“Honey is money! And to have honey, you must have forest! “Emmanuel Binyuy is yelling at me a really terrible connection from his NGO office in the far west of Cameroon. He is raising his voice because the line is bad, but also to make himself heard over a group of children playing loudly in the background.
The office is becoming a haven for children taking refuge from a sudden outbreak of violence in a long-running civil war. And if that weren’t enough to worry about, there is the threat of COVID-19, as well.
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 are happening to it.
It’s not the conversation you’d expect from someone in a country struggling with such challenges. But stories like Emmanuel’s, and those of other forest communities around the world, are not told as often as they should. Yet they are quietly defying the odds by scoring surprising success stories in protecting and restoring their own land.
This particular forest is known as Kilum-Ijim and rises up the slopes of Mount Oku in the remote western highlands of Cameroon (main image above). It is a rare montane rainforest fragment that once covered slopes and valleys as far as the eye could see. It has been losing ground for decades, but not anymore. Now he begins to recover. Which is where bees come in.
Emmanuel NGO, Cameroon Gender and Environment Watch (CAMGEW), is training locals as beekeepers, giving them the prospect of a decent income from honey and beeswax products, and an incentive to protect the forest from wildfire.
And it is working. Fires are now a rarity, and when they do happen, he says, “people run into the woods to put them out.” CAMGEW’s work doesn’t start and end with bees. He has established tree nurseries to restore lost acres, where local schoolchildren tend seedlings and “learn to love the forest.” It has trained farmers in sustainable techniques, such as forest gardens and alley cropping, that can provide better yields than destructive slash and burn methods (which all too often start forest fires). And she is working with local women’s groups, organizing microcredits to help them start small businesses and earn their own income.
Result? Over the past decade, he simultaneously restored the rainforest and vastly improved the lives of those who live in and around it. It’s an achievement that secured CAMGEW a spot as a finalist in the 2020 ‘Natural Climate Solutions’ category. Ashden Awards. In fact, forests and climate are closely related; the more we destroy them, the more we drive global warming. The more we restore, the more carbon can be safely stored in your trees.
We can say that the scheme is working, because the forest is still there.
As if that’s not reason enough to act, the coronavirus has given us an additional boost. There is growing evidence that clearing wildlife habitats like these increases the risk of exposure to new species-hopping viruses, as was the case with Ebola and, almost certainly, Covid-19.
So keeping the forest intact is a double benefit: calming the weather and curbing the chances of triggering another, perhaps even more deadly pandemic.
For many people like those who live in western Cameroon, simply getting away well is not an option. Forest land is often the only land available and they have to make a living from it. That is why initiatives like CAMGEW’s – helping local people benefit by keeping forests intact – are so essential.
Thanks to satellite images, the results are easy to see. Emmanuel puts it simply: “We can say that the plan is working, because the forest is still there.”
Oh, what about honey? It’s delicious.
Martin Wright is president of Positive News and a judge for the Ashden Awards.
Main image: Dotun55 / Creative Commons. Illustration: Mark Long