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Sous l’empire du cacao

Christian Santoir


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1Country habits in Southern Cameroon are evolving rapidly. They are changing to different extents and at different speeds under the effect of new factors which have appeared during the past sixty years: the introduction of cash crops and a monetary economy, increased personal mobility, the opening up of major lines of communication, the emergence of regional urban centres, population growth, etc.

2The purpose of the present work was to describe the recent evolution of village territories, taking into account the regional context and the changes in production which took place during the colonial period. For this, certain topics such as emigration, the landholding System, cultivated areas and types of crops were selected in priority and received doser examination.

3Two village territories, an Eton village (Yemesoa) and a Bulu village (Alen-Zalengañ), in very different regions were chosen as an example of overall evolution. This limited selection may seem somewhat risky, but the cultural homogeneity of the forestry environment and the unity of farming Systems make it possible to limit the number of examples. These villages are of considerable interest as we possess old data making it possible to examine their evolution over a thirteen-year period.

4Setting these two observation points in parallel should make it possible to examine the responses of farmers living in radically different contexts to identical problems (covering their own food requirements, search for monetary income, attitude to cocoa growing, etc.).

The regional context: Southern Cameroon

5The two villages studied are in the equatorial forest which covers the whole of Southern Cameroon. This is a priori a difficult environment with clear disadvantages (excess moisture, parasite diseases, dense river network, etc.). However, strictly speaking, there are no “good” and “bad” environments. The variations in the abundance of natural resources only have an influence at strictly local level.

6The physical environment is evolving rapidly in Southern Cameroon. Without controlling it, man has cleared the forest for crops or for exploiting the timber. Aggression is constant around Yaoundé and along the main lines of communication.

7The forest environment is particularly fragile. The present situation is only a phase in the process of transformation (or degradation?) which started several centuries ago with the arrivai in the forest of the first waves of migrants from beyond the Sanaga.

8In a little-differentiated physical environment, the only regional factor of diversification is settlement. The greater or less imprint applied by human groups to their environment makes it possible to determine several settlement areas or “countries”. The establishment of the main human groups belonging to the Beti unit was spread over about two centuries. The migrations leading to their present habitat were very complex and are responsible for human settlement which is extremely contrasted spatially. The settlement of Southern Cameroon was still characterised in 1986 by the existence of highly populated zones adjoining practically empty areas. The transition between the different sectors is either gradual or abrupt.

9More than soils, climate and vegetation, hydrography emerged as one of the basic factors in settlement. However, natural resources are not determinant factors in the population distribution. Each human group interpreted in a different way - according to its culture, traditions and history - the environment in which it was settled by German pacification. Thus, in spite of almost equivalent numbers and similar cultures, the Eton and Bulu did not occupy land in the same way and did not develop the same densities. Their manners of settlement are contrasted.

10The Eton population is shut in on all sides (by the Sanaga and the edge of the central Cameroon plateau) and is ten times as dense as that of the Bulu, who are spread across a large forest area between the Dja and the coast. In comparison, the Bulu area is a kind of dip. The highest population densities (20 to 40 persons per sq. km) are along the main lines of communication and around crossroads.

11In addition to settlement, the Eton and Bulu areas possess specific features which give each its own identity. There are distinct differences in housing, the layout of local land and agricultural production.

The old production System

12Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the Beti family unit (nda) was based on a socially very homogeneous and numerically large unit which moved slowly through the forest. The farming activities in which men and women participated were as important as hunting and fishing but not more. They combined the crop cycle of the savanna (peanut, yam, etc.), where the Beti came from, and a cycle of more specifically forest crops (plantain, taro, gourds, cassava, etc.). This extensive type of farming requires large areas. Under these conditions, the relations between man and land were very loose and consisting mainly of right of use. Land was generally obtained by conquest for superficial, temporary use.

13Colonisation was accompanied by rapid settling of the groups. More than authoritarian measures, this was enhanced by the introduction of plantation crops (cocoa, coffee) which provided a source of cash for paying taxes and imported goods. These plantations set up in food-producing fields attach dwellings to the soil for a long period (about 40 years). Land, which had previously been a simple means of production, acquired a new value and became wealth. In less than one generation, the Beti drew up a summary landholding System. The sharing of land which had previously been effected by force now became a recent “custom” and was somewhat vague.

14Pacification and settlement stimulated individual masculine mobility with a considerable range (Douala, the coast, Spanish Guinea) resulting from administrative requisition, porterage and the need for money. Combined with these economic upheavals, widespread christianisation caused the destructuration of societies by systematically undermining all factors of cohesion.

15Thus, a new farming family cell emerged at the beginning of the century; this consisted of a limited family (a couple and a few relations) and was still involved in a network of old social relations becoming increasing loose. Rooted to the ground by its plantations and in close neighbourhood with other groups along a track in a “village”, these new domestic units now had to survive alone and solve their problems using their own human and material resources.

