The Indigenous World 2021: Cameroon
Among Cameroon’s more than 20 million inhabitants, some communities self-identify as Indigenous. These include the hunter/gatherers (Pygmies), the Mbororo pastoralists and the Kirdi.
The Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon uses the terms Indigenous and minorities in its preamble; however, it is not clear to whom this refers. Nevertheless, with the developments in international law, civil society and the government are increasingly using the term Indigenous to refer to the above-mentioned groups.
Together, the Pygmies represent around 0.4% of the total population of Cameroon. They can be further divided into three sub-groups, namely the Bagyéli or Bakola, who are estimated to number around 4,000 people, the Baka – estimated at around 40,000 – and the Bedzang, estimated at around 300 people. The Baka live above all in the eastern and southern regions of Cameroon. The Bakola and Bagyéli live in an area of around 12,000 km2 in the south of Cameroon, particularly in the districts of Akom II, Bipindi, Kribi and Lolodorf. Finally, the Bedzang live in the central region, to the north-west of Mbam in the Ngambè Tikar region.
The Mbororo people living in Cameroon are estimated to number over one million and they make up approx. 12% of the population. They live primarily along the borders with Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic. Three groups of Mbororo are found in Cameroon: the Wodaabe in the Northern Region; the Jafun, who live primarily in the North-West, West, Adamawa and Eastern Regions; and the Galegi, popularly known as the Aku, who live in the East, Adamawa, West and North-West Regions.
The Kirdi communities live high up in the Mandara Mountain range, in the north of Cameroon. Their precise number is not known.
Cameroon voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 but has not ratified ILO Convention 169.
COVID-19 and its impact on Indigenous Peoples in Cameroon
The first case of COVID-19 was declared in early March 2020 and national statistics show that there has been a total of 26,277 cases, with 24,892 recovered, 446 deaths and 937 active cases.
Most COVID-19-related information is on social media and the different TV stations such as CNN, Africa 24, Al Jazeera, BBC and the national television networks. Government officials have also most often resorted to Twitter in order to communicate. Only a few Indigenous Peoples have access to these facilities or have android phones that would allow them to get information through WhatsApp or tweets, which are the most commonly used means of communication. Indigenous organizations have access to WhatsApp but the wider communities cannot be reached due to the remoteness of their localities. The majority do not read or write and therefore cannot access information that is as complex as the coronavirus pandemic. Almost all are aware of the existence of a new deadly disease but they do not know much about it, how it is manifested or how to avoid it. Around 10Indigenous individuals were infected in Yaoundé and Bafoussam, with some serious cases but no deaths registered so far.
It is worrying that even those who live in cities and have TVs and android phones are not aware of the dangers of COVID-19 because traditional and religious values outweigh the government and international community’s protocols to reduce the infection rate. When a person is infected, the whole community visits his/her home or the hospital. Everyone wants to pay the patient a visit as tradition requires. Community life continues despite the high risk of the virus spreading.
Women, children and those with disabilities have been even more vulnerable and gender-based violence has been a serious problem in Indigenous communities due to lockdowns and economic hardship.
There is a need to raise awareness and educate Indigenous Peoples on this new pandemic. There is also a need to provide protective equipment such as soaps, utensils for water, face masks and disinfectants. Indigenous Peoples’ organizations such as OKANI, CADDAP, BACUDA, MBOSCUDA and AIWO-CAN ran awareness raising campaigns in some Indigenous communities and distributed face masks, soaps, buckets for hand washing and sanitizer. Some of the organizations assisted local governments’ services in awareness raising and the distribution of health kits. Much still remains to be done, however, to make all of Cameroon’s Indigenous people aware.
International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
The official celebration of the 26th International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the 12thsuch event in Cameroun, was presided over by the Minister of Social Affairs alongside the representative of the United Nations Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa (CNUHD-AC), representing the UN Secretary General. Participating in the ceremony were the different Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations in Cameroon (MBORORO, BAKA, BAKOLA, BAGYELI, BEDZANG), various public administrations, international organizations, UN agencies and CSOs.
This 26thcelebration was held under the theme of “The COVID-19 pandemic and the resilience of Indigenous Populations”. The speech of the UN Secretary General, read out by the representative of the CNUHD-AC, focussed on the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples, particularly Indigenous women, and called on the government to come up with strategies to fight the pandemic and reinforce the Indigenous Peoples’ capacities for resilience. In her opening address, the Minister of Social Affairs indicated that several awareness-raising campaigns had been carried out on the COVID-19 pandemic in more than 100 local municipalities during the month of April and she indicated that the session would focus on creating efficient strategies to ensure the effective protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
7th session of the Comité Intersectoriel de Suivi des Programmes et Projets Impliquant les Populations Autochtones Vulnérables (CISPAV)
The 7th session of CISPAV was held on 7 August 2020 within the context of the celebrations for International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The aim of the session was to follow-up on programmes and projects relating to Indigenous Peoples, and participants included public administrations, international and national development partners, civil society organizations, Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and the technical secretariat of the committee. The session was held with the theme of “The International Public Health Emergency” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and with the general objective of conducting an assessment of actions carried out by all actors in favour of Vulnerable Indigenous Populations (PAVs) in the fight against the pandemic. Actions on the prevention of and fight against the COVID-19 pandemic included training, awareness raising and education as well as technical, material and financial support.
