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Our Lake, Our Life: Community-based conservation for livelihood development in Lake Ossa


African manatee.

African manatee (Photo "Manatee" by gilus_pl is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The project ‘Our Lake, Our Life’ was implemented in 2014 by Zoological Society London (ZSL) and other partners in Cameroon to address threats to the Lake Ossa wildlife reserve. The reserve is an important biodiversity hotspot and provides essential ecosystem services to surrounding communities and nearby urban centres, however illegal poaching and unsustainable fishing were causing wildlife declines. The project focussed on bringing together various partners and the local communities in a participatory approach, in order to develop a co-management plan for the lake. A number of different activities were initiated including business enterprises, loan and savings schemes and community surveillance networks. The overall outcome was a Code of Conduct outlining a clear co-management plan for the reserve, designed and implemented by local communities and partners.


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The Lake Ossa complex covers an 4,000 hectares and is established as a wildlife reserve. It is located in the lowlands of the Sanaga River and is a freshwater ecosystem of regional and global importance. The reserve is home to many threatened species including the African manatee, dwarf crocodile and Nile soft-shelled turtle, as well as a diverse range of fish and birds. The region is generally considered to be home to some of the most diverse flora and fauna in Africa, both marine and terrestrial.  

The lake and its basin provides a range of crucial ecosystem services for local communities. Roughly 15% of local households are dependent on fisheries and 25% carry out subsistence and small-scale agriculture on the land surrounding the lake to support their livelihoods. The nearby urban centre of Edéa also relies on the provision of fish and timber from the Lake Ossa complex. Administratively, it is part of the district of Dizangué.

The west of the reserve is bordered by an agro-industrial plantation producing palm oil and rubber. Secondary forests in the area are in various states of degradation.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected African Manatee Trichechus senegalensis , Dwarf Crocodile Osteolaemus tetraspis , Nile Softshell Turtle Trionyx triunguis

Products in trade

Manatees are hunted for their meat, skin, bones and oil for medicinal purposes. The animals are usually caught in large nets or cages or killed with harpoons. The Nile soft-shell turtle is hunted for its meat and eggs. In addition, dwarf crocodiles are often hunted in the reserve.

Overview of the problem

The biggest threats to the wildlife reserve are poaching of protected species, illegal timber harvesting and encroachment of riparian forests for agriculture. Illegal activities rarely happen without local communities being involved or informed.   

Unsustainable fishing practices have also led to diminished fish stocks and also threaten other species dependent on the lake. Fishing has subsequently become less profitable, aggravating conflict between fishers and forcing them to use aggressive techniques, many of which are illegal.

The anti-IWT initiative

Threats to both the biodiversity of the lake and the livelihoods of surrounding local communities were first identified in June 2013. The project ‘Our Lake, Our Life’ was then implemented in March 2014 to address these threats, focussing on bringing together the Ministry of Forests and Fauna (MINFOF) and local communities in a participatory approach to develop a co-management plan for the lake. The project had the dual aim to contribute to both an improvement in local livelihoods and biodiversity protection by establishing clear links between conservation and community development, with the final output anticipated as guidelines on clear management practices.  

Overall, 11 villages were engaged with the project. The project approach was to ‘learn by doing’, involving the communities in lake clean-ups, tree planting and other activities. It was hoped this would build trust and keep communities motivated for the duration of the project.

The project undertook the following activities:

  • Formal establishment of Community Management Committees (CMCs). CMCs were representative of lake users and encompassed all 11 villages surrounding Laka Ossa. Their role was to support the development and implementation of co-management plans. Through the CMCs a fisheries management plan was agreed and signed off by all communities, MINFOF and the authorities. This included the establishment of a local fisheries Code of Conduct. The plan covered rules and regulations, including biodiversity sanctuaries and no take zones for conservation. Numeric targets were initially considered for no take zones however it was decided that it was better to let the communities take ownership of the decision. One of the key activities of the CMCs was to organise anti-poaching activities and prevent illegal fishing activities.
  • Establishment of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs). VSLAs were developed to increase the financial security of communities living around Lake Ossa. The VSLAs acted as a platform for business models to encourage community engagement in the management and conservation of the lake, and involved 17 groups with 424 members overall. The VSLAs were also employed as an effective way to engage women in activities and decision making.
  • Assessment of business models for new sustainable enterprises to diversify livelihoods of local communities including a) community-based native tree nurseries; b) Net-Works; c) wildlife tourism. For the tourism aspect, the Council of Dizangue was engaged to help with the development of a local plan that promoted sustainability over aggressive investment. This included the development of a framework for local community participation in tourism benefits.
  • Establishment of a multi-stakeholder management committee that included agro-industry representatives (palm oil companies), CMCs, MINFOF and NGOs. The purpose of the committee was to agree the boundaries of the reserve and to develop and implement a Reserve Management Plan.
  • Community-based lake clean-ups of abandoned fishing gear. These was initiated to provide additional income from the sale of old fishing nets. This was part of ZSL and Interface’s Net-Works project where old fishing nets are recycled into carpet tiles.
  • Establishment of surveillance committees. These were set up to empower communities and to prevent abuse of biodiversity sanctuaries and other community interest areas. In addition, confidential community informant networks were crated to facilitate the early alert of poaching cases and other illegal activities.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Un-paid (voluntary) community scouts
Paid in-kind community scouts
Non-monetary, in-kind incentives for community intelligence
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Subsistence resource access/use

