Eco-village in Cameroon seeks to nourish the roots of plants and culture

Joshua Kankonko (left) founded the permaculture farm and eco-village near the town of Bafut in northwestern Cameroon. He gives a tour of the farm and explains the principles of permaculture. (Photo Credit: Ngala Killian Chimton)

In a corner of the North West region of Cameroon, local farmers are learning sustainable farming practices in what they call an eco-village. They’re combining permaculture methods with traditional farming practices that fell out of favor when the so-called Green Revolution of agrochemicals and hybrid seeds swept across the globe. FSRN’s Ngala Killian Chimtom traveled to the demonstration farm in the village of Bafut to see just how the system is playing out.

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A group of women proudly raise their voices in song as they welcome home Joshua Kankonko, the founder of a so-called eco-village near the town of Bafut in northwestern Cameroon. Healthy croplands, houses built entirely with local materials as well as what the women now call the “kitchen revolution” are just some of the things they point to with pride.

A pillar of their livelihood model is permaculture – a farming system that is sustainable and builds on local traditional practices dating from before the era of chemical fertilizers and patented seeds.

“The term that has been coined by scientists means permanent agriculture-agriculture that cannot be destroyed,” explains project coordinator Joshua Konkako. “It is sustainable, it is permanent. This is the way our parents used to farm. Our mothers used to go behind the house and harvest grass. If you had a headache, that was the local pharmacy. Where all the kitchen waste was thrown behind the house was where the vegetables were harvested, so this is a concept that was organic. Everything that we produce, we get from the environment; we give it back to the environment.”

Pressures on scarce fertile lands in Cameroon’s North West Region have historically fueled tribal conflicts.

Permaculture sets out to replenish the soil and maximize yields on relatively small plots.

“We have mechanical erosion control and natural erosion control,” says project administrator Sonita Mbah Neh, explaining that the the first step of the process is to hold the soil in place. “Natural erosion control is done with vertiva grass. We can also use pineapple, so we use plant family. Plant family means that you put two plants together and they form a web. When they form a web, they hold the soil and water together. For mechanical erosion control we use plants, we use bamboo…just what we have available and then we put a few barriers.”

Once anti-erosion methods are in place, Mbah explains the task is to enrich the soil with nutrients – but without chemical fertilizers. She advises the use of organic manure.

“Inorganic fertilizers destroy the soil nutrients,” Mbah continues. “What happens in the soil which is what we don’t see, is that there is a lot of relationship between soil organisms…there is mycelium; there is fungi and all these things come together to produce what we see above the soil. And then when we plant Nitrogen fixing plants, they have a relationship with this mycelium and fungus. They need the soil with the roots of these plants, which produce nitrogen, and these plants get the nitrogen from the airspace, from the sunlight. And all these happen beneath the soil. And once you get the inorganic fertilizer into the soil, it destroys all these processes that have to happen to give us what we see above the soil.”

The system is already working well here. Farmer Justina Lum says that in the two years since she transitioned to permaculture methods, her yields have nearly doubled. She has also learned how to use mud, grass and clay to build a more fuel-efficient wood-burning stove.

“This one is nice because it makes for complete combustion and my pot doesn’t get black,” Lum says, calling the benefits significant. “In addition, smoke is channeled through a chimney and therefore our eyes are not exposed to smoke. Besides, it economizes wood and is not costly to build.”

Project coordinator Kankonko credits his upbringing as his inspiration for the eco-village model. As a child, he saw his mother use compost manure to fertilize her crops and learned gardening methods in school. Those lessons stuck with him, even as he passed through the corridors of higher education. As an adult, Kankonko decided to bring his experience back to the Bafut community.

“In just one year, human work on the environment using natural resources has been able to transform the look of this place,” he says, calling the experiment a success not only for family incomes, but also for environmental restoration. “Part of permaculture is about restoring the natural balance, working with nature instead of against it.”

But the sustainability of the system will depend largely on youth involvement. Kankonko says this will require local youths to see cultivating and nourishing their agrarian roots as a viable alternative to white collar jobs in the cities.

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