Implementation of the different activities to fight the COVID-19 pandemic was not without some difficulties, the main ones being:
- Lack of coordination and collaboration among actors working in the same zones
- Socio-cultural barriers facing PAVs
- Insufficient communication due to language barriers and communication facilities
- Weak involvement of the different government departments in the execution of certain projects
- Lack of potable water and a clean environment
- Inaccessibility of zones inhabited by the Indigenous Peoples
Civil strife and its effects on the Mbororo pastoralists
The Mbororo pastoralists have been victims of the blind violence that reigns in the North-West and South-West regions of Cameroon, and they have suffered assassinations, maiming and confiscation of livestock, kidnapping for ransom, forced displacements, torture and inhumane and degrading treatment from the secessionist armed groups.
These atrocities have been committed in different areas such as in Sabongari in Donga-Mantung Division and in Achah, Jakiri, Ndawara, Santa and Bafut in Mezam Division. Statistics show that from the beginning of the crisis to December 2020, 260 Mbororo were killed, 3,210 were injured, 12,000 displaced, some 6,000 children dropped out of school, 525 houses were destroyed and burnt, ransoms worth 163 million FCFA were paid out, and a total of 2,700 cattle were maimed, rustled or confiscated with a total value of 810 million FCFA. This has impoverished the Mbororo community and deprived them of their basic livelihood. According to the survey results published in 2020 by the Cameroonian NGO Observatoire du Développement Sociétal (OBS): “The Mbororo community in the north-west is threatened with genocide by the secessionist armed groups,”
During the night of 23 October 2020, Mrs Habiba Hammadu, a 34-year-old woman, and her two children were killed in the North-West region. Her children were five-year-old Umaru Hammadu and three-month-old Nafisah Hammadu, who were burnt alive by the secessionist armed groups in their home at Ntamruin Donga-Mantung Division. Despite efforts to end this conflict through the organization of the Major National Dialogue and efforts at implementing some of the recommendations, the year was characterized by an unprecedented upsurge in the violence.
According to the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association’s (MBOSCUDA) regional office, over the 2014 to 2020 period, 2,437 Mbororo were taken hostage in the East Region, 69 were killed and 288 were released after a ransom of 267, 300,000 FCFA was paid.
Other human rights violations towards Indigenous Peoples
Still in the East Region, in Missoume - a Baka village on the outskirts of Abong-Mbang - Mocka Guy Janvier, a Baka youth, was attacked and beaten to death in a nearby village by a group of Bantu men. Jean-Marie Boleka of the Centre d’action pour le développement durable des autochtones pygmées (CADDAP) filed a complaint and five men were arrested in connection with the killing. Two of them were released and three are still in custody – while the investigation is ongoing. There is high risk of further attacks on CADDAP’ organizer and other Baka youth, including girls, if these men are not prosecuted.
Another Baka youth, Yombo Hortense from Mbang village in the same locality of Missoume, was the victim of a gangrape in Nkouamb, a Bantu village when she went to buy some goods. She was caught and detained for many days by a group of seven boys who raped her repeatedly. When she was found, she was taken to the hospital where she was examined, and a medical certificate established confirming the gangrape. A complaint was written but her parents opted for an amicable settlement.
There were also reports of grabbing of the Bagyeli people’s land by their Bantu neighbours who are then selling the land to foreigners in Bipindi and Kribi localities in the Ocean Division of South Region. One case is pending before the court.
A persistent issue affecting Indigenous hunter-gatherer communities like the Baka is also the violence and evictions which they face as a result of the determination of international NGOs and governments to preserve the wildlife. These bodies have claimed vast swaths of Cameroon’s rainforests as protected areas for wildlife, effectively “locking out the very people who have preserved these forests over thousands of years”. For the communities concerned, there is often no difference in outcome for them between those attempting to protect the forest and those cutting it down. This is a two-way threat coming, on the one hand, from the destruction posed by poachers and, on the other, from eco-guards who are often ill-equipped and under pressure to obtain results. As anthropologist Jerome Lewis puts it: “Unable to act against the powerful perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade, eco-guards began to attack softer targets: the hunter-gatherers and villagers”.
The violent abuse against the Baka has resulted in mounting pressure on WWF, which manages the parks in Cameroon and provides financial and technical support and training to the controversial eco-guards. Although WWF has shown a willingness to discuss the issues and also signed access agreements (MoUs) to the parks with the Baka communities, implementation still remains a problem as access to the forest is conditional upon the communities having to apply for said access from local officials of the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF). WWF have also developed a guide on human rights to be used by the wildlife enforcement officials with the support of the Cameroon Human Rights Commission.
