“Honey is money! And to have honey, you need the forest! Emmanuel Binyuy shouts at me a really terrible connection from the office of his NGO in the far west of Cameroon. He raises his voice because the line is bad, but also to be heard over a group of kids playing loudly in the background.
The office also serves as a shelter for children who take refuge from a sudden wave of violence in a long civil war. And if that weren’t enough to worry, there’s the threat of Covid-19, too much.
But Emmanuel does not want to talk about violence or viruses. He really wants to talk about bees, honey and, yes, money. And the nearby forest – and the wonderful things that happen to it.
This is not the conversation you expect from someone in a country struggling with such challenges. But stories like Emmanuel’s – and those of other forest communities around the world – aren’t told as often as they should. Yet they quietly defy the odds, scoring surprising successes in protecting and restoring their own land.
This particular forest is known as Kilum-Ijim and it rises on the slopes of Mount Oku in the remote highlands of western Cameroon (main image above). It is a fragment of rare montane tropical forest that once covered slopes and valleys as far as the eye can see. It has been losing ground for decades, but not anymore. Now he is starting to recover. This is where bees come in.
Emmanuel’s NGO, Gender and Environment Watch in Cameroon (CAMGEW), trains local beekeepers, giving them the prospect of a decent income from honey and beeswax products – and an incentive to protect the forest from bush fires.
And it works. Fires are now rare – and when they do happen, he says, “people rush into the forest to put them out.” CAMGEW’s work does not begin and end with bees. He has set up nurseries to restore lost acres, where local schoolchildren tend the seedlings and “learn to love the forest”. These are farmers trained in sustainable techniques, such as forest gardens and alley cropping, who can provide better yields than destructive slash-and-burn methods (which all too often start bush fires). And he works with local women’s groups, organizing microloans to help them start small businesses and earn their own income.
Results? Over the past decade, it has simultaneously restored the rainforest and dramatically improved the lives of those who live in and around it. This is an achievement that earned CAMGEW a place as a finalist in the “Natural Climate Solutions” category of the 2020 Ashden Prize. Indeed, forests and climate are inextricably linked; the more we destroy them, the more we accelerate global warming. The more we restore, the more carbon can be safely locked in their trees.
We can say that the system is working, because the forest is still there
As if that weren’t enough reason to act, the coronavirus has given us an extra boost. There is growing evidence that cleaning up wildlife habitats such as these increases the risk of exposure to new species-jumping viruses, as was the case with Ebola and, almost certainly, Covid-19. .
Thus, keeping the forest intact is a double advantage: calming the climate and limiting the risks of triggering another pandemic, perhaps even more deadly.
For many people like those in western Cameroon, simply leaving well alone is not an option. Forest land is often the only land available and they have to live off it. This is why initiatives like CAMGEW’s – helping local people benefit from keeping forests intact – are so essential.
Thanks to satellite imagery, the results are evident. Emmanuel says it simply: “We can say that the project is working, because the forest is still there. “
Oh, what about honey? This is delicious.
Martin Wright is President of Positive News and a judge for the Ashden Awards.
Main image: Dotun55 / Creative Commons. Illustration: Mark Long