prefects, or centrally appointed heads, of Sanaga-Maritime and Nkam divisions, where Ebo is located. Journal du Cameroun quoted Nkam’s prefect, Che Patrick Ngwashi, as saying “This road represents development. It will allow populations displaced from their home 60 years ago to return.” He added that “this must not become an open door for uncontrolled logging or poaching.”
But conservationists — and, they say, many Banen in the 40 communities in the area — fear this is precisely what will happen.
In an open letter sent to diplomatic missions including those of the EU and the U.S., and copied to the prime minister of Cameroon, conservation organizations, including the Center for Environment & Development (the Cameroon member of Friends of the Earth), Friends of the Earth Netherlands, Greenpeace Africa, and Green Development Advocates, a Cameroonian organization which works with forest communities on sustainable development, said the road exposes the forest to further illegal logging and settlement while failing to connect existing villages and support local livelihoods.
They say the road is illegal because no environmental impact assessment has been carried out and it is being built through a forest that is, for the moment, unclassified.
“The narrative from the road builders is that the road will serve local communities, but that is utter nonsense,” Danielle van Oijen, international forest program coordinator at Friends of the Earth Netherlands, told Mongabay. “The road goes right through the middle of Ebo Forest and does not connect villages. Abandoned villages in the northeast of the Ebo Forest area can easily be connected from [that side] and not from the south. The current road benefits the logging company and it makes it easier to haul out logs.”
Van Oijen added that a good road supporting local development is necessary, but it should be routed around Ebo Forest, improving the tracks that already connect the villages. The letter calls on donor countries to both pressure the Cameroonian government to investigate the CDFE’s project and to commit funding to working with communities to develop a better-planned road and other support for local development.
Mongabay contacted the administrative authority in Nkam to verify whether communities had been consulted and the required environmental assessment and other approvals had been filed for the road, but did not receive a response by publication time.
The forest’s status has been in limbo since 2012, when plans to designate it as a national park were shelved in the face of opposition by the majority of local residents, who saw this as permanently alienating them from their ancestral land. In 2020, the government created two logging concessions in the forest, covering 68,000 hectares (168,000 acres), but these were immediately suspended amid an outcry from conservationists.
Data from Global Forest Watch show accelerated forest loss in the logging concession south of Ebo, known as Forest Management Unit 07 002, with more than 1,100 hectares (2,700 acres) of forest cover lost in 2021. Sources with knowledge of the area told Mongabay that it’s currently being logged without an approved management plan.
Tree cover loss in Forest Management Unit 07-002, just south of Ebo Forest, increased sharply in 2021. Source: Global Forest Watch.
As well as approaching foreign embassies, conservationists have been holding meetings with Cameroonian officials to push them to stop construction of the road. Van Oijen pointed out that Cameroon’s government has signed multiple pledges and is bound by the Paris climate agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
“Now these words need to be turned into action. If they commit to protecting Ebo Forest and integrate economic development for the villages, they will set an important precedent for Congo Basin forest protection,” Van Oijen said. “They need to start putting nature and people first rather than profit for companies and their cronies.”
In official correspondence dated July 25, 2022, Jules Doret Ndongo, the minister of forestry and wildlife, asked the regional head of the ministry to investigate.
“I have the honour to ask you to lead to the field, without further delay, a joint regional brigade of the regional forest control service, in order to verify allegations of the construction of a road crossing the Ebo forest and illegal logging under the guise of the construction of this infrastructure,” the letter reads, suggesting that the road does not have formal approval from the central government.
Building a road has to be done within the framework of the law, said Ranece Jovial Ndjeudja, the Congo Basin forest campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa. “The current process is being done without proper community consultation, and does not serve the legitimate aspiration to development of Banen communities,” he told Mongabay. “It is important to halt the ongoing process to avoid irredeemable harm to Banen community’s interests, to the valuable Ebo Forest and biodiversity.”
In 2020, when civil society groups raised the alarm over the imminent destruction of the species-rich forest, the government suspended the logging concessions. It remains to be seen how the government will react to this latest threat as local communities remain silent for now.
Banner image: Gorillas in Cameroon. Ebo is home to many threatened species, including forest elephants, gorillas and a population of Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees. Image by Gregoire Dubois via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
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This article was originally published on Mongabay