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Local Conceptualization of Nature, Forest Knowledge Systems and Adaptive Management in Southern Cameroon Mala, A. William (1*, 4), Geldenhyus, C. J. (2) and Prabhu, R. (3) 1* PhD Candidate and contact author; Email: and

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Local Conceptualization of Nature, Forest Knowledge Systems and Adaptive Management in Southern Cameroon

Mala, A. William (1*, 4), Geldenhyus, C. J. (2) and Prabhu, R. (3)

1* PhD Candidate and contact author; Email: and

2 Professor in Forest Science, Department of Forest and Wood Science, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa Address : Forestwood cc, P O Box 228, La Montagne 0184 (Postal) 35 Grace Avenue, Murrayfield 0184 (Physical) Pretoria, South Africa.

3 Principal scientist, CGIAR Regional Plan for Collective Action in Eastern & Southern Africa The Alliance of the CGIAR Centers, c/o ILRI, P.O. Box 30709, Nairobi, Kenya

4 Department of Forest and Wood Science, University of Stellenbosch/Faculty of AgriSciences   Private Bag X1, 7602 Matieland, South Africa.

International Conference on Traditional Forest-related Knowledge and Sustainable Forest Management in Africa, 15-17 October 2008, Accra, Ghana

presentation outline
Presentation outline
  • Introduction and background
  • Research questions and objective
  • Methodology
  • Results and discussions
  • Concluding remarks
i introduction
I. Introduction
  • Conventional management of forests and NR in the tropics = a segregation approach that has sought to separate forests and agriculture spatially, administratively and conceptually into two separate units for management and research.
  • Impacts of field processes resulting from this approach on sustainable forest management outcomes remain weak, limited and localized. One key reason for this state of affairs is the weak integration between science, policy and management practices.
  • Scientific knowledge is a critical input to inform policy and natural resource managers to facilitate progress and change.
    • However, the main approach towards acquiring scientific knowledge and development of sustainable forest and natural resource management outcomes remains based on the prism of Western orthodox view and on their segregation approach of human-nature relationships.
Forest policyformulations have been dominated by global thinking
    • Forest, deforestation, slash and burn, biodiversity and recently climate change, as expressions of global environmental narratives, have not yet been translated to integrate social representation of forest, local practices and their knowledge systems, and the dynamics of local institutions.
  • Management practices are dominated by technical versus local practices
    • Technical NR and forest management options tend to overshadow local forest management practices and ecological knowledge on which rural communities base their survival and livelihood strategies;
      • In the humid forests of Central Africa, the current technical management of forest and natural resources at the forest-agriculture interface encounters the same socio-ecological fitness problems;
      • Focus on sustaining the agricultural and forest productivity of single-species crops and/or specific tree crops or single components of an ecosystem that is of economic interest; monocropping versus mixed cropping, exotic versus indigenous trees….
    • They also overlap on the connections of different land uses and on local agro-ecological knowledge determining the adaptive capacity of local management practices at spatio-temporal scale;
      • Moreover, forestry innovations such as community forestry overlaps on community managing forests and on agricultural landscape mosaics in terms of institutions of tenure and cropping-fallow-forest conversion cycle.
    • Local management practices = interactions between culture, history, society and environment have not yet been properly examined to understand their cognitive bases of forest and NR knowledge systems supporting them.

Failure of many technical management approaches in the tropics occurred because there is

a gap in mutual understanding when people with different world views are working together

on a common issue.

Despite the recent recognition and relevance of local ecological knowledge, as an asset for sustainable forest management outcomes, their integration remains weak in the design of research and local management processes.
  • To properly address the issue and to fill this gap in understanding and intervention, an integrated conceptual approach is needed. Key steps are the understanding of cognitive bases of local forest knowledge systems, their linkages with livelihood strategies, and adaptive forest and natural resource management practices.
Conceptualization of nature by people in the study area is based on the world-views, philosophy of life and beliefs.
    • Structure on two major representations of world representing the spiritual and terrestrial worlds (combining natural and human world).

Figure 1.1 The diagram showing the Bantu’conception of world (adapted from Gonese (1999), Haverkort and Rist 2004)

2 research questions and objective
2. Research questions and objective
  • What are the local conception of nature within the people of Ntem-Sanaga region?
  • What are the relationships between the components of these conceptions of nature?
  • What are the perceptions of forests and knowledge systems derived from them?
  • How do they affect forest management and agricultural practices?

This paper examines the relationships between local conception of

nature, forest knowledge management systems and adaptive forest-

agriculture practices.

