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No Smoke Without Fire

I watch as as the young man struggles hard to bring his loads to the shore. It’s a battle to say the least. Two enormous plastic barrels, obviously full, wallowing heavily in the surf, which at first pushes them in towards the beach, then with a rush tries to drag them back to the ocean. It’s exhausting just watching him. Eventually he lands one of them and rolls it up the steep slope, then turns to fetch the other, which has already drifted away.

I am filming his efforts on a small camera. “What the hell is that bloke doing?” I mutter, “whatever it is, I hope it’s worth it.”

The burgeoning village of Yoyo is on the west coast of Cameroon, just south of Douala, the country’s largest city. The area is part of the Douala-Edea Wildlife Reserve and is – in theory – a protected area, which means none of the forest can be cut down, or any animals hunted. In practice, the situation is the opposite. The mangrove forests in Cameroon have been reduced by 40% in the last twenty years, with the rate of deforestation increasing at frightening rate. Mangroves aren’t just locally important, they are critical in the global battle against climate change. A mangrove tree sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at around nine times higher than any other tree species. Losing them is like Planet Earth becoming a 40-a-day cigarette smoker.

We are in the landscape looking at possible sites for setting up ‘carbon credits’, a process whereby land owners and managers are financially rewarded if they can decrease the amount of carbon dioxide ‘their’ land emits to the atmosphere, through replanting of trees, reversing forest loss, or instigating changes in the way local people live. With the increasing emphasis on private companies to reduce their carbon footprint, and governments committed to meet global targets, the time has never been better to set up carbon credit schemes, and interest is booming.

Yoyo is a centre of attention, with high-cost, international consultants being brought in to study the problem of mangrove loss. But you don’t need a high-cost consultant to tell you what is obvious – the pressures are enormous and things need fixing, fast. And that won’t be done by producing a glossy report that doesn’t actually result in action. There is another issue too, in that much of the interest in establishing carbon credit projects is driven by capitalist private investors, looking to cash in (significantly) on the increasing value of registered carbon credits. Incentives are needed, yes, but let’s not repeat the history of rich northern companies and individuals reaping most of the reward for work being undertaken by local, often very poor people. 'Leakage' is the politically correct way of saying it; exploitation better describes it in my view.

We meet with Gerald (not his real name), a self-appointed guide; he has no problem showing us what the villagers are doing; in fact, he’s proud of it, because the village is stable and people are flocking there to work. When I inquire more closely, I find that he himself has come from the north to work there; he is disabled and walks with one leg being dragged to the side; the result of an accident when he was a child, and the broken leg left to heal on its own. In Yoko he can find work.

“Over 80% of the people here are from Nigeria”, Gerald tells us proudly, “but there is no conflict with the Cameroonians.” This itself is unusual, as relations between Nigeria and Cameroon have been difficult over the last sixty years - often translated to tensions between the people. Not in this case. “They are mainly women, coming here to produce the smoked fish.” The picture becomes clearer. The mangrove roots are easy to cut --far easier than the hardwood trees of the terrestrial forest. The roots are being taken out at a prodigious rate. We see mounds and mounds of mangrove roots piled high on the banks. Apparently, every woman knows the amount she has cut and where it is stored, and even in the maze of mangrove root mounds there is no thievery.

The women are mainly from Nigeria, sometimes from Ghana. I asked a women, with two young children, who is preparing dinner, why she came to Yoyo. She nods her head towards the beach, “because my mother came here.” When was that? I ask. About a month ago.

We follow the winding track from the mangrove areas to the ocean front where fish are landed, passing beside numerous large wooden sheds, which leak huge clouds of smoke like a recently bombed village. These are the fish preparation buildings; the reason why the immigrants are here and the major factor in the destruction of the mangroves.

Inside the sheds are rows and rows of fish, rolled up and laid on racks above smouldering fires of mangrove roots. The air is thick with the thick, acrid smoke, which cooks and preserves the fish, but importantly imparts a particular taste; a taste that gives the edge when being sold in the markets.

“There is nothing better than fish smoked over mangroves” I am told by one of the women, “we know because it is in our heritage.”

I don’t believe that last statement. With the vast number of people originating outside of Cameroon, and arriving mainly in the last few years, it is difficult to see further than what has really happened here is that poor people, with little choice, have found somewhere where they can create a living, and what may once have been a trickle, is now a flood of immigrants. Here there is opportunity and it is being taken like the swarming gold prospectors of the 19th Century.

Later, I meet the young guy who was in the waves. He is rolling one of the barrels through the village. I tell him I couldn’t believe that he managed to bring them to shore, a real achievement. He smiles. The barrels, I am told, contain petrol and have been transported via speed boat from the Nigerian Delta. The fuel was no doubt taken illegally by breaking into the pipelines that run from the oil fields to the refineries. It is recognised as a major issue in Nigeria; it is incredibly dangerous, and the resulting pollution devastates the landscape.

So what is the solution? The answer is that the mangroves of Cameroon urgently need international support if we are to save them, and that can’t be left to the desires and incentives of people purely interested in personal wealth creation. We know what needs to be done; a mixture of law enforcement, sustainable alternatives, and support for poor people to change their ways of living, based on ethical practices, not pure capitalism. Conservation and development organisations have long battled with the same problems elsewhere, with many successes and lessons learned; we don’t need consultants, we need action for social good. A focus on Yoyo and other villages on the west coast of Africa needs to be at the very top of the climate change agenda.


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