The challenge was staring at her in the face.
After years working in forest communities in Cameroon, Ewi Stephanie Lama noticed one group of voices was consistently missing in decisions on land-use and climate solutions: women and girls. Particularly women and girls from rural communities.
Cameroon has identified climate change as one of the major challenges facing the nation and forest management as a key tool for reducing emissions and helping to stop rising temperatures. Yet what Ewi witnessed was how just a few individuals were in charge of – and benefitting from – managing the forests while the rural and poor communities who lived with them were being excluded and increasingly marginalized. She knew she had to do something.
Her response was to train and empower a new generation of young female entrepreneurs with skills in sustainability and nature-based climate solutions from agroforestry to beekeeping. Her goal is to help rural women find their voice and become leaders not only in the Cameroon House of Assembly, but also in international initiatives like the UN Environment Programme.
It hasn't been easy, with Ewi frequently coming up against male cultures and traditions unused to strong women in leadership roles on one hand and a history of low self-esteem and exclusion for women on the other. But the results speak for themselves. Today, more and more Cameroonian girls are getting involved in environmental protection and with her as a mentor, many are looking to follow in her footsteps. Ewi’s work with rural councils has led to over 20 new forest policies and helped grow women's income 65% in the communities she works in. The list goes on and it's a list that's just beginning.
As Ewi tells it, the secret to her success is no secret at all, saying,
"Stay focused and believe in yourself. You will be talked down on, attacked on all sides because of your gender, but remember that’s the same course you are fighting for and push on until you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Greater is the change we seek than the limitations we face or the barriers raised up before us today."
Want to virtually join the ACRP team in Cameroon on 14 October 2022, for the launch of the African Voices for African Forests short film, on Ewi's work in advancing the rights of women's participation in forest restoration?
In Their Own Words
What was the problem you saw and which of the solution areas does it relate to?
After a series of research in forest communities in Cameroon I noticed the exclusion of women and girls in climate change projects and decision-making platforms. I decided to focus on Nature based solutions to solve this problem.
What was your idea/insight to solve it and the end result/vision you wanted to achieve?
I was determined to see responsible decisions on sustainable natural resource management in Cameroon and Africa. I purposed to establish structures that support entrepreneurship and facilitate the channeling of rural voices, especially women and young people for representation in national and international platforms. I trained women with livelihood skills like; agroforestry, bush mango processing, beekeeping, mushroom farming, snail cultivation and micro enterprise development.
My goal is to help rural women find their voice in the Cameroon House of Assembly, find a place with the UNEP and to establish an all-girls institution in a rural community where I will develop, adapt and adopt curriculums on climate education for young girls to build their capacities for placements in future environmental platforms and programs.
Why is this solution important to your country and community?
Cameroon’s Vision 2035 identifies climate change as one of the country’s major challenges and calls for the reduction of greenhouse gases to tackle climate change as a key regional strategy for Cameroon. Under its tentative implementation schedule, drafting and implementation of major environmental policies to fight against the climate change impact were planned for phase one (2010-2019). Climate change control is listed as one of the three specific objectives for phase two (2020-2027). This is my fuel to fit rural women and communities into the next phase of environmental advocacy by applying cutting-edge policy and planning solutions to the environmental challenges faced by the Cameroon government, businesses and regulatory bodies. With a small number of individuals benefiting from forest resources, contributing to the marginalization of the rural population from decision-making on the community forests’ resources I believe strongly that natural resources should be managed sustainably for the benefit of all people, especially the rural poor who are closer to the resources. It will take good governance to achieve this.
What were the biggest challenges you faced/ran into?
Being a young woman with a strong will to raise my voice for other women, empower them to raise their voice too, creates insecurity in most men around my communities of work. While others see me as not well brought up according to our cultures, others think I am frustrated.
Results from my Masters' dissertation showed that rural women were absent from community forest management decisions and REDD+ projects, reasons being: low self-esteem, poor representation in the management board and local councils, inadequate knowledge on climate change, and limited access to forest land. This boiled down to the fact that the cultures and traditions would prevent women from taking leading roles especially when it comes to land management.
Inadequate funding for development, empowerment and capacity building projects to bring feasible solutions to the challenges identified during research. Also impacts from the Anglophone crisis coupled with the covid-19 pandemic preventing funders and donors from supporting our course.
How did you mobilize people to take actions?
I conduct socio-economic research in forest communities, run environmental awareness programs on radio, manage community conservation, and livelihood projects, engage with national and international stakeholders on Climate Change projects and programs where I contribute to shaping policies and programmes for women’s entrepreneurial support in rural communities, organize symposia and workshops for discussions around the subject of women inclusion in climate change decisions and programs, establish environmental education programs in schools and organize school parades.
Who were key stakeholders/partners that worked with you?
The list is endless. I will list a few, the ACRP, Forests, Resources and People, Pan African Centre for Climate policy, Joker Waller-Hunter initiative and Both ENDS, my supervisors at the University of Buea, the ministry of environment, the Creative Arts Institute, New England Biolab Foundation, Eternity Gospel Radio, communities in Bimbia Bonadikombo Community Forest, the Limbe City Council and the UN Foundation and Forum for the Future.
What insight, ideas, or suggestions would you offer someone looking to take action in a similar way?
Be sure about what impact you want to create. Stay focused and believe in yourself. You will be talked down on, attacked on all sides because of your gender, but remember that’s the same course you are fighting for and push on until you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Greater is the change we seek than the limitations we face or the barriers raised up before us today.
Remember the process is gradual, therefore patience is needed in the journey. No rush. Be gradual yet consistent. Start with the idea, pen it down but refuse to keep it in the books, go out and take action, do not sit, you will find your team on the field.
How did this project you created promote equity or justice in your community?
When I see young women admiring the work I do and dreaming of becoming like me someday, I know I am doing great! In one of our eco clubs, we asked the kids to write a letter to the future and one of them said in their letter that when they grow up, they will want to be like Aunti Stephanie (that’s me) who taught them at the eco club. In another instance, I was mentoring this young girl during her three months internship with our organization and at the end of her internship, her full report was about me and how she hopes to take a master's in a climate change program so she could become like me someday. More Cameroonian homes are beginning to allow their girls to get involved in environmental protection. My work with rural community councils has prompted the formulation of over 20 local forest management policies in forest villages which stirred the construction of several nurseries with over 150,000 indigenous tree species for revamping degraded sites and farmlands. I have recorded a 65% increase in women’s income sources and a 20% involvement of women in local councils in the communities of work. Through my weekly radio programs I reach over 4,000 listeners. to combat natural disasters in Limbe, I organized the ‘Miss Environment FOREP 2020’ pageant, and the ‘green football tournament’. I led my team to establish eco clubs in primary schools around Limbe where they are building children’s capacities as climate ambassadors using arts. I volunteer as a country mentor for the Africa Climate Reality Project, coached 24 mentees from Bogota, Colombia, three mentees from USG/Leap Girl Africa Cameroon and 31 students from PACCPOLICY.
I currently coordinate projects led by women and especially women in the religious sphere in these communities. Religious barriers are broken. This is hope! Women are finding their place and their voice. Our actions have been sober, but the communities are beginning to understand where we are coming from and the future of our actions