- Survival International has lodged a formal complaint to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against WWF in Cameroon for violating the human rights of the indigenous Baka “Pygmies” of southeast Cameroon.
- Survival has alleged that WWF has helped introduce protected areas to southeast Cameroon without the free prior and informed consent of the Baka. But WWF maintains that local communities were consulted at the time of the national parks were created, and added that the nature of consultation has been changing over the years.
- Survival’s complaint also alleges that since the creation of the national parks, the Baka have been subjected to "violent abuse" by anti-poaching squads supported by WWF. But WWF says that while allegations of abuse did become more frequent from 2009 to about 2013, this was linked to a flood of arms to the region, more involvement by the Cameroon military, more poaching, war in nearby areas of the Central African Republic and an influx of refugees.
In southeast Cameroon, World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has helped support a number of conservation initiatives, including the creation of three national parks. But WWF’s presence in Cameroon since late 1990s has been marred by controversies.
In 2014, London-based human rights organization Survival International accused WWF of violating the human rights of the indigenous Baka peoples (sometimes referred to as “Pygmies”) of southeast Cameroon.
Survival International claimed that the creation of the protected areas in the region had resulted in the illegal and forcible eviction of the Baka peoples from their ancestral homelands. The human rights group also claimed to have uncovered “serious abuses of Baka ‘Pygmies’ in southeast Cameroon, at the hands of anti-poaching squads supported and funded by the WWF.”
Now, Survival International (SI) has lodged a formal complaint to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against WWF in Cameroon. The complaint, according to SI, is based upon “field research in Cameroon and extensive discussions with Baka, local NGOs and anthropologists familiar with the area, as well as with other interested parties.”
The complaint alleges that despite trying to persuade WWF to do more to help the Baka, the conservation organization has failed in its duty.
“For over a decade many different organizations — international and Cameroonian — as well as the Baka themselves have urged WWF to stamp out this abuse,” SI Cameroon campaigner Michael Hurran told Mongabay. “We ourselves warned WWF in the early 1990s that the projects it was planning risked exposing the Baka to serious human rights violations. But it hasn’t listened to reason. We hope that the OECD can persuade WWF to finally start upholding its own policies and respecting the Baka’s rights.”
WWF, however, says that it has consistently maintained it would welcome and participate in scrutiny of human rights issues in Southeast Cameroon.
Lack of free, prior and informed consent?
Survival International has alleged that Cameroon’s government, with vital support from WWF, introduced protected areas to southeast Cameroon without the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the Baka. Moreover, according to the complaint, the Baka and other indigenous groups have been forcibly evicted from their ancestral homelands.
“WWF vowed never to support a conservation project or logging company that the Baka hadn’t consented to, so that’s surely what it needs to do: either get the Baka’s consent or get out,” Hurran said.
WWF maintains that local communities were consulted at the time of the creation of the national parks, and added that the nature of consultation has been changing over the years.
“WWF’s Jengi project was conceived as a landscape level project to protect forests, wildlife and people in South East Cameroon,” Phil Dickie, WWF’s spokesperson, told Mongabay in an email. “It includes three national parks, but also zoned the surrounding areas for community hunting and agriculture in addition to existing land uses – chiefly forestry and safari hunting – which were for the first time required to acknowledge and contribute to communities in the area.”
“There was a round of consultation and consent processes with communities between 1999-2001 which were unprecedented for the time and place and which did result in real changes to plans and arrangements,” Dickie added. “It has since been realised that Baka need specific and specialised consultation. And this has informed further consultations which are continuing. Cameroon’s first FPIC requirements and guidelines (for REDD+projects) were introduced in 2014, with WWF playing a leading role in pushing for and facilitating this.”
Around the time of the implementation of the three national parks, anthropologist Shiho Hattori had noted that the Baka’s subsistence and economy depended heavily on forest resources. The proposed land use zoning system and hunting regulations, he wrote in a 2005 paper, were not compatible with the residential and resource use patterns of the Baka.
Hattori also found that while the Baka were informed about the conservation projects, the meetings were conducted in a “top-down” manner, that made the Baka hunter gatherers “indifferent” to the project at the time.
“While ‘collaborative management’ with local population is allegedly adopted in the conservation project in southeastern Cameroon, actual processes are far from this ideal, and seem to fail in involving one of the important stakeholders, the Baka hunter-gatherers,” Hattori wrote.
Allegations of violent abuse
Survival International’s complaint also alleges that since the creation of the national parks, the Baka have been subjected to “violent abuse” by anti-poaching squads or “ecoguards,” and other law enforcement officials who patrol the protected areas with WWF’s monetary and logistical support. The complaint includes a selection of incidents that detail SI’s allegations, including that Baka villages are regularly “torched by ecoguards,” that Baka community members are “beaten up,” and that their possessions have been destroyed.
