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A Tale of Two Worlds - Why an Ancient Tribe's Quest to Save Its Forest and Identity Is Our Problem, Too

17/09/2013 15:58 BST | Updated 17/11/2013 10:12 GMT

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Jane takes a picture of Noel in a mongulu, the traditional leaf dwelling of the Bakas. There is a mongulu in the settlement where Noel lives, to remind children how their ancestors lived

WHILE doing my job I meet plenty of extraordinary people, but it's rare that an interviewee makes me stop in my tracks. The last time it happened was in June in the middle of the central African rainforest, beneath a tree known for delivering a fruit known as the 'Oxo cube of the forest'. My microphone amplified the silence and sounds into my headphones; bees buzzing, birds whooping, strange rustlings in the undergrowth and the inexplicable cracks and shivers of the forest canopy. Noel, a Baka elder, was telling me how important this place is to his tribe of pygmies, who have been nomadic hunter-gatherers in eastern Cameroon for centuries.

"We're born in the forest, we're its guardians," said Noel. "When I go into the forest I don't need anything, just my head and my sense of direction. The forest is our supermarket and our pharmacy. When I'm in the forest I have my natural air conditioning; I'm neither too hot nor too cold, I'm comfortable. The flowers and plants that grow in abundance in the forest give me the oxygen I need, and it cleanses me. That's why I love it here."

Perhaps it was Noel's words mixed with the sounds of this extravagantly beautiful place that so touched me; perhaps the sadness in his tone as we talked about the loggers who are cutting down the rainforest here at a rate of 2000 square kilometres a year; perhaps just the fact that when asked about the forest, this elemental man could speak so elegantly of the environment where he was born. After our forest walk, Noel accompanied me back to the roadside where, like the majority of the 75,000 other Bakas currently living in Cameroon, his community has abandoned the nomadic lifestyle of their parents and settled.

"It will take a lot to get youth to return to the old life," Noel told me. "The ancient customs tend to get lost when we live along the road. We have radios, televisions, music and we follow the media; the young people no longer want to live as before."

The story of the Baka is a difficult one, encompassing poverty, discrimination and impending loss of identity. It's a tale of two worlds colliding; of the arguably necessary modernisation of an ancient people and its inevitable side effects. On the one hand, the Baka are losing their forest to logging companies that now have government rights to the land. On the other, as Noel says, the Baka 'can't stay in the forest forever'. I feel as though the tribe is in flux; clinging to its ancient traditions, desperate to save its ancestral forest, yet trying to embrace a brand new lifestyle that seems to bring with it more vices than advantages. Meanwhile, the world carries on as usual, oblivious to the destruction of the world's second largest rainforest and the plight of its people.

The reality is that this self-sufficient tribe is ill-equipped for the modern world. Bakas know nothing of contemporary monetary or agricultural systems, and tribe members have few means to buy the food, clothes, healthcare and schooling that make a modern lifestyle functional. There is still resistance to the idea of sending children to school; after all, the traditional hunter-gatherer culture means a young boy will prove himself by climbing a tree for honey, not by reading a book. It will take time for the message on education to take root.

Young people want to embrace the modern way of life, but face endemic discrimination. I was shocked to hear that many Bantu - the majority tribe of Cameroon - consider the Baka to be 'sub-human'. Chillingly, many Bantu treat the Baka as 'just objects', putting them to work in their cocoa plantations as though they are slaves. Bantu children tease Baka kids mercilessly. In Noel's community there's just one boy and one girl who have made it to secondary school. In contrast to Noel's haunting prose, the majority of Bakas I meet are barely articulate. Teenage mothers abound in the Baka communities; many young girls have been seduced by older Bantu men and then abandoned to fend for themselves. All have left school early to look after their babies. The girls I spoke to shrugged, resigned. It's a common problem. There are loads of us, said one.

I was shocked too by the lorries loaded with wood that rattled by. It's hard to believe that the Bakas' precious forest is bleeding out of Cameroon on these trucks that wend their way along the pristine N1 highway to the port of Douala. The statistics say it all: in 2007 more than 600,000 square kilometres (30%) of Central African forest was already under logging concessions, whereas just 12% was protected, according to Science magazine. In Cameroon, 48% of the total 212,306sq kilometres of forest has been allocated to logging concessions.

I was shocked by the empty blue packets of 'Officer Vodka' scattered on the forest floor near every Baka settlement, stark against the red earth, bearing the slogan 'A taste of good times' and the picture of a peaked officer's hat with a Soviet star on. Alcoholism is a problem for the Baka; many drink to pass the time, but nowadays they've progressed from traditional palm wine to hard commercial spirits, although I didn't get to the bottom of how they can afford to buy these little sachets of alcohol.

Elders worry that the Baka way of life will die out as young people are seduced by modern attractions. Even the ancient Baka religion, based on mystical legends of forest spirits, is under siege by missionaries distributing bibles translated into the Baka language and wind-up audio devices loaded with biblical manifestos. One of the more surprising encounters of the afternoon was the Seventh Adventist missionary women, two Canadians, who wandered around Noel's community.

Noel believes it's education that will change things for the Baka, and he has worked with the charity Plan International to install a school and teachers in Mayos. "It's globalisation," he told me. "Now we're at the edge of the road, we've the opportunity to fight and to evolve our current lifestyle. School changes the community because it's the first door of knowledge for children; we believe that education can change our future."

A programme by Plan aims to get Baka children into primary school, forge solid livelihoods via sustainable agricultural skills, raise awareness on rights matters and help with birth certification to give children more legal rights. In essence, it advocates that a balance is needed between helping the tribe fight for their rights to the forest and retain their culture and helping them adapt and deal with the modern world. There are many people trying to help the Baka, but I believe Plan's approach is a solid one, for it's pretty clear that education is one of the things that can help the Baka lift themselves from poverty, find a voice and fight back.

It's a shame that no-one's listening to the Baka right now, for this is our problem too. Out in the middle of that great rainforest, you can see the gaps in the trees where the canopy once was, you can hear the crack and groan of trees being felled in the distance and you can feel the forest shiver as they drop. When you hear this, it becomes hard to stand by and leave the Baka to worry about Africa's forest disappearing. I'd venture that Noel's intricate knowledge of this environment would be worth several political brains at the G8. For now, I guess it's just me who stopped in my tracks as he spoke:

"The gift of biodiversity is ours at the moment, but if we lose it, it won't be just that we lose the animals and the plants; us humans will suffer as well. We're seeing great changes at the moment; look at, for example, the discussions about climate change. I can tell you that there are rivers here whose beds are drying up, and this has never happened before. Nowadays we can't eat wild mangoes as we used to in the dry season, because they don't grow like they used to. These are just some of the changes happening due to the destruction of the forest."