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We Used Bee Farming To Instill Conservation Notion 

Interviewed By Yerima Kini Nsom & Randy Joe Sa’ah*

CameroonPostline.com — The founder of the Northwest Bee Farmers’ Association, NOWEBA, that later metamorphosed into the Apiculture and Nature Conservation Organisation, ANCO, Paul Mzeka, has disclosed that through their activities, the notion of conservation was instilled in the population within the Region and beyond.

Mzeka, a retired teacher and a UN Forest Hero made the disclosure in an exclusive interview granted The Post recently in Yaounde. He spoke of the prize he received from the UN, support to ANCO from international NGOs and diplomatic missions, what they are doing to conserve community forests, the fight against eucalyptus, amongst others.
May we know where you are coming from and what gave you the inspiration to start bee farming?

First of all I worked with government as a teacher. You know teaching or the training of teachers in those days was multipurpose. It was not just going to teach in the classroom. While in training, we had to display our capabilities in handwork, including farming. When I retired, I assisted somebody in Bamenda called Dr. Gumne to start an NGO in 1989.

We started an NGO called SASH. As I worked with him, I noticed that this sector was very much neglected. We chose to call the sector bee farming to emphasise the fact that you don’t just go and keep the hive and abandon it there until you go to harvest. You had to be doing things such as planting trees, clearing around, thatching and so on.

I noticed that it was interesting from a certain teacher, Mr. Barnabas Borno, who was teaching at Teacher’s Training College, TTC Tatum. We visited his school and found out that he had established a crop farm and he had set up a bee farm nearby. Most visitors first went to the farms before going to visit the school.

When we started NOWEBA, our focus was not just for income generation, but also to use bee farming to introduce people to conservation, because, they had to plant trees to produce pollen and nectar for their bees. They had also to take care of the bushes where they kept the hives so that fire can’t destroy them and the bushes.

Later on we found that we could focus more on conservation and then integrate it with bee farming. So, now, we have done that and we changed the name from NOWEBA to Apiculture and Nature Conservation. We have been in the sector of conservation since 1992.

So you started in a small way but this has now led you to win a prize. You were recently in the United States where you received a prize for conservation; can you tell us more about that?

Well, we started in a very humble way. There were three village groups interested in bee farming that came together and founded NOWEBA. By the time we changed the name, we already had 132 groups focused on bee keeping and planting what they call ‘bee-friendly trees.’ In 1997, HELVETAS did a follow-up and evaluation and found out that they had planted 315 000 trees.

HELVETAS introduced pipe-borne water in the Northwest at that time called SATA and when they realised that the pipes they had been struggling to lay for water were all running dry, they did a survey and discovered that the sources of water were destroyed. So, they had to get into conservation.

They supported us because they realised that when you ask people to conserve a place for water, they can understand that water is a thing for the whole community, but what is the individual’s gain? So we trained the people to keep bee hives in those water protected areas and they can, as individuals, harvest honey and sell. HELVETAS was convinced that it was a very good policy and assisted us.

We moved all over the Northwest from village to village. We went to Kom many times; I think we had about 35 groups in Njinikom and Kom as a whole. In the whole Northwest we had over 130 groups and the British High Commission helped us to train people in the Southwest, in  Tombel, Nyasosso and Tibati in the north, because they thought that what we started in the Northwest should be spread all over Cameroon. Now, Cameroon is producing honey in tons and there are groups that are exporting the product.

So, how did you now qualify for the Forests Heroes Awards by the UN?

By my own initiative, I could not have reached that level. We didn’t even know that a programme like that exists. It came out not to us but to those that were very close to the UN and a British lady married to a Dutch man, had worked with us in Bamenda for four years and she had visited all our projects and understood what we are doing.

She must have been very impressed. The British Royal Botanic Garden staff coming to work with us wrote a strong support for us. But we were introduced to this programme by the English lady who nominated us and we had support from the Royal Botanic Garden and the council where we are currently working.

So, you had to be nominated?

Yes, I was nominated and short-listed among the three that were selected from the 20 that applied from Africa. Three of us had to write to explain what we were doing, highlighting the innovative approaches that we used.

What was very innovative in your approach to conservation that brought you this award?

I think the first explanation is that we have been in the sector for long and have developed our own pillars for our projects. The first pillar for each project that we carried out with the community was very strong sensitisation. Before the community came together, it took a long time to sensitise them on what to be done. When they applied for us to come and help them, we again explained to them that if this becomes a project, there are certain things we have to do and must be understood thoroughly. Then the leadership of the activities must be in the hands of the community, they must elect those who lead them.

 The next one is that we ensure that there is equity between the sexes. We carried out the selection by asking men, women and youths to form groups and select their leaders and in the end each team has youths, men and women. The next one is that whenever there is a public activity, people must see that the cheer leader is a local and not us. We sit at the background as advisers.

We have also used something that attracts the community, bee keeping. They are trained to keep hives and then they know that to keep these bees they have to plant trees that produce pollen and nectar for their bees. So, we use bee keeping as a means of making them understand that it is important to protect the environment by planting trees and so on. Our approach was interesting, that is why they gave us the award.

So, yours is different from the trend in Cameroon where NGOs are set up mainly to source for funding which ends up in private pockets?

In fact, there is a strong comment that Dr. Jick of the Royal Botanic Garden made in his recommendations. He stated that he found out that I was unique in Cameroon because I did not go into conservation to make money and that we attracted much more by achieving our purpose than looking for money. I always tell those in our sector to do their job and some help may come. They give you money because they see what you are doing and see that you need some support.

And having won this prize you are now being referred to by the UN as a Forest Hero. How do you feel about that?

Very proud. To recognise somebody’s efforts is a big contribution, much more than money. It was great honour to me and to those I am working with to realise that all we have been doing is being taken note of not only at the local but also at the UN level.

How much did you get from this award, financially speaking?

No, it was just a medal. There was no financial attachment and we don’t regret that because the mere factor of recognition is very big.

You have been operating principally in Northwest Cameroon where there is the problem of eucalyptus trees which have been blamed for drying up of water areas in the region. Have you been able to work towards reversing this trend?

Yes. In any community forest where there are eucalyptus trees, we ensure that they are destroyed. And they are then replaced with indigenous trees. There are other NGOs that assist those working to destroy the eucalyptus trees to turn the areas into farms or other forests that are not eucalyptus in nature. So, we do not very much concentrate on that sector because there are other people who are involved. But wherever we are doing conservation, and we find eucalyptus, we encourage that it should be eliminated and replaced with indigenous trees.

Which are the specific forests you have been working in?

We started with Mbiame in the 1990s and left after spending four years with funding from IUCN Netherlands. We then went to Ndom and from there we went to Nkor and Vekovi where we helped the people revise their community forest plan.

What is the health of these forests? Would you say conservation has succeeded?

Oh Yes. In Mbiame and Ndom it succeeded. You know, succeeding means leading the community to a stage where they can manage the place on their own and begin to see benefits coming. And it takes a long time to achieve that success.

The weakness in what is done is that you get assistance for a year or two and you go and put that in a forest and leave and that is money wasted, because, the community has not been sensitised and helped to stand on their own before you leave. Unless you take a long time, conservation will not be succeeding.

What message would you have for the rest of Africa which is facing this challenge of depletion of forests across the continent?

Well, Africa needs to understand that we are really contributing heavily to the fight against climate change by sacrificing our land to preserve forests as the lungs of the world. But if we destroy the forests at the rate we are doing now, we will have nothing to be proud of in the very near future. We need to plant, particularly those of us who are on the Western Highlands of Cameroon that are now barren because of prolonged deforestation.

It is necessary that we should replant the said areas. I remember a study which states that, at the moment, only 3.5 percent of Northwest is covered by forests. When the Germans came in at the dawn of the 20th century, 48 percent of northwest was covered with forest. So, you can imagine the rate of destruction.

*(BBC Correspondent in Cameroon)

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