“The Forest Used To Be For The Baka, But Not Anymore” [1]

by Will Silcox, 2nd year anthropology undergraduate at the University of Exeter


The idea of symbiosis between society and the environment is often portrayed as an unreachable goal in the UK. Dependence on fossil fuels for transport, single use plastic, and intensively farmed crops and livestock can feel like almost inescapable parts of life in the UK. This misuse of our surroundings takes place on a mass scale, meaning many do not have any direct involvement with how our actions impact our surroundings (often in the UK, our actions do not impact our surroundings, but the surroundings of others). We exonerate ourselves from these acts because we do not directly destroy our environment, we simply buy a ready meal, buy a takeaway coffee, drive to work. This psychology is undoubtedly responsible for many environmental shortfalls in the UK. In the upcoming Nomads: Homes on the Move exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), people are invited to explore alternative ways of living from around the world. While appreciating these lifeways, we also aim to illustrate how they are under threat by Western colonial conservation projects.


Baka photo

A Baka man seated by a campfire. © Gordon Clarke, Institute of Nomadic Architecture.


For the Baka of SW Cameroon in Central Africa, how they interact with their environment is not a by-product of their actions but an essential part of it. Their interactions with the forest are direct. Because of this, they are more in tune with how their actions impact the forest. In order to maintain a balance with the forest ecosystem, they have developed a low intensity way of living which allows plants and animals to survive. Respect for their forest spirit Jengi means that the Baka follow a strict forest code (Survival International, 2019a). When picking wild yams, they leave part of the root remaining so that the plant has the best opportunity to grow back. This, coupled with a culture of sharing resources prevents overhunting of the native animals. Although the Baka visit areas of land more than once, they do not intensively focus on one area to the detriment of the land like western intensive plant and animal farming might. The Baka are dependent on the forest for food and medicine and they protect the forest because it is the core of their livelihood (Survival International, 2019a).


Romanticised notions of “nature” untouched by humans, are contributing to an increasingly distant binary between “nature” and “culture” (Ingold, 2000). A number of wildlife conservation projects have fallen foul of this way of thinking and to some, the Baka are seen as a threat to the “pristine” environment and the Baka’s traditional practices of hunting are seen as poaching. In southeast Cameroon much of the Baka’s ancestral land has either been designated as national parks (Boumba Bek, Nki and Lobeke) or given to safari hunting companies in a bid to conserve the wildlife. The Baka have lost their rights to it.


dwelling construction

Baka women building a new hut from forest materials. © Gordon Clarke, Institute of Nomadic Architecture


A cynic might wonder, “If a nomad does not have a home to begin with, why they can’t just find another area to live. Isn’t that the point?” Unfortunately for some of the Baka, being forced out of their native forests has left many on the roadsides without access to vital resources.


By living on the roadside, some of the Baka are exposed to more sunlight. Obtaining optimum UV levels is a balancing act. Too little and our bodies are unable to produce healthy levels of vitamin D, an ingredient that strengthens bones and aids absorption of minerals, such as iron, calcium and magnesium. Conversely, too much UV can cause premature aging of the skin, eye problems such as cataracts, a weakened immune system and a variety of types of cancers (ACS, 2015). Over generations, humans living at the Sun-saturated latitudes in Africa such as the Baka have adapted to higher levels of UV. However, the overlapping branches of the forest create canopies which block sunlight and limit harmful levels of UV radiation.


Baka dwelling construction 2

Baka men and women processing leaves with their knives. These maranta leaves (Megaphynium macrostachyum) will be used to create a protective wall on the new hut. © Gordon Clarke, Institute of Nomadic Architecture


Being forced out of the forest means the Baka now have a less diverse diet, they risk contracting malaria and other harmful diseases, and worse still, are unable to access medicinal plants from the forest to help treat the ailments they have. This drastic change in their natural way of life has turned many towards alcohol:


Now we are falling ill because of the change in our diet. Our skin doesn’t like the sun and life in the village. In the forest we are healthy and put on weight. Now no one has any muscles, everyone looks ill. We are forced to drink to forget our troubles” – Atono, Baka man (taken from Survival International 2019b)


