Spiritual Conservation

“Ecosystems are being destroyed because Africans have severed their relationship between ecosystems and spirituality. It is very very important for people to reintroduce that link, that relationship between themselves and the ecosystems, and then their spirituality becomes the key pillar in joining the two”

– Gathuru Mburu (Institute for Culture and Ecology, Kenya)

 

In 2012, the small west African country of Benin became the first in the continent to enshrine the spiritual significance of land into national law – the Sacred Forest Law. This legislation acknowledges not only the cultural value of these forests, but also the efficacy of which local culture protects them.

Sadly, the government of Cameroon does not recognise the same connection between Nature and Culture: no sacred lands are recognised by law, and whilst some community forests do exist, 100% of the land belongs to the state, with no local or indigenous land rights.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the link between Nature and Culture in Cameroon is lacking. It is one of most biologically and culturally diverse countries in the world, and this is not a coincidence. From the Mbororo pastoralists in the Extreme North province who emphasise the importance of “all the other species who don’t talk”, to the locally-designated sacred forests in the Anglophone North-West province, where village elders will venture and stay for many days to ask the gods who shall be the next king.

For the indigenous Baka people in the rainforested southeastern part of the country, the notion of a ‘sacred forest’ does not exist. They live in the forest and all aspects of their life involve the forest so there cannot be a forest ‘out there’ which is separate from everything else. The Baka are the centre of my PhD research in Cameroon because, whilst there are many different forest peoples here, the Baka are the ones most closely connected with the forest both physically and culturally, the ones that still rely on the forest the most for all parts of their lives, as well as the ones who are suffering the most from human rights abuses and erosion of their way of life. Having now spent months living in the forest with one Baka community, it is more clear to me how spirituality serves to connect them to the forest as well as each other.

As Gathuru Mburu eloquently mentions above, spirituality tends to be the common mechanism that connects indigenous Africans to their environments. And as we’re talking about indigenous Africans, this connection must be very old indeed in the human species. A genetic study carried out in 2008 found that the BaYaka, the broad group of Central African hunter-gatherers of which the Baka are part, are the second oldest human group still in existence today after the San people of the Kalahari.

Justin Kendrick, commenting on the relationship between the Mbuti hunter-gatherers in DRC and their forest, points out “the forest is not sacred in itself: the interactions of past generations with the forest render it sacred”. For the Baka, akin to the Mbuti, the forest is not worshipped as a sacred place, but rather its their interaction with it that makes it a special. Traditionally, the Baka hold a set of rules known as Ekila which mediates their physical relationship with the forest, and connects themselves and their social relations to the animals, spirits and features of the forest (read more about Ekila amongst the Mbendjele here).

Komba, the creator of all life, made the forest to be used, I was told by the Baka village healer Mangombe. He made it for the Baka to hunt and forage and to collect honey. However, this use requires that proper sharing is practised, not just between people utilising the resources, but between all beings that exist within the forest. I have been told many times by the Baka about the surprise and dismay they express when they see outsiders leaving the forest with many animals more than they could possibly eat. So, the views that the Baka of Bemba village hold are not against using what the forest has to offer, so long as it is shared with both humans and non-humans.

The interesting theme of what I’m observing is that the mentality that governs how the Baka of Bemba use and perceive the forest, is centred on the connectedness between them and the forest. The dominant global ideologies of a division between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ do not exist here, although with capitalist interests penetrating further into the Congo Basin, local cosmologies are changing.

In general, conservationists do not regard indigenous creation stories or spiritual beliefs as relevant to protecting wildlife, and even sometimes they are seen as an impediment to conservation because they are ‘unscientific’ and get in the way of learning ‘the facts’. Interestingly however, evidence is accumulating which shows that indigenous lands can be better at safeguarding biodiversity than conservation areas. And the link must be made that a large part of this success is because of the spiritual connection which such societies have with the world around them.

This is where ‘biocultural conservation’ comes in; the idea that biological and cultural diversity arise together, and that this relationship is not a coincidence. This theme goes against the prevailing trend globally: that of global homogeneity through globalisation and capitalism. This homogeneity is resulting in the majority of the world relying on only 3 crops to feed themselves, meaning that vast areas of biological diversity is disregarded to grow only 1 species (wheat, maize, or rice).

