Globally, climate change variation is no longer an abstract issue; its impacts are felt across the globe, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) [1
], where it imposes new pressures that are profoundly shaping ecological and socio-economic interactions. One of the key sectors extremely vulnerable to such changes is subsistence farming (SF) which underpins rural development, and employs over 60% of the labour force in SSA. Under mild scenarios where the world will warm by only 2 °C, SSA already stands to endure substantial losses in SF as a result of climate change [1
]. By 2050, the region (SSA) is expected to witness a decline in certain crops (maize, millet, and sorghum) by 15–20%, if warming exceeds 3 °C [3
]. Changes in the climate system have created huge biophysical impacts (e.g., ecosystem instability, plant growth depression, and soil degradation) including a reduction in the range of livelihood opportunities, increasing rural poverty and inequality in SSA, including Cameroon [4
], where the livelihoods of about 93% of her rural population is linked to land and natural resource exploitation [5
As part of the global system, Cameroon is witnessing the effects of climate change which is mirrored through increasing temperatures (average increase of 0.95 °C between 1930 and 1995), and a drop in rainfall by over 2% per decade since 1960 [6
]. This is affecting rural agrarian economies. Current trends indicate an increasing feminization of subsistence farming due to the significant male out-migration [7
]. It is, however, still unclear how socio-cultural factors influence adaptation from a gendered perspective in access to land resources. In the context of climate adaptation, gender inequality amplifies the vulnerability of women with regards to limited access to and control over resources upon which livelihood depends [8
]. Women equally need different assets, including an enabling environment to tackle these effects [12
Recent emphasis on climate-smart agriculture (CSA) demonstrates potentials to increase and sustain farming production and productivity under changing climate. However, the upscaling of this practice is marred by insecure and unequal tenure, especially for female farmers [14
]. While empirical studies have shown a correlation between secure rights to farmland and rural women’s livelihoods, current patterns suggest a decline in the access and use of land, exacerbated by degradation and institutional drivers [18
]. Tenure insecurity represents a serious obstacle to increase farm productivity and income for rural women [21
], including their investment [22
]. Tenure is shaped by a set of institutions and policies that determine the conditions under which land and its resulting resources are accessed, and the benefits derived from these resources [24
]. Customary tenure which is usually administered in accordance with the customary law (native customs) defines access and use of land resources [25
] with a high tendency to favour male ownership [26
]; this has direct impacts on agriculture and livelihoods [29
Empirical studies equally hold that tenure insecurity is one of the major factors behind the accelerated land degradation through its negative effects on long-term investments in sustainable land management practices [31
]. It is also one of the most critical factors associated with unsustainable farming practices [32
]. Literature contends that subsistence farming is the main cause of deforestation [35
], making reference to slash-and-burn or shifting cultivation around forest communities [36
], while neglecting land tenure issues [38
]. While secure and equitable tenure has the potential to simultaneously promote local economic development, reduce vulnerability, and strengthen the adaptive capacity of local communities, the lack of clarity that characterize insecure tenure, reinforces the negative effects of subsistence farming. Therefore, pro-women land reforms which create avenues that consider women’s strategic interest of secure and equitable access to and control over agricultural land and related resource will increase land productivity [31
]. This is pertinent in the Cameroonian context where rural poverty persists, with women being the most significantly affected.
Cameroon’s land tenure system considers the state as the “custodian” of land and guarantor of rights to possess and dispose of it. This law classifies land into (i) private property which includes: private property of individuals and of other legal persons who acquire the land for developmental purposes which are beneficial to the public; (ii) national lands: all lands that have not been subjected to private appropriation; and (iii) public property: all real property that by nature or purpose is allocated for public use [26
]. The focus of this paper is on (i) private property under the customary tenure system in rural Cameroon. Customary tenure system is not static and has evolved slowly over time in response to institutional, economic, environmental, and political changes, thus offering a window of opportunity for inclusive customary reforms at the local level [39
]. However, knowledge gaps exist with respect to the extent to which customary rules shape rural women’s adaptation in the context of climate change. This paper seeks to address two objectives: (i) to characterize gender inequality with regards to customary land tenure in rural Cameroon, and (ii) to analyse land access as an endogenous institutional constraint to rural women’s climate adaptation. It is based on a study conducted within the framework of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation International Climate Protection Fellowship on “Land tenure, gender and climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan Africa, using Participatory Action Research approaches”. The knowledge generated will contribute not only to (re)define customary practices, but will identify pathways to reduce gender inequality, while building community resilience to climate change in the context of subsistence farming.
