Cape Town — “I was surprised at first. But I was also very encouraged. This distinction brought me a lot of joy, a lot of courage to continue the fight, and a lot of motivation, says Cameroon’s 2022 Champion of the Earth, Cécile Bibiane Ndjebet
While growing up in the forest, Ndjebet was exposed to the struggles women face to receive access to land and survive the devastating effects of the climate emergency. She then made it her mission to try to change that narrative and promote gender equality.
Why it matters
Heart-wrenching images such as desertification, dwindling water supplies, drought, and malnourished children are regularly used to depict Africa. These images raise a cause for concern. As the world fights the adverse effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity, Africa’s success is important as neither will be successfully resolved unless both are tackled.
Ecosystems provide a vast range of services vital to the survival of humanity as they provide food and fresh water, protect us from disasters and disease, prop up the global economy, and crucially play a central role in tackling the climate crisis. And the continent is rich in tropical forests, wetlands, mangroves, grasslands, peat bogs, oceans, rivers, savannahs, and mountains that serve as buffers against the climate crisis.
However, biodiversity loss is a global challenge and the continent is experiencing a dramatic loss due to population growth, extensive agricultural practices, rapid urbanisation, infrastructure development, and illicit trafficking, among others. According to the UN, desertification, land degradation, and drought affects Sub-Saharan Africa more than any single region on earth. Asia is a close second. These regions, most of them poor rural communities, made up of small-scale farmers, women, youth, indigenous peoples, and other at-risk groups, are under immense pressure to feed themselves.
Africa’s rainforest cover is the second-largest in the world, after the Amazon. The Congo Basin peatlands, for example, store nearly 30% of the world’s tropical peatland carbon – that’s about 20 years worth the fossil fuel emissions of the United States of America. But nearly 3 million hectares of rainforests in Africa are lost each year, resulting in soil degradation and unstable weather patterns that reduce the region’s gross domestic product by 3% annually, reports UNEP.
The research shows that land-based and marine ecosystems play a vital role in regulating the climate. They currently absorb half of the human-made carbon emissions, with oceans, forests, mangroves, and peat bogs acting as natural carbon sinks. Nature-based solutions and in particular forest-based actions for mitigating the climate crisis, can provide an important part of the mitigation needed to limit global warming to well below 2°C and therefore play a role in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Mirey Atallah, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Nature for Climate branch says that “without protecting and restoring our ecosystems, we have no chance of achieving the Paris goals, getting to the 1.5C target or buffering the impacts of an already disrupted climate”.
Women continue to face huge challenges but can play powerful roles in restoring landscapes, alleviating poverty, and mitigating the climate emergency. It is important for the world, especially those countries in the most vulnerable areas affected by climate risks and extreme events, to protect and restore ecosystems.
Leading by example
Cécile Bibiane Ndjebet is a veteran Cameroonian activist and was named as a Champion of the Earth, which is UN’s highest environmental honour. Ndjebet is an agronomist who works to improve women’s rights in the region and actively fights for the rights of women to own agricultural and forest land. She also works to preserve her country’s forests, and improve the lives of people who depend on them. Ndjebet was recognised for her efforts in repairing the damage from deforestation, drought in wetlands, and excessive river pollution.
The UN Environment Programme, UNEP’s Champions of the Earth award recognises visionaries in four categories: policy leadership, inspiration and action, entrepreneurial vision and science and innovation. Ndjebet was one of the winners in the Inspiration and Action category.
Other winners include Arcenciel: an environmental non-profit group in Lebanon that works on waste management, and Peru’s Constantino Aucca Chutas who pioneered a community reforestation model, that has led to three million trees being planted in the country. The UK’s Sir Partha Dasgupta who works on the economics of biodiversity was honoured in the science and innovation category. He is an eminent economist whose landmark review on the economics of biodiversity calls for a fundamental rethink of humanity’s relationship with the natural world to prevent critical ecosystems from reaching dangerous tipping points. Indian wildlife biologist Dr. Purnima Devi Barman was awarded in the entrepreneurial vision category for her work in the transformative action to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation.
Founded in 2005, the Champions of the Earth award recognises trailblazers working to protect our natural world and since its inception, the award has honoured 111 laureates: 26 world leaders, 69 individuals, and 16 organisations.
