It is one of those hot mornings in the Kerawa Refugee Camp in Cameroon’s arid Far North region. So hot that by 8a.m. temperatures are soaring up to 47 degrees.
A good number of the women and children displaced by the recent intercommunal clashes are up and about. At one end of the makeshift settlement sites are Halima and Yele.
The two women in their mid-40s carry with them small plastic watering cans. These mothers have found a new way of growing their own vegetable away from their farm lands and villages, rain or shine.
“We get the soil introduced into empty bags of millet, big cans and even on a table-like surface and plastic papers”, explains Halima.
“We then add dry leaves and other biodegradable matter into the soil for manure. After sometime we plant our crops”, she says.
The two women spread water on the green plants while at the same time, trying to clear off the sprouting grass. This exercise has become a routine for the displaced women.
“This is the second attempt”, Yele says. “The first enabled us to plant tomatoes, lettuce, “lalo” hibiscus known here as “folere” and Okra”, she said.
“The yields weren’t the best but we had a harvest of some vegetables”.
This agricultural system codenamed the “above-ground farming system” is just being experimented here. Since there is no arable land to satisfy the farming needs of the many women in the camp, this means of growing crops seams ideal. The farming method allows women to fill up small quantities of soil into cans, buckets, bags and other local items available. The women then add other matter into the soil like dry tree leaves which are broken into small piece for manure, before seeds are planted. The bags or cans containing the seeds are kept at a special location, sometimes under trees or in a shade. The intention is to prevent the plants being exposedf to direct sunlight which may dry up or destroy the young plants. They are watered daily and carted for until harvest. It is the brainchild of the women’s rights group, “L’Asocciation de lute contre les violences faites aux femmes”. It seeks to bring succor to the scores of women and children battered by the recent Boko Haram attacks and most recently, the climate crisis-driven intercommunity conflict in the region.
Gender Activist, Aissa Doumara Ngatansou heads the group and has been training displaced women on how to carry out this farming method. Before the eruption of the intercommunity fighting, the women in this part of Cameroon were self-reliant. But the conflict has deprived them of this self-independency causing many of them to “fall into depression, feeling worthless” according to Aissa.
Which is why her “L’Association de lute contre les violences faites aux femmes” group teamed up with other partners to come up with this way of growing crops in a region hard hit by climate change. The activity incidentally fits squarely into the key focus of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), to halt and reverse land degradation while encouraging agricultural productivity. It also aligns with one focus of UNEP during the last COP26: encourage solution-based methods out of the situation while adapting to climate impacts.
When Water Stress Sparks Conflict
Halima and Yele are today victims of climate crisis. The two waves of inter-communal clashes in Northern Cameroon originated from attempts to adapt to climate change. In August 2021, fighting erupted between two communities in the remote localities of Logone Birni in the Far North region of Cameroon who have cohabited peacefully in the past. In this region, there exist the cattle-rearing Choa-Arab population and the Mousgoum fish-farmers. The ethnic clashes, arguably the deadliest in the Boko-Haram prone region, stemmed from climate change adaptation measures. As seasonal ponds and water bodies quickly dry up during the dry season that runs from September to April, the Mougoums have often dug reservoirs to store up water to rear fish all through the period of scarcity. But their Arab-Choa neighbours who are predominantly herders, see in these trenches, deathtraps for their animals. The cattle usually fall inside such fishing pools and break their legs or simply drown. It was due to one of these drownings that the August conflict broke out leaving 45 persons dead, 74 others injured and 19 villages burnt down. At least 23,500 villagers were forced to flee to neighbouring Chad. Misunderstandings from climate change adaptation strategies sparked another conflict in December 2021. Many more were killed, others injured and thousands more displaced.
Since then, life has never been the same for Halima and Yele, plus their families, and thousands of others who fled for safety. Activist Aissa is convinced the new method of agriculture introduced to help these women will solve the problem of climate change that exacerbates natural resources. This, by enabling the ladies cultivate fresh leaves during the hotbed period of dryness which could possibly prevent the conflict. “The yields aren’t that much to think of sales, they grow them for their use only” she told African women in Media.
Environmental expert, Franklin Ngalim concurs. The founder of “The Greens,” a local environment non-governmental organization says the unconventional way of cultivating vegetables means fresh food will always be available in areas hard hit by climate change in and out of season. He adds that this measure doesn’t take in a lot of water as on normal farming on bed thus suitable for areas where water resources aren’t abundant. To him, this could be a way out of future conflicts linked to limited cultivable lands and disappearing water bodies.
However, “a lot of investment and training are needed so that every woman has what it takes to grow and sustain this farming activity,” Ngalim explains.
Women And Regreening Efforts
Droughts have increased by almost a third in the last two decades with over 2.3 billion people across the globe facing water stress, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. With 40% of the world’s land degraded, Cameroon’s Northern regions that border the Republics of Chad and Nigeria are experiencing these changes first hand. Most cultivable land has become arid and natural resources quickly disappearing.
Women are taking the lead in regreening activities. Njingui Tchinda, the Delegate for the environment Ministry in Cameroon’s Far North region says tree planting exercises have become a yearly activity with women playing key roles.
“Our yearly target is at least three thousand trees planted in identified areas with women and children involved unlike in the past”, he said. This gender touch, he added, is indirectly promoting the United Nations Sustainable Goal number five which centres on promoting gender equality.
“L’Association de Lute Contre Les Violences faits aux femmes” is also involved in the tree planting in the region. Activist Aissa says after years of sensitising women on how to plant and carter for the trees, they have moved a step further.
“Each woman is given a number of trees to plant and she names them like her children”, she told AWiM. To her, this measure has proven to spur women to better look after the trees.
“They rush there to water them during the dry season and look out for them not to be damaged since the trees bear names sometimes of their children”.
Experts at the National Observatory on climate Change (NOCC) in Cameroon have been providing climate services to help the local population read the signs of impending catastrophe and take action. The Deputy Director General of NOCC, Forghab Patrick Mbomba, admits that they have been producing and making available summarised versions of climate services to community radios for the information to reach everyone.
“20% of the radios are effectively disseminating information we make available”; he revealed.
The population of the Far North region has seen an exponential rise from around one and a half million people few years back to over five million today. The drying up of up to 90% of Lake Chad in the past decades is the direct cause for the scramble for limited natural resources and eventual clashes in the region.
With the situation of arid lands still rampant in the region, the roles of common initiative groups, local non-governmental organisations and partners are now more than ever before crucial. The Cameroon government is implementing measures like promoting the cultivation of hay during the rainy season which are used to feed animals during the dry season; investment in water infrastructure like building of boreholes and the delimitation of pastural land from agricultural lands. It is hoped such measures would limit the perennial farmer-grazer conflict in the region and preserve human life.
The strong desire too will be to see Cameroon authorities join world leaders at the forthcoming 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to proffer hope of concrete solutions towards the mitigation of these environmental worries. For as the United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UNEP Inger Anderson said at the Stockholms+50 Conference: “There is dire need to drive the environmental movement forward”. For, “The environment supports us all, so we must support it,” she said.
At a time women in desperate situations of conflict and with limited resources take the lead to beat these climatic challenges and ensure food security, it is a strong call for concrete action from Cameroonian authorities. The need for the Cameroon government to accord proper investment, interms of finances, skill acquisition, technical supports so as to push these women to take this initiative of cultivating crops unconventionally forward is now. This will not only solve the conflict over scare resources, but ensure food security and sustainable management of the environment; thereby giving human life an assured place under the sun.
This article is part of African Women in Media(AWiM) UNEP Environment Journalism Programme