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Restoring the Congo Basin: Indigenous women leading the charge

July 17, 2023
topic:Indigenous people
tags:#congo basin, #indigenous people, #women's rights, #climate action
located:Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Panama
by:Yukfu Sylvie Bantar
Indigenous women are shaping the future of 'Africa's lungs.' Here's how.

Venant Messe, now 53, vividly remembers his childhood in the indigenous Baka pygmy community of Cameroon's Eastern Region. Growing up, his family relied on the forest for their daily bread, and Venant and his siblings learned about the animals that were considered game, as well as other fauna and flora, from the women in their community.

The practice promoted knowledge and was passed down from generation to generation through songs and dances, which the pygmy believed made the spirits of the forest happy. This encouraged the rest of the group to are for the forest, including through water catchments.

The Pygmies are one of the most secluded indigenous groups in Cameroon. Among them are the Bagyeli, the Rakola and the Baka. They constitute approximately 0.4 per cent of Cameroon’s population of roughly 27 million, and mostly settle in the country's Southern and Eastern regions whose extensive forests form part of the Congo Basin.

An oasis under threat

Dubbed 'the lungs of Africa,' the Congo Basin is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, second only to the Amazon.  The Basin, which accounts for 70 per cent of Africa's forested land, contains some of the largest tropical rainforests in the world and constitutes a great water and energy source. 

The Congo Basin spans across six countries - the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Cameroon.  

Many experts highlight the important role the Basin plays in mitigating climate change, as it harbours approximately 10, 000 species of tropical plants – 30 percent of which are unique to the region. 

According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the deforestation rate in the Congo Basin is low compared to other rainforests in the world. That said, its net deforestation rate has increased over the past three decades. 

The deforestation rate in the Congo Basin rose by 0.09 per cent from 1990 to 2000 and by 0.17 per cent from 2000 to 2005. Cameroon covers 10 per cent of the Congo Basin, and the rate of deforestation and degradation in the country increased slightly from 0.06 per cent to 0.07 per cent between 1990 and 2000. 

In 2021, the overall pace of deforestation in the Congo Basin increased by 5 per cent, a study by the Amsterdam-based Climate Advisory found.

According to Marion Ferrat, a senior consultant at Climate Focus and an author, the Congo Basin is at a critical crossroads. Forest loss has been on the rise since 2020, with trees being hacked down in most of the countries that the forest stretches across. The Central African Republic is the worst offender in this regard.

"Some unfriendly practices like deforestation, illegal logging and degradation pose a great danger to the forest and to the livelihoods of the people living therein," said David Akana, executive editor at InfoCongo, a news media platform reporting on both positive and negative activities within the Congo Basin. 

However, he added, those most affected by the impacts of climate change in the Congo Basin, especially in Cameroon, are the Basin's greatest guardians: indigenous communities, and women in particular. 

"Women in general and indigenous women in particular have been described as custodians of biodiversity, since they produce, reproduce and conserve through agricultural practices," Akana explained. 

Indigenous voices largely glossed over

A research published by the Centre for Forestry Research found that government policies and regulations around forest management in Cameroon are carried out without the input of minority communities and indigenous women.

"Indigenous people have been described as 'environmental conservators' given that they live very close to nature.  Yet, poor environmental practices from people living in other rural and semi-urban areas have made them suffer the worst effects of climate change," Akana said.

A 13 June 2023 order by Cameroon’s Ministry of Wildlife issued through the National Brigade for Control Operations warned against the indiscriminate exploitation of huge quantity of timber and other forest products in the country, mandating that products be seized and defaulters face legal sanctions. 

Balkisou Buba, vice president of the Cameroon Branch of the Network of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities for Sustainable Management of Central Africa Forests Ecosystem (REPALEAC) and founder of the Cameroon-based civil society organisation Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development, agrees that indigenous people have both a physical and a spiritual connection to the environment. As a member of the Mbororo indigenous tribe, she believes that the exploitation of the forest would mean depriving them of their homes and natural heritage.

"We rely entirely on nature for food and medicine, as hunter gatherers, the people forage the wild for food and game," she told FairPlanet, "The forest gatherers in Southern and Eastern regions of Cameroon rely on sustainable agriculture. while the Mbororos, known as Fulbé or Fulani, are pastoralists leading a semi-nomadic lifestyle throughout the western grasslands of Cameroon, [which] allows for the rejuvenation of their  environment as we move from place to place.

"After pastoring in a particular location, we  allow for the area to fallow, [which is] the reason why we are called the Chief Executive Officers of the environment."

Conference seeks to uplift indigenous initiatives

In early May, over 200 participants from 20 countries converged in Congo, Brazzaville for the first forum of Indigenous and Local Community Women in Central Africa and the Congo Basin,  with the aim of strengthening the capacities of women-led indigenous organisations in the Central-African sub-region.

The conference brought together indigenous women from Asia, North and Latin America, Europe and Africa.  

The forum was organised by the Network of Indigenous peoples and Local Communities for Sustainable Management of Central African Forests Ecosystems (REPALEAC) with support from the Rights and Resources Initiative and the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC). It was under the patronage of the Republic of Congo’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights and Promotion of Indigenous Peoples. 

The initiative also sought to empower indigenous women to strengthen their efforts in mitigating the effects of climate change in their communities, as well as map out strategies to achieve the 30-30 goals of conserving earth land and sea by 30 per cent by 2030.

