Cameroon: After the Forest
Words by Jane Labous
I was commissioned by Plan International to document the Baka indigenous people in Cameroon. I travelled through the south of the country with Plan’s global press officer, Jane Labous.
The Baka pygmy tribe in southeast Cameroon has lived nomadically and sustainably in the dense tropical forests of eastern Cameroon for centuries. Now, resettling by the roads, the tribe is struggling to find its place in the modern world, powerless to save its ancestral forest from the logging industry and crippled by poverty and discrimination.
Bush meat is a staple for the Baka, the indigenous forest pygmies for whom hunting is a way of life. Ironically enough, nowadays it is the logging truck drivers who dine on bush meat before they rumble off to the port city of Douala carrying the giant trees that, for centuries, the Baka have stood guard over.
‘People come and do whatever they want in the forest, without even consulting us,’ says Noel, 50, who lives in a Baka village in Mayos, southeastern Cameroon, as Marc and I walk through a section of this extravagantly beautiful rainforest that covers over two million square kilometres of central Africa. ‘We have no say at all. The Baka have been the guardians of the forest for years, but today we have nothing. If they were going to hand out the rights to the forest, they should have given these rights to the Baka first. But we’ve been set aside, while others have benefited. It’s totally unjust.’
The Baka’s traditional habitat is being systematically allocated as logging and mining land. Although the Baka meet all the criteria designated by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) defining an ‘indigenous people’, the government does not identify them as such and thus sees no reason to allocate them user rights to the forest. According to the UK advocacy group Global Witness, the world’s second largest rainforest is losing 2000 square km – an area 34 times the size of Manhattan – every year to logging. More than 600,000 square kilometres (30%) of Central African forest was under logging concessions by 2007, whereas just 12% was protected, according to scientists who mapped the area and published the results in Science magazine in that year. In Cameroon, 48% of the total 212,306sq kilometres of forest had already been allocated to logging concessions, and the country showed the greatest amount of forest disturbance in central Africa.
Wood from the Central African forest is in demand around the world: the light blonde picture framing wood of the tropical Ayous; the red hardwood of the West African Tali; the fine-textured yellow Osanga and the shimmering orange of the Bilinga, or hickory, favoured for railway sleepers, bridges and garden furniture. Unpaved logging roads crisscross the forest in this region and the trucks roll in day and night from Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, finally joining Cameroon’s perfectly engineered N10 highway, a tarmac artery to the port of Douala (where we found a dedicated ‘Terminal Bois’ or wood terminal, tucked away at the back of the securitised port). Would the N10 be so well maintained if the multi-million pound logging industry were not so reliant on it and on a stable and secure port such as Douala?
‘As for fighting for our rights,’ adds Noel, ‘We really want to, but we don’t have the force. We don’t have Baka elites, and although we’re trying to find people who can stand up for us, such representation is very hard, because we don’t have children who’ve been to school. There just isn’t anyone who has studied to a high level.’
Without forests, the Baka’s identity, soul and home is lost, explains Noel, but without education, few Baka have the voice to fight back. ‘My culture is my identity; without this I can’t live. I’ve told you all that the forest means to us – we’re its caretakers, its guardians. The forest is our supermarket and our pharmacy, it is everything to the Bakas. When it is destroyed, it hurts us beyond imagining.’