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The Baka pygmies of Cameroon live in the world’s second largest green lung: the Congo Basin Rainforest in the southeast part of the country.
Their habitat is home to a stunning array of wildlife. More than eight thousand plant species and around 100 mammal species, including rare forest elephants, lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, buffalo and giant forest hogs live here.
Together with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the government of Cameroon and Germany’s development agency GTZ, the Baka pygmies contribute towards the protection of Lobeke National Park. This area of around 2,000 square kilometers is situated on Cameroon’s border to the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.
The forest is the Baka’s life
Many Baka pygmies live in villages along roads built for logging companies, a practice encouraged by missionaries and the government. The pygmies, seldom taller than one meter fifty, living here are dressed in much the same clothes as most of their countrymen: the obligatory football shirt, if they can get hold of one, and shorts.
Yet despite these “modern” ways, they are still very dependent on the forest. They use time-honored hunting techniques, hunting smaller prey with a type of crossbow.
The rainforest is also a giant pharmacy for those who know how to use it. The Baka have a vast knowledge of the medicinal qualities of the thousands of species of plants and trees which grow here.
The Baka’s knowledge of the rainforest is greatly superior to that of other tribes who have settled more recently in the region and mainly live off agriculture – the Banganado and the Bodjumbo. “They have their own perception of the forest and value the forest more than the Bantus – the non-Bakas,” Dr. Leonard Usongo, head of the WWF’s Jengi South East Forest Project, told DW-RADIO’s John Hay.
“Jengi”, the spirit of the forest, is what the environmental organization is seeking to preserve, along with the pygmy way of life.
“Take the lifestyle of a typical Baka man: He lives in the forest, he depends on the forest for his survival, be it in terms of food or terms of refuge,” he explains. “So basically, the forest is just everything in his life.”Hunting is necessary, but forbidden”
The involvement of outside organizations has meant limitations for the some 20,000 Baka who live in the peripheral area of Lobeke Park. One major regulation is the prohibition to hunt larger game, although illegal poaching is a large problem in the region.
Here, the Baka are a great help, as they alert the WWF or government forest guards when they observe big game poachers entering the park.
But the hunting ban is not so much a source of conflict with the pygmies as it is with other local tribes. Vegetables, such as manioc, yams and cooking bananas, grow quickly in the humid climate. Gorillas, however, often devastate the fields of both the Bakas and Bantus. The locals used to hunt gorillas, but the WWF only allows them to be killed in self-defence.
A Bantu woman belonging to the Bangando tribe says the primates are a pest who need to be sought out and exterminated.
“When the gorillas come and destroy the fields like this, what should we do? Where shall we eat? What about the children when there is no food at home? The children cannot concentrate properly at school when they have empty stomachs,” she says. Destroying the rainforest
But the greatest threat to the gorillas, the pygmies and the jungle as a whole doesn’t come from poaching, but rather from logging. Up to 400 heavy trucks, each laden with the trunks of three to five giant ayours, sapelli or ebony trees, roll daily through the provincial town of Yodakdouma. These trees don’t take decades, but hundreds of years to grow.
International and domestic logging companies are eating into the Cameroonian rainforest at a rate of 130,000 hectares a year – more than half a percent of the entire rainforest surface.
“Lobeke is actually the gateway for most of the forest products – timber from Central Africa and Congo. So these trucks move via Lobeke right across to Douala seaport, where the wood is exported to Europe, Asia and the rest of the world,” says WWF project manager Usongo.
Once the large trees are destroyed, the rest of the forest lacks the shadow of the forest canopy and soon dies. And when fragile topsoil has disappeared, the rainforest will never grow back again.
The Baka pygmies of Lobeke are acutely aware that their way of life and a centuries old culture is at risk of being lost forever.
“The Jengi is the spirit of our ancestors. They knew how to use the wisdom of the forest,” says an old Baka. “But now our ancestors have gone.”
He says the Bangando and Bodjombo are a major problem. “They come and disturb the Jengi in the forest. Our Jengi is not as strong as it was before.”