Blood Timber- The tragedy of the people of the forest
Dzanga Sanga- Central African Republic
Photographs by Dominique Catton & Alexandre Brecher
Whoever travels from Europe to Central Africa flies over an infinite blanket of trees,dense and humid. It's the Congo Basin, the widely unexplored heart of Africa, and the second largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon.
This unique ecosystem boasts some of the world’s natural wonders, millions of birds,more than 10,000 species of plants and large mammals such as elephants, gorillas and
leopards. It is still one of the least explored places on Earth : stretching from the Atlantic coast to Lake Tanganyka, the Congo Basin is half the size of Europe… But for how long ?
Welcome to modernity. What exists since the Earth was created can vanish within months. The Congo Basin is no exception: the forest is dying. Tons of precious woods are
extracted every day, legally and illegally – The forest looses the size of 500 football fields every year.
Anthropologists and humanitarians often call this wood ‘Blood Timber’. When you enter the forest with trucks and people, you remove the sacred status of this sanctuary, which
offers shelter and resources to more than 60 million people: logging companies need roads, and roads give access to poachers, illegal bush meat traders, as well as diamond
and gold seekers.
An African philosopher once said: “When a tree falls, it makes noise, but when the forest grows, you can’t hear it.” Nor when the forest dies, nor when people die. Because, above all, this silent tragedy is also the tragedy of the Pygmies.
The West calls the original inhabitants of the Congo Basin like that, but they call
themselves Bambuti, Babinga, BaAka, Aka, Batwa, Bagyeli and in many other ways. They are one of the oldest civilisations on Earth, a people of hunter and gatherers that knows
the forest better than anyone else. Nobody knows how many there are, they have no ID, no passport, they do not vote, and children have no access to education. They do not exist, because if they exist, they must have rights - And no one wants them to haverights, especially rights over their land.
Ruled by land reforms that are kept secret to the Pygmies, the region is exploited by local and foreign companies who enrich governments and themselves by paying
concessions to cut trees and digging for minerals and precious metals. Pygmies are
pushed out of their forests.
“My grandfather, his grandfather and the grandfather of his grandfather used to live in
the forest. In 1972 they made a law that called it a reserve, because the land is property of the government. They told us to go and live along the roads says Dieudonné
Tombombo, a Cameroon Tribe Chief and member of the Baka Association "Nomedjo
Buma Bo Kpode". We do not know how to live on the streets. We used to live off hunting, honey and fruits, now they forbid us to enter the forest but they did not give us any
“We are the first inhabitants of this forest, we are rejected by the government says Tombombo. Like if they wanted us to disappear.”
The Pygmies from the Congo Basin managed to obtain from the United Nations in Geneva the international status of “indigenous population“, which allows them to claim
their right to own and live in their land. However, thousands of miles from Geneva or New York, deep into the forest – Who really cares about that?
“The sad thing is that our grandparents were the first ones to fight for their right to live the forest and they died waiting for its realisation.” says Tombombo. The central
element of our identity is our intimate relation with the forest in which we live,
venerating and protecting for many generations.”
Jengi, which means ‘spirit of the forest’, is the only common word to every Pygmy language and dialects. The spirit of the forest…
With this project, I would like to tell the world about the ‘Blood Timber’, about the
tragedy of the Congo Basin. Because history always repeats the same mistakes, from native Americans to original inhabitants of the Pacific, hundreds of millions of innocent people have been destroyed because of the greed of some large corporations. No one
should think that today is different. People still die every day for a few grams of gold.
No one really talks about the Congo Basin, about the Pygmies, because it is so remote, and the conditions are so though that only few people know the secrets of this extraordinarily wild place. I don’t think I know those secrets. But I know how to look for them.
I live in Cameroon, and I’ve travelled extensively to the Congo Basin, met with the Bakas,
the Bagyeli, and established with some community leaders the basis of what some would
call ‘friendship’. My project is to go right to the heart of the forest, a few miles North of Mambele (Est of Cameroon), right at the border between Cameroon, the Central African
Republic and the Congo. The forest there is one of the most spectacular places on Earth
in terms of flora and fauna – And it’s also one of the most sacred places for the Baka
Pygmies. Of course, all the other players are around there: logging companies, heavily armed poachers, gold-seekers - Demons are never too far from Paradise