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Because of Tams, Rocks, Birds and Their Guide, Slaves…

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When Richard Zare took his late father’s last breaths in a hospital room, he felt a symmetry to the way the death occurred. The 76-year-old former journalist, who lived much of his life in Europe, died on Sept. 29 as his legs were immobilized by a new knee and a doctor, who had been called to examine him, drew blood. “I was probably dying, which is what killed my father,” Zare said.

But it was not a medical death. Zare was part of a group that had killed an enormous number of trees in the southern African nation of Cameroon. He and his fellow members of the Cameroon Mene Otine (Green Farmers) movement pruned trees indiscriminately across the huge, densely wooded forest, killing the trees like moss with tiny hoes or by hacking off the branches of those the group thought should be protected — at times by gunning down the trees themselves, Zare recalled.

A difficult truth is unfolding in Cameroon — where there is no law to regulate the widespread tree-removal practices of the Mene Otine — and in much of the Amazon rainforest. But it is too soon to know whether the Cameroonians who have taken an axe to the rainforest there will go down in history as plant-killers or in the ranks of Norman Manley, John Muir and Margaret Mead. [Check back tomorrow for more on the story.]

To honor them as future plant ecologists, we’re sending a team of New York Times journalists to look into their “life and death” experiences — which raises the inevitable question: Do human beings have a right to take the lives of nature?

To find out what humans are really doing to the trees that represent their future, we need to look beyond the heads of the forest-dwellers we met in Cameroon’s commercial capital, Douala.

Let’s ask what happens when a bunch of people, who cut down trees to get at the base of the trees, when a question of survival brings them together, in what they often called their “net community.” For Christians, that group is a church, but for nearly 300 Mene Otine, the church is a forest-based movement.

The group met daily for three months while in Douala, a city of five million in the southwest of Cameroon. The congregation was not just one group of farmers foraging the land. It was a fraternal class of people, with a commune structure and pot stock (a ceremonial stock traditionally offered at funerals) at the center of it all. Mene Otine formed at the local corner store in 2001 to fight the increasing food and fuel prices in the surrounding region caused by globalization. They became very active and formed branches in the cities across Cameroon.

They were a diverse group: Lebanese, Chinese, Palestinians, Americans, French, Sudanese, Chinese — with Dutch, Cameroonians and other non-Cameroonian names included on the list. Mene Otine members like to say they were asked to join by their families. In Douala, Mene Otine members speak five languages — French, Lingala, Chichewa, Sango and English.

The tree-cutting began in March, even though a twelfth-century preamble to the French Revolution had banned tree felling. When the forest was at its peak, the wild population was between 600,000 and 900,000 trees, 80 percent of which were employed in agriculture and livestock husbandry, the other percent by sustainable sources of fuel for the rural population.

By August, the tree count had fallen to about 200,000, including half as many different species as before.

Soon after the church meetings began, and while still in Douala, the Mene Otine broadened their theme to include protecting the rivers and streams that supplied it. They denounced cattle grazing and deforestation along the country’s rivers, and defended the rights of the herdsmen who drive the cattle.

“Every tree has its destiny,” Zare said. “It wasn’t like saying you’re going to go and look for tobacco leaves to make cigarettes; it was going to look after the farm and protect the land in this city.”

In the heart of the forest they planted new trees and, by the end of July, at the height of sowing season, planted more than 50,000 seedlings. They wanted to make the Mene Otine community “green again,” and to discourage people from destroying the town’s soil and streams.

In this sense, for what it’s worth, the Mene Otine didn’t destroy the trees. And tree-killing was not at the

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