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Filling the vacuum: How civil society is battling COVID-19 in Cameroon (commentary)

In Mambele, in Eastern Cameroon, an indigenous Baka woman is raising awareness of other Baka indigenous communities on the importance of washing hands to prevent COVID-19. May 2020. Image courtesy of OKANI.

In Mambele, in Eastern Cameroon, an indigenous Baka woman is raising awareness of other Baka indigenous communities on the importance of washing hands to prevent COVID-19. May 2020. Image courtesy of OKANI.

  • As of August 20, there have been 408 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in Cameroon and more than 18,000 reported infections, making it the country worst hit by the pandemic in Central Africa.
  • While urban populations were swiftly informed of COVID-19 restrictions and prevention measures, in rural areas, where more than 40% of the population reside and where government services are lacking, information about the disease has been scarce.
  • Cameroonian NGOs have been quick to fill this gap, and have to created communication and distribution networks across the country’s hinterlands.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

For the past four years Marie-Cresence Ngobo has travelled between the scattered villages bordering the giant oil palm plantations run by Socapalm (Société Camerounaise des Palmeraies), which are located in Cameroon’s rural coastal regions.

There she and her team from the civil society organization, Network of Actors for Sustainable Development (RADD), meticulously document residents’ complaints: about plantations encroaching on their land, about the pollution the palm oil operations cause to the environment, and about villagers being stopped from benefitting from their own palm oil, which is an essential cooking ingredient.

RADD is one of Cameroon’s many civil society groups working on the frontline supporting communities in their struggle against land grabs and other abuses by palm oil, rubber and timber companies.

Palm oil is produced from the fruit of oil palm trees and is one of the world’s most popular vegetable oils. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Then, like so many others across the planet, the events of early 2020 turned Ngobo’s  working life upside down.

On March 6, Cameroon’s first case of COVID-19 was reported in a 58-year-old French citizen who had recently arrived in Yaoundé. Eleven days later the government imposed measures to stop the spread of the virus, including curbs on travel, gatherings of more than 50 people, and the closure of borders, schools and universities. Five months later, the number of cases continue to rise, and as of August 20, there have been 408 confirmed deaths from the disease in Cameroon and more than 18,000 reported infections, making it the country worst hit by the pandemic in Central Africa.

Support in a time of global crisis

While the urban populations of Yaoundé, Douala, Bafoussam and other cities were swiftly informed of these restrictions, in rural areas, where more than 40% of the population reside, information about the disease has been scarce.

The government relied on social and traditional media, churches and markets to disseminate their message in the cities. But in rural areas, where only 23% of people have access to electricity and communications networks can be patchy, unsubstantiated rumors and fake news proliferated.

Ngobo and her team felt compelled to switch their focus from supporting communities in their struggle for land rights, to filling the information vacuum, and supporting them in the health emergency.

“It was necessary to act as quickly as possible to accompany them during the health crisis, which had become an emergency,” Ngobo said.

Eastern Cameroon, In the village Mambele, a representative of the NGO Okani is raising awareness of Baka indigenous communities on COVID19 prevention measures. May 2020. Image courtesy of OKANI.
A representative of the NGO Okani raises awareness of COVID-19 prevention measures in the Baka Indigenous community of Mambele in eastern Cameroon in May 2020. Image courtesy of Okani.

RADD, which specifically works with rural women on economic and social issues, was able to draw on a reservoir of trust, built over years. They decided to distribute protective kits, including soap and masks, knowing that locals didn’t have access to them.

“Our first idea was to bring women together in Yaoundé to give them prevention kits,” Ngobo said. “But a trip would put lives in danger.”

Instead, using WhatsApp messages and phone calls, they set up an all-woman relay system, mostly comprising members of the female branch of Synaparcam, a collective of palm farmers who have deep knowledge of the local terrain. In this way they distributed masks, soap and plastic water containers for hand-washing to remote communities across Cameroon.

Raising awareness from afar

However, raising awareness of the dangers of COVID-19 remains a challenge in the rural areas.

“People in rural areas are struggling to believe that this disease exists,” said Emmanuel Elong, Synarpacam’s President.

Irene Wabiwa Betoko, Greenpeace Africa campaign manager in the Congo Basin, explained that infrastructure inadequacies may be to blame.

“Working remotely with communities is not easy because of communication difficulties,” Betoko said. “Most communities live in places where there are untimely power cuts and many villages have almost no electricity.”

