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Professor Anaclet Fomethe from the University of Dshang, Cameroon, spoke at a celebration for World Environment Day. The theme of the celebration was “The Ice Melt: A Burning Question?'” Professor Anaclet asked, “Isn’t the management of the raffia palm groves just as crucial a question for Cameroon?”
This question puts the issue of the raffia palm groves into context. This script is an SOS for the raffia palm groves found in the highlands of western and northwestern Cameroon, and which are a source of wealth for the three million inhabitants of this region as well as an exceptional example of animal and plant biodiversity.
The destruction that has reduced the raffia palm groves into small clumps of vegetation is going to bring about an ecological catastrophe. Some changes are already noticeable: springs drying up, a drop in water flows, desertification and climate change. The artisans involved in making products from raffia are increasingly deprived of their raw material; unemployment and poverty are stalking these craftsmen. Whole cultures depend on raffia palm wine and articles made from the raffia palm groves that are progressively disappearing. We must save the raffia palm groves.
ScriptTheme music to introduce the program
The low-lying areas of the Grassfields region of western and northwestern Cameroon have a special kind of vegetation, which is generally called raffia palm groves. Tall, slender plants with verdant leaves, these raffia palms play a great role in the social, cultural and economic lives of the peoples in the Grassfields region.
Tsiaze Fozang Jean Pierre, Mayor of the Commune of Penka Michel:
The raffia palm is one of our old plants that was valued more highly for handicrafts by our parents in the old days. Thanks to the raffia palm, we have water, woven bags and other articles. Where there are raffia palms, there is water.
In spite of their importance, the raffia palm groves are getting smaller as the years go by. The Grassfields region is densely populated. Of this population, 80% practice agriculture. Here is Michel Takam from Action for equitable, integrated and sustainable development, also called ADEID, an NGO working to preserve the raffia palm groves.
We are in a high density population zone. Also, we know that for twenty years, the price of coffee has fallen. When the price of coffee falls, people look for other ways to survive. The high population density means that there is no more land suitable for farming. That is why people are discovering the low-lying areas that are covered with raffia palm groves, and are rushing to destroy them. But these low-lying areas are not as fertile or lucrative when used as market gardens.
Because of the lack of agricultural land, a large number of raffia palm groves in the western and northwestern provinces were cleared for agriculture. This was encouraged by the government, which started numerous agricultural development projects that seriously degraded these stands of raffia palms.
About twenty years ago, this large valley behind me was covered with raffia palm groves, and there was a big lake. Look now. The water has disappeared, leaving reeds in its place. There are some small pools of water, but these pools are man-made. It’s these pools of water that allow farmers to water their crops during the dry season. Elsewhere, there are some wells that are being dug in the middle of the shallows. It’s a paradox because earlier, the low-lying areas always provided us with water.
Today, the market gardeners who have poured into the low-lying areas in large numbers are rather bitterly noticing a reduction in humidity and a decrease in the water supply because of the destruction of the palm groves. The climate is becoming arid, and now these people have to dig wells to water their plants.
A market gardener:
In places where the water channel is a long way away, we have to dig a well in order to be able to water. You can see the pipes we use to pump the water from the river to the garden.
The Penka Michel Valley in Cameroon’s western province is an example of how the deterioration of the raffia palm groves has contributed to the drying up of the rivers.
It started with market garden crops, but there are also fields of plantain that have been planted. We are heading towards a programmed destruction of the low-lying areas and, as a result, a programmed loss of water reservoirs. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? We know that it is this low-lying area that supplies the cities of Bafoussam, Badjoun, Dshang and Baham with drinking water. What will happen tomorrow? This problem of drinking water, which is a commodity you cannot buy, is one we should be asking ourselves today. We should be aware of it and ask ourselves what we should be doing about it.
It should be added that farming in the raffia palm grove areas with fertilizers and pesticides has polluted the water supply, creating a health danger for the population.
The raffia palm groves in the Grassfields zone have a rich variety of animal species and vegetation. There is the June beetle, and many other insects. With the destruction of the raffia palm, the habitat of the June beetle is threatened, as are many varieties of birds, reptiles and amphibians.
In the Grassfields area, it is anticipated that the level of water in ponds, lakes and reservoirs will fall, resulting in a drop in the availability of drinking water in some rural areas. Climate change is obvious in the area. There is a more and more unstable climate, and scientists are no longer able to predict the weather with accuracy. In recent years, in many cities in the west and northwestern parts of Cameroon, including Bamenda and Ndop, climate change has been the cause of many floods, although reports show that Cameroon has had much less rainfall over the past ten years. It is very strange, isn’t it?
In the west of Cameroon, we see that water sources are drying out, and finding water in many regions of this province is becoming more and more difficult. Also, drought is damaging the pastures, causing a constant increase in the price of meat. Finally, there is also a decrease in agricultural yields.
Faced with the threat of destruction of the raffia palm groves, non-governmental organizations have taken action to protect this unique kind of vegetation. The conservation of raffia palm groves helps people survive the kinds of pressures that climate change brings – more erratic rainfall, droughts, and rising temperatures. Raffia palm groves increase the capacity of the land to cope with climate change, and allow people in the west and northwestern parts of Cameroon to adapt to the changing climate.
The role of raffias in the highlands of west Cameroon is important to us all. They are the last pieces of natural vegetation in the region. They are sources of wealth for all and are an exceptional example of biodiversity in their own right. The culture of the Grassfields is built with the products of raffia palms. The destruction of vegetation will also lead to desertification, worsening the poverty of our people.
ADEID has been involved with the protection of the raffia palm for the past fifteen years. We have worked with the traditional chiefdoms in the west to see how we can prevent people from destroying the raffia palms in the low-lying areas. With the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), we have set up a project for the conservation and regeneration of the raffia palm groves. It is indeed thanks to this project that we have ten thousand plants. It’s the first time in history that we have ten thousand young raffia plants.
To help protect the raffia palm groves, ADEID worked with local communities, including the school community in Penka Michel.
We are trying to encourage regeneration of the raffia groves. People have often had the wrong ideas, thinking that the forests of raffia palms are natural formations. In fact, they are planted forests. That’s why today, thanks to the nursery you see, we are encouraging the people who live here to return to what their parents used to do. We want them to regenerate these seedlings in the field. It takes from 9 to 12 months for the seed to germinate. They must be placed in a very good environment with a fairly specific soil mixture.
Preserving and regenerating raffia palm groves will provide many economic, cultural and environmental benefits to Grassfields communities. Planting more raffia palm may help retain more water in an area. The survival of the raffia palm groves depends on the communities’ awareness of the problems. In local communities, the municipalities could create a legal framework that targets the protection of this unique form of vegetation. (Pause) Thank you for listening to our program on raffia palm groves today. We hope that you have learned something. Good-bye.
Contributed by: Frederic Takang, Abakwa FM, Bamenda, Cameroon.
Reviewed by: John FitzSimons, Associate Professor, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph, Canada.
- ADEID: action pour le développement équitable, intégré et durable. E-mail: email@example.com
- NOWECA: North West Craft Association
- Commune of Penka Michel
- Le Centre écologique des métiers de Penka Michel
- Tsiaze Fozang Jean Pierre, Mayor of the Commune of Penka Michel
- Madame Albertine, Director of the Penka Michel Centre
- Michel Takam, ADEID, BP 1354 Bafoussam
- Rene Tchouamo, Journalist, Cameroon Radio Television, Bamenda