Arman Melinga was born in the nearby village of Bosquet but moved to Assoumindelé to live with his wife’s family. He says the Baka of Assoumindelé were not properly told about the community forest, and what it would mean. He explains how they feel cheated.
“The problem for me is the disputes for land between the Baka and the Bantu, for example, the area of land that the Baka used to use behind the village is now a community forest for the Bantu, and nobody spoke to the Baka about it until it was all decided.
“The relations between the Bantu and the Baka of Assoumindelé go back a long time as the village has been around for about 60 years. What’s creating a problem as that new people are coming to take away land.
“Our village Assoumindelé 2 was the first, and the Baka were the first to come here. They made the forest path from Ntam all the way to Ngoyla. There weren’t any Bantu here. They came afterwards and found the Baka already here. Now they have arrived they dominate the Baka as their villages are recognised by the state. Assoumindelé has just been recognised as a Baka village, which is very unusual. We elected a chief and that’s how we receive benefits from the state, but it’s still not equal to the amount the Bantu get.
“The real problem concerning the land is that we have been removed from the places we used to do our activities and told we have to go to near Seh instead. This is where they have decided that our community forest is but it is a long way away. The Bantu’s community forest is here and now they can say to us ‘you no longer have the right to tend your fields there’. It risks becoming a conflict because we can’t accept that we’re not allowed on the land when we were here first.
“People who set up the community forest should recognise that the villagers should use the land behind the village, and that’s where we should carry on our activities.
“We feel cheated, as we risk losing our land. Even now, the area that they’ve given for the community forest is also Cam Iron forest. It’s in the area where Cam Iron has a concession. If Cam Iron came back today, it would go back to them, so for us it’s not a long-term option. It’s just a cheat.
“We heard that the Baka could have a community forest. WWF sent CAFT and ASBAK (a Baka association) to come and say that they could get us a community forest. They explained it but not in much detail – only very briefly. They said they could help the Baka to have a community forest. The community said, yes, it’s a good thing, we want to have a community forest. That will help us if we have somewhere mapped out as ours, but they didn’t show us how to go about legalising it and all the documents, and in the end the three organisations did it and just gave it to us to sign. The Baka are not a people who question and we just agreed.
“At the meeting they said it was linked to the reserve and the Baka needed to benefit from that, and so they wanted the Baka to have an area of forest, but it was important for us to have an area where we already carried out our activities. Instead we have an area far away that we share with Assoumindelé 1 and the village Seh. The only thing that is right is that there is a different forest for the Bantu than for the Baka.
“Nobody even showed us where the community forest is. Two people came here two weeks ago in the evening and took six people to go to mark out the forest. They marked it out the following day. Once it’s up and running, those who can will go there and see what’s there. I will be able to go with other Baka and see what useful trees there are for medicine, and take it from there. If WWF and the government do place it there I will feel obliged to walk there, but it is far away. Even for a lot of young people it would be too far. It would be difficult for them to go the distance as it’s really too far. To leave the village and go to the forest to gather forest products, I would have to go and spend the night there.
“If the Bantu continue to have their forest in what is now our forest, we won’t be able to manage our fields, which are in that land, as the Baka would never accept to rent it from the Bantu. My field is in the area planned to become the Bantu community forest and there are already problems. When they were building the school here, which is for both Baka and Bantu children, we cut some wood from the area. A Bantu said he should be paid for the wood. The man building the school paid it.
“Problems are going to start because if people want to build homes, they will have to take wood from the Bantu community forest because it’s too far to bring back from our community forest, and what they have to take from the Bantu community forest they will have to pay for, but it is really our land. If the Bantu don’t let me continue to farm my land, I will still do it. It’s a risk, this problem between Baka and Bantu, but it’s because the people who decided on these community forests didn’t think it through.”