The forest is crying
Fighting deforestation in the Congo Basin by giving voice to indigenous people
“One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.”
The quote is attributed to Crazy Horse in the late 19th century, as he fought to keep the federal government off the land his Sioux ancestors had been living in for generations. A war that centuries of indigenous populations across the globe before and after him have fought, both violently and more often peacefully, from myriad Native American tribes to the people of the Amazon rainforest to the hill tribes in South-East Asia to hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa. Yes, Africa.
Although many consider everyone in Africa to be indigenous with the same ethnicity as their pre-colonial ancestors, there are groups of hunter-gatherers deep in the rainforests of the Congo Basin who are marginalized and underrepresented because of their way of life.
“In Africa, you’ll find pygmies, as they are called in the literature, and these are the original inhabitants of the forest,” says Samuel Nnah Ndobe, an environmentalist working with the hunter-gatherer Baka populations in his native Cameroon and throughout Central Africa. “They have stayed strong to their culture for ages. They’ve remained attached to the forest for ages.”
And it’s these people that are largely feeling the effects of environmental degradation that is a result of international companies’ operations in the Congo Basin. With a degree in agriculture engineering, Ndobe collaborates with community and grassroots organizations to document what’s happening in the region, i.e., deforestation, mining and wildlife poaching, while also working with local governments and international NGOs on forest issues, specifically “ensuring there is forest governance,” he says via Skype from Yaounde. “Ensuring the rights of the people who live in the forest are respected.”
As part of that work, Ndobe has been a volunteer advisor for the Boulder-based nonprofitGlobal Greengrants Fund for the last decade, helping to connect grassroots organizations and activists on the ground in Central Africa with small grants to fund their efforts.
“He’s an extremely passionate environmentalist and at the same time a really dedicated scholar,” says Terry Odendahl, the executive director at Global Greengrants Fund. “We really value local knowledge… and we know that he knows what’s going on in Central Africa. There’s no way that from Boulder we can have the depth of understanding of environmental and human rights in the region.”
Assuredly, the situation of the Baka people is complicated. Indigenous people make up an estimated 1 percent of the population in Cameroon, but it’s difficult to obtain precise numbers as the groups are largely nomadic and they have never been adequately represented during censuses. Needless to say, they don’t hold much sway when it comes to setting both conservation and economic policy.
As with most colonized countries, the current governmental and legal structures in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa are adapted from European culture and don’t recognize the rights of indigenous people, nor do they require or even leave room for adequate consultation with the communities still living in the forest. “The pygmies are not recognized. Their whole mode of life is not recognized by the bureaucrats, by central government. Their land rights aren’t recognized,” Ndobe says. “All the land belongs to the state, but who is the state? The state are people sitting in Yaounde, in the capitals, who don’t know the issues that are happening on the ground.”
Furthermore, the indigenous people don’t see the land as something to own but rather a partner in survival, a resource to be used symbiotically but not abused.
“They don’t want to possess [the land],” Ndobe says, “but they want to have access. I was talking to [an older pygmy man] and he said, ‘The forest is crying because of the number of ancient souls that you find there. It is no longer our forest, it has become the forest of orders because we don’t have access.’”
Ndobe first became interested in the indigenous people while working on his final paper for a degree in agricultural economy. “This took me deep into the forests where I was so disappointed by the level of discrimination these people were going through,” he says. “I’ve been very passionate about the issue because of the injustice — the social, the environmental injustices — that I experienced.”
Ndobe is no stranger to discrimination. Present day Cameroon was colonized by both the French and the British, with roughly 20 percent of the population identifying as Anglophone compared to the majority francophone population. Although the two populations remained more or less autonomous for the first decade after independence, the 1972 constitution united the two populations and Ndobe says the Anglophones, like himself, were widely discriminated against.
After spending time with the hunter-gatherers, he started working on forest issues with the Center for Environment and Development and quickly realized that perhaps the largest threat to the Baka people is the ongoing deforestation across the Congo Basin that threatens the very existence of these tribes who depend on biodiversity for their survival.
Ndobe says the level of deforestation in the Congo Basin is low when compared to the larger Amazon rainforest, but his country is the most deforested in the region, and Ndobe expects it to escalate in the near future. Industrial logging is the historic cause of deforestation. As the industry searches out rare wood, forest is fragmented, which makes way for poachers and others to come by road and hunt wildlife, limiting the availability of food for the indigenous people due to national hunting quotas.
Plus, as the area is further fragmented and degraded, the government allows agriculture and other industrial uses on the land. But as the indigenous people are given more of a voice, the deforestation can be curbed. Recently, activists saw a huge victory as the government of Cameroon significantly reduced the size of proposed oil palm operation by New York-based Herakles Farms. The company had plans to turn 170,000 acres into the country’s largest oil palm plantation when it began operations in Cameroon in 2009. With funding from the Global Greengrants Fund and help from Ndobe, local activist Nasako Besingi and his grassroots organization, the Struggle to Economize Future Environment, was able to draw the attention of large environmental players.
“The small grant that we could give made his voice heard to the big environment groups like Greenpeace…” Ndobe says. Greenpeace then launched a huge investigation into Herakles Farms, which drew the attention of the president of Cameroon, who in turn reduced Herakles’ lease to 20,000 acres while increasing rent 1,400 percent.
Ndobe has also been very active in documenting the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Project, which was funded by International Finance Group and the World Bank as a new paradigm for sustainable development with environmental and social regulations attached. Although Ndobe fundamentally disagrees with the pipeline model of development and has been outspoken about the project from the very beginning, he is using the international regulations to push for national reform.
“We are building capacity for communities and groups to understand how the international financial institutions function and how they can use their compliance mechanisms to make their voices heard,” Ndobe says.
“International policies, in principle, inform the national policies,” he continues. “And the national policies should reflect what is happening on the ground. So, if people don’t raise their voices, if we don’t document what is happening, then it becomes very, very difficult for national policies to shift international policies.”
And this is where the situation in Cameroon adds to the global environmental conversation. The issues surrounding the indigenous people in the Congo Basin rainforest are similar to problems happening in other countries, and through his work with Global Greengrants, Ndobe is able to share the challenges and successes of his work with others outside his region.
“The governments [in Central Africa] aren’t doing any thing to understand their culture and propose development scenarios that are adapted to these people’s culture,” he says. “Which I think this is a problem happening all over the world.”
On the agenda: Protecting Africa’s Last Rainforests: A Google Hangout Q&A with Samuel Nnah Ndobe. 12:30 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 22.