By Ewi Stephanie Lamma
Research Fellow – Natural Resource Management
Cameroon is a resource rich country heavily dependent on revenues generated from oil, timber, and agricultural products. Despite high development prospects in the early 1980s Cameroon remains a low middle income country and economic gains have yet to translate into improved living conditions for the majority of the country’s population. More than 50% of Cameroon’s population depends on agriculture and forest for income. It is one of the countries that have made available to the World Bank its Readiness-Preparation Proposal (R-PP) for REDD+ implementation. Cameroon, in recent years, has made efforts to be involved in climate change discussions and some in the formulation of the REDD+ strategies, at higher levels, but with the rural women conspicuously absent.
Rural Women and Vulnerability to Climate Change Impacts in the South West Region of Cameroon
In the last few years, the South Western Region of the country, especially the Nguti-Manyemen area has been affected largely by Climate Change hazards as a result of massive deforestation due to agro-expansion to feed the increasing international, regional and national market demands. These environmental changes have caused disruptions to the well-being of many farmers, especially women, children.
Rural populations largely depend on the forest for food, medicine, fuel and household income but massive deforestation for timber wood, cocoa and, worse still, oil palms degrades the forest and leaves them vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and ultimately to poverty. Forested land is rapidly being grabbed by companies, rich smallholder farmers from the cities and some community elites. As forests are converted to farmlands, the poor landless, especially the women, who depend so much on ‘free access’ to natural resources for income, food, medicine and fuel, now lose their access rights, as land falls under the ownership of the purchaser. They turn to degraded lands for farming of basic food crops especially cassava which is more tolerant to infertile soils. There is generally no incentive to conserve forest or protect trees, people focus on the desire to get rich through establishment of cocoa farms and oil palms.
Recent changes within the environment have caused disruptions to the lives and livelihoods of many farmers. This is exacerbated by the near absence of quality agricultural knowledge and services to prepare them, in part, due to the country’s recent socio-economic crisis.
Of the over thirteen communities within this area our observation focused more intently on three, viz Ayong, Baro, and Osirayib, which are characterised by, soil impoverishment, biodiversity degradation and human environmental pollution. These problems are a result of several causes related to topography, climate, nature of soils, farming methods, water pollution, succession mode, etc… the most important of which remains the strong demographic growth that implies excessive pressure on the lands and the natural resources and encourages deforestation for settlements and farmlands.
The indiscriminate felling of trees has resulted in rapid forest loss which has caused water catchments to shrink. A constant fluctuation in the water resources around forest communities poses great risks to families especially women who need this water daily for cooking, drinking washing and watering.
The most telling adverse effect of climate change on crop productivity, is the modification of the agricultural calendar with changing weather patterns. This has greatly affected farmers in these areas since their expertise and know-how has been fixed on following past natural weather patterns. Moreover, intense environmental mismanagement has led to a modification in the duration of the season of vegetable growth, animal productivity and water quality.
Hence, during the period between harvests, women are responsible for providing food for the family, which means they have to work harder in seeking alternative ways to supplement income with which to buy the food they need. They spend more and more time looking for water or wood, which are increasingly scarce as a result of urbanisation and overexploitation. The increased workload leaves women with very little time to dedicate to income-generating activities or take part in other aspects of community life. One indirect effect of this on families is that girls are often taken out of school so that they can go and look for water or take on the responsibilities that their mothers no longer have time for. Furthermore, when food is scarce it is women who reduce the amount of food they eat, despite the physical work they do, which has long-term consequences on their health and fatigue levels, as well as those of their babies.
Thus women bear much more of the brunt of numerous losses caused by smaller harvests due to insufficient rainfall, water shortage, high use of chemicals and loss of some animal species in the course of over exploitation. They mostly have no savings, since they spend all their income on their children’s food, health and education, and so find it hard to access formal credit, since they have no assets to serve as collateral, whereas men may have land or livestock.
Although women in these communities depend on natural resources for their livelihood, they have very limited control over these resources because they do not have full access to land ownership. Moreover, they do not participate in plans and programmes for the conservation and management of these resources, and do not have control over forests and sources of water, which are controlled by men. Also, women are scarcely represented in local or institutional structures that make decisions related to management of natural resources. Even when represented, their opinions most often don’t count.
In order to understand and cope with these different threats, the plans necessary to adapt to climate change will only happen with improved land use management systems and the involvement of communities.
The Way Out
First local stakeholders need to be informed and educated on the impacts of climate change on women as a result of environmental degradation, as well as on best practices in sustainable land management among farmers, communities, development partners, and policy makers to combat these impacts. Also, with increased awareness raising programmes at local, regional and national levels, land ownership should become more open to women. Furthermore, both men and women farmers could be given access to information about the climate, including weather forecasts, so that they can decide on the best time to plant seeds. With the introduction of relatively clean energy sources, e.g. the cook stove, there could be a reduction in vulnerability of these communities to the impacts of climate change-induced risks.
There is a need to increase women’s access to credit, so that, the inputs needed to increase agricultural yield and storage systems can support families during the period between harvests without their having to sell their assets to buy food when market prices are higher? Finally, women’s organisations in these communities can be strengthened, and their participation in the planning and development of good practices for environmental management supported, so that their needs and priorities are taken into account.
Following the application of sustainable agricultural practices, the communities around Nguti-Manyemen areas will gain awareness of climate change impacts and adaptation techniques. Women will have better alternative sources of income to take care of households, available and even better energy sources, high crop yields as a result of better farming practices, policy review and women’s involvement in decision making within communities. For this to happen, the voices of both men and women have to be heard and taken into consideration.
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