Boosting the territorial approach to tackle food crises: an example from the Far North Region of Cameroon

Harold Gaël Njouonang Djomo
Harold Gaël Njouonang Djomo

Holder of a doctorate in geography, Harold Gaël Njouonang Djomo is a specialist in land issues and natural resources management. Over the years, he has actively contributed to territorial studies, becoming familiar with all the actors involved with the implementation of territorial approaches to development in the Sudano-Sahel Region of Cameroon. He is currently working as a consultant in this region, focusing on concerns about sustainable land management in a context marked by the effects of climate change.

Published on May 14, 2024

A different approach, less vertical and closer to local reality: this is what Harold Gaël Njouonang Djomo is calling for from Cameroon, in this final article in our focus on food crises.

 

Cameroon’s Far North Region is faced with a complex and multidimensional set of challenges dominated by chronic food insecurity. Extreme weather, pressures relating to land law and the destabilising effects of the security crisis caused by Boko Haram attacks have had a significant impact on local populations, which are mainly rural and dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Food assistance programmes are essential for addressing the urgent needs of communities in distress. The effectiveness of these interventions, however, is often compromised by standardised approaches, which are no doubt too closely based on Western models which do not take sufficient account of local circumstances and the socio-territorial dynamics specific to the various geographical units. This article therefore highlights the urgent need to adopt an innovative territorial approach firmly based on a thorough understanding of local realities and which aims to develop appropriate and sustainable solutions to address the persistent food crisis. An in-depth analysis of the specific issues and challenges encountered in this region will make it possible to identify strategic courses of action to boost the resilience of communities and promote inclusive and sustainable development.

A strategic canton, a delicate context and a food crisis

In the very heart of Cameroon’s Far North Region, in the department of Mayo-Sava, the canton of Mémé occupies a strategic position in the north of the town of Mora, the department’s administrative centre. A key part of the region’s social and economic fabric, this canton is vital for trade and interactions with neighbouring cantons. It has an ethnically diverse population, mainly comprising Fulani, Mafa and Kotoko communities who live together peacefully, contributing to the cultural richness and social stability of the region. Most of the population lives in rural areas with age-old traditions, and their livelihood is mainly based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Farmers grow cereals such as millet, sorghum and maize, and vegetables such as beans, tomatoes and onions. Cattle, sheep, goat and poultry farming also plays a major part in the local economy. Local trade is driven by the large number of markets which are vital commercial centres where farmers sell their products, thus boosting community links and helping with the sustainable development of the region.

According to the data available for 2017, 2020 and 2023, this region has been highly unstable since the beginning of the security crisis caused by the actions of the Boko Haram sect. In 2017, the department of Mayo-Sava was the area most affected by suicide bombings and attacks on villages, with 183 attacks recorded between January and October resulting in the deaths of 158 civilians and the displacement of approximately 72,000 people. 2020 saw an increase in the number of violent incidents associated with Islamist groups in the Far North Region, with around 400 attacks recorded and one hundred civilians killed. Mayo-Sava recorded around 144,298 internally displaced people. More recently, between January and July 2023, Boko Haram killed at least 169 civilians in the Far North Region and was responsible for the displacement of around 125,045 people in Mayo-Sava.[1]Organisation internationale pour les migrations, Cameroun – Suivi des flux de populations (Juillet 2023), Matrice de suivi des déplacements, (Displacement Tracking Matrix – DTM), 21 août 2023, … Continue reading

This instability has compounded the existing food crisis, particularly in the canton of Mémé. The origins of this crisis lie in the worsening climate conditions – recurrent droughts in particular – which have led to a fall in agricultural yields, directly affecting the food security of the local people and increasing their vulnerability. The canton has therefore experienced several food crises in recent years, most notably in 2010, 2014 and 2020. Security conflicts, population displacement, local insecurity and the presence of armed groups have led to an increase in malnutrition and, more generally, a deterioration in living conditions.

