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Reportagem Publication logo June 2, 2021

Cameroon: Large-Scale Logging Forces Indigenous Baka Out of the Forests

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Four Baka women stand side-by-side together in the rainforest.
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Massive logging of the rainforest leaves the Baka pygmies with very restricted user rights and no...

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Typical traditional Baka house
Typical traditional Baka house. Image courtesy of EnviroNews Nigeria.

Expelled from the forest at the arrival of the logging company Pallisco, the forest Indigenous Baka of Bidjoumam are currently vulnerable to exploitation, dust, ill health and loss of land.

In Mindourou/East Cameroon, there are about 300 Indigenous forest people living in Bidjoumam, the Baka hamlet, home to the communities affected by Pallisco logging activities. They used to have everything they needed in the forest, now things have changed because of massive logging activities carried out by Pallisco. They left the forest in 1977 and moved along the edge of the muddy road.

Owner of three forest management units (FMUs), 10-030, 10-031 and 10-047B, Pallisco has been operating in Cameroon since 1972 and its lease is scheduled to expire in 2045.

On January 5, 2021, the logging company signed the 1083 concession to exploit 1,450 trees between January and December 2021. That same year, the Cameroon government and an Independent Forest Monitor found that Pallisco had violated logging regulations and was involved in illegal logging, and excessive logging of Sapelli and other unauthorized species up to 4,019 cubic meters.

Loss of forest cover of Pallisco FMUs between 2010 and 2018
Loss of forest cover of Pallisco FMUs between 2010 and 2018. Image courtesy of EnviroNews Nigeria.

Life in a nascent community has influenced some Bakas in Bidjoumam to speak French while their children attend a thatch school with a male teacher for close to 18 pupils. These Bidjoumam communities get their drinking water from a new hand-pump water well built by FAIRMED, a non-governmental organization working to eradicate poverty-related diseases.

No access to forest resources

Forty-four years ago, the Bakas had the fruits of Moabi, of which they depended much for many ends. Moabi is regarded by Bakas as a good fruit that grows in the primary forests, they call Mandja.

“We ate the Moabi and used the seeds to make oil, the straws were used by our women to make fire. We also use the Moabi’s straw to catch fish in the river,” says Daniel, a local Baka farmer and leader of the community. The abundant non-timber forest products (NTFPs) made it possible for the Bakas to harvest Moabi fruit and bush mangoes, until they were forced to leave their homes in the forest, when the logging company Pallisco started its activities.

The Moabi is a remarkable tree with a perfectly straight cylindrical barrel.  It can reach over 30 meters tall and over 2 meters in diameter. The logging company, Pallisco, is authorized to cut down the Moabi for timber, from all its FMUs. However, the company has not released the volumes of Moabi logged since its operation.

Pallisco did not delay in destroying the house of Daniel, who had everything he needed in the forest. The pygmies of Bidjoumam left the forest to live by the road with the help of the late Mdoumbé, an old Baka man who slept in Abong-Mbang and worked with the foreigners.

“Since the arrival of Pallisco, the Moabi tree is cut for wood and we no longer have Moabi fruits. We no longer have much to gather in the forest. The only thing we get from the forest is the bush Mango and Mbalaka fruits, and that’s because Pallisco doesn’t exploit a lot of these types of trees,” says Daniel.

In May 2005, the Forest Peoples Programme, a non-governmental organisation working with Indigenous forest peoples to secure their land rights, heard how the Bakas are affected by the Moabi trees on which they depend and which are being cut down by Pallisco. Moabi is of vital importance to the pygmies, due to its versatility in supplying medicines, food and other subsistence products.

Intimidations

In the forest, the Bakas are traditional hunters who had autonomy over bushmeat hunting for food. Meat is important in the diet of the Bakas because it is their main source of protein. Since their expulsion from the forest, the repression of the Pallisco wildlife guards has undermined their access to traditional bushmeat.

When Poumpoum Pierre, farmer and hunter from Bidjoumam returns from the hunt for small game, around the FMU 10-047B, his bushmeat is often seized by the Pallisco wildlife guards who patrol around their concessions. When he was in the forest, he moved freely with his game, but presently the situation has changed.

“We’re not big game hunters, the Pallisco wildlife guards know this. Although sometimes they let us cross their routes and go fishing in the river,” says Poumpoum. There was no reply to an email sent to Michel Rougeron, Director of the Pallisco logging site in Mindourou, intended to inquire about it, prior to this publication.

On July 17, 2013 Survival International reported that a Baka man said: “Pallisco has hired wildlife guards, who every year burn our forest camps to the ground and tell people: you have no land here.”

In his avid voice, Emini Timothée, a young Baka man and legal officer in Okani — a non-governmental organisation working with the Baka Indigenous people — fears that if the people of Baka have no access to forests, they cannot transfer traditional knowledge and culture to their children.

