A visual history of Indigenous Peoples' and local communities' land rights

Centre for Environment and Development (CED), Forest Peoples Program (FPP) and Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) lead this initiative to develop a standard methodology for participatory community mapping

“There are many problems this approach can solve! The problems are there. We are working on this to forestall future problems and to avoid conflict. Thanks to all those who have made this dream come true. How do we carry this pilot forward? We must go all the way! This exercise is the salvation for many conflicts between administrations.” ⏤ Chief Tanyi Robinson National Council of Traditional Chiefs


Standard methodology for participatory mapping lays foundation for explicit recognition of community rights to land and forests in Cameroon

Customary land rights are the rules and procedures, usually unwritten, through which rural communities regulate land relations among their members, and with neighbouring and associated communities. In this way, millions of rural Cameroonians manage land and rights according to custom. Customary land rights include the collective rights of communities to their natural heritage and the private rights of community members to use their agricultural and residential parcels. They vary from one region to another, from one ethnic group to another, and also in time, as they are influenced by economic, social, and political changes. Community land rights in Cameroon have constantly evolved and adapted to the different periods and socio-political, economic and historical contexts that the country has experienced and still experiences today. But unlike the many countries that have recognized and legally secured customary land rights, Cameroon has experienced a gradual decline in land and forest tenure security since colonial times, when the notion of individual land rights was introduced.

Today, community land and forest tenure rights in Cameroon are deeply insecure for Indigenous People and local communities. The problem arises from Cameroon’s colonial past. Colonists imposed their norms upon the traditional system of customary land rights, creating a hybrid system. Over time, indigenous and local communities have gone from having customary rights to the land and resources they depend on to being squatters on their own land⏤or dispossessed. Cameroon recognizes customary land rights rights in its forest and mining laws, but land tenure and the limits of community lands remain unclear. Conflict is escalating, fuelled by investment in agricultural, forest and mining industries. The Government recognizes the high social cost of conflict and the risk insecure land tenure poses to peace and security, and says it wants to clarify and strengthen local land rights.

In this new political context, three civil society organizations launch an initiative with Tenure Facility support to advance the land tenure security of local communities and indigenous peoples in Cameroon, building upon existing laws. They aim to use participatory community mapping as an essential first step and springboard to legal recognition. They are the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), Forest Peoples Program (FPP), and Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), along with Rainbow Environment Consult, the Tenure Facility’s implementing partner.

Who are the Indigenous Peoples of Cameroon?

According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), some of Cameroon’s rural communities identify themselves as indigenous. They include hunter-gathers (Pygmies), Mbororo pastoralists, and the Kirdi mountain communities. The Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon uses the terms indigenous and minorities in its preamble; however, it is not clear to whom this refers. Nevertheless, with developments in international law, civil society and the government increasingly use the term indigenous to refer to these three groups.

Pre-colonial times

Clan chiefs or land chiefs manage land on behalf of the community according to customary or traditional ways

The pre-colonial clans of Cameroon see the Earth as a common good, inalienable, and even sacred. They pass land rights from generation to generation, with virtually no recognition of the concept of individual property. Individuals exercise the ‘right of enjoyment’ to satisfy their needs for food and housing. Ways of allocating land to clan members vary according to region and ethic group.


Germano-Douala Treaty establishes the state of Kamerun

With the signing of the Germano-Douala Treaty, the Douala chiefs cede their rights of sovereignty to Germany. But they retain management of land and resources according to traditional systems. The Treaty, below, affirms that customary laws will apply.

“We, the undersigned independent Kings and Chiefs of the country called Cameroons situated on the Cameroons River, between the River Bimbia on the North Side, the River Qua-Qua on the South Side and up to 4°10’ North Lat. have in a meeting held today in the German factory on King Aqua’s Beach, voluntarily concluded as follows: Reserving that all friendship and commercial treaties made before with other foreign governments shall have full power.
a. That the land cultivated by us now and the places, the towns are built on shall be property of present owners and their successors
b. That the Coumie shall be paid annually as it has been paid to the Kings and Chiefs before
c. That during the first time of establishing an administration here, our country fashions will be respected.
d. That the Coumie shall be paid annually as it has been paid to the Kings and Chiefs before
e. That during the first time of establishing an administration here, our country fashions will be respected.
Cameroons the twelfth day of July thousand eight hundred and eighty four”



Germany intensifies conquest of the Cameroonian hinterland

Through the General Act of the Berlin Conference the colonial powers occupying the coast give themselves the right to annex the hinterland as far as the border with another colonial power. The Act formalizes the scramble for Africa which eliminated most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.


