Indigenous forest peoples in Cameroon have come together to form an official platform to better represent their views locally, nationally and internationally. For the first time in Cameroon, representatives from more than fifty indigenous Baka and Bagyeli communities have united to form a national organisation to represent Cameroon’s forest peoples and defend their rights at the local, national and international levels.
The new platform has been named Gbabandi, Baka for ‘termite’s nest’ – an image reflecting different indigenous communities coming together to work for joint objectives. The platform unites indigenous forest peoples living along a 700km stretch of rainforest from the east of the country to the department of Océan on the west coast.
Ferdinand Koli Engbwe, a Baka from Association Abawoni based in Mintom, said: “Indigenous peoples have been working separately until now, without much success. This platform will bring us together and enable us to better engage local authorities and national institutions about our lands and needs.”
The Gbabandi officially formed with its first General Assembly on from July 27-29, in Akonetyé, a Baka village near Djoum. During the three-day meeting, representatives discussed priorities in the six thematic areas of focus for the platform: education, health, economic development, land and natural resources, and justice and participation in public life, with gender, women and family cutting across all discussions.
Indigenous representatives had been chosen to lead on each of the themes and present to the rest of the group.
Among the points raised was the need for greater representation of Baka and Bagyeli people in the Municipal council, the formation of a cooperative to better sell produce, promotion of indigenous handicraft work, training in how to research and apply for funding, demarcation and securing of land rights, and better dialogue with forestry, mining and agribusiness. Also considered important was training indigenous people on mapping of their lands, and awareness campaigns among the people of poaching, human trafficking, sanitation and hygiene, prevention of illness, vaccinations and deworming schemes, and the effects of alcohol.
A greater participation of women in all areas was also called for.
The group considered weaknesses that would need to be addressed, such as lack of funding, poor communication between the local and national level, and between different partner organisations, and the need for statutes and a code of conduct for the running of Gbabandi.
Motions were passed to first better support forest peoples in regard to lack of information, the process for making decisions, and more active participation of communities. Bertin Buh, a Bagyeli teacher from a community that lost its land to a rubber plantation, said: "In the same way that each termite plays its role to solidify and strengthen the collective nest, Gbabandi will represent the needs of indigenous peoples in the six thematic areas; in this way we hope to improve the living conditions of all people.”
Among those taking part were organisations already formed to separately represent the Adebaka, Abawoni, Abagueni, Asbak, Ascobak, Bacuda, Caddap, and Buma Kpode peoples.
The formation of the Gbabandi was supported by both Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and Cameroon-based organisation Association Okani. Baka leader Venant Messe, Okani and FPP coordinator of the EU project in Cameroon, said: “There are at least fifty indigenous forest communities that decided to participate - and many others are expected to join us. As the Gbabandi, these communities will be able to speak with a single voice, effectively and legitimately, and contribute actively to national development policies. This type of direct representative initiative is, I believe, unique in the Congo Basin and we hope it will set an example to indigenous forest peoples in neighbouring countries.”
The meeting was also attended by the first deputy of the Djoum community, and the head of Djoum’s subdivision, who said forming the Gbabandi was a step in the right direction and that the government was committed to promoting the interests of indigenous peoples.