Indigenous knowledge, captured on maps, aims to protect diversity in the Congo Basin

The Baka people of the Congo Basin have a coherent vision of their forest. They think of nature as a network. They know how species affect each other and how weather affects everything. This deep indigenous knowledge is vital to sustainability efforts throughout Central Africa and the world.

“There’s actually a huge perceptual difference in the way they see the forest,” said Thomas Smith, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Smith has worked with local Baka experts since the mid-1980s. He founded the Congo Basin Institute (CBI) in part to foster cooperation and promote conservation. Baka guides learned about mapping and conservation practices, and now these “forest masters” work alongside Smith and his team, recording their knowledge using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.

Field notes from Baka guides share plant and wildlife locations as well as seasonal cycles and interactions. This indigenous knowledge is brought together on GIS maps along with data from government ministries, university researchers, conservation organizations and other local experts. For Baka guides, the maps help them inform future generations about the interconnectedness of the forests. For scholars, indigenous knowledge fills important gaps and reinforces the need for protection.

As weather patterns become more severe and species move, data-driven maps will aid efforts to preserve the forest, especially where species will move to adapt to new climates.

“The forest faces fundamental challenges,” Smith said. “The Baka people are our interpretive guides to understand the direction in which we should go.”

Preserving places for future development

Smith is an evolutionary biologist. His early work in the late 1980s with estrelidae revealed how bill size in this species was not distributed or determined by sex, age, body size, or geographic origin. In contrast to Charles Darwin’s famous finches, these birds differed in ways that seemed to favor continued evolution.

Over the more than 40 years that Smith spent in Africa, he continued to study how rainforest species evolve. In more recent research, the CBI team discovered that transition zones between rainforest and savannah are important because these zones of contact are where evolution occurs. These places not only preserve species, but also breed them.

Unfortunately, these are also the places where humans want to settle, on the edge of the forest, not inside it. By losing important pieces of land where ecosystems blend—called ecotones—plant and animal species lose areas that support adaptation.

“I realized we were doing conservation wrong in Africa,” Smith said. “We are conserving the pattern of biodiversity – hotspots of species – but we are not conserving the processes that produce and maintain biodiversity.”

One of Thomas Smith’s early expeditions to southern Cameroon in 1993 included two graduate students and six forest professors.

The work of CBI team members focuses on maintaining process, not just pattern. This means that their science focuses on the biological processes that underlie and maintain forest biodiversity.

Find the way

There are more than 10,000 species of tropical plants in the Congo Basin, 30% of which are unique to this famous forest. The area is home to endangered wildlife, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas. It is often called the “lungs of Africa”.The Congo Basin absorbs more carbon than the Amazon rainforest, and provides an essential lifeline to an incredible web of life in an area larger than Alaska.

Anthropologists believe that the Baka people inhabited the Congo Basin 200,000 years ago, where they lived as hunter-gatherers and learned about the forest. They use geographic information systems to create and interpret maps, but in the forest, Baka guides rely on maps they have in their minds.

“One of my favorite things to do is go on a trip with (my Baka guide) for three weeks,” Smith said. “I had no idea where I was, and they knew exactly where they were. We’d been walking for three days, and they’d stop and say, ‘Wait, I want to check a tree over there to see if it has ripe fruit.'”

Species and resource maps are part of the neural networks of Baka guides. Their ability to sense the deep rainforest has led to many discoveries and a more accurate inventory of the forest.

“When we count wildlife, we do it largely by sound because you can’t see far in the rainforest,” Smith said. “Baka guides can tell by the sound of a twig cracking on the forest floor whether it is a chimpanzee or a duiker.”

Smith’s trips with local guides covered wide distances, often on animal tracks rather than established trails. Smith recounted how Baka guides always knew their location, the distances to their destination, and how long it would take to get there. He witnessed how they read the landscape through sound, animal or insect tracks, or the sky. They knew what wildlife they would encounter, and exactly what the forest would look like in front of them.

“When I go into the woods with them, my awareness increases,” Smith said. “We had a lot of experiences… I was in an area with a lot of gorillas, and Baka’s guide said there was a silverback gorilla and a female carrying a baby on her back. I was skeptical, but sure enough, we walked another 100 metres, and there they were in a clearing.” .

Smith was so fascinated by their knowledge that he couldn’t help but test its limits.

“I ask questions all the time, ‘What about this?’ ‘When are we going to see this?'” Smith said. “At one point, I asked, ‘Do you think it will rain?’ And it was a guide named Augustine who said, ‘I am not God.’”

building abilities

The Congo Basin Institute partners with universities around the world to build higher education resources in Central Africa. People from local villages are trained in environmental research techniques such as wildlife surveys and are employed at a professional wage to work on conservation projects.

The aim is to collect traditional ecological knowledge about this vital natural area. “The Baka know 300 species of trees, the seeds of those trees, and they can identify seedlings from those trees,” Smith said. “We now have forest masters who know not only the Baka names, but all the Latin names. They are a tremendous resource for anyone trying to do conservation work in the Congo Basin.”

CBI aims to expand the network of field research stations in the Congo Basin to improve monitoring and conservation efforts. There are now only a few stations, unlike the hundreds spread throughout the Amazon region of South America. However, this region has a similar value for biodiversity and the critical role that carbon sequestration plays in climate stability.

The CBI program teaches local villagers GIS skills for conservation.

Recently, the CBI set up a school for the youth. There the forest masters pass on their knowledge to future generations. Maps play an important role in the classroom to show the connections that can be strengthened in the forest.

Already, the partnership is seeing benefits for the local natural world. When the Zoological Society of London set out to study the giant pangolin, an endangered 70-pound species closely related to the most trafficked mammals, they had difficulty finding any.

“They asked me if my mentor Baca could help,” Smith said. “Our trained crew quickly found 20 burrows, set up camera traps, and captured the first images of the giant pangolin emerging from its burrow.”

Learn more about how GIS can help achieve sustainable conservation by applying the power of geography.

This article originally appeared on the Esri blog.

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