BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 January 2008, 19:51 GMT
GPS helps Pygmies defend forest

By Fergal Keane
BBC News, Cameroon

Baka pygmies
The Baka are battling to protect their traditional homeland

Late in the night we hear a low howling across the forest. It builds to a crescendo until I am certain that what I am hearing is the sound of murder.

The contrast is extraordinary. Through a gap in the canopy I can see a sky full of stars.

The rest of the village is asleep. There is peace - except for the blood chilling screams.

"My God, what is that?" I ask.

"He's looking for a woman," replies Dr Jerome Lewis.

Dr Lewis is a British anthropologist from University College London who has devoted much of the last 20 years studying the Pygmy groups who live in the forests of the Congo basin.

"Who's looking for a woman?" I say to him.

Hunter-gatherers who live in south-east Cameroon
A few live in Congo and Gabon
Sometimes referred to as pygmies
Shorter than their Bantu neighbours
Known for their hunting, music and dance

He explains that the love-hungry howler is a tree hyrax - a furry mammal distantly related to the elephant. After a few minutes, the hyrax is quiet.

Expression of awe

"He's found his woman," smiles Dr Lewis.

The forests of Ngola Baka are rich in wonderful sounds and sights.

Sitting in a clearing the other morning I heard a whooshing sound overhead, the sound of wings parting the air, and looking upwards saw a hornbill make his away across the little patch of blue between the trees. Another followed close behind.

The Baka Pygmies with whom I was walking noticed my expression of awe. The oldest of them, a tough, sprightly character named Alamba, smiled.

Baka also live in Congo and Gabon

It was as if he was saying: now you understand. Now you see what this place means.

Of course, I could never experience this place as the Baka do. They have lived in these dense tropical forests for thousands of years.

To them, the forest is a living repository of their culture. It gives them food, medicine and shelter.

But I challenge any visitor lucky enough to travel with them not to feel a sense of wonder.

For the Pygmies of Central Africa, the last century has been one of intense struggle for survival.

Over the centuries, Bantu groups seeking farmland have been encroaching steadily into their forests.

Hand-held computers

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Batwa Pygmies have suffered horribly in the civil war.

Hand-held GPS
The GPS uses symbols, as many Baka are non-literate

Now the world's hunger for tropical wood is threatening their existence.

Here in Cameroon, we have seen evidence of illegal logging and encroachment by big logging companies into community forest.

But this is where Dr Lewis and a coalition of allies come into play.

The UK-based software company Helveta and Forest People's Programme, along with the Cameroonian group Centre for Environment and Development (CED), are working with Dr Lewis to pioneer the use of hand-held computers among the Baka Pygmies.

Now, when Alamba and his fellow villagers go into the forest to hunt and gather, they carry a GPS - Global Positioning System - on which they can record the exact location of their hunting grounds, sacred trees and important rivers.

"Before, if somebody wanted to come in and chop down one of their trees there was no record, no proof that it ever existed on their lands. Now we have the proof," explains Dr Lewis.

Modern world

Because most Baka are non-literate, the computer screens are marked with symbols which they can press to record an important site. For example, a tree designates a medicine or food source, or the image of a fish signifies a river.

Computerised map
The ancient and modern mix as computers map the Baka's land

The project has the backing of the Cameroon government, which plans to download the data onto its computers to help monitor the activities of logging companies.

Will the computers stamp out illegal logging of the rainforests? Not on their own.

But as Dr Lewis explains: "Under agreements that are being made with the European Union, governments must commit to allow only legal logging and to operate in a way that respects the rights of indigenous communities.

"The information gathered on the GPS will show if they are living up to their promises."

The Baka are no longer powerless in the face of the modern world.

BBC News 24 will be linking schools in the UK with the Baka people throughout the day on Thursday, 31 January. And you can send in your questions to the tribe by clicking here.


Pygmies trek through the forest using sat nav

Logging with care in Congo
06 Oct 07 |  From Our Own Correspondent


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific