Electric Guitars and Environmental Justice

It’s not an easy ride from Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, to Gbiné.

A six hour bus to Bertoua, followed by a 16-hour minibus ride along the mud roads to Yokadouma the next day, and a 15-hour ride along rainforest tracks the day after that. I think it’s fair to say that more of the road is mudslide than road, at least in the rainy season.

But when you arrive, you are in for a treat.

Gbiné is a small village in the south-eastern corner of Cameroon, very close to the border with Congo. Hidden inside the rainforest here are the Baka hunter-gatherers of Gbiné. Rather than living alongside the road like the vast majority of Baka in Cameroon, a product of a forced government sendentarisation plan ongoing since the 50’s, the Baka of Gbiné have built their village further inside the forest. Whilst they have houses there, they spend a proportion of their time in camps several hours walk into the forest, where they can find the bemba (yellow-backed duike), mboké (porcupine), kelepa (pangolin), and other animals that they rely on to survive. Some hunting trips are months long (molongo), the men carrying spears and machetes and using the skills taught to them by their fathers. The women are equally, if not more important in filling empty stomachs; they search the forest floor for túlú (mushrooms), koko (green leaves), ekokoyoko (frogs), as well as making dams to fish.

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The community is famous not just amongst locals but internationally for their music – Orchéstre Baka Gbiné has recorded several albums from the forest and toured as far away as the UK, facilitated by Martin and Sue Cradick of Global Music Exchange. The empowering effect of this is clear, not just at Gbiné but any other Baka community who hears recorded music in their own language and singing about their shared problems for the first time. The proceeds continue to flow back to the village, allowing a range of health, food security, construction, and rights projects with the help of Andi Main and Françoise Laloux.

But there are many problems at Gbiné. Similar to other Baka communities, and recently plastered all over the public sphere by BuzzFeed News, the Baka of Gbiné suffer at the hands of forest guards financed by conservation NGOs and a private safari company who confiscate their meat and attack them in the process: “If we cross the river [entering the safari] they disturb us a lot”. The community are not a major driver behind the defaunation of these forests, that rests with corrupt officials and outside wildlife traffickers, yet they are relentlessly treated as such. Despite retaining an extensive reservoir of ecological knowledge, neither conservation NGOs or the safari company collaborate meaningfully with the community, a trend which applies across the majority of Central Africa (see this report by Rainforest Foundation UK). The village are of course fully aware of this hypocrisy: “The majority of the WWF don’t have the knowledge of the forest, or to heal the illnesses.”

Akin to many indigenous groups forced to enter the global capitalist system and finding themselves at the very bottom, Gbiné suffers from serious alcoholism. A direct effect of sendentarisation has been that the Baka, a minority in Cameroon but still boasting numbers around 40,000, are now assimilated into the chiefdoms of dominant farming communities; whilst they are traditionally egalitarian and have no chief, attempts by Baka communities to elect chiefs and establish their own chiefdoms are systematically rejected by the authorities who deem the Baka unable to look after themselves. Living in such mixed chiefdoms, the boys and men of Gbiné have no choice but to work on the farms of the agriculturalists (“Bantu”), who, in order to retain power, provide a minuscule salary, if any at all, the rest of it made up by a strong alcohol brewed from manioc and maize. The Baka are often treated as slave labour.

To offer a way of documenting and reporting these issues, amongst others, and to demonstrate the knowledge of the Baka of Gbiné and the value of collaboration, I have teamed up with the village as well as Martin, Andi, and Françoise to co-design a new Sapelli project (if you’re not yet familiar with Sapelli, have a look at this site). Diverting from the primary theme of wildlife crime and monitoring central to the Sapelli projects we’ve established so far in Cameroon, this case covers a huge variety of things, a result of being guided by the community members themselves from the beginning.

Following principles of participative action research and free prior and informed consent (FPIC) that have been the bedrock of ExCiteS since its earliest days (see posts by Gill Conquest), members of Baka Gbiné held the reins of the project from problem identification onwards. Trust building was the first focus through staying for weeks in the village: eating, dancing, playing, sharing stories with fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, and of course jamming. Power plays a humungous role in determining the success of conservation and development projects, and to build trust properly is the best defence against unequal power dynamics.

 

The community then decided on their key issues and subsequently allocated a team who would be the most appropriate for taking evidence through Sapelli. Elders were chosen to be involved as the younger members admitted: “The youth like us are still learning”. Seven of the eight reporters chosen are men, a product perhaps of how the men are those more exposed to abuse and other issues through hunting. It is also normally men who deal with outsiders, a potential protection strategy, and perhaps the demography of the group will change as the village warms to me: the ecological knowledge of the women is certainly equally if not more extensive than that of the men.

After rounds of discussions and consent procedures, the team came up with eleven key issues that they’d like to address through using Sapelli. Together, we designed icons for the phone interface (as some of the team struggle with reading and writing) and how the app should look, photo and audio functions were considered important for evidence gathering and so added to the project. The process revolved around how taking data in relation to these would help them. One man mentioned to me: “If we show WWF the data they won’t pester us”.

 

 

In the nearby forest we practised using the devices and trialled taking reports and mapping important trees – always a humorous experience for those who’ve never used a smartphone and never taken photos before. Akin to the seven other Sapelli projects live in Cameroon, a community protocol was established where the team decided exactly how the device would be used, shared, and charged, who will have access to the data, and what actions should be taken. These largely focused on attempting to increase their collaboration in conservation initiatives through showing their monitoring and reporting data to WWF and the safari company; stopping abuse by collecting reports and sharing with local human rights officers and officials; producing a map of important sites in the forest to provide a barrier against industries and those who threaten to extract resources; and tackling issues of alcohol abuse and citizenship. Through this community protocol, overall ownership of the project is made to be theres from the beginning.

In this case, Sapelli uses three fundamental techniques to respond to the issues the community wish to fight:
Participative reporting is used to enable the team to report instances of abuse by forest guards and farmers, and evidence of illegal logging and wildlife crime (also using maps)
Participative mapping is used to make possible the independent mapping of animals (nests, tracks, calls, sightings), medicinal trees, cacao plantations, miradors, fishing sites, and illegal farmer alcohol brewing points
Participative documenting has been adopted to allow the registration of births and deaths in the village

Getting behind a process that is as community-led as possible is great because it’s tackling real problems that local people care about, and is therefore much more likely to succeed and be sustainable. It’s also great because it invariably produces outcomes which are unexpected, such as how the team have chosen to map ‘miradors’ – particular spots in the forest where they would like to construct viewing platforms “for us to show animals to our children”.

In the next update I hope to include a wealth of data taken by Gbiné. If it is still possible to reach there on the bus, that is..

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