According to UNEP, Ndjebet is a tireless advocate for the rights of women in Africa to secure land tenure, which is essential if they are to play a role in restoring ecosystems, fighting poverty, and mitigating climate change. She is also leading efforts to influence policy on gender equality in forest management across 20 African countries. Approximately 70% of Cameroonian women live in rural regions and rely on wild forest products for a portion of their income. But, in some communities, women are denied the right to own forest land, inherit it if their spouse dies, or even grow trees on the degraded ground. Ndjebet has worked relentlessly to promote the idea that women should participate in forest management and have equal access to forest land and resources, UNEP added.
But who is Cécile Bibiane Ndjebet?
Throughout her lifetime, she has become a leading voice in promoting gender equality in the forest management sector, both at home and abroad. She is a co-founder of the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests, established in 2009, with 20 member countries across the continent. Ndjebet also won the 2022 Wangari Maathai Forest Champions Award, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to conserving forests and improving the lives of people who depend on them.
“I’m trying really to push for gender equality in all those mechanisms and also advocating for direct access to funding, more specifically climate finance funding to women so far,” she said.
Respected for her work on women’s rights, and environmental conservation, Ndjebet explained how her interest in conservation work started. “When you’re in the forest and you have been living in the forest, like myself, the forest has been part of my life. We know the value of conservation because for us it is our home. It has provided all the medicines, food, security, and even provided income. So, conservation for us is very important, because of what we have as benefits, while the environment is well protected. Conservation for us is part of our way of living, and we have to fight to save our environment, our territories, our forests, our dry lands, and our ecosystem in general,” she said.
“And those ecosystems have so many species that are contributing to our life, and to regulate the climate … all the benefit that we can get, because of all those diverse species, and ecosystems. We have to be interested in, conservation because it’s conservation that gives us life, and we expect that we are going to live in peace, healthy and we’re going also to save the nature and make sure that the future generations will benefit from all those benefits we are having from the nature.”
Ndjebet has played a significant role in establishing forestry law and good governance, as well as implementing an approach to community forestry and the restoration of degraded lands and forests. In 2001, she formed Cameroon Ecology (Cam-Eco), which has worked to train, educate, inform and support women in understanding and participating in forest conservation and restoration. The organisation has seen over 600 hectares of degraded land and mangrove forests restored.
“We did advocate first for a better inclusion or participation of local communities, including women in the forest management in our country in Cameroon. And that gave rise to the new forestry law in 1994. That gave the room for communities to manage forests. We saw that it was a great opportunity to take and try to support communities in that newly created role or activated role. That is how we created Cameroon Ecology to support communities to get involved in forest management through the scheme that was allowed by the forestry law, which we call community forest.”
“Cameroon ecology was created to boost or to contribute to the implementation of the law, by getting communities in general in the process of creating and managing a community for us, as it was provided by the law, she added. We knew that when communities have access to forests, then we can have the possibility to also work on conservation because we will be supporting communities to raise up or to improve the conservation of their forests or the piece of forests that will be under their management. We also saw community forests as a tool to improve the living condition of those communities in general, but also better involvement of women in forests and forest-related resources. So we saw a community that saw a collective right mechanism that could then help communities to improve their lives but also help the government to achieve sustainable management of forests, address climate change and improve conservation in our country.”
Throughout her career, Ndjebet advocated for women’s roles in forest management, and equal rights to forest land and resources. Women are among those most affected by climate-related insecurity, yet they are rarely included in conversations about it. Due to long-standing social conventions and traditional gender norms, women suffer more than men. Ndjebet spoke on what she has been trying to push to improve women’s access to decision-making.
“That’s what we have been trying to push for how to improve women’s access to decision-making. Not only on climate change, but all that is related to natural resources management, addressing climate change, biodiversity, conservation, poverty reduction, conflict, it comes along with a lot of issues and challenges.
“What we have been doing so far is at the ground level with communities themselves. We are working with women, we have been working with male-headed families, and traditional chiefs to improve the involvement of women in climate change-related issues because it is proven, and we have evidence that women are more negatively impacted by climate change. And we are happy that this is being recognised, even at the ground level, by communities, male-headed families, and traditional chiefs. We started building capacities to inform and raise awareness of the role that women play in addressing climate change, while they are almost excluded from decision-making. We took the step up because it was a bottom-up approach that we are using. So from there, we continued to work with the elected people and the council, because in Cameroon, we have a decentralised country where councillors and males have a great role in the management of the affairs of the district, of the commune”.