Poumpoum fears that the Baka culture of hunting will disappear. Unlike his children who have never lived in the forests and do not have hunting skills, he can easily recognize numerous wildlife species. He’s concerned about the disappearance of the Baka hunting skills.

“We are quickly losing our heritage,” says Bridgette, a farmer and mother, as she adjusts her breastfeeding baby. She believes that the solution is to try to transmit to children the Baka dexterity in hunting, fishing and harvesting honey.

“There is too much noise in the forest today, and we cannot perform our traditional rituals. It is difficult for us to hunt small game in the forest, as we did before Pallisco came. At first, the forest was quiet and peaceful,” admits Poumpoum.

Turned into farmers

For a long time, the Bakas have lived by hunting and gathering. Consequently, some of them who are involved in agriculture copied the practices of their farming neighbours. However, the impact of logging by Pallisco leaves the Bakas of Bidjoumam with no choice but to engage in cultivation.

Julienne Malenge, farmer and mother of six, left the forest with her family and settled at the verge of the road. Presently, she’s experiencing a new life completely.

“We were not farmers in the forest, we were just gathering wild yams, mangoes and hunting game in the forest. Now we farm to eat and care for our children,” says Julienne.

Pallisco donated one bag of groundnut and corn to the Bakas for planting on the community farm. It is a 1-hectare parcel of land that has been set aside by the pygmies to contribute to their farming practices.

The community farm initiative began in the summer of 2021 to help the pygmies mitigate the problem of food availability. By 2050, the population of Cameroon is estimated to be 51.9 million people, including 0.4 percent of the forest population. Indigenous peoples are the poorest, live under the poverty line and are vulnerable.

Daniel revealed that the harvest will be used for two purposes: one part will be split among them while the other part will be sold for income that could help in times of illness and other social problems.

Alcohol and diseases

On the first day of a visit to Bidjoumam, one could feel the mist of silence which had covered the mud-brick houses.  An adult Indigenous Baka male passed away from health complications.

Indigenous communities’ leaders said Pallisco is cutting down most of the medicinal trees of the Bakas of Bidjoumam. Industrial logging has brought the Bakas into an unusual lifestyle, affected by the impact of felling trees in their ancestral lands which is rich in biological diversity.

Julienne finds it hard when her children are sick, there are very few medicinal leaves in the forests. When the disease persists, she takes her kids to the clinic, which is about 4 kilometers.

They were used to herbal treatment for diseases. Their ancestors who used this traditional medicine in the forests. But “herbs are very rare today,” adds Daniel.

They also denounce the huge number of deaths in the Indigenous Baka community, due to the consumption of alcohol. More than four decades ago, their forest contained a soft traditional tobacco called “Ndako”, only consumed by older men. Living now out of the forest due to Pallisco large-scale logging activities, many men, including those under the age of 15, are exposed to alcohol and cigarettes.

In 2019, between Abong-Mbang and Mindourou, over 30 Baka men lost their lives as a result of their alcohol consumption, Emini revealed. This has had serious implications for the Baka community.

The forced displacement affected the social behaviour of traditional Baka men in such a way that the family suffers.

“Some of them become nearly irresponsible, they prefer to work for a wage or sell plantains and spend money on alcohol,” says Adolf Itoe Njume, Ecoguard officer with the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF), Mindourou outpost, who monitored the situation.

Land conflicts

Because of Pallisco’s restrictions on access to forests, land conflicts between the Bakas and the Bantus are escalating. The increasing pressure from the Bantus to control land and rights of use is now a source of exploitation in many ways. For the Bakas of Bidjoumam, this was not the case before the arrival of the lumberjack in 1972.

Naye Michel, a young farmer in the Baka community of Kenjo, married to Akamba from Bidjoumam, said this: “We have no water in Kenjo, and the logging company promised us a clinic, but nothing has been done so far.”

The young man, Naye, who visited Bidjoumam with his wife, says that the Bantus who live near them in Kenjo still have problems with them because they (the Bantus) consider themselves to be a superior tribe and the first owners of the land.

“They pay us less when we work on their farms,” admitted Naye. The Bantus say it’s not Baka territory. Today, the Bantus and Bakas still live that way, without resolving the land dispute.

Map of Mindourou
Map of Mindourou. Image courtesy of EnviroNews Nigeria.

Okani continues to engage with logging companies to ensure that their policies reflect the rights of Baka communities. However, one can see along the road, in some Baka hamlets, there are schools, but this is not enough; there should also be some sort of compensation for the Bakas. Emini also recounts that because the Bakas do not own the land they are now occupying, the Bantu are exploiting them on their farms and denying them access to arable land to cultivate crops.

“The Cameroonian government is trying to identify the grouped hamlets of Baka, so that they can be organised under a unified chiefdom,” says Adolf. Okani has been discussing this with the government to ensure that soon there will be a chiefdom for the Bakas. It will protect the Bakas and drive development projects into their communities.

Cameroon voted in support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 but has yet to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 which includes, among others, the recognition of the right of Aboriginal peoples to land.