Ndian, a division in southwestern Cameroon, is in some ways a blessed place. With a coastline on the Gulf of Guinea, it has generous oil and gas reserves, more than 400,000 hectares of national parks and biosphere reserves, vast palm oil plantations, and more than 100,000 hectares of state-owned forest.
Yet more than 50 years after independence from its British colonial masters, the division has barely three kilometers of paved road and its residents remain mired in extreme poverty.
Ndian presents a major opportunity for conservation, ecotourism, and scientific research, but so far development has been limited to energy extraction and industrial-scale farming. Sites designated for tourism remain relatively empty, thanks to bad roads, a dodgy telecommunications network, and a lack of lodging. For locals, Ndian lacks adequate health facilities, schools, public water, electricity, and recreation centers, among other things.
On the national level, there is little political will to develop the area, and local officials’ hands are tied because the central government has not lived up to promises to return to the division a portion of revenues generated there.
In the meantime, small farmers face enormous hurdles getting their produce to markets. People in Ndian carry their goods – cocoa, coffee, and foodstuffs – on their head over long distances, walking across flimsy hammocks to cross fast-moving streams. And they pay more for the goods that eventually come to them: construction supplies, cooking gas, and electronics, for instance, carry a markup of at least 10 percent.
The government has done little to reconstruct the region since an early 1990s conflict between Cameroon and neighboring Nigeria over ownership of the Bakassi peninsula, part of Ndian. The English-speaking people there feel Nigerian, though according to an International Court of Justice ruling they live on Cameroonian soil. Their complaints of disenfranchisement by francophone Cameroon have even led to calls for secession.
This kind of economic and social marginalization is a breeding ground for insurrection, which further retards sustainable economic development. I believe this story is important because the Cameroonian government must deal with this festering situation before it reaches the volatility of Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, just over the border.
For my project, I plan to spend a week in Ndian, talking to local chiefs and administrators, villagers, and oil company executives. A major goal will be to capture the human suffering in images,
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