This quote allows us to reflect on those peoples whose lifeways have been radically transformed by wildlife conservation projects into ones which damages their mental and physical health. Traditions such as molongo (going deep into the forest to hunt) is strictly forbidden by anti-poachers (Survival International, 2019a). Worse still, the Baka face violent repercussions if they venture back into their ancestral land for food or medicine:


“We came across the anti-poaching squad on a main road. They wanted to get information by torturing us. They beat a pregnant woman with a machete. They tackled me and I fell to the floor. They made us crawl on our knees for a great distance. Then they made us run as they followed us on their motorbikes, for more than a kilometer.” Modala – Baka man (taken from Survival International 2019b)


Conflicts between the Baka and anti-poachers spawn from incompatibilities between views on colonial conservation strategies and the African moral economy (Neumann, 1998). There is an inconsistency in this context between “hunting” and “poaching” which is one of the many factors influencing this conflict. The Baka are living on their ancestral land in the only way they know how, while local National Park advocates (supported by Western colonial conservationists) want to conserve the plants and non-human animals that exist inside the forest. The Baka, like many other forest dwelling tribes therefore present a perceived threat to the conservation of biodiversity of the forests despite their conservational way of life (Brockington, 2002). There are scattered reports of some members of the Baka poaching and this has no doubt worsened the conflict between the “Eco Guards” of the new national parks and the Baka. Resource conflicts such as these are often governed by state policies, which prohibit local people from accessing natural resources in protected areas (Hitchcock, 1995; Peluso, 1993).


dwelling construction 3

A Baka woman applies maranta leaves to the hut’s frame by pegging them horizontally into place. These overlapping leaves provide a safe water-proof boundary from the forest environment. © Gordon Clarke, Institute of Nomadic Architecture


Ade Adepitan visited the Baka for a Channel 4 documentary [2] on the issue (aired in May 2019). This direct (albeit brief) visit gave a much needed voice to the Baka. In one scene a Baka man was seen complaining about some elephant tracks as many plants had been trampled. Elephants are seen by some of the Baka as a pest as they have the potential to flatten parts of the rainforest which can ruin crops and homes in the process. This seemingly insignificant fact provides an effective example of the differences between western conservation efforts and the Baka. If elephants are seen as a pest by some members of the Baka, and seen as an endangered species by conservationists, and if this difference is unaddressed by both parties, then a proverbial breeding ground for conflict is created.


Baka hut complete

This Baka hut was completed several weeks ago, and has been lived in since. Soon, it will be time for the family to move onto land that is traditionally considered their own. © Gordon Clarke, Institute of Nomadic Architecture


The “Nomads” exhibition at the RAMM aims to understand the nomadic way of life through their temporary dwellings. Namely, how nomadic structures are constructed and why they exist. In doing so we can begin to understand how temporary dwellings intersect other areas of life (e.g. hunting and gathering). Building a richer understanding of groups such as the Baka and their lifeways will no doubt provide a step towards the solution to the conflicts they face. In turn, it is hoped that a richer understanding will be used by conservation projects in a way that restricts the poaching of endangered animals but impacts on the Baka’s traditional lifeways as little as possible.


[1] Survival International 2019 – southeast Cameroon

[2]Unreported World (aired May 2019) – Forest of Fear


American Cancer Society, 2015 – Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation

Brockington, D. (2002). Fortress conservation: The preservation of the Mkomazi game reserve, Tanzania. Oxford: James Currey.

Glory M. Lueong, 2017 – The Forest People without a Forest: development paradoxes, belonging and participation of the Baka in east Cameroon. New York NY and Oxford: Berghahn Books (hb US $90/ £64 – 978 1 78533 380 4). 2017, 218 pp.

Hitchcock, R. (1995). Centralization, resource depletion, and coercive conservation among the Tyua of the Northeastern Kalahari. Human Ecology, 23, 169e198.

Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge Jacobs, A. (1975). Maasai pastoralism

Neumann, R. (1998). Imposing wilderness: Struggles over livelihood and nature preservation in Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Peluso, N. (1993). Coercing conservation: the politics of state resource control. Global Environmental Change, 3, 199e217.

Survival International 2019a – southeast Cameroon

Survival International 2019b – bakamessokdja