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A central African pygmy tribe is losing its identity and being driven off its ancestral forest lands by logging, according to a global charity.
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.
Urgent action is needed before the Baka way of life is completely eradicated, says Plan International, which has gained unprecedented access to Baka communities via a project aiming to increase levels of primary education amongst tribe members.
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.”
Despite instigating a social programme to integrate the Baka, the Cameroon government does not recognise 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, as easier public access to forest areas and local market opportunities has meant increased wildlife hunting pressure.
Consequently, several species of ‘bush meat’, the tribe’s traditional food that can encompass chimpanzee and antelope, are now unavailable to the Baka.
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.
Plan International says the Baka and their Bantu peers – the more populous tribe of Cameroon - need educating if the estimated 75,000 Bakas living in Cameroon are to claim their indigenous rights and lift themselves from poverty.
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.”
Papa N, 68, from a Baka settlement near Messoumé, said: “The biggest menace is the people who come and spoil the trees. You hear the sound of the sawing in the bush – rar rar rar – and it’s not controlled. We don’t know why. Before there were so many trees, and now there are none.”
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 labour in the Bantu’s cocoa plantations, and many Baka girls become pregnant with Bantu boys, who abandon them.
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.
Families are struggling to adapt to modern life without the means to pay for food, clothing, healthcare and schooling.
Alcoholism afflicts many, a result of boredom, unemployment and the availability of cheap spirits.
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 International provides schools, teachers and text books, encouraging girls in particular to attend school.
The charity is teaching the Baka sustainable agricultural skills and helping them learn advocacy skills to fight for their rights.
Plan’s birth registration programme is also providing the Baka with birth documents to prove their citizenship and enhance their rights.
Plan International is also supporting the Ministry of Education to pilot the use of the Baka language in primary schools.
It wants to introduce a school curriculum that suits the Baka’s hunting schedule, with school meals that alleviate the need for children to accompany parents into the forest during this season.
Francois A, Baka Rights and Dignity Project coordinator for Plan Cameroon, said: “Baka parents move to the forest during the hunting and fishing period meaning that from December to April, many pupils drop out from school. We address this by a community-led school feeding programme.”
Samuel Diop, regional delegate for social affairs in Djimako responsible for the government’s Baka integration programmes 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.
Noel concluded: “School changes the community because it’s the first door of knowledge for children,” he says. “We believe that education can change the future because it will add to our own knowledge – it’s globalisation - 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.”