12 May 2021
Cameroon has an abundance of natural resources, and forests in particular. Despite rapid urbanization, more than two thirds of the population still depend on agriculture. After independence in 1960 and reunification in 1961, cotton, coffee, and oil revenues boosted Cameroon’s economy initially. However, when the world market prices of the key cash crops dropped in the late 1980s, the country’s currency was devalued.
In Cameroon, no one can be deprived of their property unless it is taken in the interest of the public. However, the law does not define what public interest means.
(Parts of) Cameroon were ruled by three colonial powers. Its legal system is based on French Civil Law, English common law, and customary law. With its historic trajectory, Cameroon makes an excellent case to understand the interlinkages between colonial rule, land tenure, and persistent land issues today . In more recent years, the government moved toward improving the tenure system and natural resource management and started revising various bills, such as the Forest Act, the land law, and the mineral law.
The country’s land (and forests) has been under severe pressure due to climate change impact and land degradation, mass migration, changing land use patterns in favor of commercial interests, and lack of effective land governance. Further land-related issues revolve around the failure to recognize customary tenure, women’s rights, communal forest management, and herder-farmer conflicts .
Land legislation and regulations
Cameroon’s legislation mirrors the country’s turbulent colonial history. National law – and its inconsistencies – are strongly influenced by French law as well as British law in the North and South Western Provinces. The current legal framework for land and natural resource governance was passed as Ordinances No. 74-1 (governing land tenure), No 72-2 (governing State lands), and No 74-3 (on expropriation for public purposes) in 1974, aiming to attract commercial investments in the land, mineral, and forest sectors. In 2011, the government initiated the review of the land law of which a draft was submitted to the President in 2018.
Prior to colonial times, land was solely governed by customary law which is still practiced in most rural areas today although it is not protected by statutory law. Customary law spans from governing land use, inheritance issues, forestry, hunting, to agriculture. Both statutory and customary law do not sufficiently take into account the land rights of women, refugees and indigenous peoples. In order to address continuing conflicts between farmers and pastoral groups, a Land Use and Sustainable Management Plan was developed in the West region in 2009 . In this vein, land boundaries and livestock corridors were demarcated taking farming, grazing and forestry usage into account .
Land tenure classifications
The Constitution of 1996 provides citizens with the right to own property individually or in association with others. Specifically, land tenure is regulated by Law No. 74-1 of 1974 and Law No. 74-2 of 1974. In addition to statutory law, the state relies on traditional authorities whose power draws on their responsibility to govern land matters, allocate use rights to village land, and mediate land disputes . Usufructuary rights can be passed on through patrilineal inheritance or allocated by landowning families.
Legislation differentiates three categories of land domains: public land which is held by the State for the benefit of the people, private land, and national land. In 1974, all unregistered land, including land held under customary tenure, was placed as national land under State management and administration leaving the majority of Cameroonians with usufruct rights only . The national domain is by far the biggest category, whereas individual titles only represent a very small fraction. All privately-owned land must be registered and titled in order to be considered private land. Having said that, only individuals can register land and landowners are obligated to develop it visibly. This naturally excludes indigenous and pastoral communities from land ownership.
Land tenure is highly insecure for the majority of the population . Registration and titling costs are high, and the process is lengthy and complex which is why private land remains mostly accessible to the elite, deepening existing inequality . The lack of a nation-wide cadaster system further contributes to conflicts related to land transactions and land records. The coexistence of statutory law and a large variety of customary tenure and land use customs adds to conflicts, for example, between herders and farming communities or forest populations and farmers clearing the forest for agriculture . Conflict resolution institutions including courts seem to be highly ineffective and overwhelmed by the amount of conflicts.
Community land rights issues
The Preamble of the Constitution says that “the State shall ensure the protection of minorities and preserve the rights of indigenous peoples in accordance with the law". Yet, quite to the contrary, the State plays a key role of expropriating indigenous communities, both in rural and urban contexts . Since customary land tenure is not recognized by Cameroon’s legislation, rural communities and indigenous peoples in particular are affected by expropriation, deprivation, and loss of their livelihoods .
The idea of individual statutory property undermines community cohesion as well as collective arrangements of land usage and access. This has led to increased inter-community conflicts. In addition, the effects of climate change and forced as well as encouraged migration have resulted in changing pastoral migration routes, deforestation, and increasing tensions.
Attempts to decentralize community forest management and reduce deforestation in 1994 failed and illegal logging persists. Following the Forestry Law , communities receive the right to use forest resources which does not entail ownership rights. In order to do so, communities must set up an association or cooperative which is a very bureaucratic and costly procedure. Due to limited local capacities and economic opportunities, and a lack of transparency and accountability, most community forest initiatives were unsuccessful .