Food is just one example of the global homogeneity, but with it comes a disappearance of behaviours, rituals, languages, and beliefs. Including, of course, beliefs like that of the Baka which remind us all of how a different worldview can provide invaluable perspectives, a worldview which is perhaps the most ancient but which can offer the most effective solutions to contemporary environmental problems.

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Electric Guitars and Environmental Justice

Extreme Citizen Science blog

It’s not an easy ride from Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, to Gbiné.

A six hour bus to Bertoua, followed by a 16-hour minibus ride along the mud roads to Yokadouma the next day, and a 15-hour ride along rainforest tracks the day after that. I think it’s fair to say that more of the road is mudslide than road, at least in the rainy season.

But when you arrive, you are in for a treat.

Gbiné is a small village in the south-eastern corner of Cameroon, very close to the border with Congo. Hidden inside the rainforest here are the Baka hunter-gatherers of Gbiné. Rather than living alongside the road like the vast majority of Baka in Cameroon, a product of a forced government sendentarisation plan ongoing since the 50’s, the Baka of Gbiné have built their village further inside the forest. Whilst they have houses there, they spend…

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Hunter-gatherers versus Capitalism

Hunter-gatherers are most often thought of as living thousands of years ago; an extinct lifeway that our ancestors engaged in before discovering the joys of pastoralism and agriculture.

Some people might think of ‘lost’ or ‘uncontacted’ Indians in the Amazon in relation to hunting and gathering, but such groups are neither lost, uncontacted, or hunter-gatherers: horticulturalism has a long history here.

The truth is hunter-gatherers are with us today, and the largest population is in the Central African rainforests. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the last stronghold of hunter-gatherers share the beautiful Congo Basin with the three other African great ape species – chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. These forests are a sanctuary of abundant resources and act as protection from outside forces.

A common view amongst most agriculturalists is that hunter-gatherers are bound to go extinct. They are living an idealistic, nonviable, and unsustainable lifestyle, they argue. Let’s put this in perspective;  since 1970 the planet has lost almost two-thirds of mammal, bird, fish, amphibian, and reptile populations. Climate change, caused by ‘advanced’ societies has resulted in heightened droughts, famine, infectious diseases, resource wars, extreme weather, and caused increased poverty and refugees. The very air we breathe is so polluted in parts of China that residents are importing canned air from the Canadian Rockies. We’re living in an age with an impending threat of nuclear attack, prevalent gun and knife crime, human rights violations, depression, suicide, and record inequality whereby eight men have as much money as half of the world’s population.

And what is behind all of this? The answer lies with an ideology – capitalism, making as much money as possible. As a result of this economic system invented a mere 500 years ago in Europe, where environmental and social values are disregarded in favour of maximising profit, a mentality of endless exponential economic growth has been adopted – ‘faith-based economics’. A ‘first world’ lifestyle is only viable through environmental and social abuse.


In the words of a Plains Sioux Native American chief:

“Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realise that we cannot eat money”

Those that get in the way are removed by the capitalist system – nearly four environmental defenders were killed a week last year. For many, the introduction of capitalism has led to nothing but branding as ‘poor’, and placed at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy. The fact is that hunter-gatherers and Amazonian hunter-horticulturalists are extraordinarily wealthy: their environments contain the most biodiversity on Earth – biological wealth; their kinship and community relationships are uniquely strong – social wealth; and, if we venture into capitalist terms, their land often nurtures vast reserves of minerals, metals, oil, and other commodities – economic wealth. Those owning such resources for so long are tricked and exploited by foreign extractors with foreign interests, in order to fuel the capitalist machine and degrade biodiversity and social rights in the process.

And if you’re not convinced that perhaps capitalism is not so sensible, and that perhaps advanced societies are not so advanced after all, get stuck in to the literature on those predicting the future of humanity as it stands, starting with Prof Martin Rees’ ‘Our Final Century‘.

Contrast all this with a hunter-gatherer economy. An economy which modern humans have utilised since our species appearance ~300,000 years ago, and though adapting and adjusting, still ongoing today.

