The Indigenous World 2022: 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 developments in international law, civil society, Indigenous Peoples 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 major 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 and North 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 favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 but has not ratified ILO Convention 169.
There was no news in 2021 about laws that have undergone reforms for the past decade or two, to which Indigenous Peoples and civil society organizations have contributed and which are of interest to them, such as the Law on Forestry and Wildlife, the Law on Land Tenure, and the Pastoral Code.
In November 2021, a capacity-building workshop was held for staff of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development on promoting human rights in the area of the ministry’s laws, policies, programs and practices with particular regard to women’s and other vulnerable groups’ access to land. The workshop was conducted in partnership with the National Commission for Human Rights and Liberties of Cameroon. During the discussions, when questioned by participants on the fate of the reform of the land tenure law, in which all sectors of society –including Indigenous Peoples– had participated actively through the National Engagement Strategy on Land Engagement (NES), the ministry informed them that it had received the draft law recently from the Presidency of the Republic. The ministry stated that as the Presidency had incorporated comments and observations into the draft law, the policy experts in the field of land tenure at the ministry were currently working on the relevant amendments as instructed. The Cameroon Human Rights Commission expressed interest in being given the opportunity to provide their observations and inputs to the final draft in a bid to ensure that the law respects the basic human rights of all stakeholders.
The Livestock Development Project (PRODEL), funded by the World Bank, had a special component for the Baka people of the East Region of Cameroon to encourage them in small animal breeding.
A call for proposals for the selection of an NGO to implement the project was launched but,due to the complexity of the criteria, many Indigenous organizations did not apply.
The project team implemented the project in many villages, such as Njibot and Missoume in AbongMbang district. The project supported the rearing of poultry, pigs and goats, and the criterion for support was that the person benefiting from the project should have experience in raising animals such as chickens, pigs, goats or bees. Unfortunately, the project was neither very successful nor sustainable and all the animals provided by the project to the Baka people died within a very short period. The project coordinator for the East Region acknowledged their failure at the first attempt and hoped to improve in the future.
The 9th session of the Inter-ministerial Committee on Oversight of Indigenous People’s Projects (CISPAV)
The 9th session of CISPAV took place on 3 August 2021. This was a prelude to the 27th iteration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The main themes of the session were:
- Ownership, by those concerned, of the National Plan for the Development of Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples in Cameroon in order to streamline all actions/programmes/projects involving Indigenous Peoples at the national level.
- Evaluation of the actions taken by various stakeholders.
Participants included government ministries, international organizations, NGOs and Indigenous organizations. The session was presided over by the Minister of Social Affairs, Mrs Pauline Nguene, whose department is in charge of Indigenous Peoples. She is also the President of the Committee. In her opening remarks, she thanked the committee members for their engagement in supporting Indigenous Peoples in their quest for development. She said an evaluation of the situation of Indigenous Peoples in Cameroon was one of the major goals to be achieved through the activities that would follow the launch of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Minister Pauline Nguene was quoted telling the Indigenous Peoples that “you are the principal actors in your development.” The day continued with an evaluation of actions by major stakeholders. The actions implemented in 2021 focused on agriculture, animal rearing, education, income-generating activities, health care services, COVID-19 awareness raising, potable water and obtaining civil registry documents such as birth certificates.
Celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
The 27th International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the 13th time it had been celebrated in Cameroon, was held on 9 August 2021 and presided over by the Minister with responsibility for Indigenous Peoples, Mrs Pauline Nguene, under the theme “A call to revitalize, preserve and promote Indigenous languages around the world.”
Government officials, international development agencies, diplomatic missions and Indigenous Peoples were in attendance. The official ceremony commenced with a welcome speech by the Mayor of Yaounde City, followed by a speech from the Director of UNESCO who spoke about the theme of “Leaving no one behind: Indigenous Peoples and a call for a new social contract.” Minister Pauline Nguene declared the ceremony open after which the most important activity of the day, launched by the minister, was the training of Indigenous youths as ambassadors for peace.
Celebrations for Indigenous Peoples' day continued in the Adamawa, East, Far North, Centre, West and South-West regions under the theme: “A call to revitalize, preserve and promote Indigenous languages around the world.” These celebrations were organized by MBOSCUDA and the forest peoples celebrated in their localities as well. International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples has taken root in Cameroon, and Indigenous Peoples –both the forest peoples and the pastoralists– identify with the day and also use it to showcase their traditions and cultures.
The signing of a MOU between the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife and the Association Sanguia Baka Buma’a Kpode (ASBABUK)
In 2021, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife and the Baka organization, Association Sanguia Baka Buma’a Kpode (ASBABUK). The MOU will allow the Baka communities around Lobéké National Park to access the park and carry out traditional activities for their sustenance. The access given to these particular communities is an exceptional concession made by the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife and it is noteworthy, especially at a time when increased restrictions may have been expected due to the rise in wildlife poaching, for example the killing of eight forest elephants on 9 December 2021 in the Park.
