The latest in Forum’s Future of Sustainability series sees Forum’s Associate Director – Americas, Samantha Veide, in conversation with Stephanie Lamma Ewi. As a leading environmental activist and grassroots mobiliser in Cameroon, Lamma is a powerful advocate for bringing women and youth into the heart of decision-making on these issues.
Lamma is at the forefront of environmental change. In November, she should have been harvesting her maize. Instead, she was planting it, as climate change has turned agricultural calendars upside down.
Lamma calls out failure where she sees it – a REDD+ project that excluded uneducated local women, NGOs that produce reports but not action, and Cameroonian policies that are well articulated but undermined by corruption.
Here, she explains her own approach to creating change: empowering women, educating youth, and opening up spaces among leaders.
Lamma works directly with women who rely on forests, and speaks movingly of their breakthroughs as women find their voice and gain positions on local councils, traditionally the preserve of men.
She stresses the benefits of women’s environmental leadership to the wider community, quoting the Cameroonian proverb: “If you train a man, you have just trained one person. If you train a woman, you have trained a nation.”
Lamma explains her inspirational approach to engaging young people. She holds out great hope that, with the right education and empowerment, Cameroon’s emerging generation will set the country on a path to a sustainable future.
When Lamma shared how she works with cultural norms and at the same time disrupts them, whether regarding the voices of women or whether schoolchildren may call her by her name, it made us smile and think. We hope her wisdom makes you do both too.
Ewi Stephanie Lamma holds a Master’s Degree in Natural Resource and Environmental Management from the University of Buea, and over the past eight years has specialised in working with rural communities, particularly women, on climate and the environment. She has trained 5,440 women in over 160 forest communities in Cameroon on livelihood development projects, and succeeded in increasing women’s participation in rural community councils. Her work has prompted over 20 councils to set out local forest management policies, with 30 nurseries growing over 110,000 indigenous trees to restore degraded land. She recently developed a climate change curriculum for schools across Cameroon, and she has established climate change clubs in schools around her home city of Limbe. She hosts a weekly radio program, ‘Eco-Voice’, on Eternity Gospel Radio and Eden Radio Limbe.
All opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Forum for the Future.
Samantha: I’m so excited to be talking with you today, Lamma! Let’s start with just a quick introduction from yourself – who you are, where you sit today, and a little bit about your work…
Lamma: Thank you so much, Samantha! It’s such a pleasure to be here and I’m glad to be joining you. I’m Lamma Ewi and I’m from Cameroon. I live in Limbe, which is one of the most beautiful cities in Cameroon. We have sandy beaches beside the beautiful Atlantic ocean, we have a beautiful volcanic mountain [Mount Cameroon] nearby, and we’re bordered by the Bimbia Bonadikombo community forest.
So that’s where I’m coming from.
I hold a Master’s Degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Management, and I’ve spent over eight years working in environmental and climate justice. My particular interest is in women’s advocacy, and in building the capacities of young people in climate change programmes.
Climate change is our reality
Samantha: When we met earlier you were telling me that you’d just been planting out maize…
Yes, two weeks ago I helped plant my own maize, and that was strange because at this time of year, we are supposed to be harvesting maize instead of planting it.Ewi Lamma
This is supposed to be the start of the dry season, but we are having so much rain instead. It is like the calendars have changed.
We no longer know when is the rainy season and when is the dry season. We cannot plan as we did.
We have to do our farm work and plant our crops just as the weather shows, we have to remake our agricultural calendars based on these new climate conditions [which are always changing].
Samantha: It’s such a strong example of how the climate crisis is impacting people on a daily basis, right?
Lamma: Oh yes, that is our reality.
Samantha: Yes… So please tell me a little more about your work, particularly with women…
Lamma: During my early years of work I became aware that women were constantly excluded from decision-making in climate and rainforest programmes. Yet women are the people who are most directly connected to nature and the forest in their daily activities. They forage, they go into the forest for medicine, food, water, for their income… So by excluding them from [decisions] on forest management and on climate change, you’re excluding the people who are most vulnerable to its impact. So when I looked into that, I was like, OK, there is a need for someone to stand up and speak up for the inclusion of women in decision-making programmes. So I decided to carry out my Master’s research in this area.
There was a REDD+ project  underway in the Bimbia-Bonadikombo community forest, which is just a 20-30 minutes’ ride from where I live. This project claimed to have taken gender inclusion into consideration, so I wanted to know if it was [really doing so]. And when I looked deep into it, I realised that gender considerations were actually missing: the women were not involved in decision-making, even though it concerned the management of the resources [on which they depend].
One of the reasons given for their absence was because they were considered to be uneducated.
But education shouldn’t determine someone’s involvement in leadership. It should be participation.
So I began working with these women to empower them in creative leadership.
Then these women were like: ‘Oh my goodness! there is something here we’re missing out on. We thought we needed to go to school to be involved in these decisions. But we are just learning that we don’t need formal education. We can make decisions on these issues based on what we see.’ That gave me such joy.
I realised these women are beginning to step out. They are losing their low self-esteem, and their voices are being heard.
And so, aside from empowering them on leadership, I also trained them on livelihood development projects, such as mushroom cultivation, beekeeping, and agroforestry. A few of them got involved in snail farming . We grouped them together as a team and provided them with some start-up capital for their first snail farms. This was something new for them and they were very, very impressed!
Bringing women into council decisions
Samantha: Can you give me an example of how you achieved a real shift in bringing women into decision-making? How it happened, and how it changed the outcomes of the work?
Lamma: I recall this moment when I was in a focus group meeting with the women and I was asking them, ‘how many of you are involved in the local council?’ And they were saying, ‘No, as a woman you cannot be in the local council’. And I asked them, ‘Why? What is the reason?’
The women told me, ‘leadership is only for the men. We are supposed to take care of our homes, we are supposed to take care of the kitchen.’
That took me by surprise! So I asked them, ‘What is the reason you think leadership is only for the men?’ And they stood and they said, ‘The reason is that we, the women, have been given our own place, which is a kitchen and the home.’
So I worked to ensure these women were given the opportunity to learn about leadership and participation. Later one of them stood up and said, ‘How I wish I had known this when I was younger! This would have helped me to be able to stand and raise my voice, and maybe today I would have been part of the local council’.
I was really moved by that statement. It drove me to sit with the council of elders in the community. Now, this was made up only of men. And not every man in the village, either, but only the wealthy men, those who were having huge cocoa farms, large plantations, who had children abroad.
So I asked the men, ‘Don’t you think your women, who have been managing the forest for a long time, will make great input if they are involved in your council decisions [on its future]? They are the mothers of your community and they will better understand the needs of your children’.
There is this mentality that the communities have grown up with that says, ‘When you empower a woman, you make her a lioness, and she will become a terror in our home.’ And that’s because of the way many people have taken the idea of advocacy for women and made it look more like a power struggle. But it need not be like that.
Rather it is just an opening for participatory decision making, so that everyone can be heard and everyone can understand that they are valuable when it comes to the management of their resources and of their communities. Then everyone will benefit.
And after my conversations with the council, women [have now become involved], and now around 20% [of participants] are women. So that was huge progress. We are still working to make it up to 40%, 50%, and why not 70%?!
Samantha: I love that, and what’s interesting to me is the idea that involving women is not just right for the women, it’s not just addressing their exclusion, but it sounds like the community saw the benefits of better decision making, too.
Lamma: Yes, when I spoke with these women [who had come onto the council], one of them mentioned something. She said her husband thought she was going to be a terror at home if she went! And some men said, ‘Oh, you are [just] a young girl, what do you know, what can you tell us?’ But she was able to talk about her child’s future, and [argue the case for a new road to come into the village], saying this will help her child go to a better school in a nearby town [and so bring benefits to the whole community].
