The bell rings at a school in Payo, southeast Cameroon, summoning children to morning assembly. The school has 300 Baka children, but barely 50 are present for the day's lessons.
Head teacher Jean Aldou Kendao said that the majority of the older indigenous children work for logging companies, along with their parents. "It is a consequence of poverty since the parents are surviving on little jobs and each parent has at least five children," Kendao told DW, adding that, "due to famine, children are compelled to help their parents to earn a living." Not only are children dropping out of school, but girls above the age of 12 are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
The indigenous inhabitants represent one percent of Cameroon's 19 million people. The Baka people, formerly known as pygmies, are said to number 75,000. They lived in and took care of the Ngoyla-Mintom Forest until 20 years ago when the area became the target of logging companies. Foreign investors, mostly from Europe and China, now control two thirds of the export market for timber products from Cameroon.
Rights groups, UNICEF step in
Human rights groups and UNICEF have stepped up efforts to get the children back to school. Every morning, they send out people to go from house to house to collect them. However, UNICEF's Rosalie Anziom said most of the youngsters prefer working with their parents. "When children return from school, they do not have food to eat," Anziom told DW. "So they prefer small jobs over school." Many later resort to drugs, another hurdle the rights groups have to overcome. Activists said there are kids who are picked from school by logging companies. Their future is in limbo according to UNICEF's Alexandre Bucher. "Through education, Baka children will be able to grow up well," Bucher told DW, adding that a lot of kids are dreaming of becoming great people of their nation. "Through education, they will progressively go towards modernity and that is what the Baka people deserve," Bucher said.
Logging is one of the major activities from which the Cameroonian government hopes to make a profit to help it achieve its 2035 development targets. Besides being home to many rural communities, the forest region has become a sector that provides more than one quarter of Cameroon's export earnings. Unfortunately, there are no dividends for Baka communities, says Raymond Aleka, the traditional ruler of the village of Bayo. "If there were good infrastructure, children might be interested in attending school," Aleka said, adding that companies had done little to develop his community. In response, the logging companies say they pay royalties to the government of Cameroon which is supposed to pass on at least 10 percent of the income to the communities.