Cameroon: Desperate Hunt for Fuel Threatens a Once Thriving Forest Reserve in Cameroon

Yaounde — Zamai Forest Reserve – Hundreds of thousands of people have fled to north-east Cameroon amid violence by Islamist extremists. As the influx puts pressure on the region’s natural resources, locals say their forest has suffered. Now displaced people are seeking help to replace trees and find alternative fuel sources.

Adele Zaouda sweats profusely in a desperate effort to dig up the roots of a tree. The acacia tree itself has already been cut down and used for cooking.

With no other trees left standing, Zaouda has resorted to digging up roots. It has become her one source of fuel.

“We used to go to the forest to fetch wood. Now there are no more trees in the forest. We have to dig up the roots,” she tells RFI.

Strain on resources

The forest in question is the Zamai Forest Reserve in Cameroon’s Far North region. The reserve once spanned some seven square kilometres and teemed with several species of wildlife, including cheetahs, crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, leopards, lions, monkeys and warthogs, among others

Now, they are all gone,” says Oumarou Souley, personal secretary for the Lamido (traditional ruler) of Zamai.

“We deplore the fact that the Zamai reserve has disappeared. Refugees came here in large numbers. They felled every tree, they even dig up the roots. The reserve, with its rich wildlife, is gone,” Souley told RFI.

Uprooting trees for fuel is part of a major problem in the Far North region. Home to about three million people, the fragile landscape has been degraded by unsustainable farming practices and rising temperatures linked to climate change.

The situation got worse when Nigerian refugees, terrorised by Boko Haram attacks, began arriving in Cameroon in 2013. At the same time, the Islamist militant group started launching attacks in Cameroon, triggering internal displacement.

Zaouda was one of the over 600 people who fled to Zamai in 2017.

“I came here with my husband, co-wives and our children. We thought we would be here for just a few months, but without security, we can’t go back home,” she told RFI.

It’s a similar story across the region, where more than 73,000 Nigerian refugees now call the nearby Minawao Refugee Camp their home, and where more than 300,000 people are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

The additional population has put a strain on the region’s natural resources.

“Cutting down trees is against the law, but we can’t do otherwise, because we don’t have any other source of energy,” Luka Isaac, the elected spokesperson for Nigerian refugees at the camp, told RFI.

Seeking solutions

With the help of non-governmental organisations, some are looking for solutions. Isaac says some 600 women have been trained to make ecological briquettes, blocks of burnable waste matter that can be used to start and fuel fires.

“We use domestic waste to make the ecological briquettes,” he told RFI.

Zaouda, who has undergone the training, explains the process. “We gather domestic waste and millet husks. We burn them, we pound them into powder and we mix with water and slippery mud. We then dry the mixture and then we use that for cooking,” she said.

But Luka says that the sheer number of refugees at the camp means that the ecological briquettes alone are far from meeting people’s needs.

Refugees ‘green’ their camp

When the first refugees arrived at the Minawao camp, located some 70 km from the Nigerian border, it didn’t take long for them to realise that fuel would be a problem. They swung into action, initiating a project to “green the camp”, according to Isaac.

“We have planted trees, but they have not reached the stage where we can start cutting them. We have planted more than 50,000 trees for the future,” he told RFI.

But the trees are already providing the refugees with environmental and health benefits. Isaac says: “Even the air we breathe is very clean, and then we have shelter. In fact we are happy with our environment because if you go to the neighbouring villages, they don’t have trees like the refugees.”

Broader problem

The refugees’ efforts fit into the broader context of the Great Green Wall of Africa, an African Union-led initiative launched in 2007 to revive the Sahel region, a sizable area of semi-arid land connecting the desert of northern Africa to the fertile regions of the south.

From Senegal’s Atlantic coast to Djibouti’s eastern coast, an 8,000 km-long line of trees and plants will be grown as part of the project.

The goal is to halt desertification in the Sahel.