This story is part of Le Monde’s "African Parks" series.
Michel Zamoutom nostalgically recalls the time when he used to walk in the forest every day, rubbing shoulders with elephants and gorillas. But in an instant his face hardens, and his hands tighten on the armrests of his chair.
"It's not possible anymore. I am very afraid to go there, even to harvest wild mangoes," he whispers.
At 74, Zamoutom is the patriarch of Kika-PK14, a small hamlet in southeastern Cameroon on the border with Congo-Brazzaville. The camp is populated by Baka, an Indigenous people commonly known as Pygmies—a term they consider derogatory—who live from hunting, fishing and gathering in the forest.
In the straw-roofed shed open to the four winds where Zamoutom and a few inhabitants have gathered, anger is roaring.
Whistleblowers and others in possession of sensitive information of public concern can now securely and confidentially share tips, documents, and data with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN), its editors, and journalists.
"The Baka depend on the forest. We use it to eat, to heal ourselves and even for our traditional rites. But we can no longer access it," says Tom, a 27-year-old Baka resident of the camp.
Some are afraid of being "threatened," others of being "beaten up" or "thrown in jail." Martial Babea, just 18 years old, sums up the general mood: "We'd rather die than go there [to the Lobéké National Park].”
Created in 2001, this protected area is home to exuberant flora, including no less than 764 plant species, of which 42 are classified in the the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. About 50 large and medium-sized mammals, some of which are on the verge of extinction, such as the panther, the bongo, the golden cat and the giant pangolin, as well as more than 300 species of birds and 134 species of fish live there. This exceptionally rich biodiversity is part of the Sangha Transboundary Complex, a group of three parks straddling Cameroon, Congo, and the Central African Republic–an area covered by vast tracts of "ecologically and functionally intact" tropical forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Controversies around "fortress" conservation
Local people, and especially Indigenous forest peoples, feel that the protection of the 217,854 hectare Lobéké National Park comes at the cost of their exclusion. As a child, Michel Zamoutom wandered freely on these lands.
"The Baka have always protected the forest. We don't destroy the trees: We only take the sap, the bark and the leaves. We don't kill animals, except those we eat," insists the 74-year-old.
According to him, "everything went wrong" 20 years ago, when the park was created and his people were asked to stay away. Suddenly, it was no longer possible to hunt, fish or collect wild fruits. Those who defied the ban were beaten up by the eco-guards, reports Michel Zamoutom. "They beat us up badly. Some of them burned our camps," he says.
Violence against the Baka has long been documented, fueling controversies around so-called “fortress” conservation, which shuts out and criminalizes local people in the name of nature conservation.
In its complaint filed in 2017, Survival International, an Indigenous rights NGO, documented the testimonies of Baka living in the vicinity of protected natural areas, including Lobéké Park. They described the intimidation, expulsions and sometimes fatal attacks they had suffered for entering prohibited areas.
A year earlier, Survival International had already filed a complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The large Swiss NGO, a leading technical and financial partner of the Cameroonian government in the management of protected areas, was accused of "human rights violations" against the Baka. The latter "live in constant fear, especially in the forest. They do not expect any help from the forces of law and order because their oppressors are often members of these forces, in particular the park's eco-guards," denounced Survival International.
Although the complaint has since been dropped, accusations of abuses—in Cameroon, but also in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more—have never ceased, prompting WWF to launch an independent investigation. In their 2020 report, the experts stated that they had found "no evidence" of WWF's direct involvement in human rights violations. However, they pointed out that the organization was not unaware of "allegations of beatings and physical violence perpetrated by eco-guards" in the parks of south-eastern Cameroon. They never put in place adequate response mechanisms.
According to Venant Messe, coordinator of Okani, one of the leading Baka rights organizations, if the conservation had not been designed on "a colonial model, it would have been more beneficial to the communities.”
In Lobéké, as elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of the population was not consulted when the protected areas were created.
"When Africa was divided up at the Berlin conference in 1884-1885, no Africans were present. We're doing the same thing with the parks," Messe says. “It's a decree from the Cameroonian prime minister that says a national park is created at such and such a place, from point A to point B, without the people who live there ever having been involved.”
As a result, the boundaries of these conservation areas often include the homes of the Baka, forcing them off their land, as well as the graves of their ancestors and their sacred places.
"They say that this violence has gone down. But that's because we don't go to the forest anymore!"
Dioula inhabitant Nicole Yelle
On paper, however, the rights of Indigenous communities are beginning to be better taken into account. In 2019, a first protocol (Memorandum of Understanding, MoU) was signed between the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife and the Baka association of the Boumba-et-Ngoko department (Asbabuk). In this document, the Cameroonian State undertakes to facilitate their access to parks and to take into account their testimonies in case of abuse.
However, three years later, the forest peoples have rarely heard of this agreement, which is about to be renewed. "We will increase awareness and fear will eventually disappear," says Ernest Adjina, president of Asbabuk and signatory of the protocol.
The fear of abuse remains intact. In the village of Dioula, close to the western end of the Lobéké Park, the inhabitants report in great detail the past abuses they have suffered at the hands of the eco-guards: confiscation of game, insults, and threats.
“They say that this violence has decreased. But that's because we don't go to the forest anymore! They don't see us anymore. When we see them in the distance, we flee. We have been traumatized," admits Dioula inhabitant Nicole Yelle, a loincloth tied around her waist.
Maurice Amalo, a member of a village committee set up to combat poaching, says that the brutality of park rangers against Indigenous people has actually decreased, "but what remains is fear," he concedes.
At the WWF office in Lobéké, Romanus Ikfuingei, the program officer, says that these tensions are not taken lightly. A complaints mechanism has already been set up, he says, and the next step is to "form a rapid response team for human rights violations in the park." To ensure that the welfare of the communities is truly taken into account, he lists the work that has been done by the NGO: construction of water points, payment of school fees for children, and provision of materials to fight against Covid-19. Plans for financing Baka projects or joint patrols with local populations are being prepared, in order to show them the "benefits" of conservation, according to Ikfuingei.
But for the park's curator, Lieutenant Colonel Jean Paul Kevin Mbamba Mbamba, the roots of the problem are not well understood. According to him, the people of the forest have been "instrumentalized" by "journalists" and "civil society organizations” to construct a narrative of victimization that is far from reality.
The soldier points to alcoholism which, according to him, is taking its toll on these stigmatized communities, deprived of their reference points.
"They drink all day long, do nothing, lose their culture, and become the poachers' little hands. Here there have even been eco-guards killed by people who were under the influence of alcohol. But that's a truth we don't like to tell," he says, annoyed, behind his desk cluttered with documents.
The healing of relations between the Baka and conservationists may take some time. Especially as another source is brewing anger. In Mambélé, as in many localities adjacent to the park, the Baka, like the Bantu populations, see their fields of cocoa, bananas, cassava or maize "devoured by colonies of hundreds of chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants," despairs Valery Doh Demokoakil, the chief of this hamlet with laterite tracks and surrounded by forests.
"We are at the end of our rope. We have nothing to eat," says the farmer. Faced with the "silence" of the authorities, who ignore his countless requests, he has taken a decision "with the support" of other villagers: To boycott all public events related to park management. However, this runs the risk of further marginalizing the communities in the face of conservation imperatives.