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Author: Tah Kennette Konsum Submitted for Write for Change
A customer of a popular financial house in Yaoundé, Cameroon goes for her routine financial transactions. She is distracted by a rush for what is known as the “White Gold from the Kilum/Ijim Mountain Forest”. She fails to make her usual deposit; and rather prefers to invest a good part of her income in the purchase of this product. What is this product and what gives it so much value? The “Oku White Honey” is the registered trademark name for this product. In Francophone Africa, this is a one and exceptional product that can be compared with the special wine from Bordeaux in France and other quality products around the world. Of recent, the Organization for African Intellectual Property Rights (OAIPR), the government of Cameroon, with the technical support of other international development partners such as CIRAD and AFC (French overseas agricultural research and development agencies) masterminded the certification of this honey as a Geographical Indication Product (GIP).
A GIP is characterized by the uniqueness of the region, climate or environment of origin, unique quality, and traditional methods of production or cultural and indigenous characteristics linked to its production and natural state. The Kilum/Ijim Mountain Range with a greater section (Kilum) in Bui division of the North West Region of Cameroon contains a unique biodiversity hotspot; one of the last and largest surviving patches of montane forests in the world known as the Kilum/Ijim Mountain Forest. The cloud forest has very rich endemic plant and animal species. For many years, the indigenous people around this mountain range have been exploiting its resources for a variety of uses.
However, the major threat to the survival of this unique arena has been unsustainable practices related to natural resources usage. Over the years, the government of Cameroon through the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, and other development stakeholders like BirdLife International and the Bamenda Highlands Forest Project has been able to employ indigenous and modern sustainable management practices to rescue the forest in an attempt to conserve its uniqueness.
The rich ecosystem of the Kilum/Ijim Forest is predominantly montane; trees are too small and inaccessible to be of interest to commercial loggers. The forest has a potential for non timber forest products like honey, mushrooms, medicinal plants (like Prunus africana, Pittosporum veridiflorum, Agauria salicifolia), alpine bamboos, spices, vegetables, herbs, food-based additives and others (colourings, preservatives and flavourings). The people depend on these products for their livelihoods. These services and products cannot be available if the forest is destroyed. The major recurrent problem of sustaining this biodiversity is driven by forest degradation due to domestic animal encroachment, farming, poaching and forest exploitation (mostly for firewood). Forest products could better serve the community and fight poverty if sustainable forest-based income generating activities are promoted and a workable benefit sharing mechanism put in place.
The forest has a high potential to improve the living standards of local people but this potential remains relatively unlocked and rudimentary. The region is also known nationally for its traditional healers and the forest is rich in Prunus africana (a commercial medicinal plant) whose bark is harvested by forest exploiters after paying meager fees to the community members. Bee farming could earn a lot of money for the people due to the vastness of the production basin. Organized bee farming groups in the region charged with promoting bee farming have a low membership despite the fact some buy honey upfront as well as provide technical and material support to its members and the community. There is more need to build the capacity of local people on sustainable bee farming and other sustainable forest income generating activities. With a good forest ecosystem benefit-sharing mechanism put in place the living standards of the local people will improve and they will see the need to engage in sustainable forest management.
The entire mountain range has been split into about six Community Forest concessions managed by Forestry Management Institutions (FMIs). This has helped to engage the local and indigenous people to participate in the forest management for their livelihood. Before then, the forest was managed by the local communities through indigenous rights and approaches implemented by the traditional authorities made up of the leaders called the “Fon” and the secret societies called the “Kwifon”. Traditional rites were performed in the forest to ensure its good health. The forest shrines were taboo areas or “sacred forest”.
Bee farming has been identified by the local community and other stakeholders as a major source of sustainable livelihood for the people. In the past Prunus africana bark was harvested for export for its use in the pharmaceutical industry for prostate cancer drug production. Despite all the technical know-how transferred to the community for sustainable exploitation, self interest amongst the beneficiary stakeholders brought in corruption, embezzlement, and illegal exploitation.
The management plans for the Forestry Management Institutions (FMIs) were breached severally. The elite, some local authorities and NGOs had to intervene and the exploitation process was banned till further notice. Local NGOs and government services have been championing the sustainable management of the forest by promoting sound environmental education, sustainable bee farming and forest regeneration activities. Some have been able to plant Prunus africana trees in the forest. Leading honey producer and marketing group within this forest range have engaged more local people in the practice of sustainable bee farming. Over 1,000 people have received training over the last three years from government departments such as the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF), the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MINADER) and other stakeholders. Ownership of beehives by the community will help protect the forest, and save bee colonies while providing income to the local population. The Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal industries has constructed and is still to equip a honey collection centre in Oku. Other major producer groups have also been given a facelift all in an effort to ensure quality standards for honey production.
Nowadays, one kilogram of drained white honey costs at least 5.000 FCFA (US $ 10.00) in the community. Other byproducts such as bee wax, propolis and honey drinks are equally fetching valued added income and incentives from bee farming. The most interesting activity is the production phase of the honey value chain. Local hives constructed from bamboo and thatches are transported for colonization in the plains- about 10 kilometers from the mountain production zone. The very cold alpine climate of the Mountain Forest is uncomfortable for bee populations, so they often migrate to the warmer plains. After colonization, hives are again transported overnight mainly by head to the mountain forest where they are mounted. The plants that produce the nectar and pollen for the white honey occur above 2000 meters from sea level. Such plants include Prunus africana, Nuxia congesta, Schefflera abyssinica, and Podocarpus spp amongst others. In this high altitude, special care is taken to keep the hives insulated and warm due to the very cold alpine climate.
Mathew Nkeng, a local honey processor and retailer in Keyon Oku is very disturbed. According to him, over the last two years there has been a remarkable record drop in the quantity of honey available. He points an accusing finger at the strange climatic patterns witnessed by the community within the year. “The rains start early in February and the flowers do not stay on the plants sufficiently for the bees to collect nectar and pollen. ‘’I used to think that climate change was an issue for the western world, but now I see its consequences on us even in this our community where we have been struggling all these years to conserve the forest” he lamented. He is one amongst others whose families have depended on the income generated by the sale of the “White Gold”. “I have been able to offer university education to my two girls, I still have other children and family members who need a brighter future, and I feel so disturbed because honey production is declining at this time when it is supposed to fetch us more money” he further complained.
European and American markets have been identified as major export routes for the honey. While the government of Cameroon and the organizations charged with the protection of the GIP are putting in place all the necessary procedures for its vaporization, climate change remains just a major obstacle. “I have observed that the rates of absconding of bees from colonized hives in the forest are strongly linked to the new patterns of the climate we have been witnessing” commented Bang George, one of the most experienced bee farmers in the production belt. With much investment made by government and other development stakeholders, the conservation and sustainable management of the Community Forests remain so far the only solution to fighting climate change and sustaining the source of this gold. The local and indigenous people, especially the younger generation need to engage in this battle, they are the future and must sustain the resources for their livelihood” expressed Wirsiy Emmanuel Binyuy, an Environmentalist working with the communities around the white honey production basin.
Sound environmental education is important to tackle forest degradation through behavioral change and to instill in young people the spirit to grow and participate in forest management. Protecting the forest enables it to generate water, fresh air, service as a carbon sink, source of beneficial insects, and will protect endangered species like Bannerman’s Tauraco (an endemic and endangered bird species only found in the Bamenda Highland Forest region with Kilum-Ijim having its largest remaining forest). All of which are also having indirect benefits to village dwellers.