Cameroon forests, wildlife being preserved by farmers using agroforestry
Agroforestry has been introduced in the African nation of Cameroon as a way to enhance agricultural productivity and financial gain, with a side effect of being good for the environment. It turns out that farmers value its environmental benefits foremost.
John Munsell, associate professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension forest management specialist in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, conducted a study of Cameroonian farmers who have used agroforestry practices for at least three years.
“I wanted to know whether and why they have adapted their practices, what their needs are for continuing, and the impacts of agroforestry farming at the village scale,” said Munsell, who focuses on human dimensions and forest management in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.
Agroforestry is the integration of tree crops into crop and livestock agricultural systems. Examples include using trees as “live fences” around production sites and as windbreaks, and growing crops in large alleys between rows of trees. Species that provide medicinal products, nuts, food, or livestock fodder often are used.
Some tree varieties can increase soil nitrogen, and several provide pollen, enabling farmers to raise bees for honey. Chickens range free in the forest gardens, feeding on tree foliage.
Munsell visited 10 villages and spoke with nearly 80 men and women over the course of two trips to Cameroon. He observed that planting configurations have not changed much since the farmers started incorporating agroforestry practices, but understanding and appreciation of agroforestry’s conservation benefits has increased.
“The farmers I spoke with see the benefit of agroforestry to the long-term financial and environmental sustainability of their farms and, in turn, their community,” said Munsell.
Not only does agroforestry benefit farmers, it can reduce pressure on wildlife habitat. To help further conservation in the region, Munsell linked local nongovernment organizations with Virginia Tech wildlife monitoring specialist Michael St. Germain, a research associate with the college’s Conservation Management Institute.
Munsell and St. Germain are working with the Environmental and Rural Development Foundation in Cameroon, and Munsell is working with Trees for the Future, a U.S. nongovernment organization that has partnered with the foundation. The multi-organizational partnership is geared to simultaneously address both human and wildlife issues in the developing rural areas of Cameroon.
St. Germain accompanied Munsell to Cameroon in January 2014 and met with biologists at the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, which was recently established to protect Cross-River Gorillas and Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzees. There are only about 30 gorillas and 150 chimpanzees remaining in the 20,000-acre sanctuary.
St. Germain held workshops on camera trap study design and database management, and summarizing and analyzing data. He also accompanied the biologists to set up a grid of remote cameras. Less than a month later, the elusive Cross-River Gorilla was caught on camera.
The Cameroonian biologists have been collecting transect data — dividing the area into a grid and looking for animal sign such as tracks, scat, and nests, as well as evidence of human activity.
The researchers have also been collecting landscape data, such as elevation and slope, habitat structure, and visibility, in areas where signs of gorillas and chimpanzees have been found. St. Germain suggested that the same information be collected for random portions of the grid where there is no sign so it can be used for comparison purposes.
“There is support from the local communities for the wildlife sanctuary,” said St. Germain. “Sustainable agriculture through agroforestry has reduced pressure on the wild system.”
During Munsell's first trip to Cameroon in 2012, he and a graduate student field-tested agroforestry methods developed at Virginia Tech. Munsell returned in 2013 and 2014 to evaluate the permanence of agroforestry practices and the needs of farmers in other regions.
The farmers Munsell interviewed provided confidential responses on a range of issues related to the relationship of agroforestry farming to environment, culture, and political support using a response procedure based on the West Africa game of Oware, in which they put pebbles in a bowl and showed the contents only to Munsell.
“Farmers rated environmental benefits the highest,” said Munsell. “Others that were recognized included community and social benefits that come from the visibility and cohesiveness of the network of agroforestry users.”
The financial benefits of increased yields and diversification are also valued, along with improvements in farm and community infrastructure. However, the farmers do not yet see its cultural and political benefits, Munsell observed.
“Although they are networked, those who practice agroforestry still feel a little bit like outsiders,” he said. “This is not uncommon for agroforestry practitioners, but with time and permanence the cultural and political dynamics may change. That’s the next hurdle for agroforestry.”
The Environmental and Rural Development Foundation works to build local capacity to address farm security and food issues. “Foundation leaders and staff work with local farmers to increase agroforestry practices so more food is produced over longer periods on less land, thereby reducing pressure on surrounding last-remaining wildlife habitat,” said Munsell.
Munsell and St. Germain are also working with the foundation’s Institute for Biodiversity and Non-profit Studies, which provides continuing education for aspiring professionals in agroforestry, biomonitoring, and finance, to give them practical work experience. “We each had students accompany us,” said St. Germain.
Munsell and St. Germain are preparing to lead a study abroad program in which Virginia Tech students will interact with students in the Institute for Biodiversity and Non-profit Studies program as well as instructors from the foundation, the University of Buea, Trees for the Future, and the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development.
St. Germain will also participate in monitoring a larger proposed wildlife preserve. “There are still large tracts of undeveloped jungle," he said. "That is where I will be going next — Mak-betchu. It is a bigger area with more gorillas and chimps as well as elephants and leopards.”
The long-term goal is to connect the preserves. “Habitat conservation and food security must be addressed together for overall success,” said Munsell.