As a result, the new road was established, and the reason for that was because she stood up and represented her community in a meeting. And when she told me that, I was so happy for her! That was a great one for me!
If you train a woman, you train the nation
Samantha: I love the simplicity of something as straightforward as the road enabling people to access different resources. It’s kind of a metaphor too, right? We’re building roads – pathways – for people so that they can access new ways of thinking…
So you talk about some of the things that you’ve helped to change in your community. Let’s dig into that a little bit. What would you say are some of the most significant shifts in your area of expertise, natural resources and environmental management, in the last 25 years or so?
Lamma: One of the most important shifts in the sustainability movement over my lifetime is the fact that women – women, women, women are now taking their place in it. And it is very important for the community that they do so. Even until 2018, women represented just 2% of those involved in environmental work in Cameroon. And this saddened me, because, across the globe, women are much more connected to nature than men. Even though it is men who tend to be taught to be in [fields like] forestry and environmental protection.
But it is changing. Now the divisional delegates of the ministries of environmental protection and of forestry and wildlife are women.
We have a proverb in Cameroon which says, ‘If you train a man, you have just trained one person. If you train a woman, you have trained a nation’.
This to me is so true, because if you train a woman, she’s going to engage her children too.
As the years go by, more and more women are becoming involved in environmental programmes, and at the pace we are moving, I think by 2025 they will occupy 20% of leadership positions.
Working with culture while going outside the box
Samantha: Thinking about what you’ve learned in these last 25 years, what do we have to take forward for the next 25?
Lamma: First, we need institutions which focus on educating women in environmental protection, and [ideally these would be] single sex. When I go into rural communities, I hold meetings with the women separate from the men. Why? Because when we bring the men and the women together, the women will become quiet. They will not be able to speak because our cultures in Africa don’t permit women to speak when the men are talking. So that is why we need single sex institutions to educate local Cameroonian women.
Then, once their morale, their self-esteem, and their knowledge about environmental stewardship is built up, they will be ready to sit together with the men and talk with all confidence, knowing fully well that what they are saying is right. They will not be limited by their traditional culture. This does not destroy the most cherished local Cameroonian cultures, it’s just that it gives the woman a place. A place for her to be able to think out of the box without [also thinking], ‘Let me not say something wrong, my husband might shut me down, [or] my father might shut me down.’ She can express herself to her full capacity, without feeling psychologically restrained from being the best she can be.
Beautiful NGO reports but the work is not being done
We have so many [environmental] NGOs and civil society organisations in Cameroon who are [very good] at making wonderful speeches, and writing exciting and intriguing [project] proposals. And there are these funding organisations that load them with so much money to carry out the projects. But what happens is these [NGOs] then fabricate reports; they fabricate programmes. They might say, ‘we are going to be doing this in six communities, or in 10 communities’, and at the end of the day they might work in only one. But they will write a very beautiful report and send it back [to the funder]. And then sometimes they will not work [at all]. They will [just] sit at their desk and send wonderful reports, and have no impact on the ground.
It pains me to see these organisations receive huge amounts of funds for the same projects in the same area, and yet the work is not being done.
We can see the reports online, but [when we look on the ground] how come we can’t see the work? How come we can’t find success stories in these areas?
So if resources are being made available – financial, institutional or material – there should be a clear follow-up.
There should be clear monitoring and auditing processes, to make sure they’re being properly managed and [delivering the] project objectives, so that real impact is being created.
A beautiful land, with beautiful policies, but…
Samantha: So why is all this important? Why is environmental stewardship important for the people of Cameroon?
Lamma: Environmental stewardship is important for all the people of Cameroon because we have such great natural resources. We have a great quantity of forests. We have such a beautiful diverse mix of plant and animal species – including gorillas. Every child in Cameroon encounters these resources in one way or another. It’s not just something in the books, it’s not just something in the papers. It’s a reality.
We have over 260 traditional dishes in Cameroon, thanks to the variety of plants we have.