For some years now, the world’s biggest conservation organization, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has been working with the Cameroon Human Rights Commission (CHRC) to humanize their conservation activities as they have come in for virulent criticism from human rights organizations for expropriating and depriving Indigenous Peoples and local communities of the basis of their livelihoods.
Benefit-sharing from the revenues of the communal forests
In Cameroon, the Law on Forestry and Wildlife recognizes three forms of forests: community forests, communal forests and large forest concessions for industries.
The communal forests and community forests require a participatory management approach in addition to a forest management plan, which has to be submitted by the management (Mayors) of the localities where these forests are located and who are responsible for the management of these forests. The mayors are elected every five years and most definitely need the votes of the local communities and Indigenous Peoples to win or remain in office.
After many years of advocacy by human rights organizations, as well as national and international development organizations, for the inclusion of the Indigenous forest peoples in the benefit-sharing of revenues derived from the communal forests and community forests, some advances were observed in 2021 in terms of involving the Indigenous forest peoples in decision-making and benefit-sharing. This is as a direct result of the 2020 municipal elections, which saw the Baka peoples of the East Region gain deputy mayors and advisers in the local councils at the very least. These elected persons are now advocating at their respective council decision-making levels for their rights to the revenues deriving from the community forests as well as other rights. The Baka of Missoume village now have a Baka councillor who is a woman.
Nevertheless, the impact of such actions is not yet particularly visible when you visit the communities. There is hence a need to build the capacity of the elected councillors and the elites who advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples and communities so that they can negotiate for more consistent projects that could impact positively on the lives of the community as a whole.
Human rights violations in 2021
Human rights violations continued to be rampant in Indigenous communities in 2021. In AbongMbang district, where the African Indigenous Women’s Organization (AIWO) is working in partnership with the Cameroon Human Rights Commission, human right abuses were noted in terms of the Bantu village of Madouma dominating and imposing restrictions of movement on all the Baka villages south of the Bantu village. The Bantu village has established an illegal control point at which every person from the Baka villages or even visitors are stopped, identified and searched by the chief of the Bantu village and his notables. This illegal checkpoint starts operating at 5am and remains until dusk while the authorities look on. During a sensitization meeting in the Baka village of Missoume Nkouamb, community members said that they felt like dead people because of what they undergo in the form of domination and subjugation by the Madouma chieftaincy.
There are a great deal of natural resources such as wood and white sand in Missoume village but the Baka have no right to exploit them. The people from the dominant Bantu village are those who benefit from the natural resources.
Another human rights violation reported was the murder, in April 2021, of a Baka man from Njibot village by a Bantu man from Ntimbe II, a neighboring village, on the road to the town of Lomie. The Baka man, named Ambouleme, was allegedly beaten to death because he refused to help carry the goods of his murderer. The case was reported to the security forces by the chief and other notables from Njibot, while the corpse was put in the mortuary of the district hospital. The inhabitants of both Njibot and Ntimbe II know the alleged culprit, who had enough time to escape to another nearby locality called Lomié. Nevertheless, the security forces refused to carry out an investigation into the matter and arrest him.
The brother of the deceased thought the corpse had been retained by the judicial authorities but when AIWO and the Cameroon Human Rights Commission visited the District Attorney General, he was surprised that the security services had never reported a murder case to him. He called the commander of the security services, in the presence of AIWO and the Cameroon Human Rights Commission, ordered a full investigation into the murder and asked for an autopsy to be carried out. Through the intervention of the Cameroon Human Right Commission, the corpse was handed over to the family and the illegal control point has now been dismantled. Acting to resolve this matter through several letters written to the administrative authorities (Divisional officers, Governors, etc.) of the region where this incident occurred, the Chair of the Cameroon Human Rights Commission raised the issue of the autonomy of Baka villages such as Njibot and Missoume Nkouamb.
During the course of 2021, a Baka lady from Njibot community by the name of Efandjo Sabine was killed by a timber truck in a hit-and-run incident. The truck was identified as belonging to a timber transportation company known as Jino et Fils. She was killed near Ndibot village, on the highway to nearby Lomié district. The driver did not stop but fled the scene and the case has been left pending ever since with no progress made in terms of investigations or prosecutions.
In a bid to eliminate the abusive domination of the Baka by the surrounding Bantu communities, AIWO and the Cameroon Human Rights Commission were informed after their visit to these communities that the Divisional Officer would be carrying out regular working visits to the villages concerned with a view to demarcating the villages of the Baka peoples so as to limit any form of territorial ambiguity and intrusion by the Bantu.
