- In southeastern Cameroon, zoning and settlement policies have forced the Indigenous Baka people to slowly transition away from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the rainforest, to one that relies more on farming and fishing in order to guarantee their food security.
- The community relies heavily on diverse food sources in and outside the forest in order to comprise a diet of about 60 animal species, 83 wild edible species, six species of fish, 32 crops and 28 varieties of plantain.
- According to Yon Fernández de Larrinoa, chief of the FAO’s Indigenous Peoples Unit, the Baka’s sustainable way of life should be considered by the government when implementing policies that will challenge the resilience of the group’s food system.
- This article is one of an eight-part series showcasing Indigenous food systems covered in the most comprehensive FAO report on the topic to date.
In Gribe, a village located in southeastern Cameroon, the Indigenous Baka of Dimgba are one of dozens of hunter-gatherer groups of the Congo basin diversifying their food sources to maintain a self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle.
The Baka, commonly referred to as ‘the forest people’, have been living in Cameroon’s evergreen and semi-deciduous rainforests for over 4,000 years. Around 831 species of plants including the Moabi (Baillonella toxisperma), a tree highly prized for its oil, are found in the rainforest. Researchers also estimate that it is home to more than 50 species of mammals.
The Dimgba group depended heavily on the forest and its resources to sustain their livelihood.
However, after the first world war, the French government implemented a zoning policy which forced Indigenous peoples, including the Baka in Cameroon’s rainforests, to reside in settlements along the road. The promotion of this policy continued on after Cameroon gained its independence, forcing the Baka to slowly relinquish their nomadic lifestyle.
“Despite being aware of their collective rights to forest resources, [the Baka] are now constrained by a zoning policy that establishes areas for hunting, gathering and fishing,” explains a U.N. report on the Baka food system.
Later in the 1990s, the Cameroon government established a zoning policy which further contributed to the Baka’s slow transition from a mobile lifestyle to a post-forager one.
This divided the rainforest into non-permanent forest and permanent forest, with the former constituting a 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) agroforestry zone on each side of the road that passes through Gribe. The permanent forest zone was either turned into protected areas or was subject to concession areas for timber logging.
Farming is only authorized in the agroforestry zone, while subsistence fishing, hunting and gathering are allowed in both the agroforestry zone and logging zone. In the protected areas, hunting is completely banned. However, the collection of non-timber forest products is allowed if it is included in the protected area management plan.
Today, the Baka increasingly practice shifting cultivation, agroforestry, occasionally selling and buying foods at the market, and preforming wage labor for the Bantu – another indigenous group living in Gribe.
Nevertheless, they have managed to maintain a food system predominantly based on the forest and its resources. Eighty-one percent of their food is obtained through hunting, gathering and fishing activities, according to a U.N. report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The new scientific report provides the most detailed and comprehensive account to date of the sustainable food systems of Indigenous Peoples around the world.
In an interview with Mongabay, chief of the FAO’s Indigenous Peoples Unit, Yon Fernández de Larrinoa, said that the food system of the Baka is proof that Indigenous peoples are the best protectors of biodiversity. But, as it has for many years, their food system will continue to change.
Diversifying food sources
The Baka source foods from 12 food groups (seven from their fields, eight from the forest), providing substantial diversity in their diets.
According to the FAO report, the Baka rely on approximately 60 animal species, more than 83 wild edible species, at least 6 common species of fish and 32 crop species. They are known to cultivate a reasonable diversity of cultigens and cultivars, particularly for plantain, of which they eat 28 varieties, and cassava, 18 varieties.
Throughout the year, the Dimgba of Gribe undertake food generation and production activities in the village and forest. For instance, food resources are scarcer during the major dry season in Gribe as the hard ground makes it difficult to plant crops or set traps to capture wild animals. But it is the ideal weather to clear the land for their small-scale farming activities. Before embarking on this activity, however, a number of factors including soil quality, crop growth and forest vegetation are taken into consideration.
According to the report, the group avoid farming in areas where the mèndì tree (Sclerocroton cornutus) are found because its toxic litter inhibits the growth of other plants, while places where the gbado (Triplochiton scleroxylon) trees are found are considered good for cultivating. After the first year of planting crops the Baka will be able to tell how fertile the soil is based on the length of time it takes for the crop to wither.
If the soil is fertile enough in the first year, the crop will grow healthily and the Baka will toil the same land for three years before abandoning it to allow fertility restoration. However, if the crop withers quickly during the first year, the group abandons the land in favor of more fertile soil.
While land is being cleared, the Baka move into the forest in small bundles of households where they make forest camps, called bala, to harvest annual wild yams such as the sapà (Dioscorea praehensilis). The two species of yam make up a significant percentage of the group’s diet during the dry season as it is the only time of the year it can be found abundantly spread in patches within the forest.
“Frequent movement between the forest and the village and the flexibility to shift between foraging and farming activities greatly sustain Baka’s food security,” the report said.