4. Proposals for Building Resilience to Climate Change
In this paper, we sought to (i) characterize gender inequalities with regards to customary land tenure in rural Cameroon and (ii) analyse land access as an endogenous institutional constraint to rural women’s climate adaptation. We randomly drew a representative sample of 87 female subsistence farmers in Konye, South West Cameroon. We employed the logistic regression and the chi-square analysis and established a relationship between women’s insecure tenure and the vulnerability of subsistence farming systems to climate change. Our results concur with the notion that climate change as perceived through increasing temperatures and irregular rainfall patterns, affects subsistence farming, especially through crop failure and crop species loss. Intense rains result in soil compaction, soil erosion and high run-off, which accelerates the physical and chemical degradation of soils. Also, higher temperatures cause food crops to die before they mature. Insecure and unequal land tenure systems interact with climate change impacts to amplify climate vulnerability by constraining subsistence farming activities that could buffer rural farmers’ especially women against such adverse effects. These constraints relate to the customary tenure system (e.g., insecurity of land tenure, unequal access to land, lack of a mechanism to transfer rights and consolidate plots) and result in an under-developed farming system, high landlessness, food insecurity, degraded natural resource and increased poverty for rural women.
Faced with the challenges as a result of climate change, insecure and unequal tenure, alongside the need to provide food for the family, rural women seek to increase production (not productivity), by extending shifting cultivation practice. Although there exists no direct linkage between customary land tenure system and climate change impacts, a secured and equitable access to and control over farmland reduce the risk of hunger and poverty and influence people’s capacity to invest in sustainable and productive land related activities.
In order to build women’s resilience (considered here as the ability of women to cope with external stresses and disturbances), policy response and advocacy particularly at the local (municipal and village) level involving local actors such as COMES, NGOs, CBOs, farming groups and traditional rulers, should be encouraged [55
]. Land ownership allows people to sustainably manage resources and develop more equitable relations with the rest of society [29
]. This will contribute towards raising farm yields which has a trickle-down effect on enhancing food security, income, livelihoods and the overall wellbeing of the family. Women can plan and quickly adjust resource allocation decisions under changing climatic and socio-economic conditions and can rely on the productive results of their labour. Therefore, secure and equitable access to productive resources such as land is critical to the millions of poor people in rural areas who depend on farming for their livelihoods [59
]. This could serve as an entry point for community-based interventions aimed at reducing the vulnerability of subsistence farming to climate change.
Recognizing that smallholder farmers dominate Cameroon’s rural landscape [60
], land tenure issues continually take central stage in research and policy discourse. While there is a need to reduce inequality in land access, it is equally necessary to guard against land fragmentation. Studies have shown that excessive land fragmentation affects the technical efficiency of farms [61
]. Small fragmented land holdings might create difficulties to grow certain crops and prevent farmers from switching to more profitable crops [62
]. Also, in Cameroon, most financial institutions (e.g., banks and micro-credit institutions) are not willing to take small, scattered and fragmented land holdings as collateral; this prevents farmers from obtaining credit to make on or off-farm investments. Consequently, a process of land consolidation needs to be implemented through “family ownership” which allows equal access for both sexes.
Perhaps, the practice of joint property for couples could improve the unequal access problem for these communities. However, for this to be effective, the local government should encourage couples to acquire official documentation of their marital status by facilitating the issuance of marriage certificates. This will motivate joint ownership of property. Incentives for men to change behaviours, as in the case of Nepal where the policy to waive 20% of tax revenue if the land is registered in the name of a woman was highly successful, should be encouraged [58
]. The creation of a Village Land Act could provide the legal framework for the management of village land; this has proven to be successful in Tanzania [63
]. In executing this function, the village should make use of the already existing Village Council, after restructuring it to be gender sensitive, to act as the management committee and to render accounts for land management decisions. The village land act should then be integrated into the land governance framework of the country.