Kings without forests

Part of the Baka group lives in the dense forest of southern Cameroon. Since the 1950s, forced sedentarization and restrictions on access to the forest have gradually cut these populations off from their means of subsistence and the practices that make up their identity, foremost among which is hunting.

They are the misnamed. Known by the pejorative name of Pygmies, meaning "one cubit high" in ancient Greek, this people lived until the 1950s in nomadic encampments in the heart of the equatorial forests between Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and Congo. In old engravings dating back to colonial times, they are often depicted, spear in hand, facing an elephant almost as immense as they appear frail. "For the Bakas, elephant hunting was an initiation rite, a test enabling young people to become Tūmā i.e. master hunters," explains Laurence Boutinot, anthropologist at the Forêts et Sociétés laboratory1.

In Cameroon, the life of the Bakas is structured around this hunting practice, as the researcher points out: "Hunting is collective, part of a way of life, of socialization, of transmission of knowledge". Unlike their Bantu neighbors, with whom they have always maintained close, complex ties, hunting is also part of the Bakas' identity. "They are the kings of the forest and of the night, while the sedentary Bantus are more familiar with daytime agricultural practices.

Silent resistance

Today, these nomadic encampments are more discreet, fewer in number and settle in the forest for shorter periods. For the rest of the year, the Bakas camp on the edge of tracks near villages. "Victims of exclusion and racism, deprived of hunting and the forest, with limited access to school and the job market, the Bakas are in situations of idleness. Some of them spend what little money they have on small sachets of alcohol, which motorcycle traders provide at a good price," laments the anthropologist. As is often the case in Africa, to understand this disastrous development, we need to go back to colonial times.

With the arrival of colonizers, missionaries and administrators on African soil requiring large supplies of food, Westerners gradually granted themselves exclusive hunting rights over forest areas. "As wildlife was also hunted for its trophies, which at the time were highly prized on international markets, the Westerners established rules that excluded the indigenous peoples. From being subsistence hunters, they found themselves accused of poaching.2 " (Surveiller sans punir. A common resistance through " poaching" in Cameroon's forests). This was the beginning of the silent resistance of the Bakas who, without expressing any overt opposition, would never stop going into the forest to hunt, thereby exposing themselves to repression (Journey of a silent resistance in the forests of Cameroon).


At the same time, the colonial administration gridded the territory, recognizing only sedentary Bantu village chiefs as landowners. The mobility of the Bakas made them the forgotten victims of this distribution. When, in the 1950s, the same administration forced all natives to settle down in order to collect taxes and requisition labor, "they found themselves landless, forced to settle by the roadside. But here again, the clans continued to meet up in the forest in the right season to hunt under the authorities' radar," continues the researcher.

With decolonization, the Bakas have not regained free use of the forest. On the contrary, the creation of protected areas for wildlife, national parks for tourism, and the encroachment of forest management units for timber exploitation, historically owned by French companies, increasingly limit access to hunting territories (The rights of local and indigenous peoples in the light of forestry and conservation policies). "Today, the forest is cut up and monopolized on all sides. Forests are fenced off in such a way as to exclude peasants and hunters from the use of these public assets. Community forests, which the law leaves to village management, are already degraded areas, emptied of their fauna and even of their precious species, where the caterpillars prized on the markets are no longer to be found, since the trees have been cut down."

Three bad guys3 rabbits

As for hunting, increasingly sophisticated rules have not gone in the Bakas' favor. While they are still allowed to use the traditional spear, the game corresponding to this weapon is no longer authorized. "This weapon is designed to kill big game, not rabbits or coypu, but big game is now protected by the IUCN, which doesn't stop the big poachers from doing their thing. Firearms are authorized, but only on condition that you have a firearms license, and therefore identity papers, "and therefore money! It's a whole process that excludes them," observes Laurence Boutinot.

With no land to farm and no access to the forest, the Bakas sometimes work in the fields for the Bantus in exchange for a few CFA francs, when they are not exploited for free. " The most cynical thing is that the logging companies now employ them to guard the forests from which they are hunted, and to denounce poachers who are sometimes their own brothers". The anthropologist recounts his arrival in the village of Mindourou during his last mission to Cameroon in 2018: "Next to the gendarmerie hut was a fenced-in area where a Baka had been locked up for several months. He had been caught with three nasty rabbits in his bag."

UM podcasts are now available on your favorite platforms (Spotify, Deezer, Apple podcasts, Amazon Music...).

  1. The Bantu group includes various ethnic groups, such as Badjoué and Bayélé, who speak Bantu languages shared by many Central African societies, including the Aka groups of Central Africa. The Bakas of Cameroon speak an Oubangian language. Cf.Bahuchet, S., 1989, Les Pygmées Aka et Baka. Contribution de l'ethnolinguistique à l'histoire des populations forestières d'Afrique Centrale. Thèse de doctorat d'Etat, Université René Descartes, Paris V.
  2. Cf. P-A Roulet, 2004, Chasseur blanc, cœur noir? La chasse sportive en Afrique Centrale, PhD thesis, geography, Université d'Orléans, 563 p.
  3. From Gaston Couté's song "Chanson de braconnier" in La chanson d'un gâs qu'a mal tourné, Œuvres complètes, premier volume, Saint-Denis, Le Vent du Ch'min, 1976, 131 p. p 61, quoted by Mayaux J-L, 2006, p 25.