Early adopters: Africa’s hunter-gatherer Pygmies go hi-tech to combat loggers

If you were asked to rank the peoples of the world in terms of their enthusiasm for the things of the 21st century, it is a fair bet that Singaporeans, Japanese, the coastal-dwelling communities of America and perhaps Scandinavians would be near the top of your list. Groups like the Amish, Afghanistan’s Taliban, the nomads of the Sahara and the creationists of the American interior are likely to be somewhat further down.

Compared with the hunter-gatherer Pygmies of the Congo Basin, however, these latter groups are novelty fetishists. Said Pygmies not only spurn such commonplace phenomena of the modern world as farming, villages or towns, and houses; they also get by perfectly well without reading, writing, or ever venturing out of their rainforest home. They are, you could be forgiven for thinking, the Luddite’s Luddites.

But in a paper published last March, the anthropologist Jerome Lewis showed a different side to a people who at first glance appear so stick-in-the-mud. The paper is worth reading in full for its exposé of how it is not just rapacious logging companies but also conservationists who are destroying the Pygmies’ traditional way of life, but its most arresting passages describe how these forest-dwellers have embraced modern technology to combat the threats they face.

Logging tramples on the Pygmies’ sacred sites, destroys their favoured campsite locations, and removes vital hunting and gathering grounds (the fencing off of national parks to protect the forests from the loggers has a similar effect). Rates of malnutrition among Pygmies have increased since African governments, in attempting to alleviate poverty at a national level, made it easier for loggers to strip the forests. ‘We who are older notice that all that was in the forest before is getting less,’ complained a Pygmy elder interviewed by Lewis. ‘We used to always find things – yams, pigs and many other things. We thought that would never end. Now when we look we can’t find them any more.’

To counter these blights, the Baka Pygmies of Cameroon and their Mbendjele counterparts in Congo, assisted by a handful of local and international NGOs, have adopted a novel solution. The advent of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology had initially weakened their control over strangers who entered their territory – GPS units with receivers that could work under the forest canopy meant that non-forest people no longer needed Pygmies to guide them. But they are now turning the technology to their advantage. Complaining to the authorities about what was happening to their customary hunting grounds had got them nowhere, but showing forestry officials, conservationists and logging firms maps of how they use the forest and of the trails and places that are important to them has proved much more effective, and in some cases has prompted the abandonment of plans that would have appropriated Pygmy land. The maps, as Jerome Lewis notes, ‘have been able to show in a concise and precise way the hunter-gatherers’ forest use and spiritual values in a format that is easier to incorporate in high level management planning.’

Companies seeking Forest Stewardship Council certification, which promotes responsible forest management by logging firms, have taken the lead in this area and encouraged Pygmy communities to chart their territories using handheld GPS devices. Since users are non-literate, the mapping software contained in the devices relies on icons rather than words or numbers. A man with a spear represents hunting areas, for example, and a group of people symbolises social and religious resources. Jerome Lewis, who helped develop the software, explains how it works:

A woman wishing to protect a sacred tree walks to the tree and presses the touch screen icon of people grouped together. This takes her to a screen showing three community and cultural resource items that people were concerned to protect. She chooses ‘sacred places’ by pressing on the icon of Ejengi, an important forest spirit. This takes her to the third screen where she can choose between the sacred path and the sacred tree. She presses on the icon of the sacred tree and the GPS unit makes a ‘beep’ to inform her that the point has been saved to the hard-drive.

Data was automatically registered with location and type of resource on the hard-drive and could be transferred by blue-tooth or cable to a suitably configured laptop, even deep in the forest, in less than a minute.

The resulting maps, generated by a number of different individuals, are then discussed and agreed on by the community as a whole before being presented to interested parties. The logging firm Congolaise Industrielle du Bois, for example, which operates on Mbendjele territory in northern Congo, integrated the locations geo-referenced by the Pygmies into maps showing the planned cutting schedule. Every resource the Mbendjele wanted to preserve has been removed from the cutting schedule, and marked with paint so that forestry workers know it is to be spared the axe.

Similar schemes are being developed to enable Pygmy communities to monitor illegal logging and poaching, and to maintain their access to national parks. The results often surprise – mapping by Baka communities in two national parks in south-eastern Cameroon  showed strong overlap between their traditional forests and areas used by chimpanzees and gorillas. This convinced the government and park managers that Baka customary use is both sustainable and compatible with conservation, and indeed, as Lewis reports, that ‘the main threat to biodiversity is the erosion of traditional practices, top-down planning and commercial bushmeat exploitation by outsiders.’ The World Wildlife Fund has responded to the findings by committing to protect the Baka’s rights in management plans for the parks.

Of course, serious threats remain to the Pygmies’ way of life. Not all logging companies are interested in certification schemes or in forest-dwellers’ rights. Governments, too, remain keener to reap the rewards of logging contracts than to protect a people many see as an anachronistic embarrassment. But in bypassing reading and writing and leapfrogging directly to GPS mapping, the Pygmies have acquired a powerful weapon in their struggle, and shown too that they are not averse to borrowing from the new to preserve the old.