in Republic of Congo

Exposed by Buzzfeed News: WWF’s lies about Indigenous People being “supportive” of its proposed Messok Dja National Park in the Republic of Congo

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 reported that in some of the villages that he visited people were “almost favourable” to the idea of the park. But in other areas, he found that people were opposed to the park.

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.

 

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  1. Like many people away back in the Seventies and Eighties, I was an avid fan of the WWF, thinking I was really helping the conservation of wildlife by going round the doors in Glasgow and standing in the streets, collecting money to save Tigers, Elephants etc. I also joined Survival International, which was founded to save indigenous peoples from genocide and ethnocide, with lots of concern for the South American tribes, the Australasian Aborigines and