Most people have seen little benefit from the exploitation of natural resources
Cameroon can be divided into four main regions. First, there is a coastal belt with mangrove forests and swamps that stretch up to 60 kilometres inland. These give way to the east to rocky plateaux. Much of the far north is a broad savannah plain with occasional hills leading to the shores of Lake Chad. The highest part of the country is along the border with Nigeria, a region that includes Mount Cameroon, the highest point in West Africa.
Cameroon has a diverse population, fractured along lines of ethnicity and language. There are thought to be around 200 ethnic groups. These differences open up a number of potential divisions: between the Islamic north and the Christian south, for example, and between pastoralists and farmers. But the most significant political differences arise from the colonial experience. The east of Cameroon was colonized by the French and the west by the British. Today the country is around 80% Francophone and 20% Anglophone—with the latter tending to be marginalized.
Although they had been doing well by the standards of Sub-Saharan Africa, most Cameroonians have seen a fall in living standards since the mid-1980s and around 40% live below the poverty line. Primary school enrolment increased to around 95% after school fees were abolished in 2000, but many children drop out. Health has been hit by reductions in public expenditure and around 1% of adults are HIV-positive. One third of the population do not have access to clean drinking water.
Two-thirds of Cameroonians still rely directly or indirectly on agriculture. The land is fertile and the country is usually self-sufficient in basic food crops like cassava, corn, millet, and plantains. The most important cash crops are cocoa, coffee, bananas, and cotton, which are mostly grown on smallholdings, though they are marketed through state corporations. In the south, there are also plantations growing palm oil and rubber. The country's extensive grasslands also offer grazing for livestock, which provide meat both for local consumption and export.
Rainforests threatened by logging and the oil pipeline
Cameroon's dense forests in the centre and south, as well as in the coastal belt, cover around 40% of the country and have also been an important source of income and the largest source of foreign exchange after oil. Around one-third of the forest area has been exploited, chiefly for the export of mahogany, teak, and ebony. This activity is largely in the hands of multinational companies, but there have been increasing concerns about the over-exploitation of the forests as well as about the effects on the country's oldest inhabitants, the pygmies—hunter-gatherers who live in the southern forests.
Economic prospects brightened with the discovery of offshore oil in 1976. Production started in 1978 and peaked in 1985. Since then, some of the better fields have matured and companies are having to exploit more marginal deposits and production has halved. In response the government has been making greater efforts to exploit deposits of natural gas.