Throughout the region, therefore, there are recurrent production deficits linked to unpredictable rainfall which, compounded by Boko Haram attacks, has resulted in field crops being abandoned. During the 2015/2016 agricultural season (the only figures we have), the crop deficit was estimated at 50,088 tonnes when compared to the region’s requirements (CFSAM 2016).[2]CFSAM: Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission. The CFSAM is an initiative usually run by international organisations, government agencies or humanitarian aid partners to assess the harvest and … Continue reading In the fourth quarter of 2016, nearly 780,000 people were experiencing food insecurity in Cameroon’s Far North Region.[3]FSMS (Food Security Monitoring System), Cameroun – Suivi de la sécurité alimentaire, WFP, PNSA, Bulletin n° 2, janvier 2017, … Continue reading This worrying situation required urgent action from humanitarian organisations (international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Cameroonian public bodies) to provide food aid.

According to the cadre harmonisé [harmonised framework] analysis published in November 2023, and applying the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) which measures food insecurity and malnutrition, the departments of Mayo-Sava and Mayo-Tsanaga were classed as Phase 3 for the period October-December 2023. This phase denotes a situation in which household food security and nutrition have been severely affected. It means that the populations concerned have limited access to food, leading to moderate or acute malnutrition. The analysis also indicates that the situation may deteriorate for the period June-August 2024.

Since the beginning of the crisis in 2016, and given the increasingly difficult food situation, partners in the food security sector have recommended that assistance be stepped up, particularly in areas affected by the security crisis[4]OCHA, Cameroun : Extrême-Nord – Rapport de situation No. 38 – novembre 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/cameroon/cameroun-extreme-nord-rapport-de-situation-no-38-novembre-2023 related to Boko Haram attacks. Whilst humanitarian actors are addressing immediate needs for food and assistance, they are also working on long-term solutions that take account of the specific characteristics of the area and the aspirations of the people of Mémé. Yet this does not seem to be enough.

Criticisms of current food aid mechanisms

In the canton of Mémé, around 40% of those interviewed in the field felt that current programmes do not address local food needs effectively, leaving some in a state of persistent insecurity. At the very least, this is a major challenge in terms of harmonising the needs and socio-territorial representations of communities. By way of example, the international programme led by an NGO (Red Cross) in 2021 to improve food security through an agricultural project was not as successful as expected, according to the local people, because the planners did not take account of specific village conditions such as local planting seasons, local food preferences and land ownership systems. In addition to undermining the effectiveness of the programme, disagreements even broke out within the community. Indeed, local farmers were unhappy that they could not grow what they wanted or when they thought it most appropriate.

The fact that local members (farmers, community representatives) and the main direct beneficiaries of these aid programmes were not fully involved is undoubtedly one of the reasons for this criticism. Furthermore, shortcomings in terms of communication from the organisation concerned may justify the criticisms made. The lack of transparency about field activities, as well as not sharing information about the objectives, results and beneficiaries of the programme, seem to have influenced communities’ perception of this aid programme. One person interviewed at the Mémé centre said: “We often see NGOs come here to distribute food and other products… We see them pass through and sometimes head for the chefferie [chiefdom]… It’s only afterwards that we learn that things were given out there. But… aren’t we from the village too? We have nothing here.

Furthermore, some aid organisations are criticised for focusing on groups specifically identified as vulnerable (especially internally displaced people); this is understandable, but it also generates disappointment among other village residents, as we have seen in the village of Goldoko. Communities feel that they also deserve this aid as they themselves face food difficulties on a daily basis, even though they are not as vulnerable as the current beneficiaries. This situation has led to social tension and deepened divisions between the canton’s various communities who feel that it would be more appropriate to implement mechanisms that benefit everyone so as to boost the resilience of all communities in the face of food insecurity.

