Bioversity international

Chapter 1. Hunting, gathering and food sharing in Africa’s rainforests The forest-based food system of the Baka indigenous people in South-eastern Cameroon

Section 3 Conclusions and future projections


Outputs and inputs

Over time, the Baka had managed to maintain a resilient and self-sufficient livelihood based on forest resources, including wild edible plants, animals, NTFPs, fish and swiddens. The outputs of forest sourcing, namely hunting, gathering, fishing and agriculture, rely on approximately 60 animal species, more than 83 wild edible species, at least 6 common species of fish and freshwater animals, and 32 crop species that compose 12 categories of food items (Tables 1.1, 1.2, 1.3). Moreover, forests provide various plant and animal resources for material and spiritual purposes, including building materials, cooking utensils, tools for hunting and gathering, firewood, medicines, ornaments and cosmetics. Sunlight, rain, stream water and firewood are plentifully available sources of energy and material and are obtained by a labour force that is generally mobilized collectively. For transportation, no fuel is used. Material inputs including tools, seeds and clones for farming, and instruments for foraging activities, are almost exclusively procured locally. Pesticides are rarely used. Intellectual inputs are sustained by an achieved traditional ecological knowledge and know-how.

Food sharing is a fundamental part of Baka’s culture. A portion of the food they produce or collect from the wild is used to barter with the Bantu, in exchange for food, daily commodities and cash. The Baka regularly work for their neighbours, mainly in farming activities. They occasionally sell NTFPs and cacao beans to merchants for which they are paid cash or with manufactured goods and processed foods. Wastes are generated from every process. Whereas wastes from forest sourcing circulate within the system, non-biodegradable wastes via exchanges and trade tend to accumulate.

Highlights of sustainability assessment

The Baka consume a diversity of foods with different nutritional properties, including starches, meat, fish, dark green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, fruits, nuts, wild eggs, insects, pulses and honey. Most Baka experience food shortages over short time spans, lasting one to two days, in any season and resign themselves to go to sleep without eating. When facing food shortages during their stay in the forest, they prefer to spare their energy and to give up searching for food, summarizing their philosophy by the expression “In days when food is lacking, persisting searching is a waste of time.” The seasonal mobility of the Baka also supports their food security. Through alternating stays in the forest and in the village, they enhance the follow-up of resource availability in both sites, as well as opportunities for working with the Bantu and trading with merchants. Food sharing functions as a mechanism to socially mitigate food shortages. Agriculture and exchanges with the Bantu have become increasingly important for food procurement. In the 1990s, the Baka practised long-term expeditions during the major dry season to collect wild yams. In today’s context of reduced access to the forest, this practice has been replaced by labour exchanges, as well as short-term stays in the near forest for fishing and NTFP gathering.

Major cash income sources are NTFP selling and wage labour for the Bantu and, more occasionally, temporary jobs in sport hunting and logging companies. The Baka have poor negotiation skills and their consensual feeling is that they do not obtain fair payments for their products and workforce. Although they obtain low incomes, it is liveable since they are nearly self-sufficient in food provision and only minimal supplies are necessary to procure. Yet, incomes are insufficient to cover schooling and medical care when needed. Besides not having enough income, saving money is not in their habits.

The onset of full-scaled agriculture in the 1990s has been a major cause of increase in human energy inputs into the food system, along with intensified harvesting of NTFPs to satisfy a market demand that has become higher after the opening up of the district. According to the Baka, though, wage labour remains the most profitable means for cash income. Wire cables for trapping that arose in the 1970s at first notably reduced labour and time spent hunting. However, animal populations and related hunting efficiency dropped as a consequence of an exploding number of non-Baka hunters and firearms, in response to bushmeat demand from cities.

The Baka cultivate a reasonable diversity of cultigens and cultivars, particularly for plantain (28 varieties) and cassava (18 varieties). The younger Baka farmers like to test new varieties without renouncing those that were transmitted by their parents, and this diversity circulates through sharing within the community. The diversity of foods produced in their swiddens includes many spontaneous and ruderal edible plants, which contribute to diversifying the diet. Respecting the sequence of short-term mixed cropping followed by long-term forest fallowing allows the maintenance of the farming system’s overall fertility and contributes to the assemblage of a mosaic ecosystem that is home to a rich faunal and floral biodiversity.

Although not conservationists in the Western sense, the Baka way of living entails modalities for successfully and sustainably collecting food resources from the wild. Customary rules of distinctive access to forest areas by different residential groups, and respect for food prohibitions are salient expressions of their traditional ways to regulate resource extraction. Unfortunately, increasing market demands for NTFPs and bushmeat undermine the efficiency of these cultural regulations, although many Baka inhabitants of Gribe estimate that local biodiversity is not critically depleted, and that fauna still has the capacity to recover from excessive hunting.

Whereas a broad area of forest is required for ensuring an extensive food sourcing that respects the spatial and temporal distribution of resources, access to the forest by the inhabitants of Gribe is increasingly confined. The “permanent forest”, property of the State, which now allocates forest usufruct and management tasks to private-owned companies, is no longer freely accessible by the Baka. Conflicts are now chronic amongst the different stakeholders and participation of the Baka in tentative negotiations is weak. Identifying ways to enable Baka to participate in the decision-making process is of utmost concern.


Reflecting on the trends in their food system over time, the Baka participants in the study were encouraged to formulate tentative predictions for the next 20 years. According to them, they do not expect their livelihoods to drastically deviate from ongoing changes. They envision their swiddens to become bigger and their dietary regime to depend less on the forest as they more massively rely on food crops. They do not expect yields to become higher as they notice a constant decrease in the mature post-agricultural regenerated forest, a sign that fallowing periods are shortened. Women anticipate that their children will no longer forage in the forest as their parents did in the past. Knowledge related to hunting and gathering will no longer be transmitted, and women fear that the loss of knowledge regarding using forest plants as medicines will undermine the health of the community.

When questioned about their likes and aspirations for the future, the children provide an intermediate answer that reflects their entanglement with a changing environment. They still praise forest-sourced foods and cite bushmeat, wild fruits, wild yams and fish amongst their favourites. But foods obtained from farming have become standard components of their diets so they enjoy eating cassava flour, plantain, banana and peanut sauce; they also enjoy eating rice and tuna in cans bought in the market and they crave snacks sold by itinerant merchants. A majority of young children accompany their parents for gathering wild edible plants (yams, fruits, Gnetum leaves) and working in the fields. Only half of them attend hunting and fishing expeditions. They additionally procure water and wood, and help process food (cassava cutting and pounding, Gnetum leaves slicing). Beyond similarly assisting their parents, older children carry out gathering, fishing, trapping and gbasà (small-scaled hunting) without their parents. They share obtained food with members of their residential group and occasionally sell NTFPs to the Bantu. They also learn how to prepare bushmeat and to gather stingless bee honey. All the children expressed a desire to stay and raise a family in the locality and perform well in their livelihoods, to be split between the forest and the village. But whilst some aspire to be hunters and make their own fields for cacao, others dream of becoming a motorbike taxi man, teacher or salaried worker in the logging company.

Over the past three decades, the environment surrounding the Baka has changed tremendously. Nevertheless, the Baka of Gribe have maintained a predominantly forest-based lifestyle, attempting through various ingenuities to adapt to the changes; these included greater investment in shifting cultivation, greater contribution to the market economy through NTFPs and reinforced wage labour for their neighbours, and more frequent back and forth movements between the forest and the village.

These adjustments were made possible through three internal processes:

First, social processes: Values, knowledge, labour and food are shared amongst the Baka, shaping and reshaping their social relationships and implicit norms. Adopting agriculture that requires more advanced planning of activities and sustained work effort is a tremendous challenge compared to the more elusive and opportunistic ways of conducting foraging activities. Farming labour can also trigger a stronger sense of ownership over crops. Nevertheless, the shared tolerance over picking crops from the swidden of another Baka farmer is a social mechanism that moderates excessive individual ownership and renders swiddening more compatible with egalitarian values that conditioned Baka’s past life as pure hunter-gatherers.

Second, knowledge processes involve the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and know-how for adaptation through experience and observation, as well as reaffirmation of their basic values. As crops that are cultivated with minimal investment, are stored alive in the field, and are progressively harvested according to needs, plantains and cassava are a good illustration of the value of knowledge processes, gained by direct practice, of the Baka farming practices. These crops are also the most adequate in terms of the Baka’s foraging way of life. Other annual crops cultivated by the Baka and the few cacao plantations they hold generally result in poor yields, when they are even harvested.

Third, biocultural processes are interactions between the forest and the Baka that mutually influence each other and create a continuum between foraging and farming activities. Swiddens do not only provide crops but also ensure the production of spontaneous plants that are encouraged to grow in association with crops. In the forest, presumably wild resources are in fact para-domesticated by the Baka. They do not grow randomly in the forest but are purposely encouraged to cultivate in precise patches in the forest. Spiritual relationships with wildlife and supra-natural forces are the keepers of forest resources, as well as all kinds of social adjustments regulating access to resources, which result in a more sustainable use of the forest.

These processes are fully consistent with the egalitarian principle and the pillars of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which value high mobility, low labour and solid interethnic relationships with the farming neighbours. These “manners of relationship with the forest and their neighbours” provide good resilience to the Baka’s food system and great latitude to adjust to the environmental changes affecting their daily livelihood.

However, adaptive attempts by the Baka to the changing environment do not comprehensively solve all the problems. Logging, intensified bushmeat trade, sport hunting, protected areas and governmental zoning policy are cumulative drivers of change that constantly challenge the resilience of the Baka’s food system. Long-term expeditions during the major dry season have greatly declined. Exchange with the Bantu is influenced by the diktat of a broader market economy, which imposes a more acute dependency on cash income. As primary producers and poor negotiators, the Baka lament about a widened economic disparity between them and the Bantu, who have imposed themselves as middlemen in transactions, and whose voice predominates in negotiations with outsiders. Lack of commitment in supposedly participatory approaches of forest governance is a source of growing frustration and a serious risk to convert the connivance between the Baka and the forest into a poverty trap. There is a need to revert the tendency. How these forest dwellers have recognized, used and maintained forests should incidentally benefit the rest of the world, as far as it is first and foremost a means for these peoples to avoid poverty whilst preserving their cultural integrity.

“Individual independence in food sourcing is important to eat well and share food with everyone.”

Saying of the Baka from Dimgba.