Resource feuds between farmers and herders in Cameroon lead to bloody attack: life as a climate refugee

I struggle every day to understand how once-friendly groups now war with one another; how cordial neighbors turned into aggressors, chasing us away from our homes and setting fire to everything.

  • 6 months ago
  • January 5, 2024
6 min read
The elderly men who live in the Maroua camp are among the thousands of climate refugees who fled their homes following clashes between farmers and herders. | Photo courtesy Leocadia Bongben The elderly men who live in the Maroua camp are among the thousands of climate refugees who fled their homes following clashes between farmers and herders. | Photo courtesy Leocadia Bongben
Alima Chari
Alima Chari, an arab-Choa, serves as president of the women’s group of IDPs (internally displaced people) at the Maoura IDP camp in Cameroon’s Far North Region. She is one of the 500 IDPs in the camp affected by the Arab-Chao-Mousgoum conflict. The displaced people are considered climate refugees as a result of climate-change-induced conflict in the region.
In December 2021, the cattle of an Arab-Choa herder crossed over to the Mousgoum farmlands in Blabine, a locality in the Logone Birni, one of the ten divisions of Cameroon’s Far North region. The cattle destroyed some crops, igniting a bloody conflict. The two-week fighting left 44 people dead, 111 injured, and 112 villages completely devastated. Thousands of refugees fled to other areas of Cameroon and to Chad. Mousgoums are farmers who grow vegetable crops along the Logone, a river in which they also fish, making the river inaccessible in certain areas to the Arab chaos breeders, who are reputed to be nomads. Faced with desertification and the scarcity of grazing land, they also want to exploit the resources of the Logone. Access to water and its resources became the primary cause of the conflict.

MAROUA, Cameroon  — Life in my quiet village of Kousseri in the Far North Province of Cameroon was always peaceful. Most days, I tended to my farm animals while other community members ventured out to herd cattle. When I placed my pot of chicken soup on the floor in my kitchen, I often heard children excitedly playing outside.

Then, on an ordinary December day in 2021, as I stirred my corn fufu over the stove, I suddenly heard footsteps running towards me. My neighbor rushed in and with urgency, told me to run and leave everything behind. She said the Mousgoums, an ethnic group from Chad, launched an attack on our village. They were burning houses as they advanced. In sheer panic, I tied a piece of fabric across my chest without a pin, and we ran for our lives. We never saw it coming.  

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Climate change spurs increased contact and conflict between farmers and herders

Within hours, our village emptied of people. Exhausted from running, we encountered government trucks stationed to move displaced people to Maroua further north. This area was like a transition zone between the Sahara Desert and the savannah grasslands. With its flat landscape, sparse vegetation, arid conditions, and hot, dry climate, we faced a long dry season and short rainy season.

In Kousseri, we enjoyed a very different life and landscape, unaccustomed to these extreme temperatures where the heat consumes the day and at night, cold sets in.

This crisis began when the cattle of an Arab-Choa herder crossed over to Mousgoum and grazed on farmlands in Blabine. The cattle destroyed economic crops, igniting a bloody conflict. Like many communities around the world where herders and farmers co-existed peacefully, clashes are erupting and becoming intense.

In the Far North Region of Cameroon, significant environmental challenges have led to these conflicts and the growth of climate refugees. The encroaching desert threatens agricultural productivity and contributes to land degradation. Challenges in water management and agricultural practices affect access to clean and reliable water, particularly in rural areas.

These environmental challenges increase contact between animal herders and farmers as they fight over scarce water and land resources. Further problems arise from massive deforestation caused by agricultural expansion, fuelwood collection, and climate change. All of these negative impacts on local ecosystems and biodiversity become a major factor in forced migration and ultimately, our flight to refugee camps.  

Abandoned at the refugee camp, we struggle to obtain wood and food

My people encountered a warm reception in Maroua. The construction of tents with restrooms gave us shelter and the authorities handed us food and soap. That night as we slept, I hoped for a fast end to the fighting. I imaged a quick return to our village. However, nights turned into weeks and months, and two years later, we remain refugees.

Life proves difficult in the camp, comprised of 533 people, 14 whom are elderly and 31 with special needs. The supplies they gave us became the only sustenance we had. Soon, more migrants arrived from Lagone and Chari and conditions worsened. Supplies ceased and we felt abandoned to our fate. The last food supply arrived in May 2021.

Refugees at the Maroua refugee camp in Cameroon depend on donations from aid organizations, which have stopped coming. | Photo courtesy Leocadia Bongben

Faced with starvation, we began earnestly searching for food. Women and men trekked great distances to search for firewood. Guards constantly enforcing forestry regulations chased them away making their journeys futile. Planting trees to slow down desertification is a difficult task in this terrain. Therefore, the trees successfully planted remain protected by the guards. Cutting them down for firewood exacerbates deforestation, but we have no other option. 

Occasionally, the forest guards steal firewood from us, leaving us with nothing at the end of the day. When we can stock up wood, we sell it for as low as 500 Fran, less that one U.S. dollar. It allows us to buy one kilogram or two pounds of rice. This is how we survive – selling firewood to buy food, digging the roots of felled trees, drying them, and cooking with them. When the rain comes, our access to firewood ends.

Climate refugee dreams of her village, prays for a miracle

On rare occasions, donations like soap and other necessities arrive from The High Commission for Refugees. The International Migration Organization (IOM) visited once, bearing blankets and mats. Yet, it is not enough. Exposed to the elements, I find it hard to sleep at night. Without nets, mosquitos feed on vulnerable children.

During the rainy season, sleep becomes even more impossible, as water pours through leaky roofs. We place buckets everywhere to collect the water and hang our possessions to save them from damage. Damaged by the harsh conditions, the tents no longer offer cover or protection. Even worse, healthcare remains nonexistent. We struggle to get sick people to hospitals when we have no money.

Alima Chari is a female leader at the Maroua IDP (internally displaced people) camp in Cameroon’s Far North Region. | Photo courtesy Leocadia Bongben

I struggle every day to understand how once-friendly groups now war with one another; how cordial neighbors turned into aggressors, chasing us away from our homes and setting fire to everything. They stole our valuable including chickens, sheep, cows, and goats. We made it out alive and I feel grateful for my life, but everything I worked for my entire life disappeared.

Without resources or funding, we cannot start businesses. In the midst of powerlessness, all we can do is hold onto hope. We wait for the government to move us to a new, less congested site. As I stare into space, I lose myself in memories of my village. I can hear the echo of children playing and the beauty in the eyes of the animals we once owned. I long to return, but the possibility remains elusive without some divine miracle.

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Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.


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