Land use trends
In 2018, 56.4% of Cameroon’s population lived in urban areas. More than two thirds of the population live off agriculture, fishing, and forestry. All three sectors contribute about 15% to the GDP. The country has 10 million ha arable land of which 2 million ha are under permanent pastures and 1.8 million under permanent crops . Cameroon is rich in mineral resources, such as bauxite, cobalt, nickel, iron ore, and uranium. In addition, the country has rutile and tantalite deposits as well as significant offshore oil reserves.
The semi-arid north with low rainfall is mainly used for livestock production as well as cotton, sorghum, and millet cultivation. The highland and savanna zones are designated for root crops, coffee, and cocoa. The coastal area is suitable for palm oil, rubber and horticulture crop production, while the southern region is characterized by a globally unique, but endangered tropical rainforest. Deforestation poses a major challenge in Cameroon. The country lost 97% of its humid primary rainforest between 2001 and 2019 .
Oil palm industry in Cameroon, photo by CIFOR, 2016, CC BY-NC 2.0 license
In Cameroon, no one can be deprived of their property unless it is taken in the interest of the public. The details of compulsory acquisitions of land in the public interest are laid out in Law 85-09 of 1985. Under the 87/1872 decree of 1987 to implement the 1985 law, the government can allocate use rights in the form of concessions or convert national land into private ownership in the context of urban development, for example. Compensations may be cash or in-kind but are restricted to the direct and verifiable damage caused by the expropriation. However, the law does not define what public interest means – in practice, it is infrastructure development, or mining, and agribusiness operations - nor provides specific replacement standards . In many cases, projects are contested by dispossessed customary landholders, such as in the case of the 1000km long Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline.
In customary law, there are as many approaches to land acquisition as there are ethnic groups in the country. Generally, customary authorities allocate land to community members. In some cases, chiefs may also provide outsiders with usufructuary rights, including companies. The double role of chiefs as custodians and as the authority to implement the government’s land allocation plans tends to be problematic for minorities, youth, and women in the communities .
Cameroon has attracted various large-scale investments in agriculture, the extractive industries, and infrastructure development by providing incentives, such as a favorable tax environment. According to the Land Matrix, more than 2.3 million ha land were allocated to international and, to a smaller extent, domestic companies, as agriculture, mining, or logging concessions .
The whole allocation process is highly investor-driven and fails to consider socio-economic and environmental externalities, i.e. the impact on conservation efforts . Most investments show weak regulation, poor legal compliance and lead to displacement, the loss of livelihoods as well as (violent) conflicts between communities and companies . The most prominent land conflict emerged in the case of the SOCAPALM rubber and palm oil plantation . Since the company set up its plantations in the provinces of Littoral and South in 1968, the affected communities have faced massive socio-ecological problems, i.e. environmental damages, unresolved land rights and demarcation issues, poor housing conditions for workers, and the disregard of the local workforce. In Cameroon, legal safeguards and the right to compensation only protect registered landowners, excluding the majority of Cameroon’s rural population, and indigenous peoples and women in particular. In a similar vein, customary land governance shows lacking transparency and accountability in land transactions. Customary authorities tend to take advantage of land and natural resource investments without sharing the benefits with other community members.
Women’s land rights
While the Constitution provides gender equality, women encounter major obstacles in accessing land. In contrast to male household heads, women lack full rights to property. Spouses may sell, alienate, or mortgage land without the knowledge or consent of their wives . The 2001 drafted and long-awaited new Code on Persons and the Family has not been passed yet. However, Section 919 of the draft Code indicates a major setback for women’s land rights. Particularly widows may lose legal protection and their prime inheritance position .
In addition to the lack of legal protection, women face patriarchal customs that categorize women as “property” . Furthermore, women are under-represented at all levels of decision-making, their networking capacity tends to be weak, and the women’s knowledge on inheritance and land laws is limited .
Urban tenure issues
Yaounde and other cities will play a pivotal role in Cameroon’s future development. Accordingly, the government strives to integrate the urban agenda in the national development plan . UN-HABITAT provides support in the development of a National Urban Policy and works on urban-rural linkages as well as its Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme. The state’s urbanization efforts have contributed to the eviction of numerous indigenous people .
Market in Yaoundé, photo by Ludwig Tröller, 2014, 2014, CC BY-NC 2.0 license
Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)
The country has endorsed the VGGTs, but the principles have not yet been systematically incorporated into the country’s strategies that relate to land issues. The ongoing LandCam project (2017-2021) aims to improve land governance and contributes to policy reforms by also taking the VGGT into account .
Timeline - milestones in land governace
Pre-colonial times – Customary law
Prior to colonial times, land was solely governed by customary law which is still practiced in most rural areas today although it is not recognized by statutory law. Customary law spans from governing land use, inheritance issues, forestry, hunting, to agriculture.
1960 – 1980s - Economic boom based on cotton, coffee, and oil revenues
After independence and reunification (1960/61), cotton, coffee, and oil revenues boosted Cameroon’s economy. In the late 1980s orld market prices dropped, and the country’s currency was devalued.
