In Cameroon’s Ebo Forest, the Oscar should not go to DiCaprio

It was not the tweets Leonardo DiCaprio sent from Los Angeles, but the work of the local Banen communities that saved Cameroon’s Ebo Forest.

The plant that was named after Leonardo DiCaprio is seen in Cameroon's Ebo forest
Uvariopsis dicaprio, a critically endangered species of tropical evergreen tree, has been named after American actor Leonardo DiCaprio for his 'efforts to preserve its home in the precious Ebo Forest' [Lorna MacKinnon/Wikipedia]

Earlier this month, Leonardo DiCaprio gained a new namesake in the form of a tropical tree from Cameroon. The first plant species named in 2022 by the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is called “Uvariopsis dicaprio” after Leonardo DiCaprio’s “efforts to preserve its home in the precious Ebo Forest”.

He used social media “to help revoke a logging concession for the forest in 2020”, but while no effort should be underestimated, the real heroes in the campaign to save the forest were the local Banen communities.

Cameroon’s Ebo Forest is an intact forest ecosystem, with a surface area of more than 2,000 sq km (772 sq miles) – greater than the size of London in the UK. It is a massive biodiversity hotspot, home to forest elephants, drills, gorillas, and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees, who fashion tools from stones to crack nuts and sticks to fish for food and are the rarest subspecies in Africa.

Like any rainforest, Ebo is an important carbon sink. It contains an estimated 35 million tonnes of carbon – that is about three times the annual emissions from passenger cars in London.

The forest is also home to more than 40 Banen communities. These communities have been campaigning for their right to return to the forest from which they were displaced in 1963 during the dirty war by France’s puppet regime against the freedom fighters who had just freed the country from colonial rule. To the Banen people, Ebo Forest is their sacred ancestral land where their dead are buried.

In early 2020, Cameroon’s government told local communities it had decided to open up Ebo Forest for industrial logging. Logging has never advanced any Central African economy but has, instead, made a small circle of elites richer and local communities poorer.

The government pushed ahead, despite the rejection of the plans by Banen communities, the violation of the local forestry law, and the internationally recognised right of local and Indigenous communities to give their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

It was Banen leaders who spearheaded the political struggle for Ebo Forest from day one until logging plans were indefinitely suspended six months later in August 2020. They did so in tandem with Cameroonian researchers like Dr Ekwoge Abwe, who has devoted his life to the protection of Ebo Forest, its biodiversity and the rights of its communities.

The decree to allow felling also violated a 2006 pledge by Cameroon’s government to turn Ebo Forest into a national park, a plan which was also opposed by the communities – unsurprisingly, given the disastrous reputation big-budget conservation has gained in the region – though favoured by the UK scientists who named Ebo’s tree after DiCaprio.

In a country where loggers and agro-industrial companies have a record of land grabbing and human rights abuses that include sexual assaults, where wildlife conservation has been prioritised over Indigenous people, in a country ranked 134th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, resistance requires true courage. Standing up for one’s rights in Cameroon requires qualities other than posting on Instagram or Twitter from Los Angeles.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s overall commitment goes far beyond keyboard activism and many environmental activists would agree he deserves an Oscar in the Best Actor category for his role in the Netflix production Don’t Look Up.

Yet it’s important not to mix up the categories. The Ebo Forest drama has never been an American production. Indeed, it involved many well-meaning people and organisations outside Cameroon, but they’ve been extras at best – including DiCaprio. The proper category for their award would be, perhaps, “best foreign background actors”.

British scientists honouring an American actor for saving a forest in Central Africa through social media posts could have just been an anecdote, but it is symptomatic of so much that is wrong.

Eco-fascism, neocolonialism, the white-saviour syndrome and the failed model of “fortress conservation” are all worth a Google search here. If we rip away the agency from local communities, they may be displaced and their forest eventually destroyed due to some defected, expired or mismanaged conservation scheme there or elsewhere.

The rainforest is a blessing to communities and to the entire world. Anyone is welcome to join in resisting multinational loggers and others who profit from the forest’s destruction. Yet let us know our place.

Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions, liked and shared posts, and protested for Ebo Forest to be saved. Yet it was only the local communities’ homes that were directly threatened. It was only the local Banen communities who risked their lives in the struggle.

And should authorities in Cameroon dare expropriate this forest again in the future, it will be the local communities again who will not acquiesce in its destruction – including of its Uvariopsis dicaprio trees.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.