Women of the female branch of Synaparcam, ready to distribut masks, soap and plastic water containers for hand-washing to the remote communities living in Nyambong village in Cameroon. May 2020. Image courtesy of Synaparcam.
Women from Synaparcam distribute masks, soap and plastic water containers for hand-washing to remote communities in Cameroon in May 2020. Image courtesy of Synaparcam.

Despite these obstacles, civil society is raising awareness among rural people from a distance.

“The media and authorities have barely considered the plight of Indigenous Peoples in the pandemic,” said Timothée Aurelien Emini, who is responsible for legal affairs within the national association Okani. Created in 2004, Okani promotes and protects Cameroon’s Indigenous forest peoples’ human rights.

To do this, it relies on its community supervisors in the Indigenous villages of the East and the South, the two main forest regions of the country where the Baka and Bagyeli Indigenous Peoples have lived for several decades.

“Instead of crossing our arms saying that we should not go to the communities because the risk is very great, we decided to maintain long-distance relationships with our supervisors, and through them, raise community awareness of Coronavirus,” added Emini, who is himself an Indigenous Baka from the Eastern region.

“We trained our teams over the phone by providing them with information relating to COVID-19 symptoms and government preventive measures,” Emini said. “They then travelled through the villages, grouping the Indigenous communities into small groups of less than 50 people to talk to them about this killer global disease, to tell them how it occurs and how to avoid it.”

Emini explained they had to undertake some creative measure to overcome phone connectivity difficulties.

“Every Monday, the teams that are not in an area covered by the network make themselves available at network drop-off points so that we can communicate,” he said. “They give us up-to-date information on the situation in their areas and the state of mind of the communities. If there is an emergency outside of meeting days, these teams can urgently go to the network to call us and keep us informed of what’s going on in the community.”

In Eastern Cameroon, Indigenous Baka communities from Mouangue le Bosquet ' village are receiving their prevention kits. June 2020. Image courtesy of OKANI
An Okani representative hands out COVID-19 prevention kits in the Indigenous Baka community of Mouangue le Bosquet in June 2020. Image courtesy of Okani.

This is a path which is also being followed by Greenpeace Africa in the Congo Basin, which have been liaising with community leaders to educate them about COVID-19 prevention.

“They tell us the situation in their village and how the communities are trying to deal with this difficult period,” Irene Wabiwa said.

Civil society to the fore

Cameroonian Civil society’s response to the outbreak is a testament to its members’ dedication, as well as proof that strengthening civil society reaps benefits in times of both crisis and calm.

Their dedication, though, has too often been forged in the face of official opposition, as a coalition of leading Cameroonian civil society organizations pointed out in a declaration at the end of last year: “Criminalisation is peaking: land rights and environmental activists are subject to legal proceedings and various forms of bullying by local authorities, trying to hinder their claims and discourage resistance.”

Yet, despite this, civil society – particularly groups working to protect forests and forest peoples’ rights – has strengthened in recent years.

One reason for this, according to Justin Kamga, Head of Programs at Forests and Rural Development (FODER), which works with a network of nearly 100 communities in the forest areas of Cameroon, is the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) timber trade deal with European Union, that Cameroon is currently implementing. The deal has helped lay the groundwork for civil society’s work during the pandemic.

In Nyambong village in the Cameroon center region, forest communities wearing masks to prevent COVID-19. May 2020. Image courtesy of Synaparcam
Residents wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the village of Nyambong in central Cameroon. Image courtesy of Synaparcam

Strengthening civil society is integral to the VPA.

“The VPA has been of considerable support to Cameroonian civil society,” Kamga said. “The funding received and the activities carried out have enabled civil society in general to increase its influence in the forest sector and its participation in improving governance in the forest sector.”

Only the beginning

In August, the World Health Organization (WHO), confirmed that more than 1 million people in Africa had been infected with the COVID-19, and regardless of whether – as has been predicted – it smolders across the continent for years, its impact will continue to be profound.

The knock-on effects are being felt sharply in Cameroon today: remittances from abroad have dramatically fallen; the distribution of malaria-preventing mosquito nets to rural communities has slowed; informal sector livelihoods have been choked by the lockdown; health serves, already fragile, are overstretched and less effective.

The restrictions that the government imposed in March have now eased, but the work of civil society dealing with the fallout from COVID-19 is only just beginning.


Banner image: In Mambele, in Eastern Cameroon, an Indigenous Baka woman raises awareness in other Baka Indigenous communities of the importance of washing hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Image courtesy of OKANI. 

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