The World Wildlife Fund and colonial conservation are threatening the existence of tribal people in Congo.
According to letters released last month, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), one of the largest conservation organizations in the world, is illegally supporting a conservation zone in the Congo Basin that is displacing and threatening the existence of the local Baka indigenous people.
The letters were signed by over 100 people in six villages in the Republic of Congo and released by Survival International, an organization that works to protect tribal people’s rights around the world.
The situation in the Congo is one example of “colonial conservation” that Survival International says threatens the existence of tribal people around the world.
What is the WWF Doing and Where?
The Messok Dja National Park, a new “protected area,” is being created by the WWF in northwest Congo without the permission of the native people who live there – the Baka and Bakwele tribes. The tribal members that live in the region depend on the land for survival.
One of the letters states, “WWF came to tell us that they are going to make a new national park and that we will no longer have the right to go in it. But that is our forest and we do not want this park. We know that it means destruction for us and that ecoguards will come and beat people and burn down houses. Many of us have been beaten with machetes and guns by the ecoguards.”
Many of the natives have been stripped of their land, houses, dignity and food. Another letter attests to this: “We Baka are born for the forest. We look for our food in the forest. We look for meat in the forest, honey in the forest. But the ecoguards have come to put an end to all that, and how are we going to live? It’s causing us such suffering.”
As stated in the letters and documented by Survival International, the WWF supports and funds “ecoguards” who have committed acts of human rights abuses against the Baka people for years. In addition to losing rights to their land, shelter and food, many people have been horrifically beaten and tortured by the ecoguards.
The letter continues, “Not long ago the ecoguards came to the village and started beating everyone. They beat my brother with a machete and cut his back, right to the bone – and they beat my mother with a piece of wood. They beat my brother and myself at the same time, everyone. They destroyed our cooking pots with their boots, they looked for ivory in our houses but they found nothing.”
Leaders of both the Baka and Bakwele tribes have refused to consent to the new park that the WWF wants to create. They fear that if the WWF has its way, their children and grandchildren will not survive. There are accounts in the letters of ecoguards sending the natives to prison, beating them and then fining them for refusing to comply.
Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples, said, “WWF must withdraw its support for Messok Dja immediately. It claims the government is responsible for assigning protected area status to the Baka’s land, but this excuse will not wash: WWF’s own policy (and international human rights norms) say it cannot support a project that the local indigenous people do not want.”
What Rights do Indigenous People Have?
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 with 144 states voting in favor and four states voting against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States), eleven states abstained.
Article Ten of the UNDRIP states, “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”
While the UNDRIP clearly declares the rights of indigenous peoples to their land, there has often been little recourse for indigenous people due to the lack of legal means of pursuing any violations of the UNDRIP.
Tara Ward states in the Journal of Human Rights, “Although it is clear that as of yet the right to full FPIC is not part of customary international law, there is a well-defined consensus that States at a minimum have an obligation to consult with indigenous peoples in good faith with regard to any projects found within their lands or which impact traditionally used resources.”
One legal avenue for tribal people that has been around since 1989 is the International Labour Organization Convention 169 (ILO 169). According to Survival International, it is the only international law that can secure tribal peoples’ land rights. ILO 169 recognizes and protects tribal peoples’ land ownership rights and sets a series of minimum UN standards regarding consultation and consent. However, ILO 169 has only been ratified by twenty-two countries and is largely ineffectual.
Survival International pursued another route in 2016 to stop the WWF in Congo when it lodged a complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which has guidelines regarding corporate responsibility for multinationals. Mediation was held between OECD and Survival but ultimately talks broke down and ended in a stalemate.
What is “Colonial Conservation” and How Does it Effect Indigenous People?
Colonial conservation is a phenomenon that tribal rights groups like Survival International say is destroying the environment and displacing tribal people all while receiving support and donations from unaware but well-meaning donors.
It’s called “colonial” because it represents the mindset that outsiders know how to better manage the land of tribal people — people who have often been managing the land sustainably for hundreds of years.
Colonial conservation is when an outside conservation organization like the WWF decides to create a new park to “conserve” land and in doing so they displace local people from the land and employ guards to protect the land.
Additionally, a new economy springs up around the land which is often harmful to the land and makes it worse off than before it became a park. As Survival explains, “Other profit-making enterprises, including mining, trophy hunting, logging etc, are often established inside the protected zones. Often, this is with the collusion of big conservation organizations which are funded by these same industries.”
In fact in Congo, the WWF partnered with the logging company Rougier to “advance sustainable forestry in Africa”. However, Survivor says the logging is conducted again without tribal peoples’ permission and is in fact unsustainable.
Additionally, the presence of armed guards on the newly conserved land leads to altercations, violence and even the death of tribal people who try enter the land they once roamed freely on. Survival says tribal people also then become more easily corrupted by guards or others to participate in the illegal wildlife trade.
Colonial conservation is based on the fantasy of tribal people as “noble savages,” as Survival explains:
The fact that local/tribal/indigenous people are the best guardians of the environment can no longer be dismissed as “noble savage” fantasy. It’s been proven again and again. Big conservation organizations must start approaching local people humbly and fairly, recognizing their superior knowledge as guardians of their own environments, and offering them resources to keep their own lands under their own control. It would be a far cheaper, far more effective model of conservation and although many organizations now claim they follow this, our research shows that, in fact, they don’t.
To support the Baka people or learn more about colonial conservation visit Survival International’s website.