Pushed off their customary lands and severed from their traditional way of life, Indigenous communities living on roadsides in the tropical forests of Central Africa face perilous conditions.
The livelihoods of about 10,000 Baka Pygmies in southeastern Cameroon are in jeopardy, according to a new study in Scientific Reports led by scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which shows their available hunting area is at risk.
“All of their territories are now relegated to logging and mining concessions,” said Julia Fa, a senior associate scientist with CIFOR and a professor of biodiversity and human development at Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University.
The project, funded by the UK government’s Darwin Initiative, was executed in the field with the Spanish non-governmental organization, Zerca y Lejos (ZyL), and the support of CIFOR-Cameroon on the ground.
Traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Pygmies — a controversial term of colonial origins, but which has no universally agreed substitute — once moved between various forest hunting camps, but they are now sedentary due to the encroachment of logging, mining and small-scale farming operations on their former range.
“They have no lands of their own and we show that empirically in our research by actually following where they go and hunt,” Fa said. “They’re very badly off in terms of the number of calories and the nutrients they consume.”
Baka now typically live alongside or on the fringes of communities dominated by Bantu-speaking people who have traditionally been sedentary. The Bantu live in villages and subsist on crops produced in tropical swidden agricultural systems, which involve year-round rotational plantings and burnings.
Although some Baka have been assimilated into these villages since the 1950s, many remain totally dependent on hunting to meet their nutritional needs, living between village settlements and forest camps.
“Baka who have been taken out of the forest and forced to live in villages demonstrate a marked decline in their physical and mental health — they are always worse off than those who stay in the forest,” Fa said. “Nutritionally, they are much deprived.”
By tracking Baka hunters who volunteered to work with the research team, excursions could be mapped by the hunters’ carrying wrist-held GPS (Global Positioning System), but also by mapping village hunting territories with the participation of entire communities.
With the information gathered, scientists could determine the size of their hunting area to help inform land-use policies on the sustainable use of forest resources in Central Africa.
In 2018, the researchers studied the distribution of lands currently used for wild meat hunting by 10 Baka villages with populations ranging from 25 to 111 people on 1,946 trips. The scientists worked with hunters who participated in the research initiative, which was conducted with permission of the Cameroonian Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation, under the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
The forest along the roadsides is degraded, not only due to housing and agricultural pressures, but because of timber extraction that began in the 1970s. Logging roads have contributed to deforestation and the destruction of wildlife habitats.
“A massive influx of logging laborers and an expansion of the wild meat trade has endangered some wildlife species, adding a further threat to Baka livelihoods,” Fa said.
Subsistence farming in the area is now undertaken by some Baku trained by CIFOR collaborator, ZyL. The main crops produced are plantain, banana and cassava. For Bantu farmers, cocoa is the main cash crop.
Most of the wild meat consumed by the Baka communities come from a few mammal species, particularly duikers (small African forest antelopes), most of which are hunted from the mapped territories in the published study. However, these areas are also under threat from the intrusion of outside hunters who in general enter these areas to extract as many animals as possible to sell, Fa said.
To learn about the Baka hunting areas, the scientists organized participatory mapping workshops in each of the villages, working with chiefs and residents. Participants shared information about hunting trails, points of cultural value, rivers used for fishing, old villages, hills, areas of primary forest and campsites.
“Participatory mapping is a powerful tool for Indigenous Peoples to demonstrate the areas they frequent, allowing them to defend and claim ancestral lands,” Fa said, explaining that the technique has been well-established since the 1960s.
The movements of each participating hunter were monitored for a month by GPS, which recorded their location every 90 seconds, allowing the scientists to classify forest cover type in combination with elevation data and satellite imagery. A total of 12 types were observed and grouped into either swamp, lowland or upland forests.
The scientists learned that hunting trips occurred mostly during the day and were generally less than 30 kms in distance from the village, although in some situations they could be as far as 90 kms away, and typically lasted less than a day. Hunters travel until they can find prey.
“With maps and other data, which encourage better decision making, fair and transparent forest governance, the process in which communities and organizations can advocate for the promotion and defense of rights and cultural interests can begin,” Fa said, adding that the maps also encourage better decision making, fair and transparent forest governance.”
If governments and extractive industries can work together with Indigenous Peoples in the land, significant benefits for conservation, the sustainable use of natural resources and the survival of these communities will be ensured, Fa added.
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