- In late January, the Daily Mail published allegations that rangers working with African Parks at Odzala-Kokoua park in the Republic of Congo had beaten and raped Baka community members.
- In a statement, African Parks said it had hired the U.K.-based law firm Omnia Strategy to investigate the allegations, which were raised in a letter sent to a board member by the advocacy group Survival International last year.
- African Parks said it became aware of the allegations through that letter, but in 2022, a local civil society group in the Republic of Congo released a statement accusing rangers of committing “acts of torture.”
The conservation group African Parks says it has contracted the law firm Omnia Strategy LLP to investigate allegations of human rights abuses at Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. The allegations were first published by the news outlet the Daily Mail on Jan. 27th. The reporting included testimony by Indigenous Baka community members who said they’d been beaten and raped by park rangers employed by African Parks when venturing into the park to hunt, fish and gather food. Odzala-Kokoua is one of 22 parks the South Africa-based group manages in 12 African countries under public-private partnership agreements with host governments.
Omnia Strategy is a London-based firm co-founded by Cherie Blair, wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, which describes itself as a “specialist law firm providing world-class bespoke solutions to cross-border disputes.” According to African Parks, Omnia will be supported in its investigation by legal counsel from Doughty Street Chambers, another U.K. firm that specializes in human rights law, as well as a “Baka anthropologist.”
In an emailed response to questions from Mongabay, African Parks said it did not have a timeline for the investigation’s conclusion.
“While we hope to be able to share an update in respect of indicative timings in the coming weeks, the investigation is independent of African Parks and so we will take our lead from Omnia,” said Carli Flemmer, chief marketing officer for African Parks.
African Parks took over the management of Odzala-Kokoua, a 13,546-square-kilometer (5,230-square-mile) national park in the heart of the Congo rainforest, with a 25-year concession agreement signed with the Republic of Congo’s government in 2010. One of the most important remaining habitats for African forest elephants, Odzala-Kokoua’s forests have traditionally been used and occupied by Baka communities. In a statement, African Parks said the Baka maintain some hunting and gathering rights in two of the park’s three “zones.”
But according to the Daily Mail’s reporting, as well as statements by local and international Indigenous rights groups, Baka people have been beaten and sexually assaulted by African Parks rangers while inside the park, including in the zones permitted for them to access.
The allegations follow a series of human rights scandals by conservation organizations in the Congo Basin, most prominently around the operations of the World Wildlife Fund. In 2020, an independent review panel found that WWF knew about long-standing abuses at parks where it operated and failed to act on credible reports.
African Parks has long maintained that such abuses would be far less likely to take place in the parks they manage. Whereas WWF and other conservation organizations work in partnership with government agencies that maintain final authority over park rangers, African Parks commands its own standing ranger forces at all the parks for which it has taken responsibility. Direct control of rangers, the group has suggested, makes it easier to enforce human rights standards.
But the Indigenous rights group Survival International said that African Parks has been aware of reports of abuses by rangers at Odzala-Kokoua since at least 2013, when they were discussed in direct meetings between the group’s staff and advocates in the Republic of Congo.
“The problem is not who hired the rangers or the training they have, it’s the model,” said Fiore Longo, a campaigner with Survival International. “It’s about the fact that you’re putting [them there] to protect areas that other people need for food, shelter and sacred spaces.”
The alleged abuses were raised in a letter sent by Survival International to a member of the African Parks board in May 2023. In the letter, the group said the abuses were “widespread and systematic.”
In a statement released Jan. 27, African Parks said it became aware of the allegations against its rangers via that letter, and that the Omni investigation was launched “immediately” thereafter.
But nearly a year before the letter, the Development Action Center, a Congo-based civil society group, released a statement decrying the slow pace of a Congolese investigation into “acts of torture” committed by rangers at Odzala-Kokoua in 2019. The statement alleged that African Parks rangers severely beat a pair of fishers who had been accused of poaching inside the park, and it refers to a local investigation into the incident.
“Our organization has also received credible information according to which eco-guards, including those of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, are constantly engaged in abuses against local and indigenous populations,” the group wrote.
And in 2016, the Rainforest Foundation UK published the findings from its own field investigation into conservation-related abuses and Indigenous grievances across the Congo Basin. The report cited Odzala-Kokoua’s history of evictions and said there was widespread dissatisfaction among Baka people with the park’s rules and restrictions. Researchers wrote that they had heard testimony of “brutality” by rangers.
The two reports raise questions about African Parks’ assertion that it only learned of abuse allegations in 2023.
“Anyone who goes there for even half a day — and I really invite you to go — is going to hear about this, because it’s the daily life of the people, so it’s not a secret,” said Longo.
Mongabay reviewed typed notes that were shared by Survival International from what the group claimed was a 2014 meeting it conducted with an African Parks staff member, who admitted there were credible stories of abuses by park rangers.
In response, African Parks said it had “not found any records to substantiate claims of prior notification of such allegations.”
The accusations are rekindling debate over harsh policing of protected areas like Odzala-Kokoua. One of the primary selling points of African Parks has been its track record of establishing tight control over the national parks it manages. For governments looking to protect biodiversity — and boost tourism — that’s part of what makes the group an attractive partner. But Indigenous rights advocates say that forms of conservation that exclude local people from landscapes where they live are a relic of a violent past and are prone to human rights abuses.
“It is unfortunate that it seems to have taken a media furore to prompt such an investigation when abuses around the park have been known about for some time,” Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, wrote in an email to Mongabay.
In its Feb. 2 statement, African Parks obliquely criticized Survival International and other groups for failing to share additional information about specific abuse allegations that could be used in the investigation, calling the failure to do so a “second abuse of the victim.”
The group told Mongabay that its investigation would take a “victim-centered approach” and respect the confidentiality and security concerns of anyone it spoke to.
“This approach will seek above all to reduce the risk of causing further harm to victims,” Flemmer wrote.
John Knox, former U.N. special rapporteur on the environment and human rights, and a member of the panel that reviewed WWF’s response to its own scandal, told Mongabay that to be effective, the group’s investigation will need to be independent and include people with expertise in the region.
“Let them do whatever they think is necessary to investigate the allegations, and then commit to publish their report and do everything they can to implement their recommendations,” he said.
Banner image: Véronique Sekuka, a Baka woman who was evicted from what is now Odzala-Kokoua National Park. She told Survival: “When will this suffering be over? After we were barred from the forest, we can’t live any more.” Image © Survival International.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Cameroonian Goldman Prize winner Samuel Nguiffo, Congolese academic Vedaste Cituli, and Mongabay features writer Ashoka Mukpo detail the troubling history of fortress conservation in Central Africa and ways to address the problems it has created, listen here:
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