“It was very important to start the dialogue and linking and establishing this connection between women, and the mayor’s, between women and the executive bureau of the commune so that women’s issues could be part of the common planning, budgeting, and implementation. We built some dialogue and information sessions sensitisation and awareness raising. We are seeing great progress in the relationship between women’s associations and the executive bureau of most of the councils. This brought in the possibilities of women and other community leaders to participate in the council, she said.”
Women struggle to secure land rights and gender inequality
Around the world, many women and girls still face discrimination on the basis of gender. They often face discriminatory laws and are constantly oppressed under customary law. They do not have the right to own and control land because of patriarchy and also cannot be allocated land, inherit it or make decisions about its management and use. Ndjebet also spoke about the biggest challenge she faces in her fight for women’s rights and the fight to achieve gender equality.
We live in a patriarchal model of society where everything is almost controlled by men, all decisions, and resources… and women are taught that they have to agree and comply that everything is controlled by men. To move this advocacy forward, we really need to work harder with women themselves. We put on a project with male-headed families, and traditional chiefs who are almost 99% male, and we had to bring in a lot of information sensitisation awareness raising, but still the patriarchy is very strong.
“The key challenge is to have support from men,” Ndjebet said. “Women deserve to change the mindset, that – no – there is another world that is possible… Leadership training we give to women or we even give to men, we show them the differences between having a woman access the decision-making table and that outside the decision-making table. But still, the system is very strong, as I was saying, we are making some progress, because when we have a legal framework that is enabling then the practices at the local level can also be improved. But when the legal system itself is not enabling, then it makes things more complicated because traditionally, customary rights are very strong, and are not easy to change. But we have to continue because we know that when things get better it will have a positive impact on everybody, our conservation, biodiversity, forests, ecosystems, our nature in general.”
What would it take to strengthen women’s land rights?
Studies show that African women contribute towards 80% of the food that is produced, yet they often lack the right to land. Many suffer from the effects of unequal land inheritance and ownership meaning that they can only have to access land through either their fathers, husbands or sons. A few have rights over the land they tend. Even though they work at the households and farms, they’re unpaid, making their contribution essentially invisible.
We need to strengthen women’s land rights, said Ndjebet.
Evidence has shown that women are key actors in the agricultural sector, as labourers but also as producers. Women are key actors in addressing climate change. The practices that women use, in forest management, and biodiversity management are more sustainable than the practices that men use in general, we have evidence of that.”
“And this is our fight. Women don’t own anything, but women are those who are producing everything. How can you explain that? It does not make sense. It does not make sense at all. So we need to work on that, we need to show our traditional chiefs, those who are applying these cultural restrictions or exclusion in the land right to know the differences. And that is what why have been succeeding because we show them the added value of women in food production for the communities in biodiversity conservation in their communities.”
“As a Champion of the Earth that I am, I don’t have access to inheritance from my father. Can you believe that? Yes, because it’s cultural,” she said. “And now I’m turning things to the other side and showing them that it’s a great mistake, to exclude your daughters from your inheritance. With the evidence I’m having, I’m seeing a good change in the mentality and attitude.”
Despite the challenges, Ndjebet said her next goal is to see women’s rights to land documented.
“Women’s rights to land should be documented, it is the only way we can secure a right. So the fight is to have a document of the women to customary law because we are talking about customary rights. All those women who can buy their land will have no issues with that. The customary traditional land, where women are completely excluded should change. And we should start seeing families where you have a father who has distributed the land to all his children, male and female, and that is documented. We will not see widows who because they lost their husbands, lost everything. Sometimes 40 years of work with their husband and they grabbed everything from her and she becomes a stranger in that community. We have to see those things getting very far from us. They must just disappear and be replaced by legally recognissed rights for the women,” she added.
Lastly, Ndjebet also spoke about how she feels to be a 2022 Champion of the Earth.
“I was surprised at first. But I was also very encouraged. This distinction brought me a lot of joy, a lot of courage to continue the fight and a lot of motivation. I think that my work from now on till when I disappear from this earth is to get women and men to understand that, unless we are together, we will not achieve the sustainable development we are aiming at. And to do that, we need more security for land and forests and forest resources for women, because we recognise the key role they are playing. And unless we have women on board with secure tenure, and rights, with direct access to climate finance, direct access to decision-making, and structure, we will be very far from the sustainable development of our continent. We will be very far from restoring the degraded land of Africa. But to do that, we need women and to have women we need that security to land, we need that access to funding, we need access to decision making, and that is the fight, I will have to continue from now.”