Environmental NGOs and the “Environmentalism of the Poor”

The social movements literature is large, diverse, and broad in scope. Nevertheless, its dominant strain focuses on movements that demand radical change and frequently make use of mass mobilization and confrontational tactics. The emphasis on mass mobilization and confrontation is, if anything, even more pronounced in writing about environmentalism and environmental movements in developing nations. Indeed, many authors working in this field portray environmentalism in developing nations primarily as a confrontational, social movement-based “environmentalism of the poor” (see chapter 2).

This literature suggests that environmental movements in developing countries tend to focus on immediate, local threats to health and livelihoods, to be primarily locally based and relatively informally organized, and to be strongly disposed to form links to related movements, such as efforts to fight poverty and preserve local cultures and ways of life. Because of resource shortages and lack of access to the political system, they also tend to emphasize relatively confrontational strategies. This contrasts with environmental movements in developing nations, which are more likely to be centered around large, formalized SMOs, to engage in environmental education, to pursue practical nature protection projects, and to work within the political system.

This characterization of environmentalism in developing nations does not fit well with our findings about environmentalism and environmental NGOs in Cameroon. Cameroon does have a large and, in many respects, vibrant environmental NGO sector. In addition to the NGOs we studied, we identified at least 100 more that exist now or had existed in the recent past. As with NGOs elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, these NGOs are far from being mass membership organizations, but some of them do enroll a respectable number of supporters, and they are the public face of Cameroonian environmentalism.

In general, Cameroonian environmental NGOs tend to hold government at arm’s length (see chapter 8) and are little involved in influencing government policy, whether by confrontational or nonconfrontational tactics—a common finding in research in other African nations. Influencing government was not among their highest ranked goals, and such efforts were listed by only about a quarter as among their activities. When the environmental NGOs did undertake to influence government, they usually did so through polite, behind-the-scenes lobbying and working within the system (see chapters 6 and 8).

Following the general, but not universal pattern seen elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa (see chapter 8), environmental NGO involvement in confrontational political activity was rare in Cameroon. Only two NGOs in our study could be described as having a confrontational orientation. Several groups reported monitoring government enforcement of environmental laws, which might have involved a protest orientation, but the pattern of quiet persuasion dominated there, too. Several others combined environmentalism with an emphasis on protecting the Baka and other tribes of the East Region against the loss of their livelihoods and land rights to logging and deforestation. Although their goals made them natural opponents of the government and the logging industry, they, too, preferred to work within the system by asserting the rights of the forest inhabitants through public education, lobbying officials, and the legal system. None reported using confrontational protest strategies or alliances with local groups that pursued such strategies. Indeed, none of the NGOs studied mentioned protests or demonstrations as an activity they regularly used to advance their goals (see chapter 8).

The low propensity of the NGOs to function as SMOs for confrontational movements is also reflected in our findings regarding the community groups with which they worked. The NGOs mentioned contact and cooperation with a wide variety of groups, most of them very much part of the Cameroonian political mainstream, but no interviewee mentioned contact with protest-oriented local groups bent on confronting government or business on issues such as poverty, land grabbing, or dam construction (see chapter 10).

Even if the NGOs were inclined to ally themselves with confrontational environmental movements in Cameroon, their opportunity to do so would be low. Our survey of academic literature and press reports turned up only a few instances of confrontational environmental protest in recent years, including protests against construction of a hydroelectric dam in eastern Cameroon. Protests against the construction of the Chad- Cameroon pipeline were more sustained and involved more groups but died down after completion of the pipeline (see chapter 8).

In short, although our research revealed an active environmental NGO sector that is very much grounded in local action and pursues a wide variety of goals and activities, the overwhelming majority of NGOs were clearly not functioning as SMOs for confrontational social movements like those described in writing about the “environmentalism of the poor.” The NGOs were not to be found on the front lines of protests against mining operations, raping of the forest, or removal of citizens to make way for agricultural estates. Instead, they were planting trees to hinder deforestation, recycling plastics in urban neighborhoods, educating the public about climate change, offering training in farming practices that reduce erosion, or promoting beekeeping as an alternative to destructive honey harvesting in the forest. Nor were they typically allied with local social movements to fight poverty or preserve traditional ways of life against intrusions from abroad. Indeed, only a handful listed fighting poverty as among their goals.

This does not mean that the NGOs cannot be regarded as important components of a largely nonconfrontational movement aimed at protecting the environment. In fact, the relatively high degree of networking among them, as well as with international environmental NGOs, supports this interpretation. On the other hand, the total number of people enlisted by NGOs nationwide is probably too small for them to constitute a mass movement—and might even fall short of the threshold envisioned by some definitions of social movements. They differ markedly in this respect from their counterparts in developed countries or from movements in developing nations where the “environmentalism of the poor” is prominent.

The simultaneous presence of many environmental NGOs and the absence of a confrontational “environmentalism of the poor” raises the question of why no such movement has arisen in Cameroon. The answer is surely not to be found in any overarching aversion to confrontational social movement activity or protest (see chapter 5). Protest and confrontation with the authorities were an important element of the struggle against colonialism, and some years were required before the postindependence government could suppress continuing actions by radical groups. Legalization of opposition parties brought a fresh wave of mass mobilization and protest organized around the main opposition party. More recently groups as diverse as taxi drivers protesting increased gasoline prices and students dissatisfied with university policy have taken to the streets.

