Bertoua — The government of Cameroon and the indigenous Baka people in the country's southeast have agreed to an updated memorandum of understanding that provides them with more access to natural resources in the country's protected forest areas.
The memorandum, that was signed on 19 September in the regional capital Bertoua, expands upon an initial agreement that was reached in 2019 that gave Baka communities unfettered access to the Lobeke and Boumba Bek National Parks.
Under the new deal, the original forest dwellers will now be able to reach the Nki National Park and the Ngoyla Wildlife Reserve which are essential for maintaining their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
According to Cameroon's Minister of Forestry and Wildlife, Jules Doret Ndongo, the upgraded agreement is "another milestone moment in our efforts to promote the rights of indigenous people and local communities in the preservation of biodiversity in southeast Cameroon."
Hailing the pledge, the minister added, "This new commitment will not just promote Baka rights, but will also foster participatory natural resource management and the wellbeing of communities around protected areas."
Joseph Johnson - president of the Baka ASBABUK association who signed on behalf of the indigenous people - underlined that incorporating Baka opinions into the final text of the MoU represents an important step towards the state's acknowledgement of indigenous rights to forest resources.
However, this hasn't always been the case. The Lobeke, Nki, and Boumba Bek National Parks, as well as the Ngoyla Wildlife Reserve - which together encompass over 765,000 hectares - were established by the Cameroonian government between 2001 and 2014, severely restricting Baka access to their traditional forest habitat.
"You couldn't get into the forest without being harassed by eco-guards," Baka woman Ndobo Marianne Catherine told RFI.
Yet, without the forest "the Baka will cease to exist as a people," she added.
Pointing to some tree bark samples and herbs on an exhibition stand, Yenjo Henri stressed that the forest represents everything for the Baka.
"We hunt and gather in the forest. We harvest herbs and tree barks to treat ourselves when we are sick. It is our pharmacy. We harvest wild tubers and honey ... and it is in these forests that we perform our traditional rites ... where we get into conversation with our ancestors," the 44-year old told RFI.
By creating protected areas, Cameroon's government effectively violated Article 31 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which gives indigenous people the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage.
Minister Ndongo says the latest deal with the Youndé government seeks to ensure that the Baka's hard fought access rights to forest resources are fully respected and in compliance with both national and international laws.
The 19 September agreement was the culmination of a thorough consultation process, involving Cameroon's Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, the Social Affairs ministry as well as some 88 Baka communities around the three National Parks and Ngoyla Wildlife Reserve.
Throughout the consultations, the World Wildlife Fund was on hand as a technical consultant and has lauded the outcome of the dialogue between government agencies and the indigenous communities.
WWF Country Director Clotilde Ngomba said her organisation "hails the concerted efforts made by all the stakeholders involved in the renewal process. As a key technical and financial partner to the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife in the sustainable management of the country's biodiversity, WWF will work with all partners to ensure an effective implementation of the MoU for the benefit of the Baka and nature".