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Located in the hot and dry Sahel region of Cameroon, the Extreme North Province stretches across an area 34,260 km2. The Province supports a growing population, reaching approximately 3 million inhabitants in 2005. Economic activity is centred on agriculture and fisheries, including 25 % of the country’s 2.5 million cattle. The population is characterised by poverty, serious in some cases. As social groups, women and girls are particularly marginalized due to a combination of tradition, custom and religion.
For a variety of reasons including culture but also poverty, a heavy reliance is placed on wood for energy, particularly by the poorest and most marginalised groups. A survey of wood consumption, undertaken by COPRES-SA, showed that 90% of families in the Extreme North region use nothing but wood for cooking purposes. Approximately 8.2 m3 of wood was used by each of the 224 families studied, totalling approximately 1.3 million kg of wood consumed each year. If these figures are extrapolated to cover the Province’s 375,000 families, wood consumption reaches 3 million m2 of wood each year; this does not include the small-scale but widespread gathering of wood by private individuals.
The reliance on wood has many implications, including serious social, environmental and economic impacts:
- Securing wood is a major activity in most households and can take up several hours each day, with women and girls traditionally responsible for this activity. As wood becomes scarcer, longer time is spent collecting wood; alternatively, families have to pay more for wood collected by others. The medium to long term prognosis is that the progressive clearing of forests will eventually make wood inaccessible, hitting the poorest and most marginalised communities first and hardest.
- The health impacts of wood burning in the home are significant, affecting respiratory systems and eyes. Most firewood contains carbon monoxide and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide smoke can, if inhaled, lead to dizziness, nausea and even fainting. Carbon monoxide can lead to asthma attacks, irritation of the eyes, nostrils, etc; high levels of exposure can result in asphyxiation. The combination of the two gases can also aggravate cataracts post operation.
- Apart from air pollution, key environmental impacts include the progressive and rapid decline in woodland in the Province over the last 30 years. The clear cutting of wood results in degraded soil generally characterised by low organic matter and increased soil erosion, and low biodiversity. Combined, this reduces the productivity of agricultural systems, forcing farmers to widen the area used for farming. Deforestation is in turn contributing to the rapid advancement of the desert from the north, estimated to be extending by 15 km each year.
In the absence of external intervention, there is little sign that the use of wood for energy will decline in the short or medium term. This is despite the growing scarcity of forest or scrubland and the existence of alternative and accessible energy sources. A move away from reliance on wood for energy is entirely possible and practicable, however. The Extreme North is richly endowed with resources in terms of solar energy and animal waste, both of which offer alternatives for domestic and commercial use. However, the wide scale introduction of such alternative energy sources demands an investment in information, capacity building and technology.
The potential for using biodegradable animal waste is particularly encouraging given the low costs associated with biogas technology and the suitability for installation in small domestic situations (3 or 4 units/village). Biogas digesters essentially convert animal waste into methane gas for cooking and lighting. Resulting effluents can be used to improve soil fertility. The introduction of bio digesters would radically change domestic life styles and health, notably of women and girls, and contribute to economic regeneration as spare time is used to engage in economic activity. By reducing wood cut by approximately 1.02 m3 per person per year, the biogas digesters would also significantly reduce the rate of deforestation and soil erosion, as well as leading to a saving of approximately 2.75 tonnes of CO2 per family due to reduced emissions from wood burning.
The core beneficiaries of the pilot project will be the girls, women and other members of the families in the five households targeted. With each household having on average eight members, the total number of direct beneficiaries will number approximately 40 persons.