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Koudioube village women working in the forest. Photo: Jason Florio / Concern Universal.
Koudioube village women working in the forest. Photo: Jason Florio / Concern Universal.
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Community forestry is defusing Africa's longest-running conflict

Louise Hunt

5th May 2014

Civil war in Casamance, a forested area of Senegal, has been fought for 30 years, while an illegal timber trade has boomed amid the insecurity. Louise Hunt reports on how community forestry is bringing peace to the region - and restoring life to the forests.

There is an understanding now between communities and the rebels of the need to protect the forests, even the young ones are careful not to destroy trees.

"During the crisis we feared coming into the forest. Sometimes the rebels would ambush us and ask for money, in other areas there are landmines."

So says Bakari Jallou, a community leader who is part of a project to prevent extensive illegal logging in the Casamance region of southern Senegal.

The Casamance - a strip of land lying to the south of Gambia - is home to Africa's longest running conflict, a 30-year low intensity civil war for independence that has killed thousands and displaced many more.

Its extensive hardwood forests became battlegrounds between the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) and the Senegalese army. Despite a de facto cease fire since 2012, the forests are still considered no go areas by many aid agencies.

Rampant illegal logging

The prevailing lawlessness has impeded traditional use of the forests for food, medicine and building materials. Forest communities have resorted to exploiting the resources they depend on by burning trees to eke out incomes from charcoal.

As the forests are mainly rebel strongholds, they have been unregulated for decades and a lucrative illegal timber trade is flourishing, fuelled by demand from Gambia. Truckloads of hardwoods prized for furniture, such as teak and mahogany, are sold over the border. It is thought a significant proportion is exported to China.

"People knew they could make an income from burning trees for charcoal and others came from outside to cut any trees they wanted", says Jallou. "Nobody was thinking about how life would be made difficult if the rains didn't come."

Widespread deforestation has been linked to the decline in rainfall in Senegal recorded over recent decades. The north is affected by drought and the encroaching Sahel, while even with its wetlands bleeding out from its namesake river, areas of the Casamance are now suffering from severe desertification.

Community forestry is bringing peace

However, in the village of Koudioube, which lies at the end of a long, cratered forest track near the Gambia border, people's lives are gradually returning to normal.

This April it hosted a festival to celebrate the rejuvenation of 2,000 hectares of surrounding forest as a result of its participation in a pilot conservation programme run by the Gambia / Senegal programme of British-based international development charity Concern Universal.

The aim of the project, launched in 2012, was to bring together four communities in the rural Kataba-un district to form committees, raise awareness of the wider impacts of deforestation and train them in sustainable forest management.

"They had to demarcate an area and register it with the government forestry department, plant trees and make a commitment to their continued protection", explains Ansumana Sanneh, CU Gambia programme development support officer who is working with partner organisations in the Casamance to deliver the community forest project.

The project is also supporting villagers in developing business plans for marketing the forest products. Women, in particular, have seized the opportunity to develop collectives for planting trees and learn new techniques, such as beekeeping to sell honey and beeswax products.

"We can make much more money than before. We are also coming together to discuss problems and ideas to resolve them", says Binta Sidebek from Koudioube.

And the forest is recovering

An evaluation at the end of the 12-month project, funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union, showed that since the pilot began there has been no further illegal logging and forest density has much increased, along with more plentiful fruits and wildlife that was rarely seen before. The forest is continually monitored by its committees.

"There is an understanding now between communities and the rebels of the need to protect the forests, even the young ones are careful not to destroy trees", says Jallou.

The community forest project model has since been implemented in eight more areas, and CU, with its Casamance partner organisation ASAPID, receive ongoing requests from new communities for support in replicating the approach.

A rebuilding of trust among communities

Conflict resolution has been a bonus but important outcome from the community forest project and the festival which brought communities together with traditional festivities was in itself a landmark moment that is unlikely to have occurred otherwise, says Sanneh.

"Before the initiative people didn't trust one another. They were divided into two groups, those that support the government and those that support the rebels. People killed each other, there was a lot of retaliation. The project has slowly brought villages together."

The training workshops presented the first tentative step towards reconciliation, he adds. "At first there was fighting, but we also organised social events such as football and wrestling tournaments which helped, over time people built trust in each other. Since the project began the tempo of the crisis has reduced."

Even the rebel militia can see the benefits - and are laying down their guns

This has created a crucial opportunity to build dialogue between the government and the MFDC. Having an insider on board who can effectively communicate the importance of conserving the forests to rebel groups within the project areas has made all the difference.

Pascal Manneh, locally respected for his environmental work, is the unofficial mediator between the separatists and government forestry officials. "There is no doubt that without mediation the forests would have been destroyed. The rebels did not have a programme of tree planting, their only means of livelihood was felling trees.

"I am engaging the rebels to lay down their guns and discuss productive measures of income generation. We have deliberately refused to identify the rebels but have asked for the leaders to be trained in forestry skills to support the project. Right now we are discussing an agreement to stop fighting. The focus of the project is on the forests, but it is really contributing to the peace process."

Restoring security, forest and climate

It is no coincidence that the latest tranche of funding, $60,000, for the four new community forest projects has come from the US Department of State, which sees the programme as part of a broader peace-building strategy.

Last year the US government appointed its first advisor to the Casamance and cracking down on nefarious war economies including illegal logging and drugs smuggling - Guinea Bissau over its southern border is a key transit hub for cocaine trafficking - is part of a drive to bring security back to the province.

Outside of the project areas there is still a lot of work to do in raising awareness of the long-term environmental damage caused by illegal logging and, crucially, in getting the Gambian government to intervene.

"The areas covered by the community forest project are still relatively small", says Tony Jansen, CU Gambia country director. The scale of illegal logging in the Casamance is unknown but a conservative estimate from one of its partner organisations in 2009 put it at 60,000 cubic meters of timber a year.

"These are really old trees that grew in a different climate", he says. "Rainfall in the region has declined by 50 percent over the past 20 years. The Gambia and the Casamance are at the frontline of the Sahel, which we know is spreading south because of climate change. Gambia used to be covered in forest so you can see the impact here already."

Now Gambia must play its part - but will it?

Jansen believes that for the deforestation to stop, Gambia needs to adopt a more proactive stance. But with porous international borders, policing logging in a conflict zone will always be a challenge.

"Mobilisation of communities to protect their own forests on a large scale is the only viable solution. Information on the scale and final destination of timber exported to Gambia and elsewhere is not available."

The Gambian president Yahya Jammeh is ethnically linked to the Diola, the main tribal group of the Casamance. It is widely reported that the continuation of lawlessness in Casamance is in his interest - both political and economic - as his tribe members reap the financial benefits of the illegal timber trade that transits through Gambia.

The Gambian forestry department has provided some welcome technical assistance to the CU project, but has yet to take any action to control the cross-border flow of illegal timber.

For now, the best prospect is to expand community forestry initiatives

The main hope, says Jansen, is that the community forest project model will spread across the region, winning over the hard line separatists and the confidence of government officials.

"The point of the forest festival was to promote replication. People are asking for assistance in setting up the structure to get legal title of their forests. These are not national parks, they are forests to be used.

"The whole concept is that the forests have a really important contribution to people's lives and that if you clear the forest it causes poverty, if you manage the forest well you can make an income from it."

 


 

Louise Hunt is a freelance journalist writing on social affairs, sustainability and international development.  

Report: Developing capacity for community forestry in Casamance

Concern Universal: http://www.concern-universal.org/gambia

 

 

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