For Cameroon's pygmies, no forest is impenetrable enough

With no telephone connection to the outside world, and a single access road that is little more than a forest trail, the village of Lomie might as well be situated at the other side of the Earth as far as many Cameroonians are concerned.

For the Baka pygmies, however, the position of the south-eastern settlement is more ambiguous: too accessible for loggers, but too remote for the benefits of modern life to make themselves felt. About 40 000 indigenous pygmies live in the forests of south and east Cameroon, their lives much the same as those of their ancestors from the pre-colonial era.

“Most Baka pygmies survive by hunting and gathering in the forest, their ancestral home and the epicentre of their world: the only place their existence can take root, and in which they have always lived in peace,” says Clementine Assiga Ndongo, a member of the Centre for the Environment and Development (CED).

The centre is an NGO based in the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde.

But, the relative isolation of the Baka means that most have practically no access to modern health care or formal education, and that they neither speak nor read French, one of the two official languages of Cameroon.

This situation is aggravated by the fact that pygmies are nomadic, moving from one hunting ground to another as the need dictates. Many of their settlements, says Ndongo, “literally do not exist on maps”.

As a result, the needs of pygmies were not taken into account when national parks were created to protect Cameroonian forests.

“Because these communities were not located on maps when the parks were established, the pygmies were deprived of their right to the forest,” says Felix Sagne, an economist at the ministry of forests and fauna.

Measures that have been put in place for the protection of endangered species have also had an adverse effect on pygmies, as they are sometimes in conflict with their hunting and gathering practices.

Apart from failing to feature on maps, the pygmies are also a shadowy presence in other official records.

“Just a short time ago, before the Cameroonian government and NGOs began formally recording them, few had an identity card and almost none was counted for official censuses and voter lists,” says Calvin Oyono, a local official working in Lomie.

For those pygmies who have tried to exchange their traditional lifestyle for a more modern existence, the transition has been fraught with difficulties. Their lack of education makes them vulnerable to persecution and discrimination at the hands of officials, and majority Bantus.

“If they seek out the charms of neighbouring villages ... they risk being cheated, laughed at, or treated unjustly by local authorities,” says Severin Cecil Abega, an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Yaounde I.

“That’s why many Baka, Bagyeli and Bakola [two other pygmy groups] remain in their forest communities and don’t get involved in ‘town business’.”

Ironically, the poor treatment that many pygmies receive also discourages them from enrolling their children in schools—the very thing that would help end this cycle of discrimination. While a few pygmy children do attend school, there are no statistics on exactly how many are receiving an education.

Even the traditional knowledge that pygmies have about the forest environment is exploited.

“Strangers who seek out the pygmies are usually looking to extort animal skins from us or take barks we use to treat certain ailments,” says Emmanuel Missolo, a pygmy who works with the CED in Lomie.

Adds Judith Atangana, a member of Planet Survey Cameroon, another Yaounde-based NGO: “The present situation is that the pygmies are today strangers in the forests where they were the first to live their lives.

“Besides the poor treatment they get at the hands of the Bantu, they do not receive forest royalties as other communities do.”

The plight of indigenous communities like the Baka pygmies has been acknowledged at regional and international meetings such as the Fifth Conference on Dense Forest and Rainforest Ecosystems of Central Africa, held in May 2004 in Yaounde, and the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which took place in South Africa in 2001.

The Fifth World Congress on Parks and Protected Areas of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature also called on countries to revise laws and policies that negatively affect indigenous populations.

But, with timber sales accounting for no less than 10% of Cameroon’s gross domestic product in 2004 (this according to the Bank of Central African States), the incessant barrage of logging trucks into pygmy areas is unlikely to stop any time soon.

Other than in Cameroon, pygmies are found in countries across Central Africa, from Gabon to Uganda.—IPS

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