Rebuilding Cameroon’s Forest Wealth, Tree by Tree
In 2016, I met Yvette, a 15-year-old girl from my community who became an au-pair with the hope of getting secondary education as a reward. She had an outstanding performance in primary school but due to gender prioritization, her brother who was less intelligent, was sent to secondary school. Yvette’s story prompted me to dig deeper and I found many more girls. I found lots of 11-year-old girls who were involved in all sorts of domestic work just to get a chance for secondary education in exchange.
If I would have had a brother, this would be my story. For sure. I realized that I needed to do something about girl education and also that prioritization was no longer a cultural norm, as mothers wanted their daughters to get proper education. They could simply not afford secondary education for their girls. My parents were lucky, they did not get the chance to choose between genders.
My name is Limbi Blessing Tata and I am from Cameroon. I am a social change maker; climate activist, advocate for women/girls’ rights and youth mentor. I am a trained plant and conservation scientist, forestpreneur and non-timberforest & agricultural products value chain expert. I am a member of the One Million Africa Leaders Initiative, a Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum Fellow, an Obama Africa Leader, a member of the Convention on Biological Diversity Alliance Group and kanthari Network of Social Change Makers.
I was born in the North West Region of Cameroon in 1983. When I got enrolled into secondary school, I was the only girl from six villages. I was lucky because they have male siblings. It was not because the other girls did not qualify, I just was a single child. Their brothers had been given priority by receiving education. According to our society, they deserve better than us girls. Irrespective. At that time in Cameroon, there was a cultural norm: boys get education or skills, and girls get married.
The journey through school was far from smooth. My parents divorced when I was 7 on the basis of my mother’s childlessness. Yes, having a lone female child in my community is equivalent to being childless. As such, I had to move from one relative’s house to the other. In these houses, I hoped to find a home but never did. I was judged for every word and my very existence. I became introverted and built my world in books. This gave me good grades & scholarships and I ended up with a postgraduate level education.
However, outside the house, I was a local champion; I would be invited to gatherings that were tagged “men only” and given a seat when other women were standing. Each time I asked why, everyone including women would say “you are a different type of woman”. Why was I so different? I found out later. The people in my community will see me as a literate woman. Later on, because I could contribute financially to my family and community.
On my graduation from the University, my uncle (representing my father) handed me a bottle of beer in public. Eventually I was recognized and valued for who I was – regardless the gender.
Bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis and I. wombulu) is one of the most important non-timber forest products in Cameroon. Recently, research has shown that bush mango kernels can reduce obesity, control appetite, and reduce fat and cholesterol. The species generally grows in the wild and very little efforts have been made to domesticate it.
How I got proper education and other ‘privileges’ set aside for men is a mystery. Still I kept asking myself, what could I do to improve the life of the women in my community? Where can I find a sustainable solution? How can I keep helping others? The solution was in our forest. One day, I met a young man selling processed bush mango seeds (of the forest tree Irvingia spp) and other non-timber forest products. There it was; processed non-timber forest products as a source of livelihood. For our women.
I founded Ecological Balance in 2016 with the aim to train women to grow, sustainably harvest, process and market non-timber forest products. I founded Ecological Balance so the women in Cameroon can generate more income and support their daughters. So that they encourage their daughters to go to school, instead of exposing them to domestic work. This would also give them reasons to save guard the forest.
I have a philosophy: the conservation of natural ecosystems can only be sustainable if it is led by local people and if it contributes to their livelihoods. Ecological Balance has been involved in the conservation of mangrove forests along the coast of Cameroon. And in response to seasonal flooding and significant decrease in fish harvest, we built resilience to flood and we educate communities on sustainable harvesting of water resources.
Yet, another challenge popped up. The high levels of human induced deforestation. We quickly included working to bring people to value their forest beyond timber including children (and for posterity). Today, Ecological Balance seeks to balance conservation with livelihoods by empowering biodiversity-rich adjacent communities to independently undertake actions that guarantee the long-term sustainability of the adjacent ecosystems.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.