CIVICUS discusses the aspirations and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Estelle Ewoule Lobé, co-founder of the Cameroonian civil society organisation (CSO) Action for the protection of environmental refugees and internally displaced people in Africa (APADIME).
What environmental issues do you work on?
Our organisation, APADIME, works on several interconnected human rights and environmental issues. We work on the protection of the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, with a particular focus on Indigenous women and environmentally displaced people. We contribute to the fight against transnational environmental crimes such as the illegal exploitation of forest resources and illegal trafficking of protected species. We work to strengthen the resilience of Indigenous peoples and local communities and to raise public awareness of the need to protect forests. Finally, we implement income-generating activities for Indigenous peoples and local communities.
When we work on organised crime, we don’t leave out the defence of people’s fundamental rights. Our area of work is the Congo Basin, with a base in Cameroon. Central Africa is home to one of the world’s largest tropical rainforests. It contains enormous resources on which millions of people depend for their livelihoods, including Indigenous peoples and local communities. The forest also provides a habitat for countless animal species and is of crucial importance for the global climate.
Despite all the legal measures in place to protect Cameroon’s forests, forest exploitation, often carried out in partnership with private companies, gives rise to numerous abuses, resulting in serious human rights violations fuelled by well-organised criminal networks, and generally leading to the dispossession of the lands of these peoples and communities. This is where our association comes in.
First, our work has a research component that is focused on both the legal and institutional framework to support our advocacy work at the national and international levels, and on carrying out studies and publishing articles and books, the latest of which is In Search of a Status for the Environmentally Displaced.
Second, there is a field component in which we meet communities and organise consultation events, focus groups, surveys and observations to gather data about the difficulties people face and the needs they have.
The third strand of the association’s work is education, through which we build the resilience of Indigenous peoples and local communities and awareness about their intrinsic rights, procedural rights, sustainable land management, the preservation of protected species and current forestry legislation. We also organise awareness campaigns to help educate communities.
The fourth component is access to rights. We help organise communities by setting up networks of institutional and local players to facilitate access for communities whose human and land rights are constantly violated.
The last component concerns economic recovery through the implementation of income-generating activities, particularly through community fields.
Have you experienced any restriction or reprisal because of your work?
We are human rights defenders working in an environment that is not always receptive to the type of work we do. We are confronted with powerful interests such as those of forestry companies that often exploit forests abusively. Our presence often makes an impression and we are subject to threats that force us to limit our scope of action to prevent the situation from degenerating and becoming too risky.
At an administrative level, the main obstacle is the lack of a positive response or collaboration from officials. Some refuse to take part in our projects, contenting themselves with one general discussion session with us. Others refuse to make their contact information public.
How do you connect with the global climate movement?
APADIME collaborates with several of the world’s leading international organisations, including the International Centre of Comparative Environmental Law, an international scientific CSO based in France, which works on environmental protection through the promotion of international legal instruments. We also work with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC).
With the support and guidance of GI-TOC, we are currently working with a network of stakeholders in the Republic of the Congo and Gabon to combat organised environmental crime in the Congo Basin and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples to achieve climate justice centred on human rights.
We are involved with international players in developing the People’s Summit for social and environmental justice, against the commodification of life and nature, and in defence of the commons. Our association is also actively involved as a speaker and observer at major international meetings, the most recent of which was the 11th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), held in Vienna, Austria in October 2022, which produced a call for action by civil society.
What priority issues should be addressed at COP28?
COP28’s priority issues are the same as those we have been defending for a long time: support for Indigenous peoples and local communities to ensure their rights are protected, in particular through the funding of conservation activities and income-generating activities to raise their standard of living, and the equitable sharing of the benefits of nature as defined by the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which recognises that in addition to the urgent need to use nature sustainably, communities must benefit from what comes from their land.
In particular, this involves examining how marginalised communities, including Indigenous peoples, can benefit from the often lucrative therapeutic and cosmetic products derived from the resources of their lands.
Do you think that COP28 will provide sufficient space for civil society? What are your expectations regarding its outcomes?
The participation of civil society in climate negotiations is extremely important because we are active stakeholders and, when we are able to influence the negotiations, we are a key factor in progress towards sustainable development. Our actions are complementary to political dialogue, which is why it is necessary, even compulsory, for us to take part in these negotiations.
As usual, COP28 will officially be open to civil society as participants and observers, but the difficulties of access will lie in financing travel to and stay in the United Arab Emirates, where this global event will be held.
But we hope that despite all these difficulties, progress will be made on the issues that are at the heart of our work, namely direct funding for communities to guarantee adaptation actions and strengthen their resilience.
Civic space in Cameroon is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.