Following the seasons
While on their yam harvesting expedition, the Baka are also practicing subsistence fishing. The major and minor dry season seasons are an ideal time for fishing as lower water-levels in the river makes it easier to implement dam fishing.
People bank up fallen trees and soil vertically with the flow of the river to make weirs which are made at intervals of about 10 meters (32 feet). Large leaves of are used to rake out the water that accumulates and as water decrease fish such as carp, catfish, shrimps, crabs and tadpoles are caught by hand.
The group ensures they return to Gribe before the dry season is over so that they can get jobs from the Bantu to clear lands for farming. The wages earned are used to purchase manufactured farming products for the oncoming rainy season. They also exchange food they with the Bantu to ensure food security.
The subsequent start of the minor rainy season marks the beginning of crop planting such as plantain, banana, cocoyam, sweet potato, domesticated yams and sticks of cassava on their previously cleared fields. Again, after farming for the day, a group heads into the forest. Now, it is to gather wild edibles such as a popular herbaceous plant (aframomum spp.) that is consumed and used to treat common ailments such as sore throats, diarrhea and body pains.
The Dimgba group alternate between the village and the forest throughout the season until it is time to harvest from their fields with the return of the minor dry season. At this point the forest is relied on for minor hunting, fishing and gathering wild edibles to complement their abundant meals.
Among the foods they gather is the highly important kernels of peke (Irvingian gabonensis) that they sell for cash and prepare sauces. The women, usually accompanied by their children, forage for edible plants such as mushrooms and the leaves of gnetum africanum, picked from its evergreen vine, added to soups and used as a remedy for sore throats and nausea.
“Forest uses by the Baka do not hinder natural regeneration dynamics and may even contribute to an increase in the availability of useful plant,” the author of the report explained.
“Small-scale disturbance of vegetation through honey gathering and forest camp building likewise facilitates regeneration and dispersal of light-demanding useful plants and incidentally creates favorable niches for wildlife.”
Changing environment challenges resiliency
Although the Baka are successful at maintaining their food security, increasingly constrained access to the forest is threatening the group’s traditional knowledge and the resilience of their food system.
“The relationship with the forest and their neighbors provide good resilience to the Baka’s food system and great latitude to adjust to the environmental changes affecting their daily livelihood,” states the report’s authors.
“However, adaptive attempts by the Baka to the changing environment do not comprehensively solve all the problems.”
According to authors of the report, confined access to the forest is a factor seriously compromising the food security of the Baka of Gribe. Logging, intensified bushmeat trade, sport hunting, protected areas and the government zoning policy are cumulative drivers of change that constantly challenge the resilience of the Baka’s food system.
“[These activities] generates tensions as they drastically reduce access to the forest resources, which are of prior importance, especially during the major dry season,” said the report’s authors.
Restricted access to the forest also hinders long-term expeditions and as a consequence, lowers the contribution of wild yam tubers to the diet of the Baka people.
Over-logging has caused a decline in edible caterpillars (Entandrophragma cylindricum) and a general decline in the animal population since the early 2000s.
“This concern, known as the bushmeat crisis, has led to the empty forest syndrome,” states the report.
However, the Baka people of Dimgba, believe that local biodiversity is not yet critically depleted and fauna still has the capacity to recover from excessive hunting. As a practice, when the Baka perceives a decrease in game captures, they remove their traps. According to the report, by restraining their trapping activities, the Baka may facilitate the populations of some mammal species, for instance the mostly preyed blue duiker (Philantomba monticola), to recover.
As a result, the Baka do not expect their livelihood to drastically change in the years to come. Though, they are aware that they no longer depend on the forest for food as much as they once did due to their increased dependency on cash income, and manufactured food products. This, they say, could result in the loss of traditional knowledge.
Knowledge related to hunting and gathering may no longer be transmitted, and many women fear the loss of knowledge regarding the use of forest plants will impact their traditional medicinal knowledge.
According to Fernández of the FAO, national governments should acknowledge that certain policies may negatively affect Indigenous peoples. Zoning and settlement policies are still challenging the resiliency of the Baka’s food system. Over the last three decades, the community’s diet has changed significantly.
Today, in order to maintain their food security, the group is forced to continue adapting their food system to the changes occurring around them.
Banner image: Community members gathering mushrooms in southeastern Cameroon. Image courtesy of M. Hirai/Kyoto University via Flickr.
Related reading: This article is the latest in a series about Indigenous food systems, see more:
- Between land and sea: Agrobiodiversity holds key to health for Melanesian tribes
- An Indigenous community in India’s Meghalaya state offers lessons in climate resilience
- In southern Colombia, Indigenous groups fish and farm with the floods
- Unique Indigenous Maya food system blends cropping techniques in Guatemala
- An Indigenous community in India’s Meghalaya state offers lessons in climate resilience
- In the Arctic, Indigenous Sámi keep life centered on reindeer herding
- Mali’s centuries-old pastoralist traditions wilt as the climate changes
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here: