MOUNT CAMEROON, Cameroon
The relentless gain in altitude brought respite from the equatorial heat as we trudged upwards through the rainforest of Mount Cameroon’s southwest slope.
The air was cooling and the path finally plateaued.
Martin, our guide, recommended a break before the next push towards Hut Two, above treeline in the alpine savanna, where we planned to spend the night.
We dropped our packs by a small sign at the flat clearing’s edge, among the lush greenery.
The Anglophone sign (Cameroonians speak French or English in addition to their indigenous dialects) bore a familiar motto that has apparently been adopted by environmental movements the world over: “Leave only footprints; takes only pictures.”
I snorted. There was trash all over the place. Litter had dotted the forest trail and surrounding foliage periodically from the trail head, some 1,000 metres below us.
The ethos of the sign’s slogan was incongruous with reality, and my delicate Canadian sensibilities were offended.
The irony was not lost on Martin.
“This plastic, it does not rot,” Martin, he said as he toed a discarded black plastic bag that merchants across West Africa, inside department stores or at the lowliest street stalls, dole out with the slightest purchase.
The bag wasn’t alone.
Water bottles, food wrappers, miscellaneous bits of plastic and pieces of shoes littered the path up the mountain’s southwest slope, most densely at the sleeping huts where rats gathered to feast and nest.
The sign and others like it along the trail were posted by the Mount Cameroon Ecotourism Organization, the same group that hired Martin and his countrymen to guide garbage-sensitive Western visitors through the mountain rainforest and savanna.
Established in 1996, the organization is an enigma in Africa, devoted as it is to “develop and promote ecotourism as an instrument for biodiversity conservation in the Mount Cameroon region and the improvement of the livelihood of the local population.”
It achieves its goals a number of ways.
For example, it’s illegal for a foreigner to set foot on Mount Cameroon without hiring a local guide.
It’s also illegal to litter on the mountain, but that rule is less enforced because the ecotourism organization is not the only outfit operating in Buea, the town at the foot of the mountain that serves as a base of operations for excursions.
Porters working for the ecotourism group don’t get paid if they return from an expedition without their trash, but the Tourism ministry also provides guides and there are clandestine groups and individuals offering guide services who do not practice the unconventional environmental ethos that the ecotourism organization preaches.
The organization is trying to promote a policy of “bring some, burn some,” said public relations officer Gwendolyn Namondo.
“The ones you can’t burn, bring it down,” said Namondo. “We keep making announcements. People quarrel about it.
“But we cannot have people getting into fights when they are on the mountain. They will die.”
So for the sake of peace the organization hosts public awareness seminars and dispatches teams of porters to clean and maintain the trail each September, she said.
But there are other challenges to ecotourism as well, namely slash-and-burn farming that has been practised along the lower slopes for centuries, and poaching.
Local hunters continue to shoot forest monkeys for bush meat even though hunting them is against the law, said Martin.
“It is not allowed; they are rare,” he said.
As a self-described “forester” and a farmer, Martin said he wants a solution, and turns to the government for answers.
Cameroon is considering proposed legislation that would protect the entire Mount Cameroon region as a national park where rangers could enforce the rules, he said.
But government bureaucracy works slowly at best, perhaps nowhere more slowly than an African nation with a lingering despot for a leader, and Martin holds faint hope to see some progress on park status within the next five to 10 years.
The ecotourism organization is not alone.
The World Wildlife Fund has an office in Limbe, a coastal town where the mountain meets the sea that is actively lobbying in favour of forest stewardship at Mount Cameroon.
Near Limbe an enormous off-shore oil rig looms in the distance, attended by several huge tankers.
With offshore oil giant Nigeria next door and its own oil reserves coveted by multinational corporations, Cameroon has obvious reasons to protect its remaining rainforest — not just for tourists — and the ecotourism association is taking the lead.
“It is very difficult,” said Namondo. “Nothing is perfect. All is not that good and not that bad.”
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.