Pygmy FM

02 September 2007

Interview with

Scott Poynton, Tropical Forest Trust

Big businesses are notorious for being difficult to get through to, especially if you cannot read and write and the company happens to be cutting down the forest in which you live. Well, now technology has come to the rescue with what has been nicknamed Pygmy FM. Here is Mike Hopkin.

Michael Hopkin: For thousands of years, there have been Benjelle Pygmies who have lived a hunter gatherer lifestyle in heart of the northern Congo. Unfortunately for them, their home is slapped bang in the middle of one of the world's richest sources of prime hardwood and these semi-nomadic people are forced to share the forest with international logging companies. For years, the Benjelle have accepted logging as a fact of life without much means to air their grievances with CIB, the company that holds extensive logging rights in the Republic of Congo, the pygmies have been unable to tell the loggers which trees they would like to see left alone, but now with consumers demanding more sustainably harvested timber, CIB has realized that its profits are at stake. So, it has enlisted the help of development groups to set up a community radio station that aims to allow the Benjelle to speak up. I asked Scott Poynton of the Tropical Forest Trust, charity that promotes responsible forest management about the need to put the Benjelle on the air waves.

Scott Poynton: Part of the problem was the pygmy communities living in that area, well throughout central Africa really is that they are semi-nomadic. Today, they can be in one place and tomorrow they will be somewhere else. They are also non literate. You know, you cannot send them a letter. They do not have a letterbox that you can contact them through and also they are an egalitarian society so they do not have a village head. So, you cannot just go and talk to one person. So, it was actually Jerome Lewis's idea and Jerome and I been working with these pygmy communities for many years. Jerome had the idea of establishing a radio station, by which using, you know, robust wind up radio technology that we could have some broadcasts made by the communities themselves whereby they can communicate with the company and the company can create its own broadcast and thereby establishing a dialogue, not a direct dialogue, anyhow sort of two-way dialogue, but a dialogue nonetheless where ideas can be exchanged and the thoughts of the communities can be put on air and that can reach the company.

Michael Hopkin: The radio station at first perhaps inevitably nicknamed Pigmy FM has now been formally named "Bisso na Bisso," which means "between us" in the local Lingala language. A few pilot shows have already been made and in the traditional community radio style, feature mix of debate and music, but the pygmies still need a way to tell CIB exactly which trees they particularly value and this is where the project gets really clever. With the help of anthropologist Jerome Lewis of the London School of Economics, who has lived on and off with Benjelle for years, the project's organizers have created special handheld computer consoles for the pygmies to carry while roaming through the forest. The devices use GPS to log automatically the locations of important trees and sites. That way CIB, which has always practiced selective logging can avoid these precious specific resources.

Jerome Lewis: They put together a series of icons and have a decision tree whereby the pygmy communities can go into the forest and that is a very easy technology. It takes about five minutes to explain what it is all about and the pygmies are pretty smart people. They know what is going on. They have never seen a computer before, but they can work out what this technology is aiming to do and I have advised it because they can guide into the forest and say, 'look here is a sacred area so they can click on the icon that shows the sacred area and then they can click on the reason why it needs to be protected. It is a sacred area for the women or is it sacred area for traditional festivals, and in some cases they do not actually go down to that far because some of that knowledge is in fact confidential and sacred and they do not share, but in other cases they say 'look, here is an area we just need to protect it because we need to protect it' or 'here is an area where we gather food' or 'here is our watering hole' and so through that process they have been able to map large areas of forest that they use. These maps are then produced. They go to the company. They say, 'hey, look these are the areas we would really appreciate you to keep your bulldozers out of them, please do not fell these trees for example because in the dry season we harvest the caterpillars from those trees'. It is an important food product. And so what has happened is there is a dialogue being started through this handheld.

Michael Hopkin: The radio station will also benefit the pygmies in other ways. It will give them better access to information about doctor visits, vaccinations, and AIDS awareness.

Jerome Lewis: Everyone can make their own programs and put out their stories, their concerns and their music. We can make sure that information about the visits of the doctor are kind of getting out, because in the past for example the doctor would go out to make a vaccination program for the children, but half the children would be in the forest, you know, for one reason or another and so, there are issues like that but if we can sound radio, hey look, you know, at the second moon or whatever the doctor will be at this place, then the chances of helping these communities and the kids out there to get their vaccinations is going to be much stronger.

Michael Hopkin: The project's organizers have already started using the mapping technology in other neighbouring countries in the Congo basin, particularly the vast Democratic Republic of Congo to the East. It looks like the pygmies of the Congo are finally finding their voice. (Voice in Lingala language)

Chris Smith: It sounds like they are certainly on the right wavelength with that particular approach.

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