'First the Forest': Conservation, 'Community' and 'Participation' in South-West Cameroon

By Sharpe, Barrie | Africa, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

'First the Forest': Conservation, 'Community' and 'Participation' in South-West Cameroon


Sharpe, Barrie, Africa


References to community participation and participatory appraisal have become near-mandatory in development and environment policies and project planning. In line with this `new' valuation of people, notions of community and forms of local organisation have been reconceptualised as `social capital' through which development agencies may engage in capacity-building to achieve social and environmental objectives. But whilst these concepts have considerable attractiveness for Western audiences, their reality and appropriateness on the ground are open to some question. This article therefore aims to explore the relevance of concepts of community, participation and social capital to the analysis of local development processes, and in particular to the efforts by environmental agencies and NGOs involved in `saving the rain forest'.

Cameroon contains one of the major surviving blocs of tropical rain forest in the world and is the site of numerous efforts at rain-forest conservation by Western aid agencies and NGOs. Biodiversity conservation and the expansion of timber exports are both conditions of the World Bank's programme for Cameroon (despite being contradictory). Cameroon's South West Province alone is the site of three major bilaterally funded conservation projects, as well as an ITTO forest regeneration programme and two projects supported by Birdlife International, the RSPB and (most recently) the WWF. Several of these projects have a high public profile, nationally and internationally. Together all of them may control more functioning infrastructure, vehicles and staff than any of the provincial Delegations for health, agriculture or other government services. In terms of their local profile, conservation projects and their activities are highly visible. Reports and rumours of their activities (such as demarcating reserve boundaries; confiscating bush meat, non-timber forest products (NTFP), guns and chain saws; and exporting rare medicinal plants) circulate throughout rural and urban society.

At present these external agencies' stereotypes of the problem of rainforest biodiversity destruction focus on alternative `villains': timber companies, peasant hunters and shifting cultivators. Until very recently (1996) timber companies were considered the least of these threats in South West Province. Accordingly the projects have focused on hunters and cultivators. Conservation projects have suggested various draconian plans for resettlement and armed patrols to control local use of forest. More recently, however, faced with local hostility and the total ineffectiveness of coercive measures, attempts to reverse the supposedly negative activities of local forest users have focused on the concept of `community participation' in conservation. In many cases, projects seek to achieve their objectives through techniques such as PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) or RRA (Rapid Rural Appraisal) and PFM (Participatory Forest Management) (Watts 1994; Brocklesby, cited in Brocklesby and Ambrose-Oji, 1997). One issue addressed by this article is that, despite (or perhaps because of) the use of these `participatory' techniques, the conservation community has only hazy and general notions of what the scenarios of sustainable management and community participation may entail, or indeed of what Cameroonians themselves consider to be the important processes surrounding the forest future.

Conservation is explicitly addressed to the long-term future, though the activities of projects themselves are mostly narrowly instrumental (carrying out inventories, defining boundaries, setting up beekeeping courses) and planned over short-term tranches governed by the project cycle of donor agencies. In this respect, conservation projects offer one of the more extreme versions of the tension between vision, action and understanding which is contained in all `sustainable development' programmes. But the environmental future envisaged in rain-forest conservation is only one of many possible futures towards which various groups in Cameroonian society direct their practical activities. …

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