Leonardo DiCaprio got a new name in the form a tropical tree hailing from Cameroon earlier this month. After Leonardo DiCaprios efforts in conserving the Ebo Forest, Uvariopsis diCaprios was the first UK Royal Botanic Gardens plant species to be named in 2022.
He used social media for help in revocation of a logging concession in 2020. But, while it is important to not underestimate his efforts, the real heroes of the campaign for saving the forest were the Banen communities.
Cameroons Ebo Forest has an intact forest ecosystem. It covers more than 2,000 square kilometers (772 sq miles), which is more than London in the UK. It is a biodiversity hotspot and home to forest elephants and drills, gorillas and Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzees. They make tools from stones and crack nuts, and fish for food. They are one of the most endangered subspecies in Africa.
Ebo, like any rainforest, is a significant carbon sink. It is home to an estimated 35 million tonnes carbon, which is approximately three times the annual London emissions from passenger cars.
More than 40 Banen communities also call the forest home. These communities have been fighting for their right of return to the forest they were forced from in 1963 by France’s puppet regime against freedom fighters. Ebo Forest, for the Banen, is their sacred ancestral land and burial ground.
Cameroons government announced to local communities in 2020 that it had opened Ebo Forest for industrial logging. Logging has not made any Central African economy more productive, but it has made a small group of elites wealthier and local communities poorer.
Despite the rejection of the plans from Banen communities and the violation of local forestry law and the internationally recognized right of Indigenous communities to give their informed, free and prior consent (FPIC), the government continued to push ahead.
Banen leaders were the ones who led the political struggle to save Ebo Forest, from its inception until August 2020 when logging plans were indefinitely halted. They did it in partnership with Cameroonian researchers, like Dr Ekwoge, who has dedicated his entire life to the protection and preservation of Ebo Forest, its biodiversity, and the rights of its communities.
Cameroons government’s 2006 promise to make Ebo Forest a national park was also broken by the decree to allow felling. This plan was also opposed unsurprisingly by communities given the poor reputation that big-budget conservation has earned in the region, even though it was favoured by UK scientists who named Ebos Tree after DiCaprio.
True courage is required in a country where loggers are committing land grabbing and human rights violations, including sexual assaults, and where wildlife conservation has been prioritized over Indigenous people. This country is ranked 134th among 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Standing up for Cameroon’s rights requires more than just posting from Los Angeles on Instagram or Twitter.
Leonardo DiCaprios’s commitment extends far beyond keyboard activism. Many environmental activists would agree that he should be nominated for an Oscar in Best Actor for his role in Netflix’s Dont Look Up.
But it is important not to mix the categories. The Ebo Forest drama was never produced in America. It was true that it involved many people and organizations outside Cameroon but they were best described as extras, including DiCaprio. Perhaps the best foreign background actor would be the right category for their award.
British scientists could have thought it was an anecdote to honor an American actor who saved a Central African forest by using social media posts. But, it is indicative that so much is wrong.
You can search Google for eco-fascism and neocolonialism as well as the white-saviour syndrome, neocolonialism, and the failed model for fortress conservation. Local communities could be forced to leave the agency if they are not allowed to use it.
The rainforest is a blessing for people and the planet. Everyone is welcome to resist multinational loggers or others who profiteer from the destruction of forests. Let us, however, be aware of our place.
Hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions, liked and shared posts, protested against the destruction of Ebo Forest. It was the homes of the local communities that were most directly threatened. Only the local Banen communities risked their lives in this struggle.
Cameroon authorities might expropriate this forest in the future. However, the local communities will not allow it to be destroyed.
These opinions are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeeras editorial stance.