Yvette Moungonji, a Baka (Indigenous people of Cameroon) woman from Salapoumbe, southeast Cameroon, beckons passers-by to a table where she has displayed her herbs for sale. “Save your marriage. Save your marriage. And this is how,” she said.
These herbs — these tree barks — are to treat sexual weakness for men who cannot satisfy their wives in bed. Boil and drink a glass in the morning and evening. After passing out much urine, they will feel the effect.
Moungonji continued to spell out the use of her herbs harvested from Lobeke National Park. “These other leaves are against poison in the system,” she said, pointing to a bottle with a brown liquid: “This is for women to clean up blocked trumps [fallopian tubes]; it will help them conceive, and it also works for painful menstruation.”
Moungonji and members of 88 Baka communities of forest-dwellers now have a larger and fresher stock of herbs besides fruits like wild mangoes and other non-timber forest products for survival and, equally, to sell and use the money to send their children to school.
This is because, while some communities already enjoyed the right of access to national parks, it is only after 19 years, with the renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), that Baka people living around the 156,000 ha (385,484.40 ac) Ngoyla Reserve in southeast Cameroon have free access to the reserve. Previously, they could only access areas outside the reserve.
Joseph Johnson, president of the Association Sanguia Baka Buma'a Kpodé-ASBABUK, representing 88 Baka communities, and Jules Doret Ndongo, Cameroon's minister of forestry and wildlife, signed the MoU on September 19. The first MoU which was signed in 2019, expired in 2022 and excluded some communities. The Baka in Salapoumbe and other areas were included in the first MoU, but they could not access protected areas passing through forest concessions.
The recent MoU gives Baka people free access to protected areas and further takes into account areas around the park, including sport hunters, logging businesses, park rangers, and park officials.
Provision is now made for the signing of separate agreements between the Baka and private sector operators who manage important spaces outside the parks for free access through their vital zones; for example, forest concessions and sport hunting zones were initially prohibited in the parks.
Following meetings and consultations, the Baka agreed that, in addition to wise resource management, they would also contribute to the management of the forest by helping deter poachers. They alert the park managers of the presence of poachers and also abstain from aiding wildlife traffickers.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) served as the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife's advisor and “worked with other NGOs at the community level to educate the Baka of what their rights are and a common understanding of the steps in the management of natural resources in the parks,” said Clotilde Ngomba, WWF Cameroon country director.
The WWF, the international organization responsible for protecting wildlife and biodiversity, will assist the various parties in enhancing their participation in the implementation of the MoU and strengthening Baka communities’ capabilities.
Francoise Bendje, a member of ASBABUK, described what this means to the Baka:
Before the signing of the MoU, we managed the little resources we got from the community, but now we have access to a fresh stock of natural resources given that the parks have not been exploited.
Why the MoU for forest inhabitants?
Baka people have lived in the forests of southeast Cameroon since time immemorial and are known to be the first custodians of the forest. The lifestyle and livelihood of these semi-nomadic people depend essentially on the forest.
However, the creation of protected areas in the 1994 Forest and Wildlife Law restricted the movement and exploitation of natural resources, thereby limiting the freedom of the Baka, who hitherto had not known any such restrictions. The 21785-ha (538,328.96-ac) Lobeke National Park was created in 2001; the 238000-ha (588,110.81-ac) Boumba Bek and the 309362-ha (764,450.15-ac) Nki National Parks were both created in 2005, and the former Baka habitats became protected areas.
Consequently, conflicts erupted between the Indigenous people, eco-guards, and park managers implementing the law. The result of such conflicts were alleged cases of abuse perpetrated on Baka.
Ndobo Mariane Catherine, the ASBABUK representative of the Boumba and Ngoko Divisions of southeast Cameroon, recounted:
We were beaten and sent to jail. Some people took the law into their own hands and abused the Baka, and life was really tough. Forest guards did not allow us to get into the forest, even for our traditional rites. We had to write applications for the park manager to grant us access to the forest, which is a complex procedure. We had to brave long-distance travel only to request access, which deterred some people,
Complaints multiplied, and the government had to intervene in an attempt to ensure the access of Baka communities to resource zones within the parks. An accord between the Indigenous people and the Cameroon forestry administration was deemed necessary.
The government expects the agreement to promote Baka rights to natural resources, eliminate conflicts between park managers and the Baka, and promote inclusive forest management.
“The signing of the MoU is to prevent conflicts between the government and Indigenous people. We hope this MoU will change this situation,” Ndobo said.
MoU and the Baka's former life
The forest holds paramount importance for the Baka as it is a repository of numerous invaluable resources. Bendje emphatically states:
The forest feeds, treats, and nurtures our people. It is the cornerstone of our existence. Without the forest, our survival is at stake.
And Ndobo adds:
It acts as our pharmacy, a sacred ground for customary rituals, and a vital fuel source for cooking. The forest is akin to a book, encapsulating our history. However, our traditional way of life is undergoing modernization, though it hasn't seen complete improvement.
Due to extensive logging and policies, the hunter-gatherers are compelled to live by the roadside in a village in the southeast of the country, where they cook and sleep. Many have mixed feelings about this situation. Some people do not enjoy living in the forest, but others are getting used to it. “We live in the village and go to the forest from time to time during hunting and harvesting periods,” said Ndobo.
Some Baka who no longer inhabit the forest are engaged in cocoa farming near the villages where they now live. Living along the streets also comes with its challenges, as some “rich people” have bought land along the road, and the Baka live in constant fear of being told to leave. Forced out of the forest by logging, they wish to settle down but can't afford the cash to process land titles where they settle. Also, the procedure is long and cumbersome.
“When dislodged (from the roadside in the village), it is not easy to start life afresh in another area as we are forced to abandon cocoa farms and other belongings,” according to Ndobo.
Baka people have no financial means to acquire land titles. However, with the help of some NGOs, there are plans to assist them in the process of getting access to land. Ndobo explained: “There have been meetings on how the Baka can acquire land titles, but something concrete is yet to come out of them.”
Cameroon's Indigenous Baka people were granted access to fresh natural resources but far from their former lifestyle
Cameroon government grants Indigenous Baka people access to fresh forest resources but at the expense of their former semi-nomadic lifestyle