“From 2009 to about 2013, allegations of abuse became more frequent and severe, and this was linked to a flood of arms to the region, more involvement by the Cameroon military, more poaching, war in nearby areas of the Central African Republic and an influx of refugees,” Dickie added. “Protests from affected communities and WWF representations to the Ministry of Forests and Fauna seem to have been influential in a marked reduction in the incidence and severity of incidents since. For the most part, Ecoguards are protecting the integrity and resources of a zoning system that includes community forests, hunting and access zones vital to Baka communities.”
According to SI’s complaint, WWF commissioned an investigation into some of the allegations of violent assaults against the Baka in early 2015, but has failed to respond to SI’s requests for a copy of the report.
However, Dickie told Mongabay that WWF did not actually commission any investigation into SI’s allegations in 2015.
“In 2014, WWF indicated to Survival that it would support investigation of allegations of abuse, and indicated to the Cameroon Human Rights and Freedom Commission that it supported and would assist in an inquiry into allegations sought by Survival,” Dickie said.
“In 2015, WWF specifically requested Survival to notify us of any recent or current abuse they become aware of so that we could take appropriate action,” he added. “One extremely vague reference was received from Survival which could not be matched to any incident(s). WWF investigated a subsequent and apparently related allegation published online by Survival, which did not involve ecoguards funded by WWF, and which disclosed considerably more complex circumstances in which the allegations of abuse could not be verified. WWF continues to seek further information about this incident.”
While there was no independent investigation looking into the allegations, Dickie said that WWF did conduct a number of consultations with communities and local NGOs. “This has been reflected in internal reports and action plans,” he said. “There will be further such consultations.”
Dickie told Mongabay that WWF is encouraging a number of efforts to “enhance the status of the Baka” in Cameroon.
“Baka have an inalienable right to their traditional existence which WWF is committed to helping to maintain, however challenging the circumstances,” Dickie said. “Currently the emphasis is on enacting direct agreements between communities and the Ministry of Forests and Fauna which extend more respect to customary practices and give communities more say in management of their areas.”
Survival International, however, says that rebuilding trust with the Baka will not be easy for WWF.
“There is no replacement for respecting their rights: their right to their land and to decide what happens on it,” Hurran said. “WWF needs to ask the Baka and the rainforest tribes they live with whether they want its support and then take it from there. Beyond this, it needs to listen to the Baka properly, find out what kind of help they need in defending their lands and then stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
“I would add as a final note that we are urging WWF to treat this as a real problem that needs addressing, not as a public relations issue to be shut down or swept under the carpet,” Hurran added. “It is in the interests of the environmental movement that its constituent organizations are held to account when their actions have serious consequences as in this instance, rather than shutting down any criticism for the sake of the wider cause.”
Updates 02/23/2016 06:00 Eastern:
The story originally included a video that allegedly involves video testimonies of Baka tribespeople against ecoguards funded by WWF, filmed by a Survival campaigner last year. The video has now been removed, but can still be viewed here.
Note from WWF: “WWF’s information is that these allegations relate to an incident in a forestry concession on 7 April 2014. Contempory accounts and statements outline an altercation between ecoguards, police and Baka following the illegal killing of an elephant. Key factors underlying the incident were rivalry between police, ecoguards, gendarmerie and military in this sensitive border area and Baka being procured for illegal activities by persons with some authority over them. WWF-Cameroon was not providing operational support to the ecoguard unit allegedly involved.”
Updates 02/23/2016 13:00 Eastern:
Survival sent the following response to WWF.
In [relation] to WWF’s statement, we would like it to be noted that:
- This video relates to more than one incident, not just that which took place on April 7 2014.
- Two of the victims were sleeping in their beds when ecoguards came into their house without authorization. For WWF’s public relations team to describe this as an “altercation” is misleading, to say the least.
- Similarly, to say that this was an “altercation […] following the illegal killing of an elephant” is misleading, since it implies that the victims were involved in the killing. We haven’t seen a shred of evidence that supports this. I’d also like to add that the Cameroonian legal system, like all non-totalitarian legal systems, does not authorize officials to break into people’s homes in the middle of the night for violent interrogation, even when they are accused of serious crimes like elephant poaching.
- We have asked WWF to confirm that it played no role in establishing, training or supporting the ecoguard programme in this area. It has not replied to us. In a funding report it said that it was providing financial support during the period in question to the ecoguard post in Ngoyla (the nearest town) and to ecoguards in the Nki National Park. The victims’ villages are part of the official “periphery” of Nki.