Drought-hit Cameroon counts the cost of reduced trade

by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 February 2012 00:21 GMT
Ministers link falling harvests, growing food imports and declining government income to climate change

MAROUA, Cameroon (AlertNet) – Northern Cameroon’s renown as the bread basket of West and Central Africa is fading rapidly following a sharp drop in agricultural production due to harsh weather conditions.

The long absence of rain, which experts believe is linked to climate change, has caused poor harvests of food and cash crops in the country’s northern regions, significantly affecting commercial activities that are a major source of income for Cameroonians, as well as for their government through customs earnings.

In response, the government is boosting tree-planting projects in an effort to improve rainfall in the region and reduce desertification.

“The sharp drop in agricultural production and consequently trade in 2011 in the northern regions of Cameroon and its neighbouring countries has been attributed partly to a prolonged dry season caused by aggravated global warming,” said Cameroon’s director of customs, Minette Libom Li Likeng, on a recent visit to Maroua in the country’s Far North region.   

Particularly affected are rain-dependent crops such as cotton, rice, onions and millet. These generate the main import and export earnings for the arid and semi-arid regions of Cameroon and neighbouring parts of Nigeria, Niger and Chad.

CUSTOMS REVENUE DOWN

In 2011, customs revenue from the north of Cameroon and economic activity in the area suffered a steep decline.

Of the 10 billion Central African francs (about $20.2 million) anticipated last year in customs revenue from the three northern Cameroon regions of Adamaoua, North and Far North, only 5.8 billion CFA francs ($11.7 million), or less than 60 percent, were collected, Libom Li Likeng said.

She attributed the drop in trade in part also to the worsening security situation in the region caused by attacks by the Boko Haram terrorist group.

Samuel Nguiffo, an environmental expert at the Centre for Environment and Development, a nongovernmental organisation in Yaounde, the capital, said that the drought had reduced vegetation and soil quality, taking a toll on agricultural production and commercial activities throughout the north of the country.

Traders have consequently resorted to importing staple food items like rice and millet from countries such as China, Thailand and India. In 2011, about 150,000 tonnes of rice, approximately 30 percent of the annual consumption in Cameroon, came from these countries.

FOOD IMPORTS

Alim Ousmane, 56, a rice trader, said he was importing from Thailand because of the small harvests of local rice and its poor quality.

“We have no choice than to import from other countries so as to stay in business and earn a living. Unfortunately the cost is higher because we have to transport from the port of Douala,” 1,400 km (880 miles) southwest of Maroua, said Ousmane.

Rice consumption in Cameroon has more than doubled since the end of the 1990s, but domestic production failed to keep pace even before the effects of the recent drought. Critics say that imports discourage local production and push prices higher, deepening worsening food shortages in the Sahel.

According to the Cameroon Ministry of Agriculture, a drop of 80,000 tonnes in rice production in 2010 led to the importing of 120 billion CFA francs ($240 million) worth of rice.

REFORESTATION PUSH

As part of its response to climate change, the Cameroonian government announced recently that 6 billion CFA francs ($12.1 million) will be invested annually in reforestation with indigenous trees to combat the effects of desertification in the country’s northern regions.

Forestry and wildlife minister Philip Ngole Ngwese called on local communities to assist the government not only by planting trees but by helping to maintain those that are already growing.

He also announced the provision of funding to the tune of 760 million CFA francs ($1.5 million) for organisations that are involved in tree planting, including the Network of Councils Against Climate Change, the National Observatory Against Climate Change and the Council of Churches.

Ngole Ngwese said reforestation aimed to meet a number of needs, including beautification, restoring pastures, providing fuel wood, improving vegetation cover, promoting ecotourism and, above all, fighting climate change.

“Government action to intensify tree planting in the Northern region is positive and this will work out well if they work with the community and local councils,” Nguiffo said. “The population has to join hands to ensure that the trees remain alive during the critical growth period. Trees help to regulate the local climate and help in vegetation growth and (to enrich) soils for agriculture to thrive.”

Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.

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