WWF’s support for 'fortress conservation' has led to serious human rights abuses for indigenous peoples, and nowhere more so than in Cameroon, where the Baka are considered trespassers and poachers in their own ancestral forests. A formal complaint against WWF's behaviour is now in process.
By Lewis Evans
Mar 6, 2016
No organization, no matter how noble or important its goals, should be above scrutiny. Any organization that operates on a global scale, funding projects all over the world, is liable to make mistakes which have serious consequences.
When this happens, the best response is to take real steps to stop it from happening, and to acknowledge that something went wrong. It is not acceptable to close ranks, fudge the facts, and try and claim that your overall mission is too important for flaws to be publicly exposed.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is an enormous organization. In many ways it has come to symbolize conservation worldwide, its distinctive panda logo etched onto pamphlets, soft toys and fieldwork fleeces.
Despite WWF's iconic status, anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist should be troubled by their behavior in Cameroon, and support Survival International's complaint to the OECD.
From a legal, political, and moral perspective, WWF has made some serious errors of judgment, and needs to take real steps to address the situation as a matter of urgency. For this reason, Survival has lodged a complaint with the OECD, which publishes human rights guidelines for international enterprises, in the hope that this will lead to a change of policy.
This procedure is normally used as a corrective to gross abuses by multinational corporations - such as mining, logging and plantation companies. It seems strange to be using it against a conservation NGO, but we believe we are doing so with good reason. Allow me to explain ...
A worthy cause, a dubious record
Cameroon's rainforest, home to many endangered species including forest elephants and western lowland gorillas, is threatened by loggers and miners keen to exploit its natural riches, and by networks of powerful people looking to line their pockets with profits from ivory and bushmeat.
WWF has been involved in creating a number of 'protected areas' for wildlife (a category that includes both national parks, and reserves for big game hunters to hunt for trophies) in the region.
These zones were created on the ancestral land of the Baka 'pygmies' and other neighboring rainforest tribes, without securing their agreement. A bare minimum of consultation was carried out, the project was not properly explained to the Baka, and before they knew it, they had lost the legal right to live on most of their land.
Places where they had hunted and foraged for food sustainably for generations were suddenly off-limits. Sacred groves and other important religious and historical sites were now forbidden to them. Now if they try to return to these lands, they are treated as criminals, and frequently risk being brutalized by the squads of 'ecoguards', often accompanied by soldiers and police, that WWF funds and equips.
This is a clear violation not only of WWF's own stated policy on indigenous peoples, it is also a denial of the Baka's human rights. Baka are criminalized and accused of poaching when they hunt to feed their families. They are shut out of most of their ancestral land. Their health and diets have deteriorated, and rates of alcohol abuse and depression have soared.
Fortress conservation versus human rights
No international NGO claiming to act in the common good should support any initiative that robs people of their lands. Further, no people should be subjected to beatings, harassment and torture - as the Baka and neighboring tribes across the region have repeatedly testified to - under any circumstances.
Yet sadly, this is what WWF and its donors big and small have contributed to. Conservation is an important cause but it does not trump human rights, and it can never be a justification for violence. To be ethical and effective, it must work with, and not against, people on the ground.
Rather than building positive relations with the Baka, who know their environment and what happens on it better than anyone else, WWF has fundamentally alienated them from their goals. Instead of making allies of tribes, the best guardians of the natural world, WWF has, in the eyes of the Baka, made itself a byword for neocolonial brutality.
By pitting the Baka against conservation, WWF has lost touch with reality on the ground. The squads it funds are involved in poaching themselves, or accept bribes from the powerful criminals that organize poaching. Meanwhile it ignores the wealth of evidence and data that the Baka - the eyes and ears of the forest - can provide. As one Baka man told Survival, "We know when the poachers are in the forest, but no one will listen to us."
This should be enough to make any conservationist feel very concerned indeed. Effective conservation should be about getting local people on side and spreading an environmentalist message in a positive way, not shutting them out of the process or presuming that they are involved in poaching and deserve to be punished for it.
An irresponsible response to a serious problem
I wish I could report that WWF's reaction to Survival's initial revelations of the failings of its policy in Cameroon was one of concern, followed by an immediate resolution to change tack.
Sadly, this was not the case. When one of Survival's campaigners informed local WWF employees in Cameroon of what was going on, the response consisted of a few shrugs and a vague allusion to the use of force being unavoidable.
We took our concerns to the national director, to senior people at WWF UK, US, Netherlands, Germany and Italy, and to their head office in Switzerland. For two years WWF failed to take the issues seriously enough and we were finally consigned to speaking only to the PR department.
A former WWF consultant whose testimony features in Survival's complaint spoke to a senior official in the Cameroonian government who said: "We torture [suspected poachers] when they don't want to tell the truth."
He added: "if we beat them, it's because they are involved in [poaching] and they don't want to talk" - openly attempting to justify human rights abuses in the name of wildlife conservation.
Utterly unacceptable behaviour
In 2012, WWF said that it would raise its concerns with this ministry - the very same department that had just unofficially endorsed torture. Since 2012, several further complaints have come to light from Baka tribespeople, and many other incidents are likely to have gone undocumented.
No effective action has been taken to investigate these abuses or to stop them from happening. WWF's response to Survival's allegations was inadequate given the seriousness of what was - and still is - going on.
They initially claimed our reports were "absurd" before acknowledging that there had been "incidents of utterly unacceptable behaviour towards Baka and others by ecoguards." Yet they still refused to find out exactly what was happening with their donors' money and, if necessary, do more than "raise concerns" with the Cameroonian government.
An incident in 2014 in which a Baka husband and wife were dragged from their houses in the middle of the night and violently interrogated by ecoguards - an unacceptable human rights violation even if the people in question had been involved in poaching, for which there was no evidence - was described merely as "an altercation" resulting from rivalry between local authorities.
Survival expected better from WWF. We had hoped that concern for the environment, and human rights, would go hand in hand. Instead, they have behaved exactly like a major corporation closing ranks after a scandal. Considering this, Survival felt we had no choice but to seek the involvement of a higher authority.
We have filed a formal complaint to the OECD, and await their response. In the past, OECD complaints have succeeded in pressuring large international organizations like mining giant Vedanta Resources to change tack.
It's the first time such a complaint has been filed against a conservation NGO, but our hand was forced by WWF's refusal to listen to us and, more importantly, to the Baka themselves.
Lewis Evans is an author, and campaigner at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples' rights.
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