Messok Dja is a 1,456 square kilometre area of dense rainforest in the northwest of the Republic of Congo. For years, WWF has been working to persuade the government to establish a new Messok Dja National Park. On its website, WWF states that the forest is “highly threatened by intense elephant poaching and ivory trafficking”. Two logging companies have concessions overlapping the proposed park: a Lebanese company called SIFCO; and a Chinese company called SEFYD.
WWF’s plans got a boost in 2016, when the European Union agreed to €1 million funding for the new park, on condition that WWF would seek the consent of the Indigenous People living in and around the park.
In a May 2018 report, WWF told the EU that indigenous people were in support of the proposed national park. But a recent Buzzfeed News investigation reveals that WWF was fully aware of indigenous Baka people’s opposition to the park, and their fear of repression by eco-guards, as documented in a July 2017 internal WWF report.
Opposition to the park
In June 2017, WWF hired Sam Nziengui-Kassa as a consultant, as an expert on free, prior and informed consent. Nziengui-Kassa travelled to Messok Dja and his report, titled “Prospective mission to carry out participatory mapping of village communities’ use areas around the future Messok-Dja National Park”, was completed in July 2017. He was subsequently employed by WWF in the Republic of Congo.
Nziengui-Kassa wrote that villagers were afraid of “repression from eco-guards” brought in to patrol the park. “They systematically associate it with the idea that they cannot access the forest anymore,” he wrote. They were worried about “being forbidden to hunt”. Villagers blamed WWF for the actions of eco-guards and were “very hesitant” to speak to Nziengui-Kassa “out of mistrust”.
Indigenous peoples face human rights abuses at the hands of WWF supported eco-guards
In September 2017, Survival International put out a report titled “How will we Survive?”. The report looks at the impact of conservation on Indigenous Peoples in the Congo Basin.
The report includes a section about the abuses that the Baka indigenous people living near the proposed Messok Dja park have faced at the hands of eco-guards.
One Baka man told Survival International that,
They told us to tilt our heads and with both hands they beat down on our ears with all their might. Blood started to flow. They did that twice, twice on each ear. […] I’ve been unwell ever since that day.
Another Baka man said,
I was coming out of the forest with a wooden post, a packet of vines and a packet of wild greens. They took my machete and beat me with it. They beat me everywhere.
And another said,
It was a white car, with the WWF sign on the door. They stamped on my chest, they pointed their guns at me. They put a gun here [he indicates beneath his chin] and said, “If you mess around we will kill you. Even if your mother comes. We’ll kill her. Don’t scream.”
Some questions for WWF
In October 2017, I asked Frederick Kwame Kumah, director of WWF’s Regional Office in Africa, some questions about the abuses reported by Survival International.
I asked him how WWF intends to address the ongoing attacks by eco-guards, and whether a process of free, prior and informed consent been carried out with the indigenous communities living in and around the proposed National Park.
Kumah did not answer my question about how WWF intends to address the ongoing attacks by eco-guards. Yet WWF helped set up the eco-guard unit in Sembe, near the proposed park, and continues to provide financial and logistical support.
Kumah told me that WWF is “working with multiple actors, including the government, local communities and companies to protect the area in and around Messok Dja and its incredible biodiversity as logging and poaching remain significant threats.”
But WWF doesn’t plan to try and stop the logging companies – except by hoping to keep them out of the proposed National Park. Instead, WWF plans, “Continued work with logging companies towards building effective surveillance and anti-poaching units, which companies themselves would largely fund”.
Yet the two companies’ logging roads play a major role in opening up the forest to poachers from outside the area.
On free, prior and informed consent, Kumah stated that,
Throughout these discussions, recognizing that FPIC has much more stringent requirements than the standard legal procedure in place for community engagement and consultation, we have been advocating for FPIC with the government as they conduct the process. Participatory mapping has already been carried out in 39 villages surrounding Messok Dja and the next step of the process, which we continue to support, involves geo-referencing the areas with the communities to thereafter identify the impacts and solutions that can be devised together with the government.
Kumah, of course, made no mention of Nziengui-Kassa’s July 2017 report.
Buzzfeed News exposes WWF’s lies to the EU
In May 2018, WWF submitted a report to the European Union. Buzzfeed News obtained a copy of the report from the EU under freedom of information laws.
Passages of the report were cut and pasted from Sam Nziengui-Kassa’s July 2017 report. This was mainly background information about local villagers’ livelihoods. No source was given for this information (or for any of the other information in the report).
Buzzfeed News notes that,
[T]he sections of the report describing the consultant’s visits to the villages where locals opposed the park weren’t in the EU filing. Fears of forest ranger abuse were nowhere to be found. Nor was a section titled “Difficulties.”
Here’s a translation of the last four paragraphs of WWF’s May 2018 report:
The FPIC process, in progress, has enabled us, through participatory mapping, to identify the traditional use areas of the target communities so that they can be taken into account when definitively delineating the future protected area.
This FPIC process will also enable us to lay the foundations for inclusive and participative natural resource management with the effective participation of local and indigenous communities while taking into account gender aspects at all social strata.
In addition, the socio-economic diagnosis carried out in the villages and encampment in the periphery of the Messok Dja forest made it possible to identify and reveal the living conditions of the riparian populations in several sectors, notably health, education, vital needs, culture and social life.
The results of this diagnostic will help to develop wildlife conservation strategies for the future protected area, while taking the riparian community as a link in the development and success of the programme. Overall, the communities in the study area remain supportive of the creation of the protected area of Messok Dja, while highlighting the mutual respect of the stakeholders.
In the report to its EU funders, WWF gives the impression that it is running the FPIC process. But when I asked the director of WWF’s Regional Office in Africa, Frederick Kwame Kumah, about FPIC and Messok Dja, he distanced WWF from the FPIC process. He told me that the government is carrying out a process of “community engagement and consultation”, while WWF’s role was to advocate for FPIC.
In December 2018, Survival International released a series of letters about Messok Dja, signed by members of the Baka communities.
What the Baka wrote in their letters makes a mockery of WWF’s claims of any process of free, prior and informed consent having taken place. Here’s how the Baka described what happened in one of their letters:
WWF came to tell us that they are going to make a new 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.