Early Economic History

Prior to colonization, the inhabitants of the territory that is now Cameroon lived as small, scattered hunting and farming tribes and kingdoms ruled by local chiefs and kings. Land was acquired either through settling virgin territory or by conquest, and land ownership was based on customary law. Traditional rulers controlled the land on behalf of their communities and allocated land to individuals via family heads according to their needs. Both men and women were mainly farmers, and there were few large settlements.

The Germans annexed the territory in 1884 and ruled Cameroon as part of their colonial empire until World War I, when Cameroon was partitioned between the British and the French. Cameroon was ruled first as a League of Nations and then as a United Nations mandate. The three colonial administrations (German, French, and British) operated the colony to serve their own economies, focusing on agricultural development via plantations and resource extraction in the southern part of the territory, where most efforts to develop infrastructure were centered. The Germans founded the Cameroon Development Corporation in 1884 and the French, Pamol du Cameroun Ltd., in 1920 to manage the plantations. Industrial development was minimal, foreign owned, concentrated in the Douala area, and limited to a few industries, such as brewing and aluminum. There was little settlement by Europeans, so Cameroonians were employed as plantation workers, servants, and clerical workers. Cameroonians could also establish and operate small businesses or work as traders, but they almost invariably lacked the capital to expand. Economic policy was characterized by expropriation of whatever land the colonizing powers wanted, developing trade relationships with the colonial power, and use of taxes and forced labor to help finance colonial rule. These policies alienated the local population, contributing to tensions, conflicts, and resistance movements.

European rule also introduced land registration and the money economy. Land could now be bought, sold, matriculated, and used for purposes other than agriculture and hunting. Gender discrimination in land ownership also became established during the colonial era, as men used their roles as chiefs, family heads, and breadwinners to own and control land. Women were allocated use of land for farming as wives or daughters.

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