in Cameroon, France

WWF scandal (part 7): WWF teams up with loggers rather than indigenous peoples in Cameroon

RougierIn April 2015, WWF and Rougier, a French logging company, announced that they would work together on a three year programme to “jointly advance responsible forest management and trade”. The deal is part of WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) that aims to promote trade in legal and sustainable timber.

The benefits to Rougier are clear. The company gets to use WWF’s panda logo to greenwash its logging operations. Société Forestière et Industrielle de la Doumé (SFID), a subsidiary of Rougier, has been a member of the GFTN since 1 October 2009.

It is less clear why a conservation organisation would partner with a logging company. Surely the indigenous people living in the forest that need the of support conservationists, not the logging company.

Baka communities did not consent to logging

Last week, Survival International accused WWF of partnering with a company that is logging without the consent of the local indigenous Baka communities:

A French logging company and official partner of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is deforesting a huge area of rainforest in southeast Cameroon without the consent of local Baka “Pygmies” who have lived there and managed the land for generations, Survival International has learned.

Rougier is described as an “integrated forest & trade company” and a large “forest operator” in a WWF press release and report. It is felling trees in an estimated 600,000 hectare area, which is more than is permitted under Cameroonian law.

In its response, Rougier denies the accusations, and in turn accuses Survival International of making “slanderous allegations”:

[T]he Rougier Group denies the validity of the charges made against it and will be quickly putting in place appropriate means of defense faced with these slanderous claims attacking the company and all its employees.

Survival International recently wrote to Rougier’s CEO, Francis Rougier, asking whether he believed that the Baka had given their consent to his company’s logging operations. In reply, the company wrote that, “Baka communities are aware of our existence and operation”. I’m sure they are by now. But that isn’t an answer to Survival International’s question.

Enter the Forest Stewardship Council

In March 2013, SFID obtained Forest Stewardship Council certification for two of its logging concessions, covering a total area of 285,667 hectares.

When the certificate was issued, Rainforest Alliance, the assessor set a series of Corrective Action Requests. One of the problems with the FSC system is that a certificate can be awarded even though the operation does not comply entirely with FSC’s standards. The auditor issues a Corrective Action Request and at a future audit, the company has to convince the auditors that it has improved.

Two of the Corrective Action Requests relate to Baka communities. Both relate to the Baka’s rights to access and use the forest inside the logging concessions (presumably before Rougier logs it):

Interviews with a sample of Bantu and Baka local communities that have developed participatory maps have revealed that there is a bad, or sometimes a lack of understanding of the purpose and content of these documents and the rights that underlie the exercise of identifying resources in the territory. Access to the FMU’s [Forest Management Unit] coveted resources, their use rights (subsistence vs. commercial) and harvesting techniques still form a mixture that is difficult to disentangle. In one particular case, the existence of reforested areas within the FMU limits (a regulatory requirement) constitutes a no-go zone in the mind of community members, while it really should not be so.

The statutory provisions, the requirements of the management plan, traditional methods and procedures for access to natural resources are defined in management plans and outreach materials for local residents. There are also posters on paths that explain the resource that are prohibited for harvest. However, interviews with local villages reveal that the requirements of traditional methods authorized and the terms of access to natural resources are not always understood by the local population.

Following both of these findings, Rainforest Alliance’s assessors made an almost identical comment:

SFID is at the beginning stages in obtaining information and awareness of local communities to process their customary use rights, and there is room for improvement in the understanding and knowledge of the documents relating to customary use and rights as well as their rights and duties with respect to the identified resources.

This is a bizarre process. The company logging the Baka communities’ forests, and thus impinging on Baka community rights, gets to explain to the Baka communities what rights they have.

And when SFID received FSC certification the company was at the “beginning stages” of explaining to local communites what their rights are.

SFID held a few training modules on participatory mapping and usage and legal rights. And Rainforest Alliance removed the Corrective Action Requests at the next audit.

Partnering with Rougier, rather than indigenous peoples

Clearly, the Baka were not involved in a process of free, prior and informed consent about the logging of their forest. Four years after Rougier joined WWF’s GFTN, the Baka communities affected by Rougier’s logging were still unaware of their rights.

Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry, comments:

“If further proof were needed that WWF is more interested in securing corporate cash than really looking out for the environment, here it is. The absurd language it has used to try and hide this partnership with a logging firm – calling Rougier a “leading producer of certified African tropical timber” – should fool no-one, and reveals a lot about the nature of this partnership. It’s a con. And it’s harming conservation. Survival is fighting these abuses, for tribes, for nature, for all humanity. Conservation organizations should be partnering with tribal peoples to protect the environment, not the companies destroying it to make a quick buck.”


Leave a Reply

  1. This article makes me wonder about my previous support of the WWF.

  2. What is the response of WWF on this crucial issue?

  3. Guys: reporting. No one could pick up the phone and ask WWF what they had to say about this?

  4. @Avani Varma and @Bruno – As far as I’m aware, WWF has not made a public response to Survival International’s accusations.

    Bruno’s right. I could have phoned WWF and asked them for a response. Whoever I spoke to would probably have told me that WWF takes this sort of thing very seriously and is looking into the situation with its partners in Cameroon. They would no doubt tell me that GFTN is an “important and innovative transformational programme”. And that respecting indigenous peoples’ rights is an important part of the FSC certification system.

    Instead of ringing up and getting a sound bite, I’ve sent a series of questions to Annabelle Ledoux and Marielle Chaumien at WWF France. (These two are listed as sources of further information in WWF’s January 2016 news release, about progress made in the partnership with Rougier.)

    When WWF replies, I’ll post the answer in full, with a link from this post.

    But you’re right Bruno, I probably should have just rung up WWF.

  5. Wow, this is seriously shocking stuff. Why is WWF partnering with logging companies in the first place and how can the FSC have such serious criticisms but then still give the certification anyway?!

  6. @Angelica – Thanks for this. One of my questions to WWF (see this comment, above) asks how the FSC certificate could have been awarded when SFID was only “at the beginning stages in obtaining information and awareness of local communities to process their customary use rights”.

    FSC has a record of issuing certificates and hoping for improvements despite a series of “corrective action requests” that clearly show the at the time the operation was assessed it did not comply with FSC’s standards.

  7. While it is a rather complicate issue prone to subjective opinion, it remains even less clear as the main actors’ position, the national government and the juridical system, is even not mentioned. They define the rights; in this case nobody else: it doesn’t look like humans rights have so far been violated; have the Baka communities a recognized autonomous government? If not their rights can only be contractual. Are they signatories of the logging concession? no signatories but just mentioned in it? not mentioned in it and only considered in the FSC certification?
    While the described lack of consideration for the Baka by the WWF and the easiness of the FSC certificate issuing appear as a deviation from the respective institutions’ principles, a more complete description of the whole picture related to rights is necessary in order to judge how serious the WWF misconduct has been.

  8. @Carlo Castellani – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, er, universal.

    You may also want to take a look at the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

    Survival International asked Francis Rougier whether the Baka communities consented to the logging operations. He avoided the question.

    For me, the most important question raised by all this, is why WWF is partnering with a logging company, rather than with the indigenous people whose forest is being logged.

  9. FSC and WWF France are providing legitimacy for a multinational logging company in the misguided belief that they will be able to improve its operations.

    It is however evident in the relevant FSC audit reports (SGS and Rainforest Alliance) that the FSC verifiers are not seriously digging into community criticisms of Rougier and its subsidiary SFID. For example, the Controlled Wood standard says: “No conflicts relating to land tenure or land use rights of traditional or indigenous peoples groups exist in the FMUs under control of the Forest Management Enterprise for which a resolution process has not been agreed by the main parties to the dispute” but the SGS South Africa verifiers have accepted participatory identification of sacred sites as meaning that all customary land tenure and useage rights are being respected. Local Baka communities affected by SFID logging would see this quite differently but SGS only allowed a single day to consult all the stakeholders (communities and officials) spread across 265,000 ha of concessions located 3-4 hours drive apart!

    In relation to WWF’s partnership, the reality is that local WWF Cameroon staff have been repeatedly shown in published documents not to respect the Free Prior and Informed Consent of Baka communities in the implementation of their own WWF projects, which presupposes they are in no position to improve Rougier/SFID’s operating procedures. Their ‘greenwash’ partnership merely serves to make it harder for Baka and Bantu communities and their support organisations to call the company to account when it breaks national laws, international human rights laws, and FSC standards. WWF France should rescind this partnership immediately and engage an independent human rights organisation to report objectively on the allegations of land conflicts and rights abuses in Rougier’s concessions in Cameroon and in neighbouring Gabon, CAR and Republic of Congo.