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Tuesday, 4 June, 2002, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Logging threatens Pygmies' forest life
A Pygmy woman makes a net
Centuries-old traditions are disappearing

A basket dangling from her head and a machete in hand, Bayanga's bare-breasted traditional doctor scours the forest for the day's medical and psychological needs.

"This is to help one girl find a husband," says Tamara, 42, picking a bunch of strong-smelling leaves and throwing them into her basket.


People are seeing their habitat diminished by logging companies

Etienne Bemba, Park director
"Another woman is having problems desiring her husband, this is for her," she adds, scraping bark off a tree.

Distracted from her search for cures by bees, she marks a tree, so she can later return to collect the honey.

Tamara is from the Ba'Aka tribe, a group of hunters and gatherers, also known as the "pygmies" because of their short stature.

`Exploitation'

There are around 20,000 members of the tribe inhabiting the rainforests of the south-westerly Dzanga Sangha national park in the Central African Republic.

So far they have resisted exploitation by other Central Africans, many of whom regard the Ba'Aka as sub-human.

Antelopes for sale by the side of the road
Some believe bush meat has mystical powers

But an influx of loggers and poachers is threatening their centuries-old way of life.

"People are seeing their habitat diminished by logging companies, which is leading to a decline in animal populations, but the government wants to log and conserve at the same time," says the park director, Etienne Bemba.

The Bayanga Wood Company is only permitted to fell selected trees but often removes large amounts of vegetation to build roads in order to retrieve the wood.

The Ba'Aka hunters now get lost in the forest because of a new network of roads.

Poaching

Although the company employs more than 500 people in a region with few job opportunities, and builds schools, the enterprise also attracts immigrants from Congo and Cameroon.

When the newcomers fail to find work, they turn to poaching, supplying Bangui's bush meat markets with gorilla, elephant, gazelle and antelope, which are believed to have mystical powers.

"Some of the loggers have guns, and poach when out cutting down the trees. Loggers without guns hunt with the wire they use in felling," adds Mr Bemba.

There are also groups who illegally remove timber, which is transported via unmapped roads to Cameroon to avoid taxation, which further reduces the Ba'Aka's habitat.

Living without money, the Ba'Aka spend most of the year hunting game with nets.

Inhabiting houses made from leaves and branches, they move on when animal stocks dwindle, but now there are few places for them to go due to deforestation.

'Systematic destruction'

Western environmentalists have arrived in huge numbers to study and conserve the area.

An estimated 6,000 elephants and 10,000 gorillas still inhabit the park and can be easy targets when they gather to drink salt water in the forest clearings.


When the Ba'Aka get money they go out and spend it on alcohol

Western employer

The poaching of thousands of elephants for their tusks to supply the flourishing illegal ivory trade means few Central Africans have ever seen a wild animal.

"We've seen the systematic destruction of our wildlife over the past two decades, a trend we're trying to reverse," says Jean Yamindou of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

In an attempt to prevent the further killing of the animals, the organisation is teaching the Ba'Aka and the local Bantu people to breed fish and poultry.

A gorilla-tracking programme, modelled on successful projects in Rwanda, has been established to attract tourists and preserve the park's gorilla population.

Social benefits

But although the environmentalists employ armed guards to patrol the park, poaching is still a regular occurrence.

"These people aren't used to cultivating things. For centuries they've been used to getting up in the morning and killing an animal for that day's requirements," adds Mr Yamindou.

Wild elephants in the park
Many elephants are killed for their ivory

There have also been cases of poaching by guards and civil servants, say locals.

The Ba'Aka resent being told they can no longer hunt elephants, which they kill to eat, and some hunting still occurs.

But they have welcomed the decrease in poaching by outsiders, and social benefits which the environmentalists' presence has brought.

"We now have a school with a metal roof, before we had a bamboo school," says the chief of Yandoube village, Mark Mkoko.

Debt

But Bayanga has changed from a village of just 200 residents in the 1980s to a boomtown of 6,000, with Lebanese shopkeepers, discotheques and Western missionaries.

Loan sharks have moved in, preying on Ba'Aka employees of the environmentalists and loggers, and some not used to having money easily fall into debt.

Pygmies file their teeth to help them eat meat
Age-old practices are under threat

"When the Ba'Aka get money they go out and spend it on alcohol... Sometimes in shops they don't even know how much change to expect. We have set up a banking system for them," said one Western employer.

Economic growth is bringing cultural changes.

Ba'Aka men have started taking several wives, a practice common among Central African men, but not previously known among the Ba'Aka.

There has been intermarriage between the newcomers and the traditional inhabitants.

Aids, which is the main cause of death among Central Africans, is now thought to be widespread in some Ba'Aka communities.

Missionaries have arrived and now some Ba'Aka go to church.

"The missionaries have told them their traditional music is tantamount to worshipping the devil," says a Bayanga resident.

"Some of the young Ba'Aka don't know how to collect honey... Some listen to pop music and drink alcohol. Not all change is for the better," he adds.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Africa
22 Feb 02 | Africa
22 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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