Indigenous people believed to be a drag on society are in reality a major asset for conservation. We must recognise their expertise of the forest.
Indigenous people make up five percent of the global population and safeguard eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. However, in the last thirty years and worldwide, politics of conservation of this biodiversity have resulted in the eviction of indigenous people from their ancestral lands. Today and worldwide, eco-guards (park rangers) are in charge of preserving areas rich in biodiversity while indigenous communities living in these areas remain forgotten. In the Messok-Dja area of the Republic of Congo for instance indigenous communities are not living in the forest anymore but are suffering from poverty, deprivation and degrading treatment and land grabs.
The Baka people on the picture above expressed himself with a strength born of despair:
“I needed money to treat my sister for tuberculosis. I rented my field to a merchant for $50 a year when it is worth $1500. Today, my sister is dead, and I’m working in my own field for this merchant for $1.5 per day.”
He is also very proud to show us some precious barks (called ‘khol’ in Baka) that treat malaria. Such as many other places around the world, indigenous people of the Messok-Dja area are suffering from exclusion and low-status whereas their ancestral and comprehensive knowledge of the forest could drastically improve conservation of biodiversity. It remains to make their ancestral and comprehensive knowledge of the forest useful and accessible for the needs of conservations. In this regard, the Extreme Citizen Science group is opening a new Sapelli case study in the Messok-Dja area with the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
It is worth noting that this Sapelli participatory mapping is working independent from another process carried out simultaneously by the government of the Republic of Congo through the General Director for the promotion of indigenous people. In early November 2021, the General Director has conducted a Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process for the creation of the protected area of Messok-Dja. Over the 38 villages consulted and according to the governmental standards, 35 have said ‘yes’ for the creation of the protected area and 3 villages have voted against it. Yet, the boundaries of the protected area remain to be defined. The government plans to conduct a participatory mapping process with the indigenous people and local communities in order to outline the future protected area. Thus, the mapping process of the government will be carried out simultaneously to the Sapelli’ activities, but the two processes are distinct and must not be confused.
It is interesting to compare these two different mapping processes. Traditionally, an expert comes to the village and goes with the communities in the forest to collect the data that he needs to draw maps. In contrast, in the Sapelli mapping process relying on the Extreme Citizen Science methodology, the expert works to support indigenous communities to map themselves their environment according to their own choices. Sapelli’s users decide what data to collect and how best to collect and analyse it. Sitting down to listen to people’ priorities and leaving an ample space for local leadership in an open-ended process enables local people to reveal their capability and the expert to be surprised. This is precisely through the creation of this third-space that moral and social perceptions can be decentred and reframed.
Indigenous people are often considered to be backward or underdeveloped. To address the recognition gaps faced by indigenous people, moral and social perceptions of them must change! How to proceed? One possible path is to enable indigenous people to manage conservation areas with digital tools such as Sapelli, as eco-guards currently do with the Smart smartphone application in seventy countries and almost one thousand protected areas around the globe. During the last five years, the Extreme Citizen Science group have demonstrated that indigenous communities are able to collect accurate and relevant data for conservation in great quantity with Sapelli. For now, only the data collected by eco-guards is used for conservation activities of conservation organisations and governments while no one really makes use of the potential for much more detailed data generated by communities using the Sapelli application. Integrating the Sapelli and Smart smartphones applications would enable the data collected by indigenous people to be recognised for its value for conservation, thereby bringing eco-guards to recognise indigenous people for their expertise in conservation. Indigenous people would be able to manage conservation areas on a par with eco-guards and to improve their welfare.
We wish to acknowledge all the community members around the world who collaborate with us. They play a central role in helping to shape the implementation of Sapelli.
We are grateful to WWF for their invitation and support to implement Sapelli in the field in the Messok-Dja area.
This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 694767 and ERC-2015-AdG).