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Bushmeat - ending the monkey business

Richard Black | 06:45 UK time, Saturday, 23 October 2010


Many westerners would view the idea of eating monkeys with deep distaste.

But for people raised on bushmeat, in Africa and elsewhere, the equation is different.

"Forbidding hunting [bushmeat] is not a solution for the Baka," Messe Venant told a small gathering here.

Bushmeat on display in Liberia, 2006

The Baka people, from Cameroon, have always survived on whatever the forest provides.

In impassioned and colourful French, Messe compared the forest to a western supermarket.

"Everything we need, we go into the forest - for food or anything else," he said.

"The principal source of protein for the Baka is bushmeat."

In rural areas of Central Africa, even outside specific ethnic groups such as the Baka, bushmeat provides up to 80% of protein in peoples' diets.

Yet in many areas of the world, the growing appetite for meat from the forest supermarket is leading to local ecological crises.

It threatens wildlife in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including populations of some animals even closer to humans in the lineage than monkeys, such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

Animals disperse seeds - up to 75% of plant species, in some forests - so the disappearance of animals would present a much larger problem.

What's led to these regional crises is a mixture of human population growth, increasing trade that carries to meat to cities and even abroad, and - in some regions - civil conflict, which brings armed gangs into the forest where of course they must find something to eat, with their weapons providing the easy answer to the question of how to do it.

In doing so, they work against the interests of groups such as Baka who have always "shopped" in the forest - just as the arrival of industrial fishing fleets can in just a few years denude an area of species that have supported local fisheries for centuries.

Like banning fishing, simply banning bushmeat would not be the answer, even if it were feasible - which, given the realities of life in the countries involved, it's not.

And that's recognised under international agreements incuding the CBD, whose remit includes sustainable use of living resources.

A report prepared for the CBD two years ago concluded that attempting to ban bushmeat would drive it further into the hands of gangsters.

One idea that's been around for a while is encouraging people to eat other things instead. Keeping chickens or goats - sometimes in the forest - can be an alternative.

Here, Richard Robertson, a policy manager with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), discussed the use of certification schemes to promote self-regulation of hunting.

FSC-certified timber carries a price premium that companies earn by logging sustainably - so why not include sustainable use of wildlife in the criteria that companies have to satisfy before they qualify for the FSC logo?

This is being trialled in the Wijma Concession in Cameroon, where there are early indications that companies are using guards to keep hunting gangs at bay.

Two issues at least might transpire to be challenging for this idea. One is that the vast majority of African-sourced bushmeat is consumed in Africa, whereas the certification is primarily an idea that works with western consumers who can afford to pay premium prices; the second is the ongoing issues around certified timber, in which management of Wijma has itself been part.

More intriguing was the notion put forward by Edgar Kaeslin of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

His idea is based on giving local people control over their own forests - giving the control back, rather, given that in the era before roads and miners and loggers and modern government, before the spread of rifles and before the modern era of rapid population growth, control was exactly what they had.

He hopes to begin soon a project that would do exactly this in four Central African countries.

The legal framework would be re-jigged so that communities - particular indigenous groups - had explicit jurisdiction over their lands.

Then it would be a question of trusting to their management methods.

Messe Venant painted a picture of simple Baka cultural norms that keep hunting under control.

Hunters are allowed to bring only one animal back from a trip, he said. Without the capacity to preserve meat, whatever's caught must be eaten there and then - there's no point in taking a massive haul in one go.

This is a marked contrast to how the bushmeat trade runs elsewhere.

Several years ago, in the Liberian capital Monrovia, I walked through a market where tables were laden with smoked and dried carcasses, including monkeys - and where the local "Mrs Big" distributed bullets to hunters, and expected their haul in return. The trade paid so little that they basically had to catch something every day in order to survive.

Here, there is both the incentive and the capacity to catch much more than nature's supermarket can sustainably provide.

There's general agreement, then, that banning the hunting of bushmeat - whether primates or not - isn't feasible, or indeed completely desirable. What westerners coo at, indigenous groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America depend on.

There isn't yet a solution on the table. But solutions are beginning to be explored; and that has to be good news for the forests and those who want to maintain their traditional lifestyles, living on what the forest has to offer.


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