Friday, May 30, 2014

Land Rights: Bagyeli Pymies Decry Dispossession

(NewsWatch Cameroon)--Evicted from their ancestral land and consigned to a resettlement camp, the Bagyeli Pygmies of Bissiang situated some 30km south of Kribi in the Ocean division of the South region of Cameroon are decrying mistreatment.
A typical Bagyeli home in the forest of Bissiang
They blame agro industrial giant HEVECAM which they claim has been illegally operating on their ancestral land for the past two years for their plight.
The forest they lived in before was given to a timber firm forcing them to migrate to their current site.
After 30 years in the Bissiang forest, the land was leased to rubber producer HEVECAM which began operations activities in 2012.
Access to the Bagyeli community has since become difficult because entrance has to be authorized by the concession holder.
The community mainly hunts unprotected animal species and harvests non timber forest products which they sell to neighbouring Bantu communities, says Albert, the community head.
Getting alternative sources of living is almost impossible, he adds.
Their lives, they say, are in danger as the forest phases out because the rubber production company is keeps felling trees.
On the sidelines of a recent land rights reporting training workshop in Kribi, organized by US-based Rights and Resources Institute (RRI) together with a coalition of its Cameroon partners, this reporter and some colleagues visited the Bagyeli community in their forest habitat.
Some Journalists from Cameroon, DRC, Mali and USA
attending a workshop on land rights reporting in Kribi
“We lived in the forest there, when the government handed the forest to a timber firm, we were forced to move into this area. The government again gave the land to HEVECAM and we were forced to move again but to where?”questions the community head.
The head of the Bagyelis of Bissiang lamented that they can’t earn any income as their activities have been disrupted with their settlement.
Ngo Bell Elise, HEVECAM Hygiene, Security and Environment official argued that HEVECAM does not own the land.
She said the land had been leased to the multinational for a given period which may be renewed or terminated at the end of the project period.
Ngo who had earlier denied reporters access into the concession said she was not authorized to state the specific number of hectares and the lease period in the agreement.
She explained that according to the agreement, the indigenous people had to be resettled.
A resettlement camp was thus chosen by a follow up committee of the of the terms of reference binding the indigenous people of Bissiang and HEVECAM. The follow up committee comprised representatives of the indigenous people, HEVECAM and the government of Cameroon, she said.
Though still in the forest, the Bagyelis think the resettlement camp does not suit their initial forest home.
In their environmental impact assessment, Ngo said HEVECAM pledged to protect the forest, provide social amenities to the indigenous people and “today we are building the resettlement camp, we will provide bore holes and farms and teach them how to practice agriculture” she said.
After threatening, Madam Ngo Elise explains to journalists what
HEVECAM has done to better lives of Bagyelis

Relationship with other communities

The closest community to the Bagyelis is the Bantus-another group of indigenous people. But the relationship between the Bagyelis and the Bantus has not been always cordial.
“Bantus force us to sell our hunted animals to them at very cheap rates whereas food they sell to us is very expensive.”
The head of the Bagyeli Pygmy community explained that it is common for Bantus to buy a big animal from a Bagyeli for just CFA 250 Frs but when a Bagyeli wants to buy ‘batong’ (a cassava derivative) they ask him to pay 1000Frs.
However, given that Bagyelis are few in Bissiang, they get married to Bantus. Agnes aka Mapouka, a Bagyeli mother of one says “we don’t marry within our community as were are all blood relations, our husbands are Bantus.”
Though a forest people, the Bagyelis know there are politicians from that area as well as the government. “We know the senator, but other people we don’t know.”

New Lifestyle, Brighter Future

With a new settlement camp under construction, the Bagyelis will have to adopt a new lifestyle when they finally settle.
The community head who looked edgy said their way of life is now very different.
Albert said they have lost their values but was optimistic that it would not continue when they finally settle on the resettlement camp.
“We will still be going to the forest for our customary activities before coming back to the camp when we finally settle here,” he said.
The Bagyelis have very little knowledge about land titles and land ownership.
“Our parents did not teach us anything about land titles, so we just own the land; women and men own land here,” says the village head.
HEVECAM has however promised to give them land ownership permits when construction of the resettlement camp is completed.
The land grab problem faced by the Bagyeli community is just one of many that local communities in Cameroon and around Africa face due to land leases to either agro industrials or forest exploitation companies.
In the Southwest region of Cameroon for example, the population of Nguti is still seething with rage after 73 hectares of their land was leased to American agro industrial company Herakles Farms through its Cameroon subsidiary, Seith Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SG SOC) Ltd.
Experts say the sufferings these indigenous communities go through is as a result of the weak land and forestry laws that fail to protect indigenous communities.
Resettlement camp of the Bagyelis, constructed by HEVECAM
Samuel Nguiffo, secretary general of the Centre for Environment and Development (CED) Cameroon thinks that “rather than giving away land and resources to companies to the detriment of their citizens, African governments -Cameroon included- must respect the rights of citizens and let them negotiate with investors on their own terms. And the companies themselves should be asking who owns the land they obtain on such good terms”.
Indigenous people who live and depend on the forest could in the nearer future enjoy their rights.
The government has announced that forestry reforms will be produced by the end of the year to replace the obsolete two-decade old forestry law currently in use.
The Minister of Forestry and wildlife, Ngole Philip Ngwesse announced during an international workshop recently in Buea that the new forest law will better preserve Cameroon’s rich forests and the communities that depend on them.
The Buea meeting that was organized by the Rights and Resources Institute, focused on forest tenure, governance, policy and regulation.
It is hoped that when the new law is eventually put in place, indigenous forest people will heave sighs of relief.

By Ndi Eugene Ndi, back from Bissiang

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