Which do you think is more sustainable?

 

Further reading: ‘Our life has turned upside down! And nobody cares’ by Jerome Lewis (2016)
Image of BaYaka: Survival International

 

Are poachers really the bad guys?

Extreme Citizen Science blog

The word poacher is a horrible word. It carries with it images of slain rhinos, piles of ivory, and smuggled AK47s. Even if it described something far more pleasant, such as a coastal walk in the summertime, it still sounds horrible.

Its phonetics are surely part of the reason. But what does it actually mean? “A pan for cooking eggs” is the first definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. More relevant to this article is the second definition: “A person who hunts or catches game or fish illegally”.

By you reading this, I’m assuming that you’re not in a very remote area of the world with few electronic devices and no internet. Given this, and that 55% of the world are urbanised, it’s safe to assume that you are in some sort of large town or city, where the meat you consume, if any, is domesticated – potentially even the…

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How to help sustain our Blue Planet

By Simon Moore & Simon Hoyte

In the wake of Blue Planet II you might be wondering what you can do to have a positive impact on our oceans. How can you help sustain those jumping fish taking birds out of the sky, stop the oceans from rising or the corals from bleaching, and ensure turtles don’t go extinct on our watch?

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If you haven’t been watching (where’ve you been?), David Attenborough has just showcased the incredible life inhabiting our oceans in seven glorious episodes, but under the surface of each story humans are causing damage to the great blue.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face with our oceans (and in nature more generally), after all, they’re massive and individual actions feel like just a drop in the ocean. And there’s always plenty more fish in the sea, right? Well, no, not at the rate we’re going.

But there is plenty of reason to have hope – people all across the world are fighting to protect the natural world. And every single person can make an enormous difference, as long as each of us ensures we are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Here are five easy things you can do to make a positive difference to help sustain our Blue Planet:

  1. Use less plastic! Refuse plastic as much as possible, and avoid plastic straws, microbeads, disposable plastic bottles and plastic-wrapped vegetables
  2. Know your seafood! Ensure your food is sourced sustainably through Marine Stewardship Council certification, and buy food locally where you can see exactly how it’s produced
  3. Fight climate change! One of the easiest ways to do this is to eat less meat and animal products, but also walk more, use public transport, fly less, improve your household energy efficiency and switch to a renewable energy supplier
  4. Support good conservation charities! Join and donate to campaigns by organisations such as SeaShepherd, Greenpeace and Fauna & Flora International, who devote their lives to defending the seas and the wider natural world
  5. Vote and get active! Vote for people who share your concern for the environment, tell your MP what you care about, join communities of likeminded individuals and try to promote conservation issues however and wherever you can

This article also appears on Simon Moore’s blog Simon the Scientist

Photo by JuliasTravels

Forest hunter-gatherers and baby chimpanzees

It’s been a year since we first visited five communities in the rainforest in south-east Cameroon.

Two of these are indigenous Baka hunter-gatherer villages, the other three being Bantu farmers. Almost no-one in these villages had used a smartphone before, indeed many of the community members had never even seen one (they don’t come around often in the rainforest). It’s quite amazing that after a handful of meetings, training sessions, and field-trials, all of these communities are not only successfully and independently reporting wildlife crime using smartphones, but taking photos, audio clips, and GPS points!

There is a considerable amount of skepticism from scientists and organisations on the ability of local and indigenous communities to contribute valuable data and act as collaborators, rather than recipients (or obstructions), of conservation programs. For the most part, this is based on a perceived lack of technological capabilities and ecological and holistic knowledge. To say this is a misinformed approach is an understatement; such communities are proving their technological abilities time and time again, their ecological knowledge directly inherited from generations of accumulated environmental interactions. If you’re a quantitative person, the data says it all: 144 reports have been independently taken since June 2017, including 71 photos and 31 audio recordings, directly contributing to anti-poaching efforts.

 

Re-visiting the communities again on this trip has been as enjoyable as ever. They are clearly both delighted and shocked by our commitment to them, exclaiming “Simon! You’ve come back! How is London?!”, followed by a long series of hugs. Despite several people’s fears that the phones would get stolen or mistreated, every phone and solar panel is in perfect condition – quite remarkable considering they’ve been taken around the rainforest for three months.

