Bad roads, virgin forest and wildlife

Ondoua’s village lies south of the Dja Faunal Reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site described as “one of the largest and best-protected rainforests in Africa, with 90% of its area left undisturbed.” For centuries, the Dja River, which encircles the protected area, kept people away and locked in rich biodiversity.

Most of southeastern Cameroon is also remote in other ways. Only a handful of dirt roads crisscross the region, which still contains more than 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) of rainforest. While plantation agriculture and poaching have caused devastation elsewhere, the forests in these parts of the country remain mostly intact, protected by the lack of roads and the treacherous terrain of hills, valleys and dense woodland.

More than half of the southeast is still protected forest, home to an estimated 23,000 great apes, notably teeming populations of endangered western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and central chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes). A study in 2004 also found a high density of both species in non-protected areas outside the Dja Faunal Reserve. Estimated at 1.1 and 3.8 individuals per square kilometer, respectively, the density was comparable to that within the reserve.

To keep things that way, the forests of southeastern Cameroon were combined with similar ones in Gabon and Congo to form TRIDOM (Tri-National Dja-Odzala-Minkébé), a complex landscape of reserves, timber concessions and sparse forest communities. With the help of NGOs like WWF, the governments of the three countries agreed in 2005 to carve out corridors to connect several protected areas and to jointly promote good practices, notably to combat transborder poaching and wildlife trafficking.

A hill is leveled near Ekom Village in southeastern Cameroon to make way for the trans-Tridom highway that will link Cameroon to the Republic of Congo. Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.

In total, the TRIDOM landscape, 95 percent of which is rainforest, encompasses about 178,000 square kilometers (68,700 square miles), a staggering 10 percent of the entire Congo Basin rainforest or more than four times the size of Switzerland. Snuggled between Cameroon, Gabon and Congo, it grew from three to seven protected areas, which together host some 40,000 gorillas and chimpanzees along with the largest elephant population in Central Africa.

Even though up to 65 percent of the area is designated as timber concessions, it has remained relatively undisturbed over the years, thanks in part to a very low human population density, estimated at one inhabitant per square kilometer.

All of that could change with the arrival of the road.

Deforestation has been very low but is increasing now in line with roadbuilding and increased interests in large scale agriculture,” says Pauwel de Wachter, who worked in the Dja Faunal Reserve for many years before moving to WWF Gabon and is now the coordinator of TRIDOM.

Fragmenting and degrading habitats

Ondoua, like most of the villagers who live off the forest, eagerly anticipates the promised benefits of the road. In the quest for development, communities have petitioned authorities to open more roads, build bridges and create jobs, says Yves Logobo, a community radio journalist who settled in Djoum more than four years ago. “This is a forgotten part of the country and people feel they deserve better.”

Where construction work has been completed, the new road is already cutting travel time. Before the road was built, Onduoa says it took five to six hours to reach Mintom, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Now, the journey takes less than two hours.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) conducted before the project kicked off estimated that a total of 750 hectares (1,850 acres) of woodland would be cleared to make way for the road. But from observation, far more forest destruction is going on.

The new road twists through hills and valleys and makes its way through hundreds of tiny villages and towns, all the way to northern Congo. As it is built, construction workers have frequently been forced to change course, break open hills, fill up valleys and push back against woodlands to obtain the most level and straightest profile possible. In the process, they have left behind wide clearings of rain-soaked mud.

A pile of laterite is dumped across a valley in southeastern Cameroon to prepare for tarring. Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.

The open clearings that now line both sides of the highway have already fragmented the forest into to two sub-habitats, constricting the movement of great apes, elephants and other wildlife, says Gilles Etoga, the head of the Cameroon portion of the TRIDOM landscape at WWF Cameroon. “This will be the major impact on great apes,” he says. “Gorillas and chimps would not be able to cross the road.”

A reduced and fragmented habitat will restrict the movement of great apes and expose them to hunting and human-wildlife conflicts, says Durrel Halleson, policy coordinator for business and industries at WWF Cameroon.

New roads and other infrastructure have the tendency to destroy habitats and drive up poaching and wildlife trafficking. The EIA concluded that, among other threats, hunting for bushmeat will intensify as soon as road crews arrive. And then, once the road is completed, it will make the forest accessible for even more hunting.

Both inhabitants and conservation workers say the number of cars heading to the Cameroon-Congo border has already increased, even with only parts of the road completed. Small towns are already experiencing a steady rise in population, with frequent travel now possible between Cameroonian and Congolese towns. In addition to poaching, artisanal mining is on the rise because people can travel farther more easily than in the past.

