Tantoh Nforba (Farmer Tantoh) is creating a new generation of citizen leaders with citizen-led solutions to maintain the integrity of water catchment areas in both rural and urban areas.
The New Idea
Farmer Tantoh is mobilizing a range of local talents and knowledge to create a citizen-led movement to maintain the integrity of water sources and to curtail pollution. He is responding to the negative consequences of increased population pressure on water resources, and the need for better water management planning and waterway protection strategies. To do this, he is mobilizing communities to take part in the protection and restoration of their water sources. He is building a national network of school-based environmental clubs, a network of traditional healers concerned with maintaining "sacred spaces" in the Northwest of Cameroon, and helping a growing community of urban advocacy groups to find practical solutions to creating urban green space (profitably) and maintaining the quality of “spring-fed" water.
Cameroon’s land and water resources are under considerable strain due to increasing pressure from population growth. According to the World Bank, the amount of arable land has decreased from 0.65 hectares per person (in 1965) to only 0.31 hectares per person in 2009. Pressure on land resources has also contributed to the decline of forest area in the country, which has dropped from 243,160 km2 in 1990 to about 199, 000 km2 in 2010.
One outcome of population growth in rural Cameroon is that as people search for new farm land beyond the boundaries of what was previously cultivated and settle on this land, these new farms and farming practices are lowering the amount and quality of water available to downstream towns. A related problem is that population pressure has resulted in more intensive and unsustainable cultivation of land along the banks of significant waterways. This has created soil breakdown, resulting in downstream erosion and pollution. This increased activity has also put a spotlight on the traditional practices of clothes washing and defecation in rivers and streams that have increased to a point where they are having an impact on public health.
Populations that have lived along waterways and used rivers for various agricultural, bodily and traditional practices for decades have not had to consider the consequences of their actions on water pollution and on riverbanks until now. However, with population pressure on the rise and an increase in the aggregate negative effects on water sources and soil, citizens must now become engaged in the environment around them and understand how they can organize themselves to share water resources appropriately and protect waterways and riverbanks. While these communities have not traditionally seen themselves as custodians of the waterways and land, the repercussions of population pressure on the irrigable water supply, the riverbanks’ soil and on their health, are highlighting the need for these communities to take action.
Urban areas, like Yaounde, are also facing water quality problems that Tantoh believes can be addressed by using the same principles of community involvement in developing solutions for the long-term management of water sources for the benefit of the community. He sees the solution as not simply rural or urban and is working to raise awareness that solutions that come from fields, such as landscaping and botanic gardening, can be as valuable in a rural context as an urban context.
Community mobilization lies at the heart of Farmer Tantoh’s strategy. He works to engage communities in the environment around them and provide them with the information and tools needed for water management and soil protection planning. Once he identifies a threatened water catchment area, he identifies the leaders who are committed to the protection project and through them, gets the community to provide 20% of the project’s costs. He then raises the rest of the funds from local and foreign partners and sends in his staff and volunteers to execute the training program. Communities are provided with information on how to manage their water resources so that there is adequate water for agriculture, recreational activities, traditional practices and basic daily needs. For example, he works with farmers and helps them understand how they can use water for irrigation while still ensuring that there is a supply of clean water for others downstream. In addition, he organizes a series of on-site demonstrations to demonstrate how to avoid bad practices on riverbanks and provides alternatives for these activities. For example, he has worked to provide latrines for communities that reside along rivers in order to discourage urination and defecation in the water.
As a scaling strategy, Farmer Tantoh is establishing environmental clubs in schools across Cameroon. This has become so successful that the schools now approach him themselves, pay a registration fee and request that SYFA staff and/or volunteers to train their pupils in setting up botanical gardens, tree planting, water catchment protection, or lawn planting, which skills they carry with them, going forward. The participating children are rewarded for their participation with their own plants, which they are encouraged to plant and nurture to maturity. He also works with the Fongs (traditional Chiefs) and the Ministry of Culture to identify, map and preserve the sacred forests and groves of the various communities across the country. Young people in all participating communities are also trained in the skill of well-drilling, which enables them to earn an income in the future with this perennially ‘in-demand’ skill.
Farmer Tantoh has funded some of his work through in-kind donations, but has also recently begun a for-profit spin-off business of designing, creating and maintaining green service areas in the urban spaces, to help with the sustainability of his work. Economic sustainability is further built into his work by his planting trees and flowers by the sides of springs, paid for by individuals, communities and/or the government.
Farmer Tantoh left home at the age of three to reside with his grandmother in the village - it was there that his appreciation for agriculture and the environment began. His father died when he was 16 years old. Upon his return to his community, the family tried to influence him to join the police academy, but he resisted because his heart lay in agriculture and the environment. He had begun experimenting with diverse kinds of plants at an early stage, while in Northern Cameroon, and continued when he went to secondary school in the Southern region. He sought out harmless, profitable crops to plant in his community. After success in this endeavor, he spread his research to other communities, as well as the urban areas (towns and cities).
Farmer Tantoh’s passion and persistence led him to be noticed by a foreigner, on one of the days he was working at his farm. The foreigner, after observing him for some time, became interested in his work and took Farmer Tantoh to America in 2010, where he gained advanced knowledge on plants and agricultural techniques. Farmer Tantoh came back to Cameroon to experiment with this knowledge in his community. After a few months, he went to Siberia for further practice and learned about water sources and catchment areas, as well as sacred spaces and how best to safeguard them. He then returned to his community in the western high lands of Cameroon to establish an operational base, and from there, implement the knowledge and skills he had acquired, across Cameroon and beyond.