Rooted in front of the secondary school Ces De Somakek, in the village by the same name, is a ribbon tree. Daily, the ribbon tree receives visitors who walk through the community center and engage with the promises that the people of Somakek have written across the fabric. They promise to protect the Ebo Forest.
Somakek is one of about 40 communities that resides on the outskirts of the Ebo. The forest is home to hundreds of species of wildlife and trees, including many endangered species. In this complex ecosystem, the trees regulate approximately 35 million tons of carbon per year. For that reason, the Ebo is often referred to as the lungs of Western Africa: the rich biodiversity converts the toxins in the atmosphere and pumps out clean, breathable air. The Ebo is life-sustaining, yet, as a result of the economic crisis spurred by COVID-19, the ongoing Anglophone conflict, and lack of governmental resources allocated to conservation practices, it is at risk for deforestation.
The unregulated exploitation of resources of the Ebo Forest occurs because the government fails to enact policies to protect the forest, resulting in civilians not knowing the necessity for conservation at the individual level. Given the lack of protective legislation for the forest, corporations enter the Ebo and cause deforestation by over logging and harvesting palm oil. Without sufficient protective legislation, individuals hunt and sell endangered wildlife causing further land destruction. The destruction of the land is made possible from the top and the impacts trickle down; so to combat this, environmental conservationists like Denis Lefor from the organization Sekakoh, are pushing back with bottom-up activism.
To create impactful change, activism must come from the community that is being directly impacted. This is the mission of Sekakoh, an organization that seeks to create harmony with nature by preserving Cameroon’s biodiversity and resolving human-wildlife conflicts. Denis Lefor has participated in many Creative Action Institute trainings for environmental leaders and has been quick to incorporate Creative Action Institute methodology to help advance Sekakoh’s mission. Most recently, he received coaching and support to design and implement a skill-building clinic held in Cameroon. It was through this clinic that Denis and the people of Somakek utilized the method of the ribbon tree to create lasting change.
Denis has long seen non-native environmentalists enter the communities around the Ebo and preach for protection through a PowerPoint presentation, then leave. This method of activism rarely leads to systemic change because it does not include community members in creating solutions. Through the partnership with Creative Action Institute, Denis built skillsets with the community of Somakek that gave room to the students to share their perspectives about protecting the Ebo. Denis noted that there is “a greater sense of commitment with this integrated approach.” Students committed to the aspects of environmental preservation that most resonated with them: Seke Koum said he is going to fight for the protection of threatened wildlife species, while Kimith Owon Audrey said she will engage her community on proper waste management.
The skill-building clinic culminated in the construction of the ribbon tree. The ribbon tree activity is a participatory arts-based communication tool that encourages individual thinking. After participating in an activity that analyzes the root causes of a specific problem, participants start looking to solutions and their own personal role in solution-making. Each participant selects a ribbon to write a commitment on. In addition to their own commitment, the participants ask their friends and family to write their goals as well, creating a space for a community-centered dialogue around forest preservation. Once compiled, the students work together to tie their ribbons to the tree with a promise to catalyze change for their community.
The accessibility of the tree, standing in front of a public school in the community, allows anyone to walk by it freely and interact with the commitments written across each ribbon. The activity is powerful and counters the impersonal and exclusive form of climate protection that the community has traditionally seen: “We never thought we could engage the community to be leaders of this initiative to combat climate change,” Denis said. “This activity with CAI was one of its kind. It was peculiar and unique. It empowered the students to think that they could be their own unique leaders in the community.”
The takeaway of the ribbon tree activity? To catalyze change, advocacy must be dynamic, collaborative, and grow from the ground up.