Power and Politics in Local Communities

Life in rural Cameroon is governed by a complex mix of formal and customary law. Power is typically shared among (1) local administrators appointed by the national government, (2) elected village councils, (3) “secret societies” that regulate traditional rituals, (4) several levels of traditional chiefs, and (5) prestigious local citizens or former citizens who maintain homes in the community. The distribution of power among these groups is frequently contested and varies from place to place. Local administrators’ power is undergirded by their official standing, but it may be diminished if they come from far away or from ethnic groups and backgrounds different from the residents. The power of traditional leaders is grounded in custom, but is greatest when they occupy a central and esteemed position in local social networks and use their financial resources to assist citizens. Their influence also tends to be greater in isolated areas with weak political and economic links to the cities. Where their influence is strong, they often adjudicate many day-to-day disputes in their communities. In general, however, the power of prestigious civil servants, businessmen, and national or regional government officials, including those who no longer reside in the community but maintain homes there and plan to return, has been growing at the expense of traditional leaders (Holtendahl, 1995; Schilder, 1995; Goheen, 1996; Eyoh, 1998b; Le Vine, 2004; Fonjong, 2007a, 2007b).

Control of land is a key aspect of rural life and law. In most parts of the country, formal and customary land ownership rights exist side by side. This leads to much confusion and many difficulties when there are conflicts between them. Under customary land rights, which are generally more prominent in rural areas, most owners to do not have legal title to land but have gained the accepted right to use their plots by virtue of having cleared the land, allocations made by traditional leaders, customary inheritance rights, or allocations of land to women by their husbands. Technically, where statutory and customary laws conflict, for example, when the government constructs infrastructure or establishes national parks in areas where villagers have lived, hunted, or farmed, statutory law takes precedence. Formally registered owners enjoy better legal protection when the government claims their land or when property disputes arise, and they receive greater financial compensation if the government takes their land. Formal purchase and registration of land are gradually becoming more common, especially in cities and areas where land is scarce or likely to be taken by the government. In general, customary owners have the right to register their land and assume formal ownership, but the registration process is costly, complicated, and time consuming, and registration offices are not accessible to many rural people. Consequently, the poor and uneducated in rural areas often find it difficult to obtain formal ownership. The government has made efforts to encourage formal land registration but has fallen short of the reforms that would be needed to produce universal land registration (MacLeod, 1986; Goheen, 1996; Van den Berg, 1997; Malleson, 1999; Fonjong, 2007a; Fonjong et al., 2012, 2013).

Environmental NGOs working in local areas must thus cope with a bewildering variety of laws, customs, and decision makers, whose support may be needed in order to obtain needed approvals or funds from government or to secure acceptance and support of their efforts by local citizens. In particular, the complexities of land ownership can become major obstacles to nature protection efforts, and especially to the establishment of nature reserves.

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