3 methodology
3. Methodology

3.1 Description of study area

  • The study was conducted in humid forest zone of southern Cameroon within the forest margins benchmark (FMB) that has been designed by Alternatives to slash and burn programme (ASB).
  • This benchmark area delineated research and development domains on the basis of resource use intensification and demographic density in three blocks (low, medium, high).
  • The habitants of this study area are Western Bantu forest dwellers who practicise shifting cultivation describes the physical and cultural area extending from the Sanaga to the Ntem and Woleu rivers in the Southern Cameroon, Northen Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and to emphasize its cultural and linguistic coherence.
3.2 Sampling methods
  • Six villages were selected within the humid forest benchmark of Southern Cameroon, equally distributed between the three blocks along a resource intensification use and population gradient.
  • Focus groups of 15-20 persons were organized in each village, to capture the representation of their vital space and general discussion on concept of nature, perception of forests and local knowledge and NRM practices.
  • 10 persons were selected in each of the six villages for individual interview based on the advices of villagers (internal socio-diversity in term of number of clans/lineages, knowledge of the history of the villages, balance in representation of age (old, adult and young), gender and user groups (such as hunters, fishermen and “artisanal” loggers).
3.3 Data collection

Semi-structured questionnaire divided in two broad sections and managed in three rounds:

(i) First round with focus discussion groups per village generated agro-ecological map with several layers of information:

  • positioning of all the rivers and streams with their courses;
  • cocoa plantations;
  • different forests and fallow stages and current mixed food crop farms;
  • hunting and fishing areas, sacred places;
  • places for collection of non wood forest products (NWFP);

(ii) Second round with individual interviews, the data were collected on :

  • components of the vital space and the relationships between society, natural world and spiritual world;
  • perception of forests and how its components affect livelihoods, its major uses and resource management practices;
  • social and economic functions of forests;
  • local classification of forests with their main activities;
  • local agro-climatic and time management knowledge systems affecting forest and NRM practices;

(iii) Third round with focus groups at village level for general discussions followed by their validation at the village level.

  • identification/names of local indicators for the description of forests, classification of forests;
  • management of time, and to respond and clarify with the whole group to pending questions that were found about the individual interviews.

Each focus group discussion took 3 to 4 hours because some discussions among village members took a

long time before a consensus could be reached.

3.4 Data analysis
  • Discourses of respondents have been transcripted and organized by clustering data into meaningful information;
  • Matrix was developed to deconstruct the discourse of respondents on the concepts of nature guiding the management of local knowledge of forest management;
  • Extracts of respondents' discourse that brought out some generalizations of the perceptions, beliefs and the ideological values were identified. Traits related to local perceptions of forests were characterized based on the aggregation of markers of the discourse. These markers were either for utilitarian uses, functional and representative. Thereafter, for each marker, some element of perceived distance between the forests, its uses, and its socio-economic functions was assigned and a percentage of farmers responding was assigned to each of them.
  • Cross-checking of similarities and contradictions were made through the identification of indicators by type of markers of forest classification, tree and animal names, relationships between trees/animals, management of time and management of natural resources.
4 results discussions
4. Results & discussions

Result 1: Conception of vital space of the people of

Ntem-Sanaga region

  • Conception of nature based on social representation of vital space (dzaa);
    • Vital space spatially structured from the household or family (nda bot/mvôg) to the village territory (dzaa), as one entire global system;
  • Integration of six components: household combining the house + man house (n’da, abaa), court (n’seng), bin (akun), private zone (fa’a), agricultural lands (ekotok or ekorog) and the forest lands (afane);
    • Each component is defined and delimited, as well as their social meanings, their forms and their uses.
Result 2: Characterization of the relationships between the components of vital space the people of Ntem-Sanaga region
  • 6 categories of natural resources management knowledge of landscape affecting human activities.
    • Components of vital space : spatial markers such like forests lands, its content and its biodiversity (wild trees, food and trees crops), agricultural lands, animals and rivers.
  • Each category of NRM provides message for human, which serves to build the maintenance of communication channels;
    • It provides knowledge to interpret natural phenomena and to capitalize on practices and utilization of theses spatial and temporal references for food, house building, medicine, rituals and human names.

These relationships are presented in details in Table 3.2.

Result 3 : Local perceptions of forests and natural

resources management

Three markers and 7 categories of perceptions on forests and natural resources. These

three markers are described below as follow:

  • (i) forest perception based on descriptive markers such like forest types or lands resources (Mesi);
  • (ii) forest perception based on practical/utilitarian markers such like gift of life, source of human well-being activities, tool for time and weather management;
  • (iii) forest perception based on symbolic/representative markers such like gift of God, mystery, hide-out and shelter.