Yemesoa and Alen-Zalengan land in 1972

16The study of the two villages shows distinct differences between the Bulu and Eton Systems. Both villages were characterised by small holdings (average cultivated area 2.4 ha at Yemesoa, 3.1 ha at Alen-Zalengan) and, more important, traditional social structure could still be seen (statutory groups, remains of the role heads of lineage, the ntol). However, this had a decreasing effect in daily life and little influence on farming activities. Both cases were fragmented societies consisting of a small number of independent cells (average 8 persons per holding at Yemesoa and 4.5 at AlenZalengan). Individual behaviour was generally preponderant. In addition, weak social cohesion caused considerable tension between families and between individuals.

17The basic factors of production - land and labour - operated differently in the two villages. At Yemesoa, under population pressure, land was the essential factor, determining ail production and even social behaviour. Through inheritance, holdings became divided and decreased in size to areas just large enough for subsistence.

18However, the relation between the shortage of land, the number of people per holding and the food crop area per person was not perfect. In holdings with a relatively small amount of land, large areas were used for food crops at the expense of fallow. In contrast, little was grown on others which had substantial reserves of land. All depended on the individual strategies which determined the amount of food crops, yields and possible recourse to seasonal or permanent emigration.

19In 1972, Eton farmers had to purchase four times more food (in terms of value) than Bulu farmers. They had sacrificed everything to cocoa which gradually colonised and permanently occupied the land used for food crops. Cocoa was most reliable marker in a context of high landholding pressure. Nevertheless, at Yemesoa, the areas used for cocoa and food crops were much smaller than in the Bulu village. However, the Etons seemed to achieve higher yields. A relatively larger quantity of food was sold at Yemesoa but with half as much land. The same applied to cocoa.

20At Alen-Zalengan, the only determinant factors were the available labour force and the search for maximum labour profitability. In contrast, Yemesoa farmers attempted to draw maximum benefit from their land capital by favouring production by means of more intensive labour. Secondary factors were involved. The specificity of environments and different rainfall patterns determined the weakness of second season crops at Yemesoa. In addition, the proximity of the large Yaoundé market strongly encouraged Eton women to market food crops.

21Although the social situations were fairly similar, there were two contrasting Systems; one was more intensive and conditioned by land (Yemesoa) and the other was extensive and conditioned by labour (Alen-Zalengan). There were deep-seated structural differences between the Systems.

Thirteen years on: the two villages in 1985

22The two villages evolved distinctly from 1972 to 1985, even though the period was fairly short. The population had decreased everywhere and especially in the Bulu village. The trend had been slow erosion in Yemesoa. In addition to permanent, longstanding population instability, this was caused by a high level of emigration, mainly of workers. Under these conditions, occasional family labour - children and old people - were of decisive importance in the choice made by operators concerning their economic activities.

23Migration tended to last longer and increasingly concerned women, especially at Alen-Zalengan; these two phenomena were partly related to male migration which finally caused increased mobility of women and children.

24Emigration contributed to somewhat “relieving” the Yemesoa farming area, but population density was still four times as great as it should have been to enable satisfactory reconstitution of fallow. Emigration was similar from Bulu territory, which is much less densely populated and the result of other causes, as in Eton territory. Emigration had an important economic basis related to the plantation economy.

25Cocoa spread everywhere in 13 years - even in Yemesoa. The territories thus confirm their cocoa growing vocation. However, this vitality had not helped to keep young people in the village. The area actually farmed, and especially the land controlled by each adult man, should be considered rather than the area cultivated per holding.

26Observation of the two villages shows that the holdings (often small, as in Yemesoa) were not divided. They had been taken over by an elder son in most cases; the younger sons - even when married - accepted a subordinate role or tried their luck in town. This effective “birthright” is the result of a new family strategy in response to the shortage of land or extensive cropping. It is opposed to traditional Beti egalitarianism. “Natural” evolution should also be seen in this; indeed polygamy is decreasing, accompanied by a decrease in the potential number of “shares” in an inheritance.

27Although food crops are mainly women’s business, they were affected by male emigration and the development of cocoa. This was completed at Yemesoa and in progress in Bulu territory. Rotations were becoming simplified and forest clearance no longer went beyond the edge of village land; fallows were becoming shorter. The farming System increasingly resembled that of Eton territory, with dominance of peanut and companion crops. In addition, peanut fields are not particularly demanding and fallows can be shorter. Male labour, which is essential for clearing old fallow, was taken up by the creation of new cocoa plantations.

