As an African working for Greenpeace, I am often questioned when I speak out against the industrial exploitation of our continent’s natural resources, that is disguised as “development”.

The truth is that all too often, this actually creates huge profits for international corporations, but to the detriment of local communities and the environment. “What’s the alternative?” people ask me.

One alternative is up for debate in a crowded and noisy room in Kumba, in the Southwest region of Cameroon, where community representatives are discussing how to increase the productivity of local agriculture, to ensure their livelihoods while protecting the forests on which they depend.

Puttting food security and forest protection first in Cameroon

Workshop in Kumba, Cameroon to help farmers improve their methods and yields

This workshop is the brainchild of ACDIC (Association Citoyenne pour la Defense des Interêts Collectifs), a Cameroonian NGO, that works to improve current agricultural methods in the country through training, better organisation and market access. The result is better yields and higher incomes.

People have travelled for miles to take part in. One, Chief Mbara Rils, is from the city of Toko. “The workshop was very successful,” he said. “Thanks to the discussions we had, we answered our questions ourselves. The outcomes will be very useful for the future. The workshop has enlightened me, and now I have an idea of what I should put in place when I get back to my city.”

80% of the population of this region live in rural communities. People make their livings from farming cacao, palm oil and other crops, hunting, and collecting non-timber forest products such as nuts and bush mangos.

But the amount of land available to them to make these livings is in continual decline. Large corporations, many of them international, are moving in to this fertile region and taking control of vast tracts of land for logging, mining and agro-industrial plantations.  

This trend is worrying. “If we just grow cash crops for export, what will be left for us to eat?” asked the representative of a local women’s NGO. Since the most vulnerable of the subsistence farmers are women, who depend on the land to provide food for their families, they will bear the brunt of this change.

One such industrial plantation is proposed by US-based corporation Herakles Farms, which plans to destroy 73,000 hectares of rainforest, home to more than 14,000 people. This has been met with opposition by local communities, who are fearful of losing their lands and livelihoods.

Despite claiming that its palm oil plantation is being created in the name of “development”, the Herakles’ project would have a devastating impact on the forest and the lives of the people who depend on it.

In contrast, the development model proposed by ACDIC demonstrates how cacao or palm oil can be cultivated in agroforestry systems that have the advantage of also being able to supply many non-timber forest products and food.

A cacao farmer in Cameroon. The crop provides a vital source of income for farmers in the South West region of the country

Cacao is grown in the shade of trees which supply farmers with fruit and vegetables, while maintaining the forest canopy. This ensures food security yet at the same time protects the natural environment.

Industry players and investors coming to Cameroon and other African countries must commit to clear policies that respect of the rights and livelihood of local communities, ensure the protection of natural forest, in a way that is open and transparent.

Taking part in this workshop has at least given me hope that as a continent, we can establish our own development path, a path that puts our people and environment first.