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support

Improving education and awareness

Has the initiative made a difference?

The overall outcome was that local communities and MINFOF Conservation Service implemented a clear co-management plan for Lake Ossa wildlife reserve. A Code of Conduct established community management committees, regulated fishing techniques and designated no take zones to replenish fish stocks and conserve the manatee. Improved practices for the management of the riparian area were also developed and integrated into the environmental management of agro-industry operator SAFACAM. The way forward for development of tourism activities was agreed and conservation costs for communities offset by improved income streams.

Specific outcomes include:

  • The VSLAs contributed to capacity building and effective co-management. Over time, the VSLAs evolved into a network of self-support associations connected to income generating opportunities that were related to environmental management and sustainable business models. VSLAs served as an important platform for raising awareness and training for communities in lake ecology and management. Financially, VSLAs increased the average yearly savings of members by a considerable amount over the project duration. In addition, the VSLA’s were directly involved in reforestation and forest monitoring in collaboration with an oil palm plantation company, SAFACAM.
  • The project was able to encourage SAFACAM to engage in environmentally-friendly operations on the lake reserve and its shores, with demonstrated improvements to shoreline management practices through more sustainable agriculture and tree planting.
  • Informal community surveillance networks and patrols led to the identification of eight cases of poaching and 23 illegal farms in protected forests.
  • A socio-economic survey completed at the end of the project implied an overall positive perception among communities of co-management measures.
  • After a training phase, three of the six tree nurseries were self-sufficient and remained in operation. Additional funding from other sources was also confirmed for the continuation of business enterprises including a tourism management plan. However, uptake of business models by fishers was lower than expected.
  • A pilot scheme for the restoration of riparian forests was developed with local communities, combining reforestation with the promotion of sustainable land management practices. This led to roughly 7.5 hectares of reforestation in the area 50-100 metres from the lake. In addition, partial reforestation occurred in 14 hectares using trees produced from the tree nurseries.
  • The Net-Works activity resulted in a 37% decrease of net waste in the lake.

What works and why

Overall, the experience demonstrated that direct community participation increases the prospects for sustainability, reduces implementation costs, and facilitates the monitoring of restored areas. Key to success was the establishment of trust between project staff, partners and communities. In particular, the incorporation of two project staff into the field in the third year of the project was essential to success and helped achieve the project’s aim of daily work with communities.

Local partners were crucial to the effective implementation of the project. Each partner focused on a particular strategic area which best suited their expertise, meaning they could each support the project in the most effective way possible.

The MoU with the University of Doula meant students could be educated on the challenges of communities on the ground. Many students supported the project via data collection and monitoring and evaluation, and gained practical perspectives of the use of science in ecosystem-based management, wildlife conservation and community engagement.

Factors for success

Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

What doesn’t work and why

For the local communities, embedding conservation in fishery management and creating community organisations required high levels of investment in mediation and conflict resolution in the second and third years of the project. Although trust was an important element in project successes, the project’s short duration meant certain activities were probably implemented before trust and understanding had been built completely with the communities.

A big challenge was the reduced presence of the Conservation Service on the ground during the project implementation. This was because staff changes had led to eco-guards being unavailable at the time.

Several of the initial NGO partners were not based in the area, requiring additional support and logistics to effectively carry out their particular assignments.

Whilst the project was highly collaborative there was no consistent impact on income levels from fishers, with only a minority engaged in VSLAs during the project implementation period. Reports from 2017 showed however that this trend is changing, with better mechanisms being assessed to impact fishers through sustainable business models. The role of gender inclusiveness will be important going forward also.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Insufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Unclear and intangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

Organisers, donors and partners

Partner institutions: Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Fauna (MINFOF), Watershed Task Group (WTG), Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society (CWCS), African Marine Mammals Conservation Organisation (AMMCO), Council of Dizangué, University of Doula /Institute of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Net-Works, Evergreen

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