Bansoa, Cameroon. Edouard TAMBA, Unsplash

Can restoration be a force for peace?

Restoring relationships and reconciling communities in northwestern Cameroon

Competing interests over land and natural resources are a major driver of conflict around the world. As the climate crisis bites, land becomes more degraded and resources dwindle, the risk of these conflicts is soaring.

At the same time, conflict undermines people’s ability to cope with resource shortages. Of the world’s 25 countries deemed most vulnerable to the climate crisis, at least 14 are currently affected by conflict.

But when landscapes are restored, they can heal the fractured relationships of the communities within them, too.

In northwestern Cameroon, relations between smallholder farmers and pastoralists have been strained for decades. Now, local communities are adopting a mix of practical resource management, inclusive decision making and grassroots restoration to help both themselves and the land they rely on.

“We are working on a landscape that is shared between the Indigenous Mbororo communities and the local populations,” explains Sunday Geofrey, coordinator of SUHUCAM, a grassroots development and environment association in Cameroon that also serves as the GLFx Yaoundé chapter.

Sunday Geofrey and Mbororo woman
Sunday Geofrey with a Mbororo woman. Courtesy of SUHUCAM

“The Indigenous Mbororo communities are mostly pastoralists, so they do cattle, sheep and goat grazing. The local populations are mostly smallholder farmers.

“For decades, there have been conflicts between these two communities, and most of the conflicts are coming from the need to access natural resources: water and land.”

The roots of farmer–herder conflict

Farmer–herder conflicts currently affect large parts of Africa. But while resource competition may act as a flashpoint for conflict, it’s often rooted in much more complex issues such as historic exclusion and land tenure insecurity.

“It is important to understand that the Mbororo community, historically, is excluded from all decision-making processes,” Geofrey explains. “And it is believed that because they [practice] transhumance, they don’t own the land on which they graze.”

Smallholder farmer communities, on the other hand, have a strong belief in land ownership, enforced through customary law.

“Each time a smallholder farmer wants to extend his farm into a grazing field, he doesn’t need consultation, he doesn’t need any authorization. [Farmers] feel that the land belongs to them, the locals, and this has strained the relationship between these communities,” Geofrey says.

While these conflicts are deep-rooted, they have been intensifying in recent decades, driven by external factors such as droughts, desertification, environmental scarcity, land degradation and the forced migration it creates.

“During consultations, we realized that land degradation was intensifying the conflict because when [the pastoralists] are pushed from their land, they have nowhere to go because most of the grazing fields are degraded [and] now occupied by invasive tree species.”

Tree planting
The SUHUCAM team plants trees with local community members. Courtesy of SUHUCAM

Restoring peace

If land degradation is fueling conflict, it also highlights a potential solution: restoration.

For the SUHUCAM team, restoration starts with ensuring all affected communities are involved in the process, especially those who have been historically excluded.

“At the very first meeting we had, we invited representatives from these two groups. And the actual sites of restoration were decided by the two communities,” says Geofrey.

“We said: this is an opportunity to bring these two committees together to work, to collaborate and to see how they can be successful in solving their problems within themselves.”

Since then, community dialogue has remained an integral part of the organization’s restoration work, which now spans 50 hectares of degraded land in the village of Bamunkumbit in the North West Region of Cameroon.

“We’ve been organizing dialogues and consultative meetings, and we are seeing the minority [Mbororo] community being empowered, being engaged and being more actively involved – not just in the restoration initiative, but also in other programs,” says Geofrey.

What’s more, the strategies that SUHUCAM, local communities and the Mbororo people have developed together are producing tangible results.

“Through intervention in these communities, we have seen a drastic reduction in cases of farmer-grazer conflict. We are seeing more collaboration; we are seeing more partnership between the farmers and the grazers, and I think we have been able to achieve this because of our strategy and the strategy we employ in the landscape restoration projects,” Geofrey explains.

Workshop with Mbororo women
The SUHUCAM team leads an agroecology workshop with Mbororo women. Courtesy of SUHUCAM

SUHUCAM is also focused on working with women, who have often been excluded from economic activities and education. The team is training Mbororo and other local women in sustainable agriculture, which has helped build the relationship between the women in these two groups, as well as rippling out into the wider communities.

“They started understanding each other,” says Geofrey. “They started cooperating, they started collaborating, and now we’ve realized that even the traditional authorities, through these projects, have been able to start cooperating and talking more to each other, and this has drastically reduced the level of conflict that we used to have.”

Land rights: the missing piece of the puzzle

A major obstacle that still has to be overcome is clarifying land ownership, which is a vital step in both landscape restoration and conflict resolution.

In northwestern Cameroon, land ownership is mostly governed by customary laws that can be difficult to navigate and exclusionary to certain groups, such as the Mbororo people, who are denied the right to lands that they’ve been grazing on for decades.

“We’re working in a community where almost nobody owns the land title – all the lands are governed by the customary laws,” Geofrey explains.

“We have to make it a topic of discussion in every meeting so people are able to reflect on this and see the injustice that the existing customary laws have placed on some parts of the communities, and how we can revise this.

“It’s not just about the Mbororo community – it’s also about women within these communities.”

Tree planting orientation
Young local men are briefed before a tree planting exercise with SUHUCAM. Courtesy of SUHUCAM

A recent report by SPARC-Knowledge found similar conflicts across Africa, showing that this type of conflict isn’t confined to Cameroon – but neither are the potential solutions.

While Geofrey and the SUHUCAM team are currently focused on one community, they believe a grassroots approach is needed to produce real change that can be scaled up and help reduce farmer–herder conflict across the continent.

“You will start from one community to move to the next, because most of the customary laws are community-based. We just need good leadership from a community, to say, ‘okay, this is what we want to do,’ and other communities will follow from their success stories.”

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