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Local communities feared repression from WWF, investigation finds

A Baka man sits outside his home near Djoum through which the new Sangmelima-Ouesso road passes. Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.

  • An investigation by Buzzfeed News revealed how for years, paramilitary anti-poaching forces funded and trained by WWF have killed and tortured indigenous villagers on the fringes of national parks.
  • Even after the conservation nonprofit was made aware of the human rights abuses in 2015, it continued supporting armed eco-guards around the world and pushed for a new national park in the Republic of Congo.
  • WWF was aware of concerns of violent repression raised by indigenous Baka communities in the Congo, but did not report this to the EU, one of the main funders of the new park.
  • WWF confirmed to Mongabay that the new park would not go ahead if consent couldn’t be obtained from the Baka.

Conservation nonprofit WWF has come under heavy criticism after an investigation was published last week by Buzzfeed News that the wildlife charity knowingly supported eco-guards who committed severe human rights abuses around the globe.

Paramilitary anti-poaching forces funded and trained by WWF were regularly involved in the killing and torture of indigenous villagers living on the fringes of national parks. The revelations emerged from a year-long investigation by Buzzfeed across six countries in Asia and Africa, and are based on more than 100 interviews and many internal documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws.

The reports by Buzzfeed describe a range of human rights abuses committed by WWF’s eco-guards. In Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, its forest rangers were involved in the killing and waterboarding of local villagers. In Cameroon, the charity helped organize violent raids on local communities suspected of harboring poachers. In the Central African Republic, WWF staff got involved in the purchase of assault rifles from the local army.

Indigenous people, Baka (pygmy) in the forests of Cameroon. Photo courtesy Greenpeace/Kate Davison.

Additionally, a report by the nonprofit Rainforest Foundation found that WWF eco-guards also raped and killed members of indigenous communities near the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Salonga National Park.

As early as 2015, the world’s largest conservation organization was warned in an internal report of the “frightening” abuse committed by its eco-guards. “Indigenous peoples and local communities bordering protected areas are victims of human rights abuses and violations by eco-guards,” the report states. Although often officially employed by local governments, these eco-guards receive “considerable technical, logistical and financial support” from WWF.

A new national park

The internal warning did little to stop the atrocities. In one case, WWF continued to push for the establishment of a new national park, even though local communities had voiced concerns over the loss of livelihoods and repression by WWF eco-guards.

Already last December, WWF was accused of violently abusing the indigenous Baka people (sometimes referred to as “Pygmies”) who live near Messok Dja, the site of a proposed new national park in northern Republic of Congo. According to the nonprofit Survival International (SI) and three Congolese human rights organizations, WWF-supported eco-guards have been active in the region since 2008 and already prevent the Baka from accessing their ancestral lands through a combination of violent intimidation and harassment — even though the park is yet to be established.

The Messok Dja project is supported by the EU, which last June agreed to pay WWF $1.15 million for the establishment of the park. The EU states that it supports the project precisely because it aims to preserve the forest “for the benefit of the populations, including indigenous ones.” It stresses that “the full participation of indigenous and local populations in the decision-making process” is required.

Yet crucially, in its project proposal to the EU, WWF did not acknowledge that it knew of vehement opposition to the park by some local Baka communities. An internal WWF report, which was obtained by SI, shows that some communities associate the new park with the rise in repression by eco-guards. Buzzfeed revealed last week how these critical passages were entirely omitted from WWF’s filing to the EU.

Obtaining free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of local communities for the establishment of protected areas is a legal requirement under various international human rights treaties, as well as a longstanding internal policy of WWF.

Jaap van der Waarde, WWF’s project manager for Messok Dja, told Mongabay in an interview last year that WWF would not go ahead with any form of protected area in Messok Dja if the Baka did not give their consent. Van der Waarde confirmed that there have been difficulties with obtaining this consent. “The Baka people think that we only strive to create a National Park. That has not been communicated well.”

Jerome Lewis, an anthropologist at University College London who has worked extensively with hunter-gatherer groups in Central Africa, judges the FPIC process in Messok Dja as not genuine. “The basis of the legal notion is that people have the right to refuse their consent. Without this being the basis of any discussion, FPIC is meaningless.”

According to Lewis, “conservation in Central Africa has become increasingly militarized in recent years, without addressing the rampant corruption that makes the appalling amount of illegal wildlife crime in the region occur.”

Not the first time

This is not the first time that WWF is accused of abusing the rights of indigenous peoples. In 2016, SI lodged a formal complaint against WWF under the guidelines of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for violating the rights of Baka communities in southeast Cameroon, just across the border from Messok Dja.

In a unique decision, the OECD decided to scrutinize WWF’s conduct according to the same guidelines that apply to multinational corporations, the first time a large international NGO was treated as such. A mediation process between the two parties followed, but ended in 2017 after SI withdrew itself, claiming that WWF could not agree that the Baka must consent to how future conservation areas on their land are managed.

Baka pygmy village in Dzanga Sangha National Park. Greenpeace/Markus Mauthe

In a response to the new revelations by Buzzfeed, U.S. and U.K. lawmakers are calling for urgent reviews of government funding for WWF, while the Rainforest Foundation has called on the European Commission to conduct an immediate investigation into its funding for conservation projects throughout Africa’s Congo Basin forests.

WWF has commissioned U.K. law firm Kingsley Napley for an “independent review” into the reported abuses. “We see it as our urgent responsibility to get to the bottom of the allegations BuzzFeed has made, and we recognize the importance of such scrutiny,” the charity said in a statement. “With this in mind, and while many of BuzzFeed’s assertions do not match our understanding of events, we have commissioned an independent review into the matters raised.’’

Banner image: A Baka man sits outside his home near Djoum through which the new Sangmelima-Ouesso road passes. Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.

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