1974 - Adoption of the legal framework for land and natural resource governance
Ordinance No. 74-1 and -2 on the Land and State Regime in 1974 aim to attract commercial investments in the land, mineral, and forest sectors. In this vein, all unregistered land, including land held under customary tenure, was placed under State control.
1985 - Compulsory State acquisition under Law 85-09
The government can acquire land in order to grant concessions or promote (urban) development.
1994 - Adoption of the Forestry Law (Loi forestière de 1994)
The law originally seeks to decentralize and strengthen community forest management in order to reduce deforestation. However, illegal logging has continued.
2001 – 2019 - Cameroon loses 97% of its humid primary rainforest
2009 - Adoption of the Land Use and Sustainable Management Plan
The plan was developed to reduce farmer-pastoral conflicts in the West region, i.e. through the establishment of livestock corridors and demarcation.
Where to go next?
The author’s suggestion for further reading
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) runs a briefing series on land-related issues in Cameroon.
 Njoh, Ambe J. 2013. Equity, Fairness and Justice Implications of Land Tenure Formalization in Cameroon. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37:2, 750-768.
[2 ]IIED. 2020. Securing land rights in Cameroon: what hasn’t worked and what should be done. Briefing. IIED, CED, LandCam. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/securing-land-rights-cameroon-what-hasn%E2%80%99t-worked-and-what-should-be-done
 Ordinance 74-412 (1974) demarcates national agro-pastoral areas.
 Javelle, Anne-Gaelle. 2013. Land Registration in Cameroon. Brief Focus on Land in Africa.
 Ordinance No. 74-1 of July 6, 1974 on the Land and State Regime: Title I, Art. 1.
 IIED. 2020. Securing land rights in Cameroon
 International Land Coalition (2017) Rangelands. Sécuriser davantage les pâturages au Cameroun.
 Socpa, Antoine. 2010. New Kinds Of Land Conflict In Urban Cameroon: The Case Of The 'Landless' Indigenous Peoples In Yaoundé. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 80:4.
 IIED. 2020. Indigenous peoples’ land rights in Cameroon: progress to date and possible futures. Briefing. IIED, CED. URL https://landportal.org/library/resources/indigenous-peoples%E2%80%99-land-rights-cameroon-progress-date-and-possible-futures
 The Forestry Law of 1994 (Loi forestière de 1994), the Decree Implementing the Forestry System (décret d’application du régime des forêts), and the Cameroon Forestry Policy (Politique Forestière du Cameroun) adopted in November 1995.
CED, Fern, FPP, IIED and Okani (2017) Community forestry in Cameroon: a diagnostic analysis of laws, institutions, actors and opportunities. IIED, London. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/community-forestry-cameroon-diagnostic-analysis-laws-institutions-actors-and
 For more information see: Javelle, Anne-Gaelle. 2012. Rights and wrongs in Cameroon’s community forests. Brief Focus on Land in Africa.
 See more information: IIED. 2018. Towards fair and effective legislation on compulsory land acquisition in Cameroon. Briefing IIED, CED. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/towards-fair-and-effective-legislation-compulsory-land-acquisition-cameroon
 Lado, H (2017) Predation and Expropriation for Public Interest in Cameroon. Revue internationale des études du développement 231(3), 33–55.
 IIED. 2019. Apes, crops and communities: land concessions and conservation in Cameroon. Briefing IIED, CED, LandCam. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/apes-crops-and-communities-land-concessions-and-conservation-cameroon
 IIED. 2018. Towards fair and effective legislation on compulsory land acquisition in Cameroon.
The project “Promoting Biodiversity Conservation in the Context of Industrial Agriculture in Cameroon” (2017-2019) assessed the impact of land concessions in the southeast Cameroon.
 Ordinance No 81-02, 29 June 191, Article 212-4, 1421, 1428.
 CHRDA. 2020. The Cameroon Law Makers should protect Widow’s Rights when voting into Law a new Bill on Code on Persons and the Family. Section 919 is Contrary to Common Law Practice. URL: https://landportal.org/news/2021/03/cameroon-law-makers-should-protect-widow%E2%80%99s-rights-when-voting-law-new-bill-code-persons
 Pemunta, Ngambouk V. 2017. When ‘property cannot own property’: women’s lack of property rights in Cameroon. African Journal Economic and Sustainable Development 6:1, 67-85.
 FAO. 2007. Danielle Lema Ngono Nyom Pom. Intégrer les questions de genre dans le secteur forestier en Afrique: Cameroun.
 UNECA. 2018. Cameroon to systematically fit urbanization indicators into its development plans. 6 June.URL: https://landportal.org/news/2021/03/cameroon-systematically-fit-urbanization-indicators-its-development-plans
 Socpa, Antoine. 2010. New Kinds Of Land Conflict In Urban Cameroon.
Authored on12 May 2021