Cameroon is called Africa in miniature. Why? Because everything in Africa that you’re looking for, whether it comes through music, the natural environment, language, even people, you will find bits of every one of these things in Cameroon.
And of all the African countries, Cameroon has some of the best environmental policies. But you know the challenge? We have beautiful policies, but they are weak in implementation.
And that is because of a high rate of corruption and embezzlement. This has meant that policies which should be implemented are swept under a rug, and nothing is being done about it.
Bring policies to the people
We need to expose environmental policies [to the layperson]. One of the greatest challenges faced by rural women, and by rural societies in general, in Cameroon, is that they don’t know or understand the policies which govern their resources [such as forests]. They don’t know what the constitution says about their resources, and their own place in their management.
When you are ignorant of a thing, you become a victim of the repercussions that come with that ignorance
So we need to educate people about these policies, and about their rights under the laws and the constitution.
You know, it doesn’t take very huge things to make our environment sustainable. It doesn’t need very huge concepts, very huge ideas. It just takes the small things in our communities: raising awareness, getting people involved, doing participatory work, monitoring how work is being done – and then being truthful.
Of youth, and hope
Samantha: What gives you hope for the next generation – for the future of environmental stewardship in Cameroon?
Lamma: The first day we started with our Acorn club in the schools, we realised that talking to children was very difficult. One aspect of our culture means that the Cameroonian child grows up unable to express herself, to speak up. When someone talks to you, you should just accept it and stay quiet. So that first day, when I told the children, ‘Hey, just call me by my name’, they were like, ‘oh my goodness, how can we just call you by your name?’ [laughs] It was like a taboo…
We made sure these children felt free in class, and when they are answering a question, we [assure them] that there is no wrong answer. Nothing that they say makes them wrong. They might not be very close to the answer, but they are not wrong. And their teachers came to us [later] and asked, ‘Madam, how were you able to pass [all this] climate change knowledge to these children in [just] one month?’.
We changed the traditional classroom environment, and made these children feel free.
So if we can put more resources into training and empowering the children, building their capacities, then the future of sustainability in Cameroon has to be great. And the younger generation, their minds are open. In school, we asked them to write a letter to their future.
I have some beautiful letters here on my desk with me. Some of them said, ‘When I grow up, I am going to go to university, I am going to study climate change. I will be a climate ambassador, and I will go to America, I will go to Canada, I will go to France, to Britain, to these beautiful places, to learn more, and then I will come home and teach other children in my community about climate change.’
So that is the future we are talking about. Those are the children we are looking out for.
 REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is a UN-backed programme aimed at helping developing countries combat forest loss through conservation and sustainable management methods.
 Farming edible Giant Snails is a burgeoning sector in rural West Africa, where the creature is a significant source of protein.
Watch this space
The next in our Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward series sees Forum’s Co-Founder, Jonathan Porritt, in conversation with John Elkington, Founder and Chief Pollinator at Volans and one of the original founders of the sustainability movement.
About the Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward
Produced by international sustainability non-profit, Forum for the Future, the Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward is a unique opinion and commentary series set to explore lessons learned from the last 25 years in the sustainability movement and what they mean for the future.
Based on new and exclusive insights from diverse voices across the sustainability movement, we’ll examine where we have succeeded and where we have failed in creating real change. We’ll consider how the world is responding to today’s multifaceted challenges and opportunities, and what pivots might be needed if we’re to deliver at scale and pace. Lastly, we’ll look forward – exploring how we can reframe the goals of the system, reset our ambition, and encourage the adoption of new mindsets and approaches critical to creating what’s really needed: a truly just and regenerative future.
With thanks to our partners
Looking Back to Go Forward was made possible thanks to the generous support from our partners: Laudes Foundation, GSK Consumer Healthcare, Target, M&S, Capgemini, Bupa, 3M, the Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA), Burberry, Olam Food Ingredients, and in particular our headline sponsor, SC Johnson