The evaluation of the relationships between forest perceptions, its uses, socio-cultural

and economic functions found that the higher relationship cited is related to animals and

plants species, and Creator (90%) and food (80%) and source of income (75%). The

weakness relationship is related to fishing (40%).

The details of these results are presented in Table 3.3.

Result 4 : Local knowledge systems of forest dynamics

and associated NRM practices

Several local knowledge systems are related to the description of the states of forest


These states are organized in five broad types of forest ecological successions and included:

  • (i) virgin forest (afan adam) which is a place where, in the collective memory, there have never been human conduct and there is no presence of indicators of human disturbance;
  • (ii) old secondary forest (mbiam);
  • (iii) secondary forest (nnom ekotog);
  • (iv) pre-secondary forest fallow (ekotog);
  • (v) young fallow (nfefeekotog).

Each category differs from the other by a single or several socio-ecological,

bio-indicators and/or associated with NRM practices.

The details of these results are presented in Table 3.4.


Table 3.4 Local classification of forest land uses, number of ecological indicators and spatial indicators of forest management

Result 5: Local agro-climatic and time management knowledge

systems affecting NRM practices

Three broad categories of time management (moments of a day (a, moon cycle (ngon) and

year of activities (mbu) is organized in 4 seasons (Table 3.5). For the last one, its two

outcomes are bioecological cycle, and agricultural and forest resources management

calendar. These categories are described as follows:

  • Moments of a day breaks the time in a 24-hours day. It is organized into four main moments: morning (kikirigi); mid day (zan amos); evening (ngegole); and midnight (zang alu);
  • Moon cycle also affects the human activities and determines the management of natural resources and the farming practices when it is full or middle full;
  • Four seasons of the year (mbu) derived from main dry season (esep) and short dry season (oyôn), on one hand, the main rainy season (sugu-oyôn) and the short rainy season (sugu-esep); this division of time affect agricultural, gathering of forests products, hunting and fishing, and livelihood strategies.

For this last description of time management, the details results are presented in Table



Table 3.5 Effects of the seasonality knowledge and time management on local natural resources management activities

Vital space of people of the study area is both a geographical and sociological space:
    • Each trait of this vital space has a function that affects economic, social and spiritual life of people.
  • Relationships between the natural and human worlds are the important channels to maintain interactions with the spiritual world:
    • contribute to the structuration of local ecological and environmental knowledge systems and to keep their focus in the search of common livelihood in the context where uncertainty prevailed.
Perception of forest and natural resources are described by the perception of the distance between forests and its socio-economic values related forest-tree-animals-hunting (90%), forest – food (80%) and forest-money (75%).
    • Local knowledge systems of forest dynamics and forest management are correlated to socio-ecological descriptors and associated NRM practices.
  • Results moderate the dominant discourse on biodiversity conservation and sustainable natural resources management outcomes claiming the inability of local systems of forest management systems to rationalize their practices.
    • Management of concept of nature and associated local knowledge and practices are effective in the interpretation on natural processes and in management of forest resources.
Local perceptions of nature and forest knowledge management systems are tools that affect the management systems at the forest agriculture-interface:
    • Guide the implementation of adaptive forest management and agricultural practices incorporating the dynamics of space, biodiversity management, time and surnatural and social institutions.
concluding remarks
Concluding remarks
  • Local conception of nature is based on the social representation of vital space of the people and in relationships with their life activities;
  • Forest knowledge systems deriving, delineated ecological, social and economical indicators of the dynamics of ecological forest successions and the level of resources abundance:
    • Local knowledge systems affect forest management and agricultural practices in term of understanding and interpretation of the states of nature where human activities will take place;
  • Local perception of nature and natural resources knowledge systems is a tool that guides the implementation of human activities in order to warrantee a threshold of forest and forest productivity at spatio-temporal scales.

There is a need to revise the way scientific knowledge is generated, policy are formulated

and sustainable forest management options are designed and implemented to address

complex issues such like the integration of conservation and development outcomes in

Africa, were the problems still need to be address. Adaptive co-management and

innovations systems processes are opportunities and could provide an avenue to

improve the integration between science, policy and management practices.

Thanks for your attention

The authors thank IUFRO who sponsored their participation to this International conference, and European Union, START/NORAD Fellowship

programme and CIFOR who funded the PhD Study.