The Cameroon government has announced it is canceling a plan to log nearly 170,000 acres of the Ebo Forest following sharp criticism from indigenous communities, conservation groups, and scientists. The ecosystem is one of the last intact forests in central Africa and a biodiversity hotspot, harboring hundreds of rare plant and animal species, including the tool-using Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, western gorilla, and giant frogs.
In July, Cameroon Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute signed a decree that turned half of the Ebo Forest into a “forest management unit,” allowing the government to sell logging concessions. But on August 11, Ngute, at the direction of President Paul Biya, withdrew the decree, suspending any logging plans, according to the news site Afrik21. President Biya also ordered a delay to reclassify an additional 160,000 acres of the Ebo, which could have potentially opened up even more forest for logging.
The government’s “intervention to halt the imminent destruction of this unique forest is hugely welcome,” Bethan Morgan, head of the San Diego Zoo’s Global Central Africa Program who has worked to protect the forest’s great apes, said in a statement. “We hope that the international community will seize this opportunity to work with the government of Cameroon to make Ebo a showcase for long-term conservation in harmony with very challenged communities.”
In addition to its rich biodiversity, the Ebo Forest, located in southwestern Cameroon, is culturally and societally important for the Banen Indigenous people, who consider it their sacred ancestral home. The Banen were ousted from the forest in the 1960s, but settled just a few miles from its borders and still rely on it for food and medicine. The community has fought for decades to return to their native villages. “We have always lived in harmony with this forest and its diversity, but people just want to make money,” Chief Victor Yetina, a ruler among the Banen, told The Guardian. “Much of our history can still be found [in the forest]. You can still find our cocoa plantations, even after 60 years. Our dead are buried there.”
Conservation groups and indigenous leaders welcomed the decree’s withdrawal, but warned that the future of the Ebo Forest remains unclear. “This decision must be the first step towards recognition of Banen’s rights and forest protection,” Yetina and Ekwoge Abwe, manager of the San Diego Zoo’s Ebo Forest Research Project, said in a joint statement. “We call on the government of Cameroon to adhere to its international commitments, and to promote participatory mapping and land-use planning with local communities.”