On July 31, Earth.Org reported that the president of Cameroon had approved a logging concession in the Ebo Forest that would threaten the species living there. Now, nearly three weeks after the fact, President Paul Biya has withdrawn the decree and has suspended the process for a second concession to log 170 000 acres of forest land. Conservationists are hopeful that the government will embark on an inclusive land-use planning process with local communities to determine the future of Ebo Forest.

Ebo Forest is the ancestral land of more than 40 communities and remains one of the last intact forests in central Africa. Besides being a biodiversity hotspot, the local Banen communities depend on Ebo Forest for food and traditional medicines so any non-consensual development of the forest would heavily affect them. Before Cameroon’s independence in 1960, many communities lived in the forest and their patriarchs and matriarchs are buried there.

The Cameroonian government had signed an international agreement to protect gorillas and their habitats July 20, but two days later it issued a decree establishing a logging concession in Ebo Forest. 

Ebo Forest is a hotspot for conservation research and discoveries. The forest provides critical habitat for many species of endangered primates including gorillas, chimpanzees and red colobus monkeys. Researchers believe that the small population of gorillas in Ebo may be a new subspecies because they are geographically distinct from other populations of western lowland and cross river gorillas. In 2005, researchers discovered that the tool-wielding Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees in Ebo Forest are culturally distinct from any other group of chimpanzees in Africa and are the only chimpanzees to use tools to both fish for termites and crack hard-shelled nuts.

“The president’s intervention to halt the imminent destruction of this unique forest is hugely welcome,” said Bethan Morgan, San Diego Zoo Global’s Central Africa Program head, who has been working to conserve the great apes of Ebo since she first observed gorillas there in 2002. “We hope that the international community will seize this opportunity to work with the government of Cameroon to make Ebo a showcase for long-term conservation in harmony with very challenged communities. These communities have been responsible for the preservation of the treasures of Ebo to date, and an inclusive land-use planning process is now needed to fully share information in order to make clear and calculated judgements about the future of the forest and its people.”

Ebo Forest makes up half of the Yabassi Key Biodiversity Area, making it a site of global importance to the planet’s overall health and the persistence of biodiversity. It sequesters 35 million tons of carbon. Botanical survey efforts, supported by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with Herbier National Camerounais, have resulted in the discovery of 29 species new to science, and the area is known to contain 52 globally threatened species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The forest is also a proposed tropical Important Plant Area.

Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry signed two orders on February 4, proposing the classification of two forestry management units for timber extraction in Ebo Forest. The units would have destroyed the entire gorilla habitat and would have leveled the western part of the forest. The orders were posted publicly on March 9, but that did not give the local communities living around Ebo sufficient time and opportunity to provide their input.

In April, more than 60 conservationists, including experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group and Global Wildlife Conservation, signed a letter to Cameroon’s Prime Minister Joseph Ngute, asking that the plans for the logging concessions be put on hold and the government work with local communities to develop a sustainable land-use plan. They argued that adopting a more inclusive process would signal to Cameroon’s international partners that the government intends to honour its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Chief Victor Yetina of Ndikbassogog and a representative of the Association Munen Retour aux Sources, and Ekwoge Abwe, manager of the San Diego Zoo Central Africa Program’s Ebo Forest Research Project, issued a joint statement following the news:  “We welcome the suspension for now of logging plans in Ebo Forest, but are concerned that its fate remains unclear. This decision must be the first step toward recognition of Banen’s rights and forest protection. We call on the government of Cameroon to adhere to its international commitments, and to promote participatory mapping and land-use planning with local communities. Land tenure reform must have at its core the full recognition of communities’ rights. We also call on international donors and NGOs to support these processes with technical expertise and resources, both in Ebo Forest and across the Congo Basin.”

Featured image by: Laurent de Walick