General Assembly of the hunter-gatherer network
The Indigenous forest peoples of Cameroon are organized within the Network “Réseau Recherches Actions Concertées Pygmées” (RACOPY), which brings together the Indigenous Baka, Bagyéli, Bakola and Bedzang communities to debate issues specific to Indigenous forest communities. The 63rd General Assembly of RACOPY was held from 24 to 25 October 2020 in Yokadouma in the East Region. The Network comprises some 40 organizations including Hunter-Gatherer Organizations as well as national and international NGOs. The General Assembly issued a number of recommendations, including to:
- Lobby for the participation of hunter-gatherers in decision-making on issues that affect their lives.
- Recognize their customary rights to the forest and their tenure rights.
- Safeguard their rights to resources from the forest, especially non-timber products.
- Secure Indigenous communities’ access to resources in some reserves and parks such as the Lobeke, Mbomba Bek and Nki.
Indigenous Peoples, REDD+ and climate change
The REDD+ process in Cameroon is inclusive, with Indigenous Peoples, civil society organizations, government, research institutions, private sector and local communities being major stakeholders.
In 2020, the Cameroon government was able to re-launch the REDD+ process (which had been stalled for some years) by creating a working group whose members included the African Indigenous Women Organization Central African Network (AIWO-CAN), the lead organization for the platform “REDD+ and the Indigenous Peoples of Cameroon” (PREPAC). The efforts saw the mobilization of all major stakeholders and several meetings were held in Douala and Yaoundé when the COVID-19 measures were eased in order to finalise major documents and to prepare for the 13th Participants Assembly and the 29th Participants Committee of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) from 20 to 22 October. The Participants Committee discussed Cameroon’s request to reinstate the Readiness Grant (additional funding). The Participants Committee took note of Cameroon’s renewed commitment to advance the REDD+ readiness process and encouraged the World Bank/FMT to work further with Cameroon to re-assess the provision of the REDD+ readiness funding. Indigenous Peoples are entitled to be a part of the funding to finalise capacity building initiatives and develop tools for monitoring ongoing REDD+ pilot projects in or around their communities.
Draft National Development Plan for Indigenous Peoples presented
In her role to protect, promote and provide assistance to socially vulnerable peoples,the Ministry of Social Affairs has produced a draft document entitled the “National Development Plan for Indigenous Peoples” (PNDPA). This Development Plan aims to fight poverty and social inequalities among Indigenous Peoples. The draft document was presented during the 4th National Solidarity and Entrepreneurship Week, which took place in December 2020. The workshop brought together government departments, technical partners, Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and civil society organizations working with Indigenous Peoples. The draft document was presented and improved by all stakeholders to reflect the reality of the Indigenous Peoples (forest peoples and the pastoralists). The main objective of the Development Plan is to guide, supervise and coordinate the different initiatives of public administrations, civil society organizations, and the technical and financial partners for effective and efficient actions in favour of the socio-economic development and inclusion of Indigenous Peoples.
Hawe Hamman Bouba is an expert in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.
She is a member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Member of the Cameroon National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms and President of the African Indigenous Women Organization Central African Network (AIWO-CAN). Hawe Hamman Bouba has written this article with contributions from Oumarou Habane, Deputy Secretary General of MBOSCUDA and Jean-Marie Boleka, facilitator at CADDAP.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 Created by Ministerial Order No. 022/A/MINAS/SG/DSN on 6 August 2013 by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Peuples Autochtones Vulnerables.
Civil society human rights initiative.“Justice and dignity campaign.”
 National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms. “Press release on the atrocities committed against the Bororo People in some Regions of Cameroon.” 24 November, 2020.http://www.cndhl.cm/sites/default/files/Press%20release%20on%20the%20atrocities%20on%20bororo%20people.pdf
Clarke, Catherine. In and Around Cameroon’s Protected Areas: A rights-based analysis of access and resource use agreements between Indigenous Peoples and the State. Moreton-in-Marsh: Forest Peoples Programme, 2019. https://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/default/files/documents/In%20and%20Around%20Cameroons%20Protected%20Areas-ENG-final.pdf
Lewis, Jerome. From Abundance to Scarcity. Contrasting conceptions of the forest in Northern Congo-Brazzaville, and issues for conservation. Presented to the Canadian Anthropology Society, Dalhousie University, 2003.
Lewis, Jerome. “How ‘Sustainable’ Development Ravaged the Congo Basin.” Scientific American, May 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-sustainable-development-ravaged-the-congo-basin/
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“Décret n° 2011/408 du 9 décembre 2011 portant organisation du gouvernement.” 9 December 2011. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=en&p_isn=96928&p_classification=07