The Bakas, an indigenous forest tribe who live in an area close to the Nki National Park in southeastern Cameroon, and the Bagyelis of South Kribi, near the Atlantic Ocean, are seeking a return to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The two tribes were forced out of their ancestral land, which forms part of the rich Congo Basin Rainforest, when the government leased it to rubber-producing giant Hevecam. The company started operations in the forest nearly three years ago.
The pygmy tribes were then relocated to the periphery of the forest in Bissiang, where the agro-industrial firm had prepared a resettlement camp for them.
“We lived in the forest there,” said the Bagyeli community head, Albert Minyala, pointing towards an area being exploited for timber. “Then the government gave it to the firm, forcing us to move to this area.”
But the move affected their lifestyle and source of income. Traditionally, the community mainly hunts unprotected animal species and harvests non-timber forest products that they exchange for other goods with their neighbours.
“The camp did not match our initial habitat; we cannot carry out our traditional activities,” said Mr Minyala.
The indigenous community now fears their future is under threat. They say that, because they are not involved in the management of the forest and related activities, the majority of them have become squatters on their own land. They also say that their entry into the forest is being restricted as expatriates take charge.
“We cannot hunt or eat bush meat anymore because the company has destroyed the forest and the animals therein,” a Baka told The EastAfrican on condition of anonymity.
Bissiang forms a significant part of the greater Congo Basin Rainforest, which also covers Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The rainforest is not only the second largest in the world after the Amazon but is also rich in biodiversity. About 70 million people inhabiting the 300 million-hectare forest depend on it and its other products for their livelihood.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the forest contains the greatest number of mammals, primates, birds, amphibians, fish and swallowtail butterflies in Africa. More than 1,000 species of birds are found there too.
Poor forestry governance, coupled with illegal logging, however, prevents most of the forest-dependent indigenous communities of the basin enjoying the benefits of their heritage.
Like most rural communities, the Bakas and the Bagyelis are not versed with the forestry and land tenure laws of Cameroon.
Experts say that the suffering of the indigenous communities is the result of the weak laws which have failed to protect them.
The secretary-general of the Centre for Environment and Development in Cameroon, Samuel Nguiffo, said the indigenous forest people need to be empowered so that they can negotiate with logging and mining companies.
“Rather than giving away land and resources to companies to the detriment of their citizens, African governments, including Cameroon’s, must respect the rights of the former and let them negotiate with investors on their own terms,” said Mr Nguiffo. “The companies, too, should be asking who owns the land they obtain before sealing the deal.”
Meanwhile, illegal logging in the Congo Basin Rainforest, has deprived governments of revenue from timber. The World Bank estimates that about $10 billion to $15 billion is lost annually to illegal logging.
NGOs and rights organisations, as well as governments, have put in place several initiatives to check the illegal exploitation of the Congo Basin Rainforest and non-timber forest products that would benefit local communities.
The European Union has signed the Voluntary Partnership Agreements as part of its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan adopted in 2003.
Some Congo Basin countries — such as Cameroon and the DRC — have signed the agreement allowing legally harvested wood to be exported to the EU.
Launched in 2014, the Congo Basin VPA, which champions forest people’s rights, is just one of the measures aimed at ensuring that indigenous communities are involved in the decisions, involving forest exploitation and its sustainable management.
“It is important to get forest-dependent communities of the basin involved in the decision-making processes regarding forest governance for that is the source of their livelihood,” said Dr Aurelian Mbzibain, manager of the project.
Lawmakers have a crucial role to play in ensuring indigenous forest people’s rights are respected, according to Raymond Adouma, a Member of Parliament in the CAR.
Mr Adouma said the country was on course to integrate the rights and concerns of the forest communities into its new Constitution.
Cote d’Ivoire, on the other hand, has not yet signed the VPA with the EU. A local MP, Sangare Yacomba, hopes that the local forest communities will be protected when they finalise negotiations with the EU regarding the VPA/FLEGT.
Chinese imports of African timber and investments in land use in forest areas are on the rise and Beijing is now the top importer of timber from Africa. The China-Africa Forest Governance Learning Platform was developed to promote a policy that serves forest-dependent communities and ensures sustainability.
“By exploring sensitive issues such as illegal and unsustainable logging, the China-Africa Forest Governance Learning Platform has created trust and political will to confront these challenges,” said James Mayers, the head of the natural resources group of the International Institute for Environment and Development.
It is hoped that the implementation of these projects will not only check illegal logging and consequent revenue loss but that indigenous forest communities of the Congo Basin will soon be included in decision-making processes relating to forest management.