World Rainforest Movement

Africa: Tribal Peoples Pay High Price for Wilderness Protection

Exxon’s £1.3bn Chad-Cameroon pipeline stretches 1,000km across arid lands and equatorial forest to the African coast. When it reaches west Cameroon it runs adjacent to an old wildlife reserve where, for centuries, thousands of indigenous Bagyeli pygmies have depended on the forest for hunting and medicines.

As “compensation” for any disturbance, the World Bank, the Dutch government and international conservation group Tropenbos combined in 1999 to create the giant Campo Ma’an national park. The stated aim was to protect the forest, alleviate poverty and to allow scientific research.

But a new book, From Principles to Practice, documenting nine major African conservation efforts in six central African countries, claims that the Campo Ma’an project is a disaster, threatening to destroy the Bagyeli cultural heritage and knowledge and impoverish the people further.

The Bagyeli, it says, are now barred from entering a 2,000sq km zone of forest which has been put aside for scientific research, and cannot hunt or take anything from a further 4,000sq km area. With less game to hunt and less access to their medicinal plants, many have become sedentary farmers – very much against their will.

The book is based on a two-year study of many of Africa’s most ambitious conservation projects, led by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), an international human rights group. It is in no doubt that the Bagyeli have been ignored by the conservationists. “It seems clear that … the sole concern has been to advance science, with no other considerations. This is no doubt a noble objective but the people who are now paying the price, particularly the pygmies, are not the beneficiaries of this ‘grandiose’ work,” it says.

Several thousand of the Bambuti Ba’twa tribe used to live in the low equatorial forests to the west of the Rwandan border, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the 1970s, their lands were designated a zoological and forest reserve, then a national park to protect gorillas and the pygmies were evicted in the name of conservation. Today the park is full of people mining the metallic ore coltan, and the gorillas, as well as the baboons, porcupines, wild boar and monkeys, are being systematically killed.

“Life was healthy and good but we have become beggars, thieves and prowlers,” said one Bambuti chief in the report. “This has been imposed on us by the creation of the national park.”

Conservation, whether by government or international groups, has immeasurably worsened the lives of indigenous peoples throughout Africa, says the FPP. Its local researchers found forced expulsions, lack of awareness or respect for indigenous people’s rights, human rights violations and the progressive destruction of livelihoods in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, Cameroon and Tanzania. “It is estimated that some 1m sq km of forests, savannah, pasture and farmland in Africa have been redefined since 1970 as protected or conservation areas yet in the great majority of these areas, the rights of indigenous peoples to own, control and manage these areas have been denied”, says Marcus Colchester, director of the FPP. “No one knows how many people have been displaced by these protected areas and little has been done to ameliorate the suffering and poverty that has resulted,” he says.

International conservation, funded by global bodies such as the World Bank and the EU and by donations from supporters of conservation groups, has, he says, been reluctant to accept that indigenous peoples have any role to play in protecting nature. People living in forests have traditionally been seen as a threat to animals and plants, and been treated abominably, says Colchester.

Yet there has never been so much protection of forest peoples around the world. Major advances have been made in international law to define the rights of indigenous peoples; the UN’s world conservation union (IUCN) more than 30 years ago called for governments and conservation bodies to respect indigenous people’s rights, and the conservation community, led by the WWF, has developed principles and guidelines to reconcile indigenous rights and scientific initiatives. Moreover, global agreements such as the convention on biological diversity now impose obligations on governments to protect indigenous peoples.

The reality, says FPP, is that virtually none of the new principles have filtered down to ground level in Africa, South America or south-east Asia, where indigenous peoples are consistently marginalised. Conservation groups, argues the FPP, often hide behind countries’ deep reluctance to grant land rights, and there is growing mistrust between groups working to protect the forests and those working for the people.

“Conservationists feel that their job is to protect nature,” says Dorothy Jackson, coordinator of the FPP’s Africa programme. “There is a strong feeling that wildlife and people are not compatible. They do recognise the social aspect of their work but say it’s unfair to put the onus on them. National legislation itself often ignores indigenous people’s rights and conservationists argue that it is the state’s job to define areas and protect people.” Conservationists, who tend to have money and influence with governments, could push far harder to protect people, Jackson says.

