Michel Zamoutom recalls with nostalgia the days when he walked in the forest every day and rubbed shoulders with elephants and gorillas. But soon his face closes, his hands clenching on the arms of his chair. “Today that is no longer possible. I’m very afraid to go there even to harvest wild mangoes,” he whispers. At 74, he is the patriarch of Kika-PK14, a small hamlet in south-east Cameroon, on the Congo-Brazzaville border. The camp is populated by Baka, these native peoples of the forest commonly referred to as pygmies – a term they regard as derogatory – who make a living by hunting, fishing and gathering.
Anger is brewing in the thatched hut, open to all winds, where Michel Zamoutom and a few local residents gathered. “The Baka depend on the forest. It serves us for eating, healing and even for our traditional rites. But we can’t access it anymore,” fumes Tom, a 27-year-old Baka resident at the camp. Some fear being “threatened,” others “hit” or “thrown.” in prison”. Martial Babea, just 18 years old, sums up the general mood: “We’d rather die than go there. Over there, in Lobéké National Park.
Created in 2001, this sanctuary is home to a lush flora with no fewer than 764 plant species, 42 of which are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. There live around fifty large and medium-sized mammals, some of which are endangered, such as the panther, the bongo, the golden cat or the giant pangolin, more than 300 species of birds, 134 species of fish … which is part of the transboundary complex of the Trinational de la Sangha, a group of three parks spanning Cameroon, Congo and Central African Republic – an area covered by large stretches of tropical forest that is “ecologically and functionally intact” and classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
“Fortress” preservation controversies
The local population, and especially the forest aborigines, believe that the protection of the Lobéké National Park, which covers an area of 217,854 hectares, comes at the expense of their exclusion. As a child, Michel Zamoutom roamed freely in this country. “The Baka have always protected the forest. We don’t destroy the trees: we only take the sap, bark and leaves. We don’t kill any animals, except for the ones we eat,” emphasizes the seventy-year-old.
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