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CAMEROON: Fears for Forest as Dam Construction Begins

Ngala Killian Chimtom

LOM-PANGAR, Cameroon, Aug 3 2009 (IPS) - Crouched on a low wooden stool in front of his mud hut in the village of Pangar, Alain Selembe puffs away at his clay pipe, his gaze lost in the surrounding forest, quite oblivious to the noise made by his two playing daughters. All he hears is the rumbling of bulldozers opening up a 30 kilometre road from Deng Deng village to the confluence of the Lom and Pangar rivers, where the government plans to construct a new dam.

“This is bad news for us,” Selembe tells IPS.”The construction of a dam here means that we will lose our homes, our land, and our property.”

Several kilometers away, at Lom village, a Baka pygmy just returning from a hunting expedition, Gilbert Gwanpel spits out his anger at the construction of the dam.

“The dam will submerge our forest, and the animals will flee. We live basically on hunting. Where do they want us now to go?”

The concerns of these two men reflect the general mood in the Lom-Pangar region of eastern Cameroon, 410 km from the capital Yaounde. Locals fear the construction will lead to the displacement of 28,000 people, flood protected forest areas and hurt farming, fishing and hunting activities in the area.

In January 2004, government officials met with traditional chiefs in the area and told them that parts of their communities would be displaced.

And past experience with similar projects in Cameroon suggests that promises of compensation and resettlement will not be satisfactorily implemented.

“The people of that area still remember with much chagrin the unfulfilled promises made during the construction of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline,” Dieudonne Thang, executive secretary of a local NGO, Global Village Cameroon, told IPS.

“At first government presented the pipeline project as a development project with promises of social services like health units and schools, in addition to adequate compensation for those whose property would be destroyed. Most of those promises were never kept, and there is very little guarantee that they will be kept now.”

Thang pointed to other projects like the Bamenjim dam, saying, “The people still remain poor and wretched around those dams.”

Locals are also concerned that the dam will lead to an influx of large numbers of migrants to the Lom and Pangar region placing increased demands on local hunting and fishing resources. Natives of the region doubt they will see many benefits from the project in terms of jobs or even energy supply.

Hungry for power

The Cameroonian government is determined to construct the new dam to ease short-falls in energy supply and boost economic growth. Cameroon, which is heavily dependent on hydro-electric power, has recently suffered significant reductions in supply due to drought.

Government hopes to use the Lom Pangar dam to regulate seasonal flows of water into the Sanaga River.

Funding from the French Agency for Development, The African Development Bank, IMF, and the Islamic Bank will go towards the construction of the dam, the building of a 24 MW hydro plant at its foot to supply local power needs, and an electricity transmission line running 120 Km from Lom-Pangar to the region’s chief town, Bertoua.

Electricity Development Corporation (EDC) spokesperson Claudia Djoho told IPS that the money will be funnelled into Cameroon through EDC. The company will then sell water from the dam to the electricity production and distribution company, AES-Sonel and to ALUCAM – owned by global mining giant Rio Tinto – using the proceeds to service the debt.

Flicking the development switch

Government is banking on the dam to jump-start Cameroon’s economy. At the formal launch of construction of the road from Deng Deng on May 15, Celestin N’Donga told journalists, “This is one of the projects that will spark the third cycle of industrialisation in Cameroon.”

But the plan has its critics. In addition to concerns it will only increase vulnerability to drought and low water levels in the Sanaga river system – 95 percent of Cameroon’s power is generated from the Sanaga – some feel that the project benefits ALUCAM more than anyone else.

Less than 53 thousand of Cameroon’s nearly 20 million people are supplied with power by the state electricity company. But ALUCAM uses up to a third of the country’s total energy output at a fraction the rates paid by household consumers.

But also of great concern is the potential damage to the environment. Conservation NGOs wary of the environmental consequences of the dam, although they concede that the dam is an important project that could boost economic growth. Thang sets the tone:

“In the 1970s, Cameroon made the zone a forest reserve which meant that no big project ought to be carried out in the area. Parts of it would be used for research by the University of Dchang. Its destruction however started with the construction of the railway line,” he said.

“The World Bank-sponsored Chad-Cameroon Pipeline project also passes through the area, though care was taken to avoid destroying one of the rare hardwood forests in Africa – the Deng Deng Forest Reserve. Lom Pangar Dam will however flood about 318 square km of the Deng Deng forest.”

The submerging of large portions of the forest will lead to the loss of highly prized tree species like the iroko, bubinga, and sapele. It will also cause the displacement of such flagship wildlife species as chimpanzees, and gorillas.

Thang further notes that “this dam will enable the opening up of roads into the region, worsening the spectre of illegal illegal logging and poaching, already huge problems in the region.”

The dam, expected to generate some 1,500 jobs over four years will also lead to an influx of people into the region, worsening the specter of illegal logging , poaching and fishing, and obviously generate associated risks like diseases spread.

Critics believe that it would be wiser for Cameroon to indulge in alternative sources of energy.

“If I were to advise the government, I would tell them to revert to renewable energy sources,” Gilbert Achiri of Renewable Energy Services Company (RESCO) told this reporter on the phone from Douala.

“Cameroon has an abundance of sunlight. We need just a little political will to convert this light into energy and don’t forget that it can be accessible even to citizens in the most remote areas,” he said.

For now, the bulldozers continue chewing their way towards Lom-Pangar, bringing potentially damaging development to a worried community.

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