Africa, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-CAMEROON: Operation Green Sahel Resumes

Tamfu Hanson

GAROUA, Aug 16 2008 (IPS) - "I have come to plant trees – that is why I have left my jacket and tie in Yaoundé" declared Cameroon's Minister of Forest and Wildlife, Elvis Ngolle Ngolle, as he launched the tree planting at a small village near the town of Kousseri, in the north of the country. In four minutes, the minister and his staff planted a hundred trees as a bulwark against rapidly encroaching desert.

About 80,000 trees have been planted in this area – described by Kousseri mayor Mahamat Abdoulkarim as the desert's gateway into Cameroon. More than one million trees will be planted across Cameroon this year.

"This is the country's contribution to the global efforts against climate change," the minister said. He said tree planting is no longer an issue for professionals but everybody's concern emphasising that people should not only plant but follow up to ensure that the trees are growing well.

In Cameroon's dry sahel zone, almost 97 percent of the population depends on wood as a primary source of fuel for cooking.

"Today firewood in the North is an intensive commercial activity. It is a major source of employment for the people and if it is to be stopped, an alternative source of employment must be sought," says Jacques Billong, the North Provincial Delegate for the environment and protection of nature.

It is against this background that Minister Ngolle Ngolle is criss-crossing the country to awaken national consciousness on the necessity of planting more trees.

In the southern part of the country, commercial logging is the major problem. The north is bedevilled by significant loss of original wooded savannah to seasonal shifting cultivation over-grazing by livestock, large scale cutting of wood for domestic energy use, devastating wild fires, trophy hunting and poaching.

Following wars and repeated coups d'état in neighbouring Chad, the northern part of Cameroon has witnessed a significant influx of refugees with a resultant additional pressure on the land.

In the north, almost all the protected areas, reserves and parks are being encroached upon. In the Faro administrative division, people are cutting down large wooded areas. exposing land and people alike to extreme conditions during the dry season.

Between January and about mid-May temperatures in this region sometimes reach 47 degrees celsius.

"During this period we just have to pitch mosquito nets on the verandas and sleep outside our rooms throughout," confirms Ngwa Bah, a primary school teacher in Garoua, a town in which every house has its trees, planted to moderate the high temperatures.

"For 9 or 10 years now, the river beds have been empty. These are streams which at one point were permanent but today you can find water in them only at the peak of the rainy season," says Clement Njiti, the Peace Corps associate director for agro-forestry and environment. He says that 78 percent of Garoua residents rely on firewood for cooking; outside the town, firewood is the only source of fuel.

Gatwe Juskine, a forest and water technician, says the desert is advancing at a terrific rate. From a vantage position outsde Garoua, today one looks out over endless flat, empty land scoured by southerly winds. In some villages, women now trek up to five kilometres to fetch water.

People battle over water pools with animals. In major wildlife parks, several species including the black rhinos, hippopotamus, wild dogs, cheetah and panthers are under threat of extinction as the wooded savannah now remains only in patches. Many cattle herders have moved permanently to the south in search of grazing land.

Operation Green Sahel

In the early 1980s, Operation Green Sahel planted about 10 million trees in an effort to stop the advancing desert, but this programme ended abruptly due to the generalised economic crises. Some of the repressive methods employed – including seizures of wood and charcoal and detaining people suspected of illegal wood-cutting – have not been missed, but the desert continues to move steadily south.

Local and international NGOs and even the corporate sector have stepped in to support the government's renewed efforts. The World Wildlife Fund is currently executing a reforestation project with support from a major cellphone company.

The "Tree For Life" campaign aims to plant at least 90,000 trees, of which nearly a quarter will be fruit trees. The aim is to encourage locals to see and feel the benefits of reforestation and protect the newly-planted seedlings.

The Peace Corps' Njiti endorses this strategy: "In the final analysis, the only way to salvage the situation is to plant trees to stop the encroaching desert. But we should not plant just any trees; they should be fast growing multi-purpose trees."

Billong sums the situation up this way: "I can assert that the fight against desertification has entered the mentality of the people in the north, because they feel it. But poverty and unemployment is pushing them to continue to put pressure on the wooded savannah."

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