IN the remote Central African rainforest, two major charities are battling over the future of some 50,000 pygmies, beset by poverty, hunger and alcoholism after they were evicted from their lands to save iconic elephants and gorillas.
As wildlife populations shrink at an unprecedented rate, conservation groups are pouring millions of dollars into efforts to protect their habitats — which critics say often put animals before people.
In Cameroon, Survival International, a group campaigning for the rights of tribal people, has accused the World Wildlife Fund for Nature of funding anti-poaching guards who have beaten and killed Baka pygmies with impunity.
The charity also says WWF violated international guidelines by supporting the creation of three national parks on Baka land a decade ago without their consent — charges WWF denies.
Since being moved off their ancestral land, most of the largely-illiterate Baka live in huts made of leaves, bamboo and mud-baked bricks alongside southeast Cameroon’s roads, just outside the protected areas that they need permits to enter.
They divide their time between camping in the forest, particularly during fishing, caterpillar and mango seasons — where they often come into conflict with guards — and the villages, where they farm plantain and peanuts.
“If WWF can’t prevent this abuse and can’t get the Bakas’ consent, then it needs to get out,” said Michael Hurran, Africa campaigner with London-based Survival International.
Worldwide, a surge in wildlife poaching, including the slaughter of elephants for ivory, is pitting conservationists, trying to save endangered species, against tribal people, unable to secure rights to land they have depended on for centuries.
Government authorities in Switzerland, where WWF is based, agreed in December to mediate in the Cameroon dispute. In its formal complaint, Survival International submitted more than 20 redacted statements, including handwritten letters by a Baka rights group, detailing allegations of abuse by “ecoguards.”
“On paper, (WWF) supports indigenous people’s rights... but in reality, they don’t,” said Hurran. “Behind the scenes, they support this very repressive human-free idea of what national parks should be.”
WWF’s Africa director Fred Kwame Kumah said none of the allegations of abuse had been substantiated.
The Baka are one of the ethnic groups that make up Africa’s half a million pygmies, the continent’s largest group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who are usually less than 1.5 meters tall.
Pygmies have long faced discrimination and mistreatment, from being displayed in human zoos in Europe to enduring enslavement and cannibalism in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some regard the term as derogatory.
“I personally see the Baka as the solution, and not a problem,” said WWF’s Kumah, pointing out his was the first international conservation group to adopt principles on the rights of indigenous peoples.
“That’s the only way we can secure these places.”
WWF is working to win more rights for the Baka, Kumah said, such as creating Cameroon’s first Baka-managed forest.
An official with Cameroon’s forest ministry said an influx of poachers and criminals from neighbouring Central African Republic forced it to boost security in the area — leading to what rights groups said was abuse of the Baka by guards.
What no one denies is that the transition from forest life to the money economy is proving difficult for the Baka.
“We are losing our culture,” said Messe Venant, who heads Okani, a Baka rights group in Cameroon. “The Baka and the forest are inseparable.”
Exiled from their ancestral lands, Cameroon’s 50,000 Baka people are rapidly losing their culture and traditions, he said.
“In the forest, people were more relaxed, they had everything they needed,” Venant said in a phone interview.
“Now, people want to find somewhere to drink alcohol and then the day is ruined... They are totally lost.”
With few other options, the Baka often hunt illegally in the forests for bushmeat to eat and sell or for poaching gangs.
“They probably get 50 to 80 percent of their calories from the forest,” said Terry Sunderland, principal scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research.
“If you look at wildlife offtake from the Baka community, it’s tiny in comparison with the other poaching that goes on.”
The Baka and other indigenous peoples would benefit if Cameroon’s laws were amended to allow them to hunt and gather in the forest, he said.