How, then, can one account for the absence of the “environmentalism of the poor” in Cameroon? Our research suggests several possibilities. First, it has been suggested (Haynes, 1999) that confrontational environmental movements are less common in Africa than elsewhere. We could locate no study that systematically compares the incidence of movements like those described by the literature on the environmentalism of the poor in sub-Saharan Africa with movements elsewhere in the developing world; however, the available evidence (see chapter 8) does suggest that such movements are infrequent, though not altogether absent, in subSaharan Africa. In any event, this explanation alone is, at best, only one component of an explanation for Cameroon’s situation.

Another possible explanation stems from the fact that—in comparison to nations such as India, the Philippines, Brazil, and Nigeria, where confrontational mass movements with environmental themes are common

(Salih, 1999; Carr, Oronto, and Onyeagucha, 2001; Doyle, 2005; Ojakorotu, 2008)—Cameroon has experienced relatively few massive dam construction projects and relatively little disruptive mineral extraction. Oil production has been concentrated offshore and has not led to major spills, and there is relatively little mining. Deforestation does occur, but much of it is the result of small-scale land clearing for farming. (Commercial logging, however, does have the potential to undermine local livelihoods should it continue unchecked.) Much of the scattered and intermittent environmental protest activity that has occurred in Cameroon has centered around the construction of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline and of dams, while some NGOs have focused on protecting the rights of the Baka and related peoples in opposition to lumbering interests. This suggests that new and larger dam building projects, increased mining activity, increased logging and deforestation, or massive land purchases by foreign interests for plantation agriculture might give rise to a more confrontational brand of environmentalism. In most of rural Cameroon, however, these threats are not present, and as Holmen (2010) points out, rural farmers have little reason to confront a state that has little apparent impact on their lives. This hypothesis does not appear to have been systematically investigated, but Thomas’s (1995) study in southern Africa did find occasional confrontation over oil drilling in areas where NGOs were usually nonconfrontational.

As political opportunity structure theories of social movements suggest (see chapter 2), the possibility that the government might repress NGOs that ruling elites perceive as a threat to their dominance may also discourage NGOs from adopting confrontational tactics or attempting to mobilize mass support. Such effects have been observed fairly often elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa (see chapter 8). Although only a handful of Cameroonian environmental NGOs reported actual repression, significant minorities reported that government had attempted to influence their goals or was skeptical or hostile to the NGO sector, and that it was necessary to tread softly in dealings with government. Moreover, conditions that might limit the state’s power over NGOs, such as an exceptionally well-funded NGO sector, a strong tradition of democracy, and pressure from abroad (see chapter 8) are largely absent in Cameroon. Cameroonian history demonstrates that the government’s hostility to and active repression of challenges does not necessarily rule out confrontational opposition movements, and the “environmentalism of the poor” has surfaced from time to time under repressive regimes elsewhere in Africa. Nevertheless, in combination with other conditions described in this section, a state with repressive tendencies may be an additional deterrent (see also Bebbington, Hickey, and Mitlin, 2008).

In addition, as noted in chapter 8, many environmental NGO leaders are well-educated, middle-class people, with backgrounds similar to those of the management and professional employees of government ministries concerned with the environment. Some are former or aspiring employees of such agencies. Their backgrounds, life experiences, career aspirations, and culture all mitigate against involving their NGOs in a confrontationally oriented environmentalism. They are disposed, instead, to relatively noncontroversial approaches, such as promoting incremental change and sustainable development by working with government in relatively nonconfrontational ways.

NGOs that receive or hope to receive international funding—a substantial majority of all Cameroonian-based NGOs—must also take into account the fact that few of their funders are likely to support a militantly confrontational approach to solving environmental problems. Even if they are privately critical of government ineffectiveness or corruption, most funders are part of international aid and environmental communities oriented toward incremental change and working within the system. And even if they were inclined to support confrontational environmental movements, funding organizations that chose this approach would run the risk of being denied permission to work within the country or subjecting themselves or the NGOs they support to harassment or repression. Only when well-publicized environmental or other abuses become extreme are international NGOs and funders likely to line up in support of pointed confrontational or disruptive protest NGOs.

As pointed out by theories ofpolitical opportunity structure (see chapter 2), Cameroon’s numerous and deep ethnic, religious, and linguistic divides, which are present not only nationwide but also in many communities, may be another barrier to large-scale social movement mobilization. Although confrontational movements are far from unknown in Cameroon, these divisions have always been a hindrance to large, unified movements (see chapter 5), and there is every reason to think they apply to environmental movements as well.

Other factors described above may also be implicated in the nonconfrontational approach of the great majority of environmental NGOs. Most Cameroonian-based NGOs, for example, are operated by a small group of paid employees or committed volunteers and do not have mass support, a poor basis for movement mobilization. The relatively low penetration of independent media, the slowness and inaccessibility of the Internet, and low levels of knowledge about science and environmental problems may also be significant. Clearly, this is an area where systematic cross-national research is badly needed to unravel the effects of the numerous possible causes of the mobilization of confrontational environmental movements among the poor, but research in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa makes it clear that such movements are anything but universal.

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