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Cameroon Pygmies Demand Recognition as Part of Forest Ecosystem


In Cameroon, the pygmies have shared the dense equatorial forest for centuries with gorillas and other wildlife. One of Cameroon’s pygmy groups, the Baka, consists of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in the south and southeast. Today, loggers and poachers are driving them out of their homes, but groups defending indigenous peoples want them to be given stronger legal rights to their ancestral lands. Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Ntaryike Divine, Jr. in Douala, Cameroon, says they are meeting with resistance.

Baka communities in southeastern Cameroon are angry that the government has withdrawn its support for the adoption of a UN draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Last year, Cameroon joined 30 other nations in supporting the draft declaration. They voted for its adoption at a UN Council on Human Rights in June 2006.

But the government has changed its mind. The groups have petitioned, expressing surprise at its refusal to back the draft declaration.

The appeal notes that Cameroon’s pygmies, unprotected by the country’s legal system, cannot defend their territories against loggers. The advocacy groups also criticize the government for not including the Baka among the inhabitants of the tropical forest ecosystem in its development policies or legal system.

Cameroon musician and rights activist Donny Elwood, fondly called “The Pygmy,” says for the Baka the forest is a sacred universe, where little has changed for centuries. He says they can only live naturally in that environment.

A local Cameroonian NGO, the Centre for Environment and Development, says Baka communities are fast losing their rights to the gradually shrinking tropical forests. It says they lack telephone connections and access roads to the outside world, as well as modern healthcare and formal education.

Indigenous peoples’ rights activists say some of the Baka are not even recognized as citizens of the territories where they live. Most don’t have birth certificates and identification cards because they’re not born in hospitals or near administrative units. As a result, they are often deprived of the legal protections enjoyed by other citizens, and they don’t have voting rights. In addition, the government does not provide them with royalties for logging concessions operating on their land. This is in contrast to other groups including the Bantu, who do receive royalties from the government when private interests operate in or along the forests or tribal lands.

The economic consulting firm Planet Survey Cameroon says the Baka are increasingly being driven from their ancestral lands. They also suffer hostile intrusions from their Bantu neighbors, who enter the forest in search of farmland.

In 2003, another NGO, Rainforest Foundation, created an advocacy program called Africapacity. It lobbies authorities to adopt new policies and promotes the well being of pygmies.

The government has included them in its development plans for vulnerable indigenous peoples. But the Foundation says pro-Baka policies are rarely enforced.

A US-based NGO, Refugees International, says so far no real efforts have been made to improve their situation. It says some of them have been evicted or displaced and can no longer return to their natural habitat.

Folk musician Donny Elwood says the Baka are increasingly victims of discrimination. He says they will forever remain an endangered minority, threatened by the ongoing devastation of the equatorial forest. Elwood says something needs to be done – and soon.

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