The Busara Circle use their wisdom and experience to mentor program participants. Meet new Busara Circle recruit Cécile Ndjebet, a professional agronomist and social forestry engineer from Cameroon, who specialises in gender, and is a trainer and advisor in women’s leadership. The award-winning international women’s rights advocate has initiated numerous polices, programs and initiatives to preserve the forests and livelihoods of Africans who depend on them. 

Photo: Cécile Ndjebet in a mangrove in Cameroon. Credit: Supplied.

By Isabel Wilson

Like many Cameroonians, Cécile Ndjebet grew up in a rural farming area.

She was acutely aware of how her mother and older sister struggled to feed their family and raise their children.

“They were cultivating the farm and trying to sell production,” she says.

“I was very young, but I could see the struggle my mother and my sister were going through every day. They were suffering a lot.”

Her early childhood inspired her to make a difference.

She studied agronomy at university, then worked as a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture in Cameroon, before she received a scholarship to study a Masters of Science in Social Forestry at Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands.

After 10 years of working for the Cameroon Ministry of Environment and Forests, she joined the Pan-African Institute for Central African Development as a development advisor and trainer/researcher.

That led to an opportunity to work in a project about community forestry and gender with the German Foundation for International Development.

“It was really important to train African women and men on gender to understand what gender meant for development and how we can improve the contribution of men and women in the rural development sectors,” she says.

The four years of experience gained at the Institute, travelling across Africa, working with women, and training staff at other non-government agencies and institutions, inspired Cécile to initiate a gender and community forestry project in Cameroon.

She created the first African national non-government agency in 2000.

The mandate of Cameroon Ecology is to help communities fight against poverty through sustainable management of the environment.

“In Cameroon, a large part of the population lives in rural areas and thus depends indirectly on nature,” the Cameroon Ecology website states.

“The challenge is to improve the participation of these communities in the sustainable management of natural resources by strengthening their capacities, so that they actively contribute to poverty reduction.”

Cécile was honoured in the 2022 Champions of the Earth Inspiration and Action category of the UN Environment Programme awards. Credit: UNEP.

Cécile says the forestry sector worldwide is male-dominated and because of that, women don’t have the security to access the forests.

“Women wherever they are, in whichever country or continent they belong to, they are experiencing the same challenges: they don’t have a security to the tenure because they have not been considered like key actors in the forestry sector,” she says.

“Women have been playing a key role in protecting the forests at a household level and at a community level, but it was only until we started talking about sustainable forest management that people realised the key role women are playing to sustain the forest.

“Men are cutting the trees for timber while women are keeping the trees alive. There is a difference.

“Women are very well informed and they have very good traditional knowledge of how to keep the trees alive for life from generation to generation…and it’s the women who don’t have that security to access the forest, to own the forest.”

Cécile says even if African women inherit a forest or land through their husbands, the state can take the property away from them, “even if you have been there for 30 or 40 years”.

“Women have kept the forest alive for over centuries. They know how important forests are for their life,” she says.

“That’s where they get their medicines, that’s where they get their food, that’s where they get their leisure activities, that’s where they earn some income.

“But still, despite all the roles that they’re playing, women don’t have property rights.”

The social forestry engineer saw the desperate need for a system change.

In 2009 she founded the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF).

The regional network of women from 20 African countries is dedicated to the collective action of African women to address social challenges, and the political, legal and economic issues related to forest management with particular attention given to the limitations of women.

“How come 50 percent of the population are female, yet they are excluded from decision making and property rights?,” she says.

“That’s the system we have to change…those 50% of the population don’t have the property right to improve the production of food, to improve this management of forests that they have been contributing to, to improve the biodiversity conservation.”

Women are key actors in biodiversity conservation to fight against climate change, she says, and if the management of forests is not sustainable, the climate will continue to deplete.

“We’ll continue to have all these problems that you see, all these climate disasters we are living in today,” she says.

“Everything is being destroyed. We cannot continue to accept that women are banned to the right of the land and the forests. This is not fair at all. This systemic inequality is what we have to fight for.”

Photo: Village in Cameroon. Credit: Unsplash.

The network is committed to contributing significantly to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

It aims to plant 20 million trees by 2030 but Cécile adds African women need more support to manage and restore the forests.

“African women have been for decades caring for nature, they have been caring for forest, they have been caring for the climate, for the biodiversity for the environment, but with very little resources,” she says.

“There is growing recognition of our role we are playing but the recognition is not enough.

“We need adequate resources to support woman’s struggle in restoring African forests, in restoring African biodiversity, in addressing climate change and poverty reduction, because women are key actors in all those sectors in all those activities.

“If you don’t have African women, you don’t have Africa.”

Cécile is an active member of The UN Women Major Group and a well-known woman advocate for women’s tenure rights within global women networks such as Global Gender and Climate Alliance, Women’s Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural resources management and Global Women Tenure Network.

She is also Focal Point of the Women’s Major Group of the United Nations Forest Forum, and Steering Committee member of The Forests Dialogue.

In 2012 she was elected Climate Change Champion of the Central African Commission on Forests and in May this year (2022), the Cameroonian activist won the 2022 Wangari Maathai Forest Champions’ Award.

The award, created to recognise the work of Kenyan environmentalist, politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Maathai, recognized Cécile’s outstanding contribution to preserving forests and improving the lives of people who depend on them.

Cécile says Professor Maathai once visited her Cameroon Ecology organisation and witnessed women planting trees in rural areas.

“And she told me ‘get African women planting trees. The whole world would benefit from their work’.

“This resonates in my heart. When I’m sleeping, I think of that, when I’m starting any action, I always have that in my mind.”

Cécile says her responsibility is “to bring African women, Asian women, Latin American women and third world women into this, especially the youngest generation, we need them to sustain our future”.

Since beginning in 2009, she says REFACOF has doubled its membership from 10 to 20 countries, “and all the African countries want to join REFACOF”.

Photo: Cécile Ndjebet. Credit: Supplied.

Cécile’s message to women aspiring to be leaders particularly within male dominated STEM fields is to “get organised, act collectively, and support each other”.

She urges women to mobilise, become action structured, and work together towards a defined vision.

“This is the great movement that we have to build to change the patriarchal agenda,” she says.

“We need to change the rationale. We need to make things work. Unless we are very well organised, act collectively, and support each other, will not get there.

“Men are controlling everything, they are the key decision makers…we have to keep on struggling, getting more mobilised, organised and working together, defining our vision together, our goals and taking our action together. This is how we can get things moving.”

Edited by Diane Nazaroff