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11 October 2007

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Republic of Congo

Congo pygmies go high-tech to protect forest home

Dakar, Senegal - When Congo Republic's northern pygmies go out into the forest these days, some will be carrying hand-held satellite tracking devices along with their traditional bows and spears.

Using GPS handsets to pinpoint sacred sites and hunting areas, the nomadic forest dwellers are literally putting themselves on the map to protect their livelihoods and habitat against the chainsaws and bulldozers of commercial loggers.

Through the scheme, northern Congo's Mbendjele Yaka people and the central African country's largest logging company are working in an unusual alliance to ensure the forest areas crucial to the pygmies' daily lives are left standing.

"It's essentially a process by which the traditional rights of the pygmies can be respected and protected," Scott Poynton, executive director of the Tropical Forest Trust, which works to promote responsible forest management in the world, told Reuters.

With training and technology provided by the trust, logging company Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB) owned by Denmark's DLH group, and other international partners, the Mbendjeles are using the GPS (Global Positioning System) to mark out forest areas and even specific trees they want preserved.

"The sets have icons on them, so they don't have to be able to read and write. They basically go out and say OK, click, here is a sacred site, and a GPS point is taken and links up to the satellite," Poynton said in an telephone interview on Wednesday.

"They can wander through the forest and map all of the areas -- the tombs of their ancestors, hunting grounds, sacred areas, water holes, areas of medicinal plants -- these are all captured on GPS points, all downloaded on the computer," he added.

"And suddenly, you've got a map."

These maps were being used by CIB to guide its logging operations on its concessions in this part of the Congo Basin rainforest, the world's second largest which conservationists say is under threat from indiscriminate illegal logging.

CIB is using the GPS scheme to extend certification of its Congo concessions by the Forest Stewardship Council, which recognises responsible, sustainable logging that takes into account the rights of indigenous peoples.

"It's a wonderful partnership between very poor, disenfranchised traditional people and a large company that's saying we want to do things the right way," Poynton said.

"LIKE KIDS WITH A COMPUTER"

CIB turned to anthropologist Jerome Lewis of the London School of Economics, an expert on the Mbendjele pygmies, to help design the pictorial icons that allow the forest dwellers to click and identify on the GPS sets their important sites among the towering tropical hardwood trees of the forest.

For example, a syringe represented an area of medicinal plants, a pygmy with an arrow a hunting area, while an image of a typical pygmy leaf and liana home indicated a living area.

"We've been working with them about six months and honestly, they're like fish to water, they're like kids with a computer game ... We're finding they can map very large areas very, very quickly," Poynton said.

The project was also receiving funding from the World Bank's Development Marketplace programme.

Among the trees being marked out by the pygmies for preservation are the giant sapelli, many of them more than 40 metres high and more than two metres in diameter at the base, from which the Mbendjele gather caterpillars to eat.

"OK, trees are falling, but they are not trees deemed to be traditionally important by the community. These are marked with paint and the bulldozers go around them," Poynton said.

The project is also setting up a local community radio station, named Bisso na Bisso or "between us" in the local language, to help spread the word about pygmy issues among communities scattered across the vast forest.

"It's about getting their voices heard," Poynton said.

He said the GPS mapping scheme had set a benchmark for conservation partnerships and the Tropical Forest Trust was already working on a similar project in neighbouring Cameroon.

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