German Imperial Decree violates Germano-Douala Treaty of 1884

The Decree marks the beginning of a centuries-old conflict between traditional law and colonial law, and later post-colonial state law. Through the Decree, Germany takes possession of all land deemed “vacant and without master over the territory.” Yet, at the same time, the Decree recognizes customary land ownership for the benefit of “indigenous chiefs or communities.”  Adoption effectively makes all ‘unoccupied’ lands possessions of the German Crown. Without completely destroying customs, the Decree creates new legal categories, which coexist with existing ones, weakening them.


German cartographer Max Moisel produces first map of the Kamerun protectorate, showing boundaries between British, French and German empires


Germans hang Douala king Rudolf Duala Manga Bell for high treason for resisting a colonial land policy


Last German fort surrenders to British forces

With the defeat of Germany, the Treaty of Versailles establishes a Franco-British trusteeship to administer Cameroon on behalf of the the League of Nations

Britain and France administer Cameroon as one colony. The colonial land tenure system remains largely in place according to two different legislative systems. The British grant concessions for tea and coffee estates with the permission of traditional authorities. Claiming state rights over ‘unoccupied’ land, French Cameroon grants concessions for private and public development of rubber and palm plantations.

British Protectorate Territory in Southern Cameroon passes the Land and Native Rights Ordinance giving different rights to non-native and native people

The Statutory Right of Occupancy governs rights for non-native, while the Customary Right of Occupancy governs for native. The Ordinance declares all native land to be under the control of the Governor.


French Protectorate establishes system for recognizing land ownership for indigenous and local communities

The Decree establishes a process through which an individual native person can gain a form of  title recognition called ‘land booklet,’ which is inferior to more secure forms of title. To receive it a land booklet native people must prove that they have occupied or used the land.


New law on the organization of state property and land ownership reinforces the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities

The law provides for all Cameroonians to have their customary land rights recognized through a procedure that leads to the awarding of proof of title called a ‘land book.’ The new law replaces the notion of ‘land vacant and without master’ or ‘unoccupied land without title’ with that of customary land ownership. Under the law, no community or individual can be forced to give up their rights, unless it is for a public utility, and this case fair compensation must be given.



British and French Cameroons become independent


United Republic of Cameroon is established

With the unification of English and French territories come opportunities to harmonize the different land tenure systems.

Photo courtesy of Steve Mvondo


Cameroon creates one system of land tenure for the united country

Cameroon undertakes a major land reform that lays the foundation of  Cameroon’s current land tenure system. Article 17 of Ordinance No. 74/1 says that local communities have the right to peacefully occupy and use national lands for agriculture and as rangelands. However, registration is the sole means of gaining tenure and all unregistered land is under state control.

Photo courtesy of ICRAF, Charlie Pye-Smith



Decree No 76/165 presents new barriers to tenure for Indigenous Peoples and local communities

The Decree establishes the conditions and processes for registering tenure. Navigating the process requires literacy, travel and investment. Obstacles to registering land are insurmountable for forest-dwelling Indigenous Peoples such as the forest Pygmies and the nomadic cattle herders, the Mbororo.

Photo courtesy of Corinne Staley


Cameroon grants communities the right to own and manage community forests, but restricts use of timber, wildlife and fisheries to personal consumption

Photo courtesy of Wenduni


United Nations adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

General Assembly adopts UNDRIP with 144 countries voting in favour, including Cameroon.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)




Cameroon’s new Land Use Planning Law creates opportunities to advance recognition of community land rights through community mapping

The new law drives a wave of land-use planning and decision-making about economic development across the country at all levels. Cameroon begins to develop Local Land Use and Sustainable Development Plans at the ‘council’ level. Councils are the lowest level of democratically elected government. Cameroon has 360 councils, each represents interests of a number of villages and is an important link between the traditional systems of land-use governance and formal systems. Development of these plans opens a window for indigenous and local communities to demonstrate and gain official recognition of the territories and resources they claim.


Cameroon’s new Mining Code, and draft forest and land tenure laws, generates demand for community maps

The draft Forest Law and the draft Land Tenure Law, await approval. The draft Land Tenure Bill introduces the concept of ‘vital’ and sacred land and spaces, and prohibits land speculation.

