Many conflicts around community rights in natural resource management are caused by competition between companies and communities over access to and control of natural resources. Commercial exploitation of natural resources deprives communities of access to the spaces and resources on which they depend for their livelihoods and well-being, and local people usually see little if any of the revenues generated by these resources.
In April this year I participated in an international conference on Natural Resource Management and Community Rights in Cameroon in Yaoundé organised by the Centre for Environment and Development (CED).
This was the first time I’d attended a direct debate between the main parties involved in this issue in Cameroon. The conference was attended by a representative from an indigenous community, members of civil society organisations (CSOs) that support indigenous communities and help them defend their rights against corporate resource users, take ownership of community forests, and show them how to expose the harmful exploitation of community forests and other natural resources, etc. Someone from the company operating in the community forest was also present.
The community representative told the meeting how his community had lost all their rights to the forest to this company. The company representative responded by saying that all the agreements had been reached through mutual consent and that the community had never been forced into a decision about how its land would be used.
I asked myself what role the CSOs had played in this process, and was curious to see how they would react to what had been said.
The members of the CSOs present explained that sometimes when a community has completed the process of acquiring a forest, they stop asking CSOs for advice on how to manage it and don’t involve them in negotiations with external operators who want access to local resources. And because most communities don’t know how to defend their rights against these operators, they often end up being dispossessed of their land.
This raises the question that everyone asks about conflicts over land use: what resources and processes need to be put in place to enable local communities, CSOs and the companies that exploit natural resources to find a balanced solution so that local people not only keep their land, but also see some of the revenues generated by these companies?
The question I keep coming back to is how do CSOs stay motivated, and where do they find the strength to keep defending community rights when these communities don’t involve them in the whole process and enable them to see it through to the end?
This is something that everyone who is involved in fighting for social justice needs to think about, because we need to stay motivated and engaged. No matter what obstacles and difficulties we face, we must never give up.