28There was very little earnings potential outside agriculture in the villages. Non-agricultural activities were mainly traditional: hunting, fishing and gathering. Alen-Zalengan had a distinct advantage here since the area was less degraded than that of the Lékié. Fishing and hunting were lucrative, with the returns able to rival those from cocoa. Even more would be earned if the village were close to a market. These activities were an alternative to farm work for men in Alen-Zalengañ. In Yemesoa, apart from gathering for palm wine, “extra-agricultural” activities were mainly in the wood sector and necessarily limited by the State of tree cover which was already extremely degraded.

29For women, gathering was aimed mainly at complementing food supplies during gaps between harvests. The lucrative aspect was entirely secondary.

The balance: inertia and evolution

30The territories studied generally ensure survival of the farmers in spite of mediocre profitability of food and plantation crops, and often with the help of resources provided by extra-agricultural activities such as emigration to towns.

31The Systems observed appear to have considerable inertia. When land is available, the farming System used gave the best yield and the best income per unit of land area. A priori, landholding pressure obliged farmers to consider production per unit of surface area. At Yemesoa, a boundary case, this trend is clear for cocoa and much less so for food crops. In the most densely populated zones, the decreasing availability of land should thus strongly encourage a change in cultural methods, but in Yemesoa, no improvement in crops was observed over the 13-year period. The farmers responded to increasing overloading by a slight increase in emigration. Although the question was urgent, no solution had been found to increase yields and even less to change cropping methods: no fertilizer, no insecticides, no soil erosion control, no gardens which merit the name and no cultivation of marshland.

32However, the inertia of the farming System is mainly the result of numerous constraints to which the villages are subjected: poorly distributed population, poorly divided land, crushing dominance of cocoa (whose price fell steadily), enclavement, etc. Finally, inertia is also caused by emigration which draws the youngest, most dynamic people away from the villages. Emigration is extremely strong and it is difficult to imagine that it can increase even more. However, this inertia, that is to say the maintaining of certain old factors of production (the principle of inalienability of land, mutual aid, loaned land, etc.) also enable the survival of the village territories today and prevent the collapse of agricultural production.

33Forest farming Systems are nevertheless evolving. The territories began to change over 70 years ago with the introduction of cocoa and is continuing today with male and female emigration and progressive opening up to markets as the essential factors. More than an evolution, this is so far a slow deterioration of the social and economic factors which constituted the old production Systems (dissociation of men’s and women’s tasks, impoverishment of food crops, the end of collective control of land). Not all aspects of this degradation are necessarily negative. Greater individualism may enable private initiatives to develop, especially among young people. The increasing desire for independence is an occasion for the women to become true economic agents on an equal footing with the men. Their aim is to earn as much money as possible, which makes them more receptive with regard to the development of food crops but also - unfortunately - to the attraction of emigration.

34Farmers still had double objectives turned towards both village and town. This strategy constituted security for migrants who were never totally lacking in resources in case of failure, and also for farmers who sometimes had considerable incomes. However, there were serious disadvantages, including the impoverishment of cultural techniques, increase of female migration on a long-term basis and a resulting decrease in food crops. It is to be noted that these individual strategies benefit the town at the expense of village territories. The former profits from a young labour force which reproduces elsewhere and then moves away at the end of its working life.


35In spite of remarkable resistance, the territories studied are experiencing increasing difficulties. Apart from technical problems (diseases, poor storage, etc.), the main feature is the degradation of old practices and the impoverishment of the crops grown at the expense of peanut and cassava. In addition, food crop production today is not stimulated by an organised market with a corresponding price policy.

36As for food crops, shortage of labour is becoming the limiting factor for cocoa production. It is difficult to find wage-earning labour on the spot. Women could perhaps spend more time on the cocoa plantations, but they already have more work than the men.

37The villages in Southern Cameroon are currently villages of retired planters or labour reserves for the towns. The country will not be threatened with depopulation as long as the migrants and most of the urban population plan to return to the land when they retire or earlier. The abandoning of farms might only be envisaged if cocoa prices collapse definitively, which is extremely difficult to forecast in an extremely speculative market. The stimulation of production is necessary, even without the collapse of cocoa-which would be a national calamity. Plantation monoculture has no future in the System as it is today, except for a handful of large planters. Reconversion of the territories and revitalisation of food production are required, especially in the area around Yaoundé.

38The main aim of the improvement of food crops should be to ensure food supplies for the farmers. Abandoning combinations of crops for monoculture - a frequent development topic - receives firm opposition from the women as it carries too great a risk.

39In the interest of the farmers of Southern Cameroon, who farm one of the best agricultural regions in the country, it is urgent to devote greater efforts to free the potential of these territories firstly by developing food crops. Finally, the self-sufficiency in food supplies that Cameroon is proud of has been ensured to date (and for how long in the future?) by village territories rather than by costly development projects whose results are always uncertain.

© IRD Éditions, 1992

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