The above action can be said to be a direct result of advocacy by the
Pygmies Concerted Action Research Network [Réseau Recherches Actions Concertées Pygmées] (RACOPY) network of hunter-gatherers and the Baka Gbabanj Association, through their joint projects in 2021 for the effective participation of forest peoples in decision-making, especially in affairs that concern them. Through these concerted actions, they have advocated for the creation of Baka villages with recognized traditional chieftaincies and secondary civil status registration centers whose role is to facilitate the registration of births, deaths and marriages in the communities.
The Baka in the South and East Regions now have some four officially-recognized villages whose chieftaincies are recognized by the administration as third class chieftaincies.
Insecurity in the North-West, South-West and East regions and in the three Northern regions of Cameroon
Insecurity remained a preoccupation in the North-West, South-West and East regions and in the three Northern regions of Cameroon throughout 2021.
In the North-West and South-West regions, there were serious confrontations between the defense and security forces and the different factions of armed groups claiming secession, and the costs were high in terms of lives lost, especially among the defense and security forces and government officials, particularly teachers.
School children were not spared as could be seen from the barbaric shooting of children in the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy Secondary School in Kumba in October 2021, where seven children were left dead and many more injured, shocking the country to its roots.
Schools in the two regions remained closed in 2021 in many rural localities. Although schools are open in the major cities of the regions, the smooth running of the academic year has nevertheless still been negatively impacted much of the time by long curfews, often imposed by both of the opposing parties involved in the armed conflict.
Movements are highly limited in the two regions, particularly because of the declaration by the secessionists of days known as “Ghost town days”. This means that the population is warned and ordered to stay indoors on those days. Disobeying these orders has led to people losing their lives and is used by the secessionists as one of their main methods of operation in the ongoing conflict.
In 2021, Mbororo children continued to be the victims of school closures, especially in remote, isolated areas with difficult access. Cattle markets were likewise affected (closed) because of the imposed “Ghost town days”. In addition to the closure of the cattle markets on such days, cattle owned in particular by the Indigenous Mbororo peoples are also regularly seized on their way to market.
The story is much the same in the Northern regions. The pastoralists are losing their livelihood base, i.e. their cattle, through kidnapping, ransom taking and killings. The media and the authorities talk little about these very serious problems.
The ransoms demanded of Mbororo pastoralists by the kidnappers (who are difficult to identify or categorize particularly due to the porous borders with Chad and the Central African Republic) range from 15 million to 60 million francs cfa (FCFA). A cattle owner will need to sell some 100 to 150 cows to pay the ransom, and this happens on a daily basis. These heavy sums are impoverishing the Mbororo pastoralists and they are often losing their lives. The question that must be asked is: where are the people with responsibility for keeping their citizens and their property safe?
Indigenous Peoples and the COVID-19 pandemic
In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, although not officially declared at an end, there was a remarkable reduction in the number of recorded infections and deaths related to COVID-19 in the country and across all communities in 2021.
With this current trend, and in a bid to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic n Indigenous communities, a workshop involving representatives from different Indigenous communities was organized in August 2021 by AIWO, and the following conclusions were reached:
- The restrictive measures such as curfews put in place by the government caused major problems for the lifestyle of the Indigenous Peoples.
- The pandemic and the restrictive measures led to a noted increase in the level of abuse in Indigenous communities on the part of the local administrative authorities who sometimes imposed unofficial curfews and exaggeratedly fined Indigenous individuals - even physically attacking those who were not wearing their masks or respecting the government measures in place.
- The Indigenous communities were unable to bury their dead in accordance with their cultural, religious and traditional rites, which is very important to them.
- The pandemic led to an increased interest in traditional Indigenous medicine.
- COVID-19 support did not reach all the Indigenous communities, especially those living in remote areas, as many Indigenous people do. It was mainly those in urban areas and in easily accessible rural areas with a considerable population that benefited from the support provided.
Hawe Hamman Bouba is Commissioner for Human Rights at the Cameroon Human Rights Commission. She is an expert member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and Minorities in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and she is Executive President of the African Indigenous Woman Organisation Central African Network (AIWO-CAN).
This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here
Notes and references
 The concerns of Indigenous Peoples are examined within the framework of the Inter-ministerial Committee on Oversight of Indigenous People’s Projects (CISPAV). CISPAV was set up in 2013 to meet the need to coordinate and harmonise all the actions of various stakeholders involved in the promotion and protection of socially vulnerable people, including Indigenous Peoples.
 Poissonnet, Mikaël et Guillaume Lescuyer. “Aménagement forestier et participation : quelles leçons tirer des forêts communales du Cameroun ?” VertigO 6 : 2 (2005). https://doi.org/10.4000/vertigo.4290
 WWF Cameroon. “A new dawn for Baka as first chief is installed in South Cameroon.” June 2, 2021. https://cameroon.panda.org/?34722/A-new-dawn-for-Baka-as-first-chief-is-installed-in-South-Cameroon