Cameroon Tribe in Jeopardy as Ancestral Forest Disappears
A central African pygmy tribe is losing its identity and is being driven off its ancestral forest lands by logging.
The Baka tribe of Cameroon faces extreme poverty and serious discrimination that has left members with high levels of illiteracy, unemployment, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy.
Plan has gained unprecedented access to the Baka communities via a project aiming to increase levels of primary education amongst tribe members and believes that urgent action is needed to preserve the Baka way of life.
Jacques M of Plan Cameroon said: “The Baka language and culture is about to disappear. They are a community in danger; they are losing their environment, their livelihoods, and their traditional lifestyle.”
A Tribe Without Rights
Despite instigating a social program to integrate the Baka, the Cameroon government does not recognize the Baka tribe as indigenous and has given the rights to most of the region’s rainforest to international logging companies.
It has also banned hunting of endangered species and consequently, several species of ‘bush meat’, the tribe’s traditional food that can encompass chimpanzee and antelope, are now unavailable.
Many Baka now live in resettlements on the roadside, and are worried that the rainforest and their ancient culture will be completely wiped out by the destruction of the forest.
Noel, 50, from a Baka settlement in Mayos, eastern Cameroon, said: “People come and do whatever they want in the forest, without even consulting us. 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 are subject to widespread discrimination and are often considered as ‘sub-human’ and ‘just objects’ by the Bantus, according to sources.
Some Baka adults and children are put to work as field labor in the Bantu’s cocoa plantations, and many Baka girls are abandoned after they become pregnant.
Traditionally nomadic and self-sufficient, the tribe has limited knowledge of modern agricultural and monetary systems and only 2.7% have completed a secondary education. As a result, many Baka families are struggling to adapt to modern life without the means to pay for food, clothing, healthcare, and schooling.
Noel said: “As for fighting for our rights, 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.”
The Baka believe that without the forest, the Baka’s identity, soul, and home will be lost.
Noel added: “We are 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.”
Plan's Work with the Baka Community
Since many children drop out of school to accompany their parents into the forest during hunting season, Plan is working to introduce a school curriculum that suits the Baka’s hunting schedule and provides school meals, alleviating the need for children to accompany parents into the forest.
Plan is also supporting the Ministry of Education to pilot the use of the Baka language in primary schools and is providing the community with schools, teachers, and textbooks.
In addition to providing educational resources, Plan is also providing the Baka with sustainable agricultural skills and is teaching them the advocacy skills that will empower them to fight for their rights. Moreover, Plan’s birth registration program is also providing the Baka with birth documents to prove their citizenship and reinforce their rights.
Samuel Diop, regional delegate for social affairs in Djimako responsible for the government’s Baka integration programs in eastern Cameroon, said the Bantus must be made to understand that the Baka are Cameroonians just like them, and not their “slaves”.
He added that the Baka must have access to education to progress.
“School changes the community because it’s the first door of knowledge for children,” Noel says. “We believe that education can change the future because it will add to our own knowledge – it’s globalization – we can’t just live in the middle of the forest; now that we’re at the edge of the road, we have the opportunity to fight and to evolve our current lifestyle," he concludes.