A planning mission to Cameroon's community forests by the CoNGOs project team found the Baka people brimming with business ideas, but needing a little help from their friends.
The road from Lomié to Djoum in Southeast Cameroon is red and rutted. It is known as the Dja circuit, and completing the circuitous route takes over eight hours in a 4x4.
Along the road's dusty-red forest edges are Baka communities (formerly called Pygmies). Most live in red clay houses, although some still prefer the traditional móngulu huts with their cavernous leaf domes.
For more than 20 years, a range of NGOs friendly to the Baka people have helped them fight for their land rights. Many communities now have secure 'community forest' areas under Cameroon's forest law (although the land area under community control is still only 1.18 per cent of the country's total).
Having fought hard to secure traditional tenure – a fight that continues – many Baka communities are asking 'what next?'. How can they work with their forests to improve their lives?
Wanting to discuss exactly that issue was our team from the IIED-led project CoNGOs (NGOs collaborating for equitable and sustainable community livelihoods in Congo Basin Forests).
The project involves 18 NGO partners across five Congo Basin countries and aims to push forward secure forest tenure while delivering sustainable business opportunities for local forest people.
We were lucky to catch the leaders of the Baka community of Nomedjoh just outside Lomié. They were just about to head into the forest for several weeks to teach youths how to hunt in the dry season.
Hearing about Baka business ideas
Before departing – with broad smiles and the help of a dynamic translator – they shared their range of business ideas.
We heard about their hope to get more income from direct sales of selectively cut timber (rather than losing most of the value to intermediaries). We heard about their aspirations to develop businesses based on the processing and sale of a profusion of edible, cosmetic or medicinal plants – non-timber forest products (NTFPs).
But, they explained, market access is a serious constraint: these communities are a very long way from high-end markets found in bustling urban centres such as Yaounde. Despite the forests' rich resources and the Baka people's entrepreneurial spirit, financial poverty remains widespread.
But the Baka people are indomitable lions – like the famous Cameroon football team. They survive, and with skill and dynamism seek to preserve and enhance their way of life.
To the north of Lomié some 26 communities have organised the Simplified Cooperative Associations of Community Forests of Kadey (SCOOPS- FCTBK), with a timber processing centre now selling internationally, through a company called 'Camwood'.
To the southwest, eight groups of women have started to sell high-quality products from NTFPs in both export and local markets through the intermediary company 'Tropical Forest – Food and Cosmetics'. These include cosmetic products such as butter and oil from the Moabi timber tree (Baillonella toxisperma) or crushed seedcake for cooking sauce from the bush mango tree (Irvingia gabonensis).
To the southeast, communities have set up the Coopérative Agro Forestière de la Trinationale and are experimenting with a range of turned wood products such as pens and drink coasters.
Each of these enterprises must organise community harvesting groups and link them with processing centres, transport and marketing services. The groups require skills in market analysis, meeting quality standards, financial accounting, negotiating, organisational development, risk management, and logistics to name just a few.
It quickly becomes clear why these ventures need a helping hand, and in each of the above examples, valuable support has been provided by an NGO.
It is here that CoNGOs offers real promise. Linking regional NGOs that have historically mapped and advocated for rights with NGOs that are more business-minded will create a network of practitioners.
The NGOs can train these budding entrepreneurs in market analysis and business development. They can arrange peer-to-peer exchanges to see successful business models in action. They can broker crucial market links.
Critically, this practitioners' network can use its practical experience of trying to make community forest business work to inform government of what needs to change.
And there is much that needs to change! Government processes to claim rights, register businesses and check transport between production and market are torturously bureaucratic (to use the polite vernacular).
Similar market obstacles in other countries where CoNGO works (the Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, DRC and Gabon) give rise to the opportunity to fight for fair treatment of forest communities across the region.
It's time to give the Baka and other forest peoples a helping hand, and let these indomitable lions roar towards their goal: better livelihoods and more sustainable forests.