Cameroon

An image of the country's flag.

Cameroon’s extensive climatic, geographic and ecological diversity has not given rise to the levels of economic prosperity anticipated when the country gained its independence from both France (1960) and Britain (1961) and became a unified nation in 1972. An early track record of growth based on agriculture and forestry was bolstered by exploitation of petroleum reserves in the 1980s, promising a bright future for Cameroon’s growing population. In the late 1980s, however, sharp drops in the prices of Cameroon’s key exports – cotton and coffee as well as oil – were followed by a major devaluation of the currency in 1993 and significant declines in per capita incomes. The economy has gradually recovered, but productivity growth in the agricultural sector has not been strong and forestry exploitation is reportedly advancing at an unsustainable pace even as it generates revenues through timber exports. The agricultural and forestry sectors account for only account for about 20% of GDP, even though two-thirds of the country’s 19 million people depend in whole or in part on incomes from these sectors.

Access to land and security of property rights have emerged as critical constraints on increasing agricultural productivity and as sources of conflict between different agricultural communities (e.g., between livestock herders and farming populations, between those wishing to convert forested land to perennial crops and traditional forest populations). Forestry rights have become increasingly complex and subject to active dispute. Recent efforts to decentralize management of forests to communities appears, in many cases, to have increased rather than resolved local conflicts over access to and management of this important resource.

While the establishment of a legal framework for land tenure and property rights in 1974 put in place a process for land rights registration and created a framework for private ownership of property, only a relatively small percentage of Cameroonians have registered their land rights. Most continue to claim rights based on diverse customary laws, at times in direct conflict with the government, which seeks to use statutory law to enforce its own access to ―antional‖ (that is, unregistered) land. An example that demonstrates this tension is the government’s eviction of traditional landowners to construct the 1000-kilometer Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline in 2000–2004. Population growth since 1974 has also increased pressures on land, especially fertile, well-watered agricultural land. Not surprisingly, farming women have found the security of their customary access to land to be most in question. By investing significantly in road construction, the government of Cameroon has increased both the value of much agricultural land (by increasing cultivators’ access to markets) and intra-community competition for this resource.

The government of Cameroon now supports the idea of a more ―modernized‖ system of property rights (i.e., with surveys and cadastres supporting registration processes) to ensure social peace, private sector development and good governance, as well as to provide a stable source of tax revenues. A diagnostic study was conducted by the African Development Bank at the government’s request in 2009. While the study lays a useful foundation for moving forward on establishing clearer private property rights, the heterogeneity of local systems of land and forest administration and the significant economic stakes that both Cameroonians and foreign investors perceive to lie in the agriculture and forestry sectors are likely to challenge rapid implementation of any new strategy that emerges from the diagnostic.

The World Bank has been the principal donor-partner in programs involving agricultural property rights. However, the Bank has also been criticized for its funding of the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline project, which many observers believe resulted in the excessive abrogation of rural land rights without adequate compensation. Several donors, including the United States through its CARPE initiative and many local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have engaged in efforts to improve resource governance in Cameroon’s important tropical forests. The results of these efforts have been mixed and most observers agree that sustainability of these resources is still in doubt.

KEY ISSUES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERVENTIONS

  • Community participation in forestry governance. Many groups concerned with sustainable forest management in Cameroon have concluded that the prospects remain ―bleak until major governance challenges are overcome‖ (FGLG 2006:1). Cameroon’s current forest legislation includes opportunities for forest communities to register rights to community forests and enter into agreements regarding their management. The legislation includes several benefit- sharing provisions intended to ensure that forest communities and local governments benefit from forest resources. But studies have found that the intended benefits are not reaching communities, in part because community management committees have often been hijacked by special interests and communities do not have sufficient decision making roles. Donors, and especially donors engaged in the region through the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (including USAID), Global Forest Watch and other initiatives, are well positioned to help the government and local authorities at the regional and community levels to design and pilot more effective programs for sustainable forest governance and management based on the lessons learned to date.
  • Women’s rights. In some areas of Cameroon, anecdotal evidence suggests some progress is being made in increasing women’s access to land and tenure security. In urban and peri-urban areas some women have taken advantage of opportunities to purchase or rent plots, while in some rural areas, women farmers are developing multiple avenues through which to access land (e.g., church membership, cooperatives) so they can be less dependent on their husbands for land access. Overall, however, virtually all observers concur that women farmers in Cameroon are facing increasingly insecure access to land and tenure rights. Many women have found that land scarcity has led male authorities to withdraw rights that women previously held. Cameroon is in the process of developing a new family law, which will govern issues of marital property rights. The law will hopefully be another step in helping women realize the constitutional promise of equality. Donors can assist with the development of the legal framework, and, perhaps more importantly, with public awareness campaigns and support for women’s legal aid. These efforts would help women and men learn about the requirements of the law and give them practical knowledge about how land rights can legally be transferred within families and between generations.
  • Land rights formalization. As the 2009 comprehensive evaluation of the land administration system by the African Development Bank concluded, Cameroon must undertake a major reform of its property and land rights laws as well as the systems for administering them. There is no question that many, if not most, pastoralists, smallholders, and occupants of informal settlements in urban and peri-urban areas lack secure rights to land and that this insecurity is constraining their ability to invest, produce and prosper. Donors could help the government to develop a new land policy and revise the legal framework governing land. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, donors could support the establishment of a more effective land administration system that provides an accessible, inexpensive window for formalizing rights, with particular attention to protecting the rights of women, pastoralists and marginalized ethnic groups (such as the forest dwelling pygmy group, the Baka).

SUMMARY

Stretching from the semiarid Sahelian zone in the north to the famed grassfields and cocoa forests of the west, and from extensive tropical rainforests in the south and east to offshore oil reserves, Cameroon has a diverse, varied landscape. The country has an abundance of natural resources capable of supporting its population of 19.5 million. Cameroon is ethnically complex, with about 250 ethnic groups, including nomadic Fulani pastoralists, Bantu farmers and a small pygmy population of forest dwellers known as the Baka. Fifty- four percent of the population lives in urban areas, with the coastal port of Douala (the largest city) serving as the business hub. The more centrally located city of Yaounde serves as the political capital of the country, which was created through the merger of regions with differing colonial histories (British in the northwest and southwest, French everywhere else).

Following independence from France (1960) and Britain (1961), and unification (1972), Cameroon experienced a period of significant economic growth, fueled in large measure by its primary exports – cocoa, coffee, cotton, and timber. Petroleum exports began in 1976 and peaked in 1986. When prices for its main exports fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cameroon’s economy went into a deep recession, and has regained strength only gradually since the mid-1990s. A 2001 household survey showed that although the country’s poverty rate had declined since 1996, more than 40% of all Cameroonians were poor. That number remained stable through 2007. Poverty is concentrated in rural areas, where half of the population, especially women and children, are poor. These characteristics are reflected in Cameroon’s relatively low ranking on the UN’s 2010 Human Development Index: 131 out of 169 countries reporting data.

In 1974, Cameroon enacted national legislation governing land and other natural resources, with an eye toward encouraging commercial investment in its land, water, forest and mineral sectors. The laws support private property rights but require privately owned land to be titled and registered. After more than 30 years, only an estimated 125,000 land titles are registered. All untitled, unregistered land that is not designated as public land (i.e., managed by the state on behalf of the public) is considered to be ―national‖ land. Most of the land in Cameroon is classified as national land, including farmland and communal land held under customary law. The government can convert national land into state land and allocate use rights to it (e.g., forest concessions) or convert it to private ownership (e.g., for urban development). Land tenure for most people in Cameroon is therefore insecure. Decentralized Land Consultation Boards, which have significant authority over land matters, are vulnerable to politicization and bias.

Cameroon has good water resources and fertile soils in much of the country. Soil degradation has become a major concern in the last 20 years as fertilizer use declined following the reduction of government support in the late 1980s and the currency devaluation of 1994. Little of the agricultural land is irrigated, but rainfall supports production, especially in the west, south and east. In northern areas of the country, rainfed agriculture and grazing are affected by droughts and low rainfall. Fewer than half of rural households have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, although nearly 90% of urban residents were reported to have safe supplies in 2006. Water infrastructure is generally inadequate to support growing peri-urban areas, and pollution from industry and untreated waste has contaminated urban water supplies in some areas. Cameroon recently privatized its water sector in an effort, in part, to address water distribution problems.

Forty-six percent of Cameroon’s land is forest, including savanna, highland forests, woodlands, mangroves and rainforest. Cameroon’s southern forests are part of the Congo Basin, which is rich in biodiversity and a critical habitat for wildlife. The country’s forest law (enacted in 1994) provides a framework for community forest management and benefit-sharing. However, the state has also granted a substantial area of forest to logging concessions, most of which are foreign-owned. Deforestation is a significant threat in some areas and is most often the result of expansion of cultivation into the forest, but it is also the result of unsustainable use by local populations for timber, firewood and other forest products. Cameroon is a member of several regional bodies working to develop coordinated plans for forest conservation and sustainable use of forest resources.

Although Cameroon has Africa’s smallest petroleum industry, crude oil and petroleum products have been the country’s leading export since 1976. Proven offshore reserves indicate that petroleum exports will continue for some years. Cameroon has become a partner in Chad’s oil industry, managing the pipeline that traverses more than 1000 kilometers of Cameroonian territory to the port of export in offshore waters near Kribi. The country also has significant reserves of bauxite, cobalt, iron ore, nickel and uranium, but production has lagged due, in part, to lack of infrastructure. The country has been encouraging foreign investment with favorable tax treatment and a revised minerals law. Foreign investors have begun responding and exploration has confirmed significant reserves of bauxite and iron ore.

Published / Updated: January 2011