Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF) is a Cameroonian non-profit organization founded in 1999. It is the only indigenous non-profit organization working on research and conservation of great apes in Cameroon.
The Lebialem Highlands (LH) have a history of poaching and unsustainable agricultural practices over the last several decades. These Highlands are situated in the South West Province, Cameroon. This project seeks to introduce a community-led micro-credit initiative through the creation of an environmental protection fund which will serve both as a revolving fund and provide start-up grants to the most impoverished farming groups that continue to farm and construct on marginal and fragile lands. This is a project of the Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF), which was initiated in 2001 to protect and conserve the montane and lowland rainforest ecosystems in and around LH and improve on the quality of living of the local inhabitants.
The Highlands cover an area of 1,323 sq km comprising forest lands, sub-montane, montane and grassland habitats. The Highlands lodge many species of endangered plants and animals including elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, drills, crocodiles, tortoise and red list data plants. It is one of the only three mountain regions in Cameroon still having a continual graduation from 180m to 2510m above sea level.
The LH area is one of the poorest areas in Cameroon. Very low levels of income (usually less than $ 0.5 a day), limited land management skills, lack of credit facilities, lack of market access and lack of medical care, characterize all the communities in the region especially those bordering the forest areas and those completely lacking access routes. Their economy is essentially that of hunting, gathering and fishing. Their agricultural potentials are low especially as they continue to farm on marginal lands prone to landslides every year and their economic options are low due to lack of market access. However, the vast non-timber forest products present one of the opportunities for exploration to raise the incomes of the rural people.
The majority of the peasants have no access to credit facilities. The Cameroon Credit Union League (CAMCCUL), the main micro-finance institution in the country field, has offices located very far away from most of these communities and can only serve a very tiny proportion of the over 30,000 indigenous people living here.
Most people here rely on an informal network of money lenders who often charge very high interest rates (> 50%) and will seize poor farmer’s properties if interest payments or debts are not repaid.
In this context many farmers and young people have no choice but to encroach into the neighbouring protected areas and the marginal lands in search of farm land at little or no cost. Struggling with debts, these local farmers, who for the most part have no access routes, have no choice but to resort to heavy poaching, poisoning of rivers for fishing, illegal logging and land encroachment. This is causing the unsustainable exploitation of the wildlife resources, especially the endangered fauna.
In the Highlands area the continual cropping of marginal lands leads to several landslides each year which have, in the recent past, led to hundreds of deaths and destruction of houses, productive forests and arable land. Research conducted between 1999 and 2002 has shown that game harvesting is twice the sustainable off-take. This research has also shown that one of the legally protected species, the leopard, in the neighbouring wildlife sanctuary, has become extinct. There are fears that another protected species, the giant pangolin, may also have become extinct. This situation can only be reversed through the improvement of the socio-economic environment of the adjacent local communities. The conservation objectives of the area will be compromised if nothing is done.
Within this context, ERuDeF realized that the problem of debt and poverty had to be dealt with if livelihoods and the endangered biodiversity of the region are to be fully protected. It is within this framework that ERuDeF is seeking to establish an innovative community-based led micro-credit system that will be opened to all the local communities and even those having no collateral as required by many micro-finance institutions. ERuDeF is helping to organize the communities across the region into constituted community-based institutions that will facilitate the process of all the local people having access to this credit facility.
This credit system, called the Lebialem Highlands Environmental Protection Fund (LHEPF), will be run by a democratically elected committee that will be composed of at least 50% women. The women are the most affected in terms of poverty and more than 55% of the women are found below the poverty line.
The main objective of the LHEPF is to promote sustainable income generating activities and reduce illegal harvesting of wildlife resources and cropping of marginal lands. This credit system is part of a wider programme of micro-enterprise support, capacity building and sustainability being led by ERuDeF. ERuDeF is seeking financial support to help implement these activities.
ERuDeF’s sustainable development programme activities are meant to improve livelihood sustainability and increase the local community members’ capacities to repay loans, remain solvent and expand on their existing micro-enterprises. This project will provide both start-up grants to cooperating farmers and youths and credit facilities to enable them to expand on their micro-enterprises.
The micro-credit system operates on the following principles: local people get loans for ecologically beneficial and income generating micro projects provided they do not poach or crop on marginal lands and or log illegally. Very low interest rates of less than 5% will be charged generally. Impoverished farming groups with no collateral will be given start-up grants. Criteria for selecting loan and start-up grants recipients will include the viability of the proposed activity, repayment capacity and market demand. The LHEPF will also establish what actions will be taken if members fail to pay back loans or meet environmental criteria.
ERuDeF will ensure that beneficiaries will focus on mixed cropping and on cultivating products with high market value but with low environmental impact. Such systems involve community forestry, agroforestry and consist of planting a combination of fast & slow growing tree species on marginal lands. This will permit them to get an average minimum income from fast growing species while the high value but slow growing hardwood species will mature with time. This approach will also allow the land to restore itself. The micro-credit initiative will also support a system of local enterprises which yield high-return products with low impact on the fragile highlands environments. ERuDeF will promote such enterprises as beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, livestock, tree nurseries, snail rearing, eco-tourism, non-timber forest products processing etc.
This is an innovative mechanism through which micro-credit initiatives will be interwoven with wider efforts to improve the incomes of lower and most affected impoverished groups and jobless rural youths. Sustainability will be ensured by aligning ecologically sound micro-enterprises with the actual demands of the market and biodiversity management.
This is a three-year pilot initiative which will serve over 30,000 farm families. After this start-up phase, the revolving fund system will become sustainable as money given out during the first year will be repaid in the second year – and the cycle will continue. The main micro-enterprises will include cultivation of cola nuts, tree nurseries and reforestation, beekeeping, NTFP processing and marketing, mushroom farming, snail rearing, wildlife domestication, livestock, agro-forestry and community forestry development and exploitation.
The Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF) is a Cameroonian non profit organisation formed in 1999 as a membership organisation. Its mission is to conserve wildlife and protect fragile environments and to improve upon the wellbeing of indigenous peoples in particular and the quality of human life on earth in the regions where it operates. Its focal programmes include biodiversity conservation, forest landscape restoration, sustainable development, women and gender and education and training. ERuDeF staff, members, its associates and partners have over a decade of experience in the implementation and management of conservation and rural development projects in Cameroon. Its expertise expands to include but not limited to finance, project development, sustainable development, conservation, gender and education.