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‘First the forest’: conservation, ‘community’ and ‘participation’ in south-west Cameroon

Abstract

Western concern with ‘conserving’ or ‘managing’ the rain forests of Africa has led to the setting up of a number of conservation projects. In such projects the ‘participation’ of the ‘community’ in forest conservation has become the new orthodoxy. However, proposals about local people's participation presume that defining the future of the forest is a straight contest between the alternatives of conservation or forest clearing. Such proposals also presume that the existence of communities is non-problematic. In contrast, this article documents that there is already considerable local debate about forest use and conservation, much of it among those excluded from the formal arena of politics and policy-making. Concern with ‘the environment’ includes concern about the perpetuation of society, and represents a clear continuation of West African village cosmologies focused on the societalisation of space. At the same time, conservation aims of ‘keeping the forest as it is’ have few resonances, since forest people see society itself as an artful, but often problematic, construction in which the conversion of the forest plays a central part. In conclusion, the article suggests that the key to environmental management must be for external agencies to articulate with the interests and values of those who hold a legitimate stake in African forest resources.

Résumé

Les préoccupations occidentals en matière de conservation ou de gestion des forêts tropicales africaines ont conduit à la formation de nombreux programmes de protection de l'environnement. La participation des communautés en matière de conservation forestière est devenue la norme dans ces programmes. Cependant, les propositions de participation des populations locales sous-entendent que la détermination de l'avenir de la forêt se résume purement et simplement à un conflit entre les différentes formes de conservation et la déforestation. De telles propositions sous-éntendent egalement que la présence de ces communautés ne pose pas de problèmes. Par contraste, cet article montre qu'un débat important s'est déjà instauré au sein de ces communautés concernant l'utilisation des forêts et leur conservation, principalement parmi les exclus de l'arène politique officielle et des prises de décision. Les préoccupations en matière d'environnement incluent une inquiétude sur la perpétuation de la société et représentent un prolongement clair des cosmologies des villages d'Afrique occidentale concentrées sur la sociétalisation de l'espace. Dans le même temps, l'objectif de conservation consistant à préserver la forêt en l'état éveille peu de résonances, les populations forestières considérant la société comme une construction ingénieuse, mais souvent problématique, dans laquelle la conservation des forêts joue un rôle central. Cet article suggère en conclusion que la clé d'une bonne gestion de l'environnement doit résider dans la prise en compte par les organismes extérieurs des intérêts et des valeurs de ceux qui ont des intérêts légitimes dans les ressources forestières africaines.

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Africa
  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
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