‘African Pilbara’

Early optimism about the potential to keep the TRIDOM landscape intact is now fading, as conservation workers grow more aware that there is more at stake than preserving the rich biodiversity.

The new highway has been dubbed “Road of Hope” in media reports. Authorities and donors say it will open remote forest communities to services and free untapped natural potential, driving down poverty in the process. The African Development Bank (AfDB), one of the funders of the project, describes the project as the “missing link” in the transit between the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde, and the Congolese capital, Brazzaville.

Once completed, this part of the sub-region would be transformed into a money-minting cross-border trade route. In anticipation of the cash that is to be made from connecting the north of Congo to the Cameroonian port cities of Douala and Kribi, customs authorities from both countries signed a cooperation agreement in 2018.

That is not all. The soils beneath the forest are rich in highly prized minerals such as iron ore, cobalt, nickel, gold and diamonds — and the scramble to reach those deposits has already started.

“The landscape has been heralded as an ‘African Pilbara,’” de Wachter said in a 2017 interview, referring to the Western Australian region famously rich in minerals. “[It’s] recognized as an emerging iron-ore province.” So far, de Wachter says, low iron ore prices have slowed the development of large mining projects, but he says he believes mining will eventually pick up.

An engineer arrives at a worksite outside Ekom Village, where a new concrete bridge will replace an old plank passage.  Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.

Fertile soils have also attracted industrial agriculture interest, with plantations planned in all three countries.

To power this development, a new dam is planned on the Dja River to take advantage of the landscape’s rich hydroelectric potential. When completed, the Chollet hydropower project will generate more than 600 megawatts of electricity for both Cameroon and Congo. Several dams have already been built across the landscape, resulting in the inundation of swaths of forested land and further restricting wildlife habitats.

“In the next years, increasingly, we may no longer be able to refer to the area as an undisturbed area where great apes and other wildlife could still live peacefully,” says WWF’s Etoga.

Balancing development and conservation

According to conservation workers, the success of the TRIDOM initiative will depend not only on the ability of the region’s governments to manage protected areas, but also on how well they control the exploitation of unprotected parts of the landscape.

“Inasmuch as this area has a high conservation potential, it also has a huge economic potential for both countries,” Halleson says. “The question is, ‘how will this economic potential be reconciled with the conservation potential?’”

The answer starts with recognizing that conservation cannot succeed if it does not take into account social and economic interests, Etoga says.

“We know that we cannot have protected areas everywhere,” he says. “This [the southeast of Cameroon] is 5 million hectares. We cannot have 5 million hectares of protected area. First, we need to acknowledge other sectorial needs.”

There have already been some achievements, he says: “The first success is that we have five protected areas [in Cameroon alone], and those protected areas are no-go zones for other sectorial users. Everyone knows that you cannot have mining, logging and other activities other than conservation inside the Dja Reserve.”

The next stage, Halleson says, will be to negotiate what kinds of activities will be allowed in unprotected areas, and how those activities will be carried out. “We have best practices for logging concessions, best practices for mining and agriculture. This is what we want to have.”

Cameroon’s Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development is now leading a land-use planning initiative in the area that aims to satisfy the competing interests of conservation, timber exploration, mining, agriculture and dam building. NGOs like WWF provide advisory services, pointing out parts of the forest with high conservation value.

“We have a bi-monitoring team on the field,” Etoga says. “They are collecting data from where elephants have corridors, where the biodiversity hotspots are, the clearings where wildlife go for feeding and drinking. If the ministry does not have that data, they would not be able to identify those places as hotspots.”

Teenage boys walk on the side of a completed section of the Samgmelima-Ouesso transnational highway now open to traffic heading near the Cameroon-Congo border. Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.

Ray of hope

WWF and other stakeholders are also negotiating with community members like Ondoua so that they can limit their impact on the landscape and its wildlife. Community and municipal forestry schemes allow inhabitants to benefit from forest resources without resorting to unsustainable exploitation, by earning royalties or harvesting non-timber forest products.

As the sun slowly burns its way through the moist air, Ondoua decides not to head into the forest, where he cultivates plantains, cassavas and an assortment of food crops. Instead, he keeps talking about the road: traveling is already smoother and supplies now arrive from the city much more quickly and cheaply.

“This is the best thing that has happened to us,” he says. “They say we should not cut the forest. Now with this road, we can do other things — like send our children to school and find jobs in the city.”

Banner Image: A timber truck drives through a freshly dug section of the new highway, which used to be a narrow track, in early February. Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Article published by Isabel Esterman
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,