Babongo and Mitsogho peoples depicted their spatial knowledge on a locally made 3D model encompassing the northern fringes of the Waka National Park in the commune of Ikobey in Ngounié province in south-central Gabon. The mapped area includes a total of 13 villages populated by Babongo (people derogatorily termed “pygmies”) and their close relatives, the Mitsogho. After a preparation lasting several months, the participatory mapping exercise unfolded over a period of 10 days and resulted in a valuable self-confidence building and empowerment process whereby the participants were able to prove and communicate to outsiders the profound knowledge of the environment they live in.
Exposed to outside forces and authorities, the Babongo are struggling to retain their identity and traditional institutions. When living in the jungle, their hunting skills and knowledge of fauna and flora are unmatched. When exposed to the cash economy or drawn outside the forest, the Babongo risk losing not only their most valuable skills but also their own sense of history, culture and identity (BBC, 2008).
The Babongo are hunter-gatherers and live substantially off wild resources in the forest. They usually hunt using wire traps, nets, bows and arrows or guns, often loaned from Bantu neighbours in return for a portion of the valuable bush meat they catch. Man also fish and gather honey from wild bees. Since some years, because of the unsuccessful policy to settle them engaged by mostly all the states in the region, Babongo Womenpeople sometimes grow banana, maize, manioc, peanuts and sweet potatoes on small slash and burn patches. Children catch crabs and freshwater prawns.
Cultural identity issues were tabled as well. “There is no river in this our area called Waka", commented a Banbongo Elder from the village of Ndugu. "We want the authorities to change the name of the park and give it a name which is more significant for us."
As part of a region-wide effort aimed at involving local communities in the sustainable management of natural resources in the Congo Basin and at adding value and authority to local and indigenous knowledge and values and at ensuring equitable benefit sharing resulting from co-managed protected areas, the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), Brainforest, CTA, IPACC, MINAPYGA, Rainforest Foundation UK, and the Wildlife Conservation Society-Gabon (WCS) supported a series of initiatives in the area including the participatory 3D modelling exercise described in this article. While responding to needs expressed by local communities and by the park administration, the exercise offered the opportunity for training delegates from national and regional organisations based in Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Twenty 10-12 year old students from the primary public school of Fougamou, facilitators and trainees contributed to the construction of two blank models covering a total area of 625 km2 at 1:12 500 scale; eight millimetres on the map correspond to 100 metres on the ground. Babongo and Mitsogo peoples started drafting the map legend in the village and completed it at the mapping venue.
The process was duly documented by film crews mobilised by IPACC, CTA, and MINAPYGA. Dedicated reportages were featured by the national TV chain Radiodiffusion-Television Gabonaise (RTVG), Africa No1," a radio station based in Gabon broadcasting across Africa and by the Agence Gabonaise de Presse. The mediatisation of the process put disempowerment / empowerment issues in the public domain and contributed to drawing attention to the precarious situation of the Babongo and Mitsogo communities and their potential role as resource persons in the development of eco-tourism activities in the Waka National Park and its buffer zones.
In his closing remarks, the mayor of Fougamou expressed his appreciation for the work done, and acknowledged that while the protected area was established in 2002, communities residing within or at the periphery of the park were not consulted. Nonetheless he stated that their role as beneficiaries of the intervention is enshrined in the provision of the law. He further called for a process which would lead to the active participation of the populations living at the periphery of the park in the sustainable management of its resources and invited the communities to organize themselves as representative bodies in the position to negotiate and mediate their rights, needs and aspirations with the other stakeholders including government authorities.
Community organizing has already started under the auspices of the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) currently implemented by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – Gabon. The initiative is underpinned by MINAPYGA, the movement of indigenous minorities and pygmies in Gabon (Mouvement des Minorités autochtones et pygmées au Gabon) and by complementary initiatives carries out by Brainforest, a national NGO, under their participatory mapping program supported by the Rainforest Foundation UK.
The second unit of the 3D model has still to be completed. This offers the opportunity to move the activity “across the river” in the heart of the land where forest spirits coexist with their Babongo masters and where appropriation of the mapmaking process, and its outcomes including self-confidence and cohesion building would be fully at play.
Once the models will be completed, the supporting agencies will assist the community-based organisations in entertaining negotiations with the protected areas management authority on their role in the management of the buffer zones and in defining - among others - benefit sharing mechanisms. If successful, the process is likely to be upscaled and replicated in other protected areas in the country. Accompanied by effective advocacy it may also impact positively local policies and legislation.
Authors: Giacomo Rambaldi, Nigel Crawhall and Georges Thierry Handja
Close to our Ancestors: Gabon forest peoples map their land (video)
Read also: Redessiner sa forêt en 3D
More information on Participatory 3D Modelling is found at http://www.iapad.org/