Our forest, our dignity...
“We had the opportunity to prove that we are not animals, but human beings” uttered smilingly a Babongo man originating from the village of Tranquille once his peers concluded the presentation of their 3D map to local government authorities.
Babongo and Mitsogho peoples depicted their spatial knowledge on a locally made 3D model encompassing the northern fringes of the Waka National Park in the commune of Ikobey in Ngounié province in south-central Gabon. The mapped area includes a total of 13 villages populated by Babongo (people derogatorily termed “pygmies”) and their close relatives, the Mitsogho. After a preparation lasting several months, the participatory mapping exercise unfolded over a period of 10 days and resulted in a valuable self-confidence building and empowerment process whereby the participants were able to prove and communicate to outsiders the profound knowledge of the environment they live in.
The landscape embedding the string of Babongo and Mitsogo villages is characterised by dense tropical rainforest intersected by large river courses, rugged terrain and by hot and humid climate. Access to the villages requires the crossing of the broad Ngounié River by pirogue or embarking on the local ferry which is occasionally out of order. Once on the other side, when transport is available one follows logging road, crossing numerous precarious wooden bridges. The access road has been carved through the forest canopy by an Asian logging company operating in the area and is maintained only where passage of logging trucks is needed. At the river crossing the watercourse represents the physical divide between forest-dependent, hunter-gatherer communities and the cash economy led “modern” world. After crossing the river communication is cut back to the minimum - phone, radio and TV signals get weaker the deeper one ventures into the jungle. Soon, the only “connection” rest with the sounds and smells of the forest occasionally fended by roaring logging engines. Babongo people have been occupying these areas for centuries, although migrations occurred during colonial times.
Like in most of Central Africa, indigenous peoples, the so-called ‘Pygmies’ are often treated as second-class citizens. Few have birth certificates or identity cards; they lack access to education or healthcare and are frequently subject to exploitation and mishandling when exposed to the “outside world”. Like other indigenous peoples scattered across the Congo Basin, the Babongo have a unique and rich knowledge of the natural resources on which they depend. The practice of Bwiti rituals and the use of Ibogha, a powerful hallucinogenic rootbark, lie at the heart of Babongo culture, and make members of the tribe renowned for their spiritual and healing powers. The Babongo are surrounded by Bantu people, some of whom regard the first peoples as little better than animals. Babongo people are generally independent of formal authority and they keep their own traditions and decision-making structures. The Babongo have a powerful reputation as sorcerers, and inspire awe in the Bantu neighbours for their knowledge of the forest and of the Ibogha - the sacred plant central to their beliefs and rituals.
Exposed to outside forces and authorities, the Babongo are struggling to retain their identity and traditional institutions. When living in the jungle, their hunting skills and knowledge of fauna and flora are unmatched. When exposed to the cash economy or drawn outside the forest, the Babongo risk losing not only their most valuable skills but also their own sense of history, culture and identity (BBC, 2008).
The Babongo are hunter-gatherers and live substantially off wild resources in the forest. They usually hunt using wire traps, bows nets and arrows or guns, often loaned from Bantu neighbours in return for a portion of the valuable bush meat they catch. Man also fish and gather honey from wild bees. Since some years, because of the unsuccessful policy to settle them engaged by mostly all the states in the region, Babongo people sometimes grow banana, maize, manioc, peanuts and sweet potatoes on small slash and burn patches. Children catch crabs and freshwater prawns.
Likewise for other national parks established in Gabon in 2002, the outlining of the Waka National Park occurred without consulting local populations. Village voices complain about limitation of access use and control over resources. “We cannot harvest the fruits of the African pear (Dacryodes edulis) trees which our forefathers planted around our old, now abandoned villages, because these are located inside the park” stated a Babongo participant when locating the village site on the 3D model using of a yellow-headed pushpin. Other villagers whose settlements are close to the park boundary complain about imposed restrictions on hunting and gathering resulting in shortage of food supply.
Cultural identity issues were tabled as well. “There is no river in this our area called Waka", commented a Banbongo Elder from the village of Ndugu. "We want the authorities to change the name of the park and give it a name which is more significant for us."
As part of a region-wide effort aimed at involving local communities in the sustainable management of natural resources in the Congo Basin and at adding value and authority to local and indigenous knowledge and values and at ensuring equitable benefit sharing resulting from co-managed protected areas, the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), Brainforest, CTA, IPACC, MINAPYGA, Rainforest Foundation UK, and the Wildlife Conservation Society-Gabon (WCS) supported a series of initiatives in the area including the participatory 3D modelling exercise described in this article. While responding to needs expressed by local communities and by the park administration, the exercise offered the opportunity for training delegates from national and regional organisations based in Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Twenty 10-12 year old students from the primary public school of Fougamou, facilitators and trainees contributed to the construction of two blank models covering a total area of 625 km2 at 1:12 500 scale; eight millimetres on the map correspond to 100 metres on the ground. Babongo and Mitsogo peoples started drafting the map legend in the village and completed it at the mapping venue. Villagers representing the communities of Nioye 1, Osimba, Tchibanga, Tranquille and Ndughu, worked on one unit of the model for four days to accurately depict different types of vegetation cover and land use, outline watercourses, trace roads and pathways, locate villages and households, culturally important sites, areas of wildlife / humans conflict, hunting and fishing grounds, and other features. Mountain ranges, watercourses and selected locations were named.
The process was duly documented by film crews mobilised by IPACC, CTA, and MINAPYGA. Dedicated reportages were featured by the national TV chain Radio diffusion-Television Gabonaise (RTVG), Africa No1," a radio station based in Gabon broadcasting across Africa and by the Agence Gabonaise de Presse. The mediatisation of the process put disempowerment / empowerment issues in the public domain and contributed to drawing attention to the precarious situation of the Babongo and Mitsogo communities and their potential role as resource persons in the development of eco-tourism activities in the Waka National Park and its buffer zones.
Local government authorities attended the closing ceremony where a village representative described in detail the various features of the mapped area providing evidence of deep-rooted knowledge of the environment and related territorial issues and capacity of navigating space at ease. In his closing remarks, the mayor of Fougamou expressed his appreciation for the work done, and acknowledged that while the protected area was established in 2002, communities residing within or at the periphery of the park were not consulted. Nonetheless he stated that their role as beneficiaries of the intervention is enshrined in the provision of the law. He further called for a process which would lead to the active participation of the populations living at the periphery of the park in the sustainable management of its resources and invited the communities to organize themselves as representative bodies in the position to negotiate and mediate their rights, needs and aspirations with the other stakeholders including government authorities.
Community organizing has already started under the auspices of the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) currently implemented by the Wildlife Conservation Society – Gabon. The initiative is underpinned by MINAPYGA, the movement of indigenous minorities and pygmies in Gabon (Mouvement des Minorités autochtones et pygmées au Gabon) and by complementary initiatives carries out by Brainforest (a national NGO), under their participatory mapping program supported by the Rainforest Foundation UK.
The second unit of the 3D model has still to be completed. This offers the opportunity to move the activity “across the river” in the heart of the land where forest spirits coexist with their Babongo masters and where appropriation of the mapmaking process, and its outcomes including self-confidence and cohesion building would be fully at play.
Once the models will be completed, the supporting agencies will assist the community-based organisations in entertaining negotiations with the protected areas management authority on their role in the management of the buffer zones and in defining - among others - benefit sharing mechanisms. If successful, the process is likely to be upscaled and replicated in other protected areas in the country. Accompanied by effective advocacy it may also impact positively local policies and legislation.
Authors: Giacomo Rambaldi, Nigel Crawhall and Georges Thierry Handja