December 2012 - Cameroon’s forests comprise the northern limit of the Congo Basin rainforest, the second largest in-tact rainforest in the world. Replete with wildlife and over 8,000 plant species, these forests constitute almost 60 percent of Cameroon’s territory, and support the livelihoods of many Cameroonians. Yet, people’s rights to use and benefit from forest products are tenuous, as legal protections for their customary rights have been weak.
In 1994 a new forestry law provided an opportunity for communities to get legal rights to forests and to sell forest products. The law established Community Forests (CFs) to provide forest users with secure access to resources. CFs are local forests managed by communities under the supervision of government forest services. They do not provide formal ownership of land, but confer use, management, and benefit rights. Communities are authorized to retain all revenues generated from forest resources, as described in a management plan.
Most studies conclude that CFs improve rural livelihoods—albeit marginally—by increasing opportunities to sell forest resources. CFs also provide a sense of protection from competing land uses. However, benefits have been limited. Relatively little CF revenue is used for community projects; CFs are often used to whitewash illegally harvested wood; and there is little evidence that they lead to more sustainable land management.
Furthermore, forest communities face high barriers in establishing and managing CFs, among them: high start-up costs (estimated at US 12,000- 24,000); high maintenance costs; and bureaucratic hurdles. Communities that directly manage their forests tend to benefit more than communities that outsource logging operations, but most CFs are handed to industrial or semi-industrial loggers. This is partly due to the influence of local elites or logging companies, and the collusion of corrupt forest administrators. Such arrangements have led to an illegal trade of documents authorizing CFs, and in 2011, about 90 percent of CF communities no longer had their official documentation.
In conjunction with national NGOs and international organizations, the government of Cameroon is working to improve CF management, registration, and financing to benefit communities. Reform initiatives were launched in 2005 and 2009 to improve social and environmental outcomes of CFs. Experience suggests that strengthening local capacity in forest management is key to making CFs both sustainable and profitable.