Protecting Baka pygmies access to forest resources in Southeast Cameroon
These indigenous forest people living around three national parks; Boumba-Bek, Nki and Lobéké, make up some 30 percent of the 100,000 people living in the heart of the Congo Basin Rainforest in Southeast Cameroon. They are essentially hunters and gatherers and lead a semi-nomadic life.
A phase of the study entitled "Space and Resource Use of Indigenous Baka pygmies" carried out in part of north and entire eastern buffer zones of Boumba-Bek, by a WWF Jengi Southeast Forest Program research team, brings out the peculiarities (exceptional culture) of Baka pygmies and provides a basis for negotiation of access rights in protected areas. It establishes a direct relationship between the future of the forest and Baka pygmies, spotlights Bakas feeding habits and location of huts and choreographs elements of change in the area.
According to Dr. Leonard Usongo, WWF Jengi Programme Coordinator, the study provides necessary information for the integration of Baka pygmies into natural resource management. It will also help preserve the cultural heritage and reinforce community identity amongst Baka pygmies; manage conflicts within and between local communities on the one hand and local communities and administrative authorities on the other hand. "Given WWF's philosophy in participatory management, it is fundamental to address the needs of local communities in order to win their support for conservation work," says Dr. Usongo.
The study has so far revealed that Bakas wholly rely on the forest for their livelihood. They harvest honey, wild mangoes, yams, medicinal plants and many other non-timber forest products from there. They hunt, live and have their sacred sites inside the forest. It gives inkling into Baka pygmies’ strongly held beliefs, traditional approach to conservation, usage of some non-timber forest products and their semi-nomadic way of life.
After participatory mapping of the resource use areas, in-forest data collection using cyber tracker devices, group (15 groups) and individual interviews and direct observations, in 13 villages of 3444 people, a WWF research team concluded that Baka pygmies do not recognize any limits in their quest for forest resources and performance of their traditional rituals. They carry out activities both in and around the park. They see both as continuity and disregard the boundaries erected by the minds of men. The study thus recommends that Baka pygmies be given more access rights beyond agro-forestry zones, the possibility to enter the park between June and September to harvest wild mangoes, possibility to use footpaths within the park, permission to kill an elephant for their annual traditional celebration known as the “Jengi Dance” and unfettered access to harvest medicinal plants throughout the year.
Conservators par excellence
By virtue of their attitudes, behavior and belief, Baka pygmies are excellent nature conservators, reveals the study carried out by Olivier Njounan Tegomo, WWF Senior Field Research Assistant. It is forbidden to set up many snares or hunt female animals amongst Baka pygmies. They discourage the age-old human habit of hoarding food and consuming much meat while encouraging their kith and kin to eat moderately. It is also prohibited to stay in the same place in the forest for too long. In the Baka pygmy’s world resources are exploited based on their abundance and there are internal social control mechanisms for natural resource exploitation.
Baka pygmies in the north and east of Boumba-Bek have permanent external and internal camps alongside huts that serve as resting places during penetration into the forest. Each hut has a footpath that corresponds to a portion of the forest. Bakas are able to trace their huts using rivers, trees and hills. According to the study, "the internal huts sometimes provide refuge for people accused of witchcraft or adultery." Forest penetration is also influenced by location of their sacred shrines, the availability of non-timber forest products. As the resources get depleted, the degree of penetration increases.
Potentials for change
Despite their cultural exceptions, Baka pygmies are indubitably witnessing trappings of change. Perturbation of their habitats by the logging companies, creation of sport and community hunting zones and national parks have invariably impacted on their way of life. Logging roads now cut through their natural habitats, their sacred sites are found within protected areas and the advent of the Christian church means much influence on their culture, buttressed by introduction of the radio as a modern communication tool. “This perceptible struggle between modernism and Baka pygmies traditional way of life is one of the main interest of the study,” states Dr. Louis Defo, WWF Jengi Collaborative Management Advisor. “The study seeks to provide answers on resources and space use by these indigenous forest people to carry out their cultural and socio-economic activities in Boumba-Bek. It is thus a priority conservation approach for WWF Jengi,” says Dr. Defo.
Cameroon’s Forest and Wildlife Ministry, through the Chief of Sector in charge of Wild East Province, Mr. Prospere Seme, reiterated the country’s firm commitment to protect rights of indigenous forest peoples. He also advised the Bakas to respect regulations established by government for management of national parks, especially hunting of endangered wildlife species.