Our forest is empty: indigenous women monitor forest threats in Cameroon

Our forest is empty: indigenous women monitor forest threats in Cameroon

On International Women’s Day 2017, indigenous Baka and Bagyeli women in the rainforest of southern Cameroon are facing up to threats to their lands, livelihoods and forests. Equipped with smartphone apps, women are learning how to monitor the issues that affect their lives the most. Cameroon’s forests are facing rapid change from industrial logging and mining that degrade the forest, and from protected areas that prevent forest communities from accessing their customary land. In some forest areas, women also face human rights violations from conservation ecoguards who regularly target forest communities with impunity, intimidating and beating people, and taking their hunting traps so they can no longer feed themselves and their families.

“Communities do not want to hear speeches and read long reports,” said Germaine, who lives in the Océan province on the Atlantic coast of Cameroon. “They want concrete action: this is where monitoring tools and photos can get results”.

To support communities to take urgent actions, a range of monitoring tools have been developed by NGOs Forest Peoples Programme and Digital Democracy and are being piloted in Cameroon with Association Okani and other indigenous associations. Smartphones are used to record GPS coordinates, photos, videos and details of human rights abuses, illegal logging and mining pollution. Armed with these tools, the women can gather irrefutable evidence of impacts on their lives and lands, evidence that can be presented to administrative and judicial authorities to stop an activity or seek compensation for damages. Proof of what is really happening is of crucial importance in situations where powerful public or private sector interests wish to deny reports coming from local communities, deriding them as hearsay or mere fabrications.

Francine, a woman from the Océan province said: “Forestry companies come into our forests, sometimes without even consulting our communities. They destroy our forests and now we don’t have the trees we need, including trees we use to heal ourselves. Our forest is empty!”

For Baka and Bagyeli women, International Women’s Day is not only an occasion to focus on external threats but also to celebrate women and reflect on their changing roles in Cameroonian society. 

Danielle, from the East region of Cameroon, explained how agricultural livelihoods are changing for women: “The men no longer have access to women’s harvest when we make a field together. At harvest time, the men always used to dominate the women. Now, with awareness-raising, we understand that we are all equal. This concerns men and women; we need to feed our families.”   

Speaking about education, Danielle added: “As Baka women, some of us (…) know how to read and write, we are already educated about things we did not know about before, this is why we want to reinforce education so that our situation continues to improve”. 

Unfortunately many Baka communities and young girls still do not have access to education in their own language or to schools in their communities. But the new monitoring tools, which Baka and Bagyeli women and their Bantu neighbours want to take back to their communities, will certainly enable more women to communicate about the threats to their lives and lands. 

Watch video here