The indigenous Baka hunter-gatherers of Cameroon represent one of the oldest lineages of the human species. They are members of a central African group often referred to as ‘Pygmies’ due to their short stature, with recent genomic studies finding a lack of genes known to result in tallness in Europeans, as well as genes enabling the Baka to neutralise and digest harmful plant toxins found in central African rainforests¹.
Having inhabited the Congo Basin for such an extended period, the Baka have incredibly in-depth and diverse indigenous knowledge of the geography of these forests and the myriad species which survive here². Most Baka people now live near to roads interweaving the forest, within short distances from Bantu farmers settlements, largely a result of being forced out of the forest by the government’s National Zoning Plan (handing large parts of forest over for logging and mining concessions), and to create people-free conservation reserves. That’s right, there is a dark side to some conservation NGOs³.
The rich local knowledge the Baka have accumulated over thousands of years, as well as the continuous marginalisation and abuse they suffer from the authorities and Bantu farmers makes them perfect partners to develop a way in which they can take back some control in the use and monitoring of their ancestral lands. Technically they have hunting exceptions through so-called ‘users rights’ and can enter ‘community forests’, but these can be small areas, not necessarily in the same regions as ancestral hunting grounds, and indeed the Baka are sometimes targeted as illegal hunters none-the-less. Enter ExCiteS.
Last week, four ZSL colleagues and I travelled to the Dja Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Cameroon to try and identify villages who might be interested in working with us in participatory mapping and reporting of illegal poaching. This area suffers severely from the illegal wildlife trade, including the hunting of gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, pangolins, and pythons. Samuel, the social officer, already had a good idea of where different villages were which we could approach – a total of 8 including both Baka and Bantu, as well as those with both Baka and Bantu. Important to remember is that Bantu villages also rely heavily on forest resources and so suffer from illegal activity and restricted users rights.
In order to set up meetings with each community, we started by greeting the chief of each village, introducing ourselves, and arranging a date a time to return. Meeting five village chiefs on the first day one after another, one involving spontaneous dancing, was for sure an interesting experience… (the chief below insisted that I share his chair at the front).
Communities were generally very interested and listened intently as we discussed village characteristics, livelihoods, subsistence, associations etc. We had to be careful when introducing the ExCiteS anti-poaching technology, as local people are not necessarily completely against such short-term benefits. This was judged by inquiring as to how often they go into the forest, what resources they exploit, how species abundances have varied, and what their thoughts are on any outsiders entering the forests. Fortunately, almost all of the villages recognised a problem with outsiders (poachers) entering the forest, and queried as to how they can take more control. One Bantu village had concerns over who to report on, and the neighbouring Baka village could not be approached about the app due to marginalisation by the Bantus. If things went well though, the meeting would end with the community keen to take part and awaiting our next move.
Some Baka expressed very vocally as to how they have been promised many things by NGOs in the past and never heard another word. This was particularly difficult to answer as we too will unlikely be able to work with every village, but even for those we felt strongly that we’d like to revisit, making concrete promises is definitely a bad idea. In the end the only thing we could do is reassure them that we’ll return (to those selected), and that will be the evidence of our commitment.
Over the next week of meeting more communities, greeting local authorities, eating endless ndole, maize mash, and mysterious meat (including cow-skin soup), and enduring Britney Spears playlists (that was unexpected), we visited all 8 communities and had made some valuable contacts (there’s also some great local music like this and this). Now we’ll need to decide which to re-visit next time and continue the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) process before the app is introduced.
What sticks in my mind the most was talking to the Baka communities (through two translators). Sitting around their small round houses made of leaves, mud, and branches and hearing their stories of how they use the forest, how they’re so bitterly angry with outsiders taking their resources, how they often work for Bantu farmers for little pay and poor treatment, but yet greet us warmly and share a smile and laugh certainly inspires a lot of hope in me. In one village children were crying as they saw me, likely the first white person they’ve ever seen, and adults were nervous, but on leaving we shared a roar of laughter as I hit my head on the roof of their tiny shelter.