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Social networking for climate change adaptation in Cameroon (and it’s not Twitter)

Research shows informal networks are the most reliable when government structures fall short.
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CIFOR research indicates that in Cameroon social networking and informal networks are the main ways climate change information is exchanged. Women in particular value informal networks. Yvonne Kiki Nchanji /CIFOR.
CIFOR research indicates that in Cameroon social networking and informal networks are the main ways climate change information is exchanged. Women in particular value informal networks. Yvonne Kiki Nchanji /CIFOR.

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Cameroon - It has an on-ground social networking system that could be harnessed to spread knowledge about climate change—in much the same way as the viral world of the Internet.

And while helping Cameroon’s informal networks go ‘viral’ may be possible, a recent study from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) indicates that much needs to be done in the country’s villages to harness social networks to foster adaptation and mitigation.

Eighty percent of Cameroon’s poor live in rural areas, dependent on the land and forests for their livelihoods; almost all villagers have access to some land to grow their own food or a mix of food crops and cash crops such as coffee, cacao and oil palm.

You can’t rely on individual knowledge and effort to tackle climate change, because capacity is so limited

Denis Sonwa

Drought, unpredictable rains, and changing seasons have brought the harsh reality of climate change to those communities – and now adaptation is not choice, but a necessity.

THINK NATIONALLY, ACT LOCALLY

The new research looked at the capacity of institutions to influence and share knowledge about climate change in Cameroon’s often remote areas.

“You can’t rely on individual knowledge and effort to tackle climate change, because capacity is so limited,” says CIFOR senior scientist Denis Sonwa, who is based in Yaoundé.

“So we looked at the government and NGOs, as well as informal organizations, like farmers’ cooperatives and savings groups, to see what is being done, and could be done by them.”

Institutions have long been identified as critical to people’s ability to adapt to climate change, not just because they can act like a safety net,  but for their ability to foster social learning, innovation and problem solving.

When the government agencies have limited contact with these rural areas and then don’t know enough to talk about climate change, this puts communities in a serious situation

Denis Sonwa

However, the study revealed that while these networks offer great potential for community adaptation, it was largely ignored.

“We found a lot of institutions, but hardly any action on adaptation,” says Sonwa.

Government departments were found to have the least impact on adaptation in villages.

The Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF) , which polices illegal logging and poaching and supports community forests, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MINADER) , which provides information and technical support to farmers, are both understaffed and under-resourced.

Rural staff told the researchers that they had not had any instruction, training or information on climate change and did not know how to discuss the issue with farmers.

 “When the government agencies have limited contact with these rural areas and then don’t know enough to talk about climate change, this puts communities in a serious situation,” says Sonwa.

Community forests – long used for the exploitation of timber resources – have attracted attention from national and international NGOs.  About 30 percent of people had received information about climate change from those sources, but mainly in one community forest.

But the most popular local institutions – and therefore the ones that show most potential for information sharing – were the informal ones. Almost all (95.6 percent) people belonged to at least one local group.

These include rotating savings and loans groups (tontines or njangi), and farmer’s cooperatives for harvesting and selling non-timber forest products or food crops in the marketplace.

“There is a lot of social networking going on – most people belong to at least one group; many said they were members of four or five,” says study co-author Carolyn Peach Brown, Director of Environmental Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island .

“Women in particular use them as a great source for networking.”

While the groups weren’t created to be involved in climate change adaptation, they contribute to overall community resilience. The study identifies them as possible conduits for innovation, knowledge sharing and behavior change.

“Membership in groups like this, where people share responsibility for labor and finances, really represents trust and solidarity and sharing,” says Brown. “That social capital really could help with social learning and change.”

But, Brown warns, there are limitations to what these informal groups can achieve without support.

COLLECTIVE PROBLEM SOLVING

There is immediate need for knowledge and information sharing between government departments, NGOs and local institutions if adaptive capacity is to be strengthened.

These rich networks mean there is a lot of opportunity for cross-pollination among all these different groups, for people to exchange knowledge about what they’ve learnt

Carolyn Brown

Dennis Sonwa says that it it’s time for the global village to come into effect.

“To help these communities, we must look at how their informal groups can be linked to institutions at the national and international level,” he says.

When people belong to multiple networks – as they do in rural Cameroon – they can be exposed to many new ways of doing things – a key part of learning to adapt.

So could adaptation strategies go viral?

“These rich networks mean there is a lot of opportunity for cross-pollination among all these different groups, for people to exchange knowledge about what they’ve learnt,” says Carolyn Brown.

“But if these networks don’t have external knowledge and ideas coming in, they miss out learning about other ways they could adapt.”

For further information about climate change adaptation in forest communities in Cameroon please contact Denis Sonwa at d.sonwa@cgiar.org

This research was conducted under the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Department for International Development (DFID) funded Congo Basin Forest Climate Change Adaptation project of the Center for International Forestry Research. Support was also provided from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant.

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