In a press release issued following the conclusion of the conference, Dr Solange Badiaky-Badji, president of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), which also participated in the conference, stated that "collective effort" is key in the  attainment of the 30-30 goals and in the protection and conservation of Central Africa’s natural ecosystems. 

"We are here today because of the incredible contributions of indigenous and local women for the protection and management of natural ecosystems in the Central African sub region and the Congo Basin," Dr Bandiaky-Badji said.

"Indigenous people have not received the attention they deserve, and The Network of Indigenous Peoples and Local community for Sustainable Management of Central Africa Forest Ecosystems, (REPALEAC) and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) are committed to ensuring that this forum leads to concrete actions."

She added, "Other environmental actors have also put their hands on deck to give the indigenous communities a voice in biodiversity conservation."

The conference aimed to build the capacity of indigenous women and local communities to access funding for their conservation efforts in the Congo Basin Forests. Cecile Ndjebet, the President of REFACOF, emphasized the importance of enabling women in local communities to access funds for forest conservation, in addition to restoring and protecting the forests. 

Balkisou Buba, who also participated in the forum, told FairPlanet that indigenous people, and especially women, have a vital role to play in environmental conservation. However, she said, the need for the women to gain financial autonomy is crucial. 

"Indigenous women suffer double discrimination - from their own communities and outside communities," she said. "[They] should be able to conceive, design and adopt funding mechanisms in addition to implementing and evaluating projects without the involvement of third parties. This could fast tract their efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and protect biodiversity."

The women who participated in the Brazzaville conference deliberated on advancing the fight against climate change and restoring the rapidly degrading Congo Basin forest. They arrived at specific recommendations to achieve the task entrusted to women in local communities.

They resolved to develop new mechanisms to help indigenous women receive funding from donors to support their activities. Participants were charged to build capacities of grassroots female-led organisations and networks promoting indigenous women's socio economic empowerment, as well as monitor and evaluate progress ahead of the next forum.

Casey Box was appointed as Director of Global Strategy at the Christensen Fund, and Dr Solange Bandiaky-Badji was named mediator in charge of mobilising funds for local indigenous communities, organisations and networks advocating for women in the Congo Basin.

"We are committed to being open liaisons to support their mission and help bring more attention to their issues and needs," Box stated in the press release following the summit.

As per the forum's organizers, the funding mechanism will be overseen by REPALEAC, following the 2015-2025 strategic plan aimed at empowering women from indigenous and local communities in the Congo Basin. Their optimism lies in the belief that this approach will enable women to make well-informed decisions regarding the direction and management of funds allocated for environmental conservation.

During the conference, the president of the Mesoamerican Territorial Women from Panama said, "This forum has been essential to connect with indigenous and local women across the world, to understand their needs, and learn about their processes of resistance and struggle."

The next edition of the forum will be held in 2024 to evaluate the utilisation of the funds and implement the roadmap to continue in strengthening the commitment of indigenous women in biodiversity conservation and climate resilience.

NGOs already operating on the ground

All the while, local organisations across Cameroon have been making strides in transmitting and maintaining indigenous people’s traditional knowledge of food systems, natural medicine and forests and biodiversity conservation.

Support Humanity Cameroon (SUHUCAM), a Yaounde-based grassroot NGO has helped indigenous communities in some parts of Cameroon to gain knowledge on environmental protection and sustainable agriculture.

In 2019, for instance, SUHUCAM launched a project aimed at restoring the Bamukumbit Integrated Community Forest (BICFOR). The BICFOR initiative seeks to empower and engage the local population in the planting of trees around degraded forest areas and conserve water catchments.

The organisation has also trained local community members on environmental conservation and sustainable agriculture. "We trained some Mbororo women who lived adjacent to the forest on agro- ecological practices," Geoffrey Sunday. SUHUCAM''s CEO, told FairPlanet. 

Mariama Isah, one of the 65 Mbororo women whoo participate in SUHUCAM's common initiative group known  as 'Ma’ate Mbororo Common Initiative Group' (WAMWO-CIG), said that "Unlike in the past, when we, as indigenous women, relied only on our husbands for survival, we now know how to cultivate our own food crops. We have been able to grow onions, carrots and vegetables. 

"This is helping us generate income to run our households. It is also helping us live a healthy lifestyle."

REPALEAC, one of the Brazzaville forum's organisers, has also carried out a series of empowerment activities for indigenous people across Cameroon. 

"The Indigenous Peoples Sustainable Development Civil Society Organization has reached out to 600 women from 2020 to 2023," Buba said. "Meanwhile, as a representative of REPALEAC in Cameroon, we have trained thousands of women in income generating activities, agriculture and environmental conservation since 2003."

She added, "We also teach these women how to use alternative sources of energy, like solar energy - and how to use fireless cooking bags, improved cooking stoves to reduce deforestation. They have also been drilled on the need to plant protected tree species, fruit trees and conservation of water catchments."

Image by CIFOR

Article written by:
Yukfu Sylvie Bantar
Cameroon Republic of the Congo Panama
Embed from Getty Images
The Pygmies are one of the most secluded indigenous groups in Cameroon. Among them are the Bagyeli, the Rakola and the Baka.
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The conservation of the Congo Basin is crucial to sequestering carbon and forging sustainable solutions for climate change.
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Indigenous associations in Cameroon, such as SUHUCAM and RAPALEAC, fight against land degradation and deforestation through tree-planting and other environmentally-friendly practices.
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