Three new communities have began the process of joining the project, after introductory meetings with six. Only those who mention outsiders hunting and trafficking animals in their forest are considered; the project is not to be forced upon any community or initiated where it is irrelevant. One of these new communities is far along a small mud track, quite isolated from town- and city-dwellers, yet they told us of outsiders coming in with lanterns and stealing their resources from the forest. This Baka community has clearly maintained a strong connection to the forest, repeating how the forest is “our father and mother” and telling stories of visiting chimps and gorillas. They expressed their anger and outrage over the designation of a ‘community forest’ for them to utilise; “This does not make sense to us” they said. Cameroon’s 1994 Plan de Zonage, fencing off chunks of land to be allocated to forest and mining concessions, agriculture, protected areas, and community forests, has resulted in forced relocations for Baka hunter-gatherers to the roadsides.

Designing new icons

Technologically-speaking, an interesting event occurred. Whilst re-training a couple of guys in one village as to which icon category to press in order to find specific icons, I asked them “What is this category for?”. They were confused by this and answered incorrectly for almost all of the categories. I found this bizarre as these guys had already sent accurate reports on their own. I rephrased the question, “Where would you go if you wanted to report a poacher’s cabin, for example?”. They immediately pressed the correct icon category and found the icon in question.

Jerome Lewis, my supervisor at UCL, told me of the difficulty for such forest hunter-gatherer groups to recognise the idea of things within things invisible at first (folders, files, categories). Most things in the forest are either there or they’re not. The experience shows that those two guys remember where the icons they want are; the icons for each icon category, though often the same as those for icons inside, are considered almost a meaningless entry point.

With law enforcement currently the bottleneck to action taking place based on community reports, an insight into the mind of a Ministry Chef de Poste was very welcome. This came in the form of a baby chimpanzee. His mother had been shot and he was chained up in a trafficker’s house, up for sale in the illegal pet trade. We received information about the baby chimp from a local businessman who had been made an offer to buy the chimp. After various phone calls, texts, and group talks, we approached the local ministry officer, responsible for illegal wildlife crime. Corruption is the primary issue to effective wildlife law enforcement in Central Africa, and the official had a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude. Most interestingly, his primary reservation was fear of reprisal from the community holding the chimp – he would be seen to be at war with local people, despite this being his job. He called a colleague down the road to deal with it. After several days of no updates, we decided to contact the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA), a law enforcement NGO in Cameroon with a reputation of getting things done. I wasn’t sure at this point whether the baby chimp had been sold off, or even killed, but finally we received a message: “Thank you for your information. The trafficker has been taken away. The baby chimp is enroute to a sanctuary”. A shame that it took an Israeli NGO to take action, rather than the Ministry’s own wildlife crime officers, but an incredible and rare success story none the less. The baby chimp has been named Farah, and is now in the excellent Mefou Primate Sanctuary, run by Ape Action Africa. You can see a video of his arrival below, and donate to the sanctuary here.

Success! Let the reporting begin

Having now returned home from the Cameroonian rainforest (see previous post), I can report that all five communities currently engaged with the project have completed training, and, armed with smartphones, are showcasing a new kind of conservation. Community-centred, community-led, illegal wildlife crime reporting. Success!

Indeed, information is already flowing in. Interestingly, this is so-far exclusively from the indigenous Baka communities, rather than the Bantu farmers. Those people who believe that indigenous peoples are an obstacle that should be cast aside and make way for conservationists who ‘know better’ need to obviously think again. If we can train non-literate Baka hunter-gatherers who have never seen a smartphone before and live in the Cameroonian rainforest to successfully report wildlife crime using such phones, and empowering them in the process, then the potential to initiate similar locally-led conservation strategies in other places around the world is huge.

These are some of the first real records received from the Baka reporters:

A poacher’s cabin documented by a Baka reporter

Shotgun cartridges documented by a Baka reporter

Voice recordings are possible through the app

The next step is putting pressure on officers from the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife to investigate… Sometimes difficult, but we’re on it

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