One of the most worrying examples in Africa is in the Volcanoes national park in Rwanda, where the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the International Gorilla Conservation programme, and a Rwandan government organisation work with leading international donations to conduct scientific research on gorillas and to promote ecotourism.

The national park, which was set up in 1924 and is now only a third of its original size, attracts thousands of westerners a year, each prepared to pay £160 for less than an hour with the gorillas. In 1974, the Ba’twa pygmy tribes of the area were evicted and forbidden to hunt, cut trees, quarry stone, introduce new plants or in any way threaten the animals or the ecosystem.

The majority now live in squalor on the edge of the park, without work or food, receiving nothing from the tourist revenues and no help from the conservation groups. “Their villages are covered in human waste,” says Kalimba Zephyrin, the author of the Rwanda case study for the FPP. “They do not have plates, forks or beds. One dwelling of 2 sq metres may be shelter for five to eight people – the majority of whom are children and orphans either poorly dressed or even without clothes. Some 70% of the people live by begging and they are not even allowed into the park where they used to hunt.”

“It is better to die than to live like this,” said one Ba’twa leader.

Following the Rio Earth summit in 1992, many countries leapt to create national parks and conservation areas, as new international money became available from the World Bank’s $600m (£388m) Global Environment Facility and from the EU. Cameroon has a target to conserve 30% of all national land. This is welcomed by conservationists concerned about rampant overlogging, but the rush to protect the trees strikes fear into many communities.

In the early 1990s, the EU asked the IUCN to help develop a regional network of protected areas across central Africa to promote conservation. This led to the creation of the Dja wildlife reserve, on land which had been home to the nomadic Baka tribe in southern Cameroon.

When a team of investigators from Cameroon travelled last year to the reserve, they reported deep confusion in the forest. Several Baka villages in the centre of the reserve had been evicted and the people did not know whether they were allowed into the forest, or whether they could hunt. “This is where we are from. It is our forest,” said Nkoumto Emmanuel from one of the affected villages. “We have to go there to look for fruit, vines, game and other products because the forest is very rich there.”

Samuel Nguiffo, author of the Dja study, said: “The conservation project marked the start of a rupture with the Baka lifestyle. Some believed all hunting was forbidden, others said access to the reserve was forbidden. People complained that they were not consulted and not even told that their village was in the reserve.”

Nguiffo found deep mutual mistrust between the Baka and the conservationists. “The opposition between development and conservation – between the world view of conservation projects and that of indigenous peoples – is blatant and seems unlikely to be resolved in the short term given the gulf of understanding that separates them. One is the dream of conservation organisations concerned about preserving species, and the other is that of indigenous communities whose modes of living are inextricably linked to the forest,” says Nguiffo.

Sometimes, however, the dreams of neither group are realised. When the Maasai pastoralists of Tanzania were made to give up the rich Serengeti lands by the British colonial government in 1955, they were promised water, grazing lands, veterinary services, health services and more if they moved to the nearby highlands, in particular the Ngorongoro crater, and the northern highlands forest reserve.

The promises were never delivered and the life of the Maasai in the newly created Ngorongoro conservation area, according to a team of FPP investigators who visited the communities in 2001, is “a shambles”. They found that most water supply systems in the conservation area had collapsed or had been taken over by tourist hotels, the Maasai were not benefiting from the huge amounts of money generated by the wildlife and conservation, and that mistrust between the two camps was building.

The researchers also found that the conservation of plants and animals was in poor shape. “Wildlife numbers have decreased dramatically compared to the time before the conservation area was founded. The natural vegetation is not in a good state. This, we suspect, is the result of the conservationists not paying heed to the indigenous methods of conservation practised by the Maasai.”

By: John Vidal. “Ousted of Africa. The parks were created to protect the African wilderness. But the tribal peoples are paying a high price.” The Guardian, 21 August 2003. “From Principles to Practice” is published by the Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: info@fppwrm.gn.apc.org

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