CED, FFP and RFUK engage with the Tenure Facility

The Tenure Facility funded project ‘Community Mapping for Effective Land-Use Planning: Development of a Common Community Mapping Protocol in Cameroon’ aims to gain formal recognition of the rights of Indigenous People and local communities through the window of land-use and development planning. The project partners believe a standard approach will lay important groundwork for explicit recognition of community rights, support ongoing policy reform, and serve as a springboard for the formal recognition of land and resource rights in Cameroon. They also expect the project to leverage greater investment in community land and forest rights, increase the amount of forested land designated for Indigenous People and local communities with user and management rights, help to overcome obstacles to actual ownership, and support a growing movement to clarify land tenure rights in Cameroon.

Partners develop a standard methodology for participatory community mapping ⏤and test in conflict hotspots in five of Cameroon’s 10 regions

Cameroon is called the ‘Africa in miniature’ because of its geographical, ecological and cultural diversity. It has about 250 tribes living in areas as diverse as savannah and tropical rainforest. The project’s project leaders and method carriers, organizations that ‘carry the methodology to the field’ worked together to design and test the methodology in different ecological and cultural environments. The project’s 14 method carriers included many of the national NGOs doing participatory mapping in Cameroon:

  • Support for Environmental Protection and Development (APED)
  • Ajemalibu Self Help (AJESH)
  • Support for Self-promotion and Women, Young People and the Unemployed (AFIPED)
  • Indigenous Peoples Organization – Bagyeli (BACUDA)
  • Rural Development Support Circle (CADER)
  • Trinational Agroforestry Cooperative (CAFT)
  • Canal of Development (CANAL)
  • Cameroon Ecology (CAMECO)
  • Centre for Education, Training and Support for Development in Cameroon (CEFAID)
  • Centre for Environment and Development (CED)
  • Communal Development Plans (CDP)
  • Forests and Rural Development (FODER)
  • Indigenous Peoples Association (OKANI)
  • Programme for Protection of Biodiversity to Promote Community Micro Projects Around Protected Areas (PAPEL)
The project developed and tested the standard methodology for participatory community mapping in 25 communities and five regions in Cameroon with different ecosystems and culturesTest sites in Cameroon

At first, it is difficult for the method carriers to work together. They have  previously worked in relative isolation, each applying its own approach to mapping designed to to capture their specific interests. For example, one organization has an interest in protecting biodiversity and another in defending the interests of Indigenous People. Consequently, their different approaches do not capture the many dimensions of community land and resource use. It is hard to to be open to hearing the ideas of others, learning and changing approaches. As the processes evolved they learn from each other and are more than satisfied with the final standard methodology. They realize that having one standard approach will avoid duplication, save money, and better position local communities to communicate about their land rights and resources. But flexibility is needed to adapt to different contexts and scales.

Says Georges Thierry Handja of RFUK: “We were isolated in our work. But, through the pilot, we were able to work with all the actors doing community mapping in Cameroon. As a result, the next map we produce will be produced in a way that the government and the national institute of cartography agree it should be done. This really gives a lot of weight to the maps. The government used to say communities can’t produce maps. Now we have agreement on how to do community mapping and we have enhanced communities’ ability to use maps to protect their rights. We have overcome the challenge.”

Tests with 100 villagers trained as cartographers show local communities can implement the common methodology themselves

Strategic Advisory Group commits to mainstreaming the standard methodology nationwide

Strategy Advisory Group members believe the new methodology will help them avoid decisions that stir new conflicts, support conflict resolution, and reduce the high social and economic costs of conflict in Cameroon. The Group includes representatives of government ministries with responsibility for land tenure and natural resources, the National Institute of Cartography, the National Council of Traditional Chiefs, the Central Africa Network of Parliamentarians, international and national NGOs, research centres CIFOR and ICRAF, and associations representing forest, agriculture and mining industries.

Cameroon’s National Institute of Cartography (NIC) agrees to archive, manage, and provide access to community maps. This will enable use by communities, government ministries, civil society, and investors. Cameroon’s National Program for Participatory Development plans to use the standard methodology when creating and updating communal development plans for local councils, thus creating opportunities for recognition of community rights. The Central Africa Network of Parliamentarians (REPAR) and the National Council of Traditional Chiefs (CNCTC) adopt the standard methodology and agree to promote its use through their action plans to improve recognition of community land rights.

Tenure Facility pilot in Cameroon develops standard methodology for participatory mapping

Cameroon’s National Institute of Cartography signs a Memorandum of Understanding agrees to manage and provide access to community maps.


Partners publish a toolkit to support implementation of the standard methodology

Available in English and French, the toolkit includes a guide to implementing the methodology, a policy brief on participatory mapping and land and resource law in Cameroon, and a poster explaining the process step-by-step.