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Rain forest aborigines crowded out by newcomers, loggers

pygmies1 March 11, 1997
Web posted at: 11:32 p.m. EST (0432 GMT)

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

EASTERN CAMEROON (CNN) -- The vast rain forest in central Africa is the home of countless species of plants and animals -- among them, for 40,000 years, the aboriginal people of this forest.

Many call them Pygmies but, in eastern Cameroon, they are the Baka.

In a nation dominated by 13 million ethnic Bantus, there are only 40,000 Bakas. And the Bakas who do live in the Cameroon rain forest are overwhelmed by change and the ongoing destruction of their forest home.

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Samuel Nguiffo of the Center for Environment and Development says the Bakas are caught between the majority Bantu and the logging companies.

"Both of them have claims over the forest," Nguiffo said, "and both of them are more powerful than the Bakas. And most of them, for the Bakas, are enemies."

As timber companies push logging roads deeper into the forest, outsiders follow the roads to trap and hunt wild animals, and then slash and burn to plant crops.

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After living in harmony with the forest for thousands of years, hunting and gathering only what they needed to survive, Bakas now find many of the forest's resources are exhausted.

The hunters say there are too few animals so that only the best of hunters -- or those endowed with magical powers -- can catch them. And the chief in one settlement says the noise from bulldozers and chain saws drives animals away.

And because the forest has been so disturbed, it's hard to find the special plants the Bakas use for food, medicines and rituals.

The Bakas are given little in return when they are displaced from the forest. They have no legal title to any land in the forest they've occupied since ancient times.

Government policy refers to them as "marginal social groups," to be made into productive members of Cameroon's society by surrendering their nomadic life to clear land and plant crops.

Change, change, and more change

In other words, Bakas are expected to abandon the culture and spiritual life that connects them to the forest, and to join in its destruction -- a process already begun.

Alcoholism, prostitution, unemployment and exploitation by dominant Bantus are common dangers confronting Bakas when they leave the forest.

"They are facing a very violent civilization, and from this civilization they tend to take only the bad aspects," says university lecturer Roger Ngoufo.

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In their new settlements, the Baka people are in transition, no longer depending on hunting and gathering in the forest -- and facing an uncertain future in the fast-growing towns and villages around them.

Several residents in the roadside settlements say they are happy to be there -- the forest is too dangerous. But others say the forest is paradise lost.

The settlements have little to offer -- no school, no health clinic, and only a few menial jobs on a nearby Bantu plantation.

What they really want, and what they should have, says Noel Olinga, who has worked with Bakas for 16 years, is a pristine forest reserved for their hunting and gathering. But no one in Cameroon takes that idea seriously.

The future looks especially bleak for the young.

"They're completely lost," says Nguiffo. "They're not Baka, not full Baka -- they're somewhere in between."

Traditional Baka initiation rites are held every year to summon the god of the forest, the Jengi, to induct young boys into manhood and to bring good fortune. But many Bakas say they haven't seen the Jengi in a long time.

 
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