The challenges of implementing the territorial approach

In Cameroon’s Far North Region, a territorial approach would involve an holistic analysis of local issues, based on a detailed understanding of the interactions between communities, their environment and the resources available. This would require consultation with local actors so as to identify priority needs and understand the resilience mechanisms already in place. At the heart of the canton of Mémé, the complex nature of the socio-territorial dynamic is influenced by various factors that determine the ability of the local people to cope with the food crisis.

Traditional practices and perception of the food crisis

In the Far North Region, food practices and perceptions vary from group to group. The food practices of the people who live in the canton of Mémé are rooted in their culture: some prefer local products such as millet, sorghum and home-grown vegetables, whilst others opt for more modern and imported food. By adapting food aid to suit local preferences, the nutritional needs of local people are better met, better use is made of the resources provided and support for food aid programmes is fostered.

Furthermore, the availability of food can vary considerably from one group to another. In some isolated villages, for example, local people have limited access to markets and products, meaning that they largely depend on what they can grow themselves or on the rare products available locally. Other communities, such as those near urban centres, however, are able to diversify their food sources as they have better access to supermarkets, local markets and delivery services. By being aware of such situations and the specific needs of vulnerable groups, policies that are more inclusive and effective can be designed; for example, programmes that aim to improve access to markets in disadvantaged areas or to boost communities’ ability to produce their own food can be implemented to address these needs.

It is also essential to take account of how community members perceive food security: some believe that food diversity is essential, whilst others place more importance on the quantity and regularity of supplies. By taking the various points of view into consideration, decision-makers can design programmes that are more appropriate and effective for dealing with the populations affected by the food crisis.

Lastly, even though the distribution of food, and even money in the form of cash, by NGOs is an effective response to the current food crisis, sustainable solutions (agricultural development, nutrition education and local job creation) must be implemented at the same time: by fostering long-term initiatives, these communities can be helped to become more autonomous and less dependent on food aid.

Logistical and security challenges

In the canton that is of interest to us here, for example, the logistics chain for the distribution of aid is severely affected by security challenges. Terrorist attacks which, according to the United Nations, have left at least 3,000 people dead and 250,000 internally displaced in the Far North

Region of Cameroon since 2014, have left their mark on the communities. They have also disrupted aid operations: the region’s proximity to the Nigerian border exposes it to a high level of risk, complicating the movement of humanitarian workers and the transport of food. The canton of Mémé has a poorly developed and highly unreliable road network making it difficult to access some remote villages. It is vital that these routes are made safe so that humanitarian workers can operate in good conditions – this means working with the local authorities and investing in the transport infrastructure.

Coordinating the actions of food aid actors

Poor coordination between the various food aid programmes in the region means that resources are spread thinly. Creating a coordination platform that brings together all the organisations involved would facilitate the exchange of information, the joint planning of operations and the efficient allocation of the resources available. This collaborative approach would help avoid the duplication of effort, identify any gaps and address the priority needs of the populations affected by the food crisis in a more effective manner.

 

Translated from the French by Derek Scoins

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References

References
1 Organisation internationale pour les migrations, Cameroun – Suivi des flux de populations (Juillet 2023), Matrice de suivi des déplacements, (Displacement Tracking Matrix – DTM), 21 août 2023, https://dtm.iom.int/fr/reports/cameroun-suivi-des-flux-de-populations-juillet-2023
2 CFSAM: Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission. The CFSAM is an initiative usually run by international organisations, government agencies or humanitarian aid partners to assess the harvest and food security situation in a given region.
3 FSMS (Food Security Monitoring System), Cameroun – Suivi de la sécurité alimentaire, WFP, PNSA, Bulletin n° 2, janvier 2017, https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/1397741/4792_1492576927_cmr20fsms20-20bulletin200220-20final20-2028janv20201729.pdf
4 OCHA, Cameroun : Extrême-Nord – Rapport de situation No. 38 – novembre 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/cameroon/cameroun-extreme-nord-rapport-de-situation-no-38-novembre-2023