Cameroon - saving the bird, saving the forest

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Mark Edwards

Author Info: Mark Edwards is an award-winning environmental photographer based in London.

Award winning photographer Mark Edwards, travelled to the Kilum Forest in Cameroon to photograph a project which is trying to save one of Africa's most beautiful birds - the Bannerman's Turaco. He came back with these pictures, and a remarkable success story.

The mural on the school house is the visitor's first impression of the Kilum Mountain Forest Project.school muralSchoolchildren painting mural dominated by the Turaco© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesIt is a startling blend of Picasso, Miro and Matisse. A huge bird, as large as the children who painted him, sits confidently on a slender branch surrounded by forest animals. The bird, a Bannerman's Turaco, is a threatened species and is the reason for the project.

Working on the principle that to save the bird you have to save the forest, BirdLife International embarked on an ambitious scheme which involves chiefs, medicine men, women's co-operatives, juju dancers, farmers, schoolteachers and children.

In 1987 a representative for BirdLife visited Mount Kilum and estimated that all the forest would disappear within 10 years. Local people, concerned about the effects of deforestation, talked about a time when rivers were twice as full. During the dry season, which lasts five months, farmers rely on water stored in the forest above the village, so it was clear to everyone that deforestation was responsible for the water shortage.

This was the starting point for a dialogue between the many groups of local people, each with their own interests to protect, which has lead, against all the odds, to the development of a remarkable project.

The forest is, of course, as vital for the survival of the Bannerman's Turaco as it is for the people who live within its watershed. In the mountainous region, topsoil exposed when the forest is cleared is soon dispatched by torrential rain - up to seven inches of water may fall in an hour. A solution had to be found to break this familiar circle of destruction.

Dervla Murphy describes her visit to Cameroon in Cameroon with Egbert, "Reading about erosion tragedies, the mind is numbed by an anaesthetic of hectares and years and millimeters and tons and centuries. It is another matter to see and smell and struggle through the event as it is happening. Miserably we squelched and skidded across those tons of squandered soil - made still more poignant by the frail maize seedlings, killed in infancy, that occasionally showed through. That storm had brought a disaster to a family as well as a mountain, a family who had worked themselves to exhaustion to clear the land. They had not meant to commit and ecological crime; they only wanted to feed, clothe and educate their children. In Cameroon one cannot feel the rage provoked by the activities of American beef ranchers in Amazonia or Japanese logging companies in Borneo. One can only feel despair".

"These two scenes - the newly burnt miles around Lake Ocu and the denuded mountain- can be used in a strip cartoon for children to illustrate the fragility of our planet: and especially of 'Africa', where geological old age is a problem. The soil is geriatric, African rocks and mountains being some 4,000 million years old. They therefore weather into coarse, large-grained soils, as is apparent even to non-scientific travellers. These are easily eroded, poor at retaining nutrients and water, low in phosphorus and nitrogen and so by far the least fertile in the world. That visually attractive red soil so common in Africa is in fact a menace. Being full of iron oxides it tends to crystallize, forming rock hard uncultivable wasteland. Stripped of vegetation, Africa will die - both the land and the people."

A series of measures were proposed by BirdLife representatives. A boundary was agreed around the remaining forest and a halt called to further clearing above that line. Each village elected two people to patrol the forest and mobilize villagers in case of fire and check that the forest boundaries are observed.

In order to reduce the need to clear more forest for agriculture, extension workers trained by BirdLife help farmers build contour hedges, mostly of native nitrogen-fixing trees, which help hold the soil.planting tree seedlingsWomen's nursery provides tree seedlings© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesTree nurseries run by women's co-operatives provide the seedlings.

Another problem was solved, again by patient, persistent negotiation. Goats, kept by few families, were preventing forest regrowth.Gradually the herders were persuaded to keep their animals in fenced paddocks made from thorny shrubs grown in tree nurseries.

The real success of the Mount Kilum Project is the way everybody in the villages has been involved. The honey gatherers have been helped to form a co-operative to market honey to the supermarkets. The traditional healers who gather their medicines from the forest play a part, the children are taught conservation skills at school, and the juju dancers dressed as forest animals and birds have adapted their story to teach the message of sustainable living.

Ultimately its success must depend on reducing population growth, at present estimated to be at 3 per cent. This may be possible. The dialogue which has been opened has forced people to reconsider traditional assumptions and experiment with new ways of farming and working together. It may well be possible to extend this debate to include family size. If that does occur the Bannerman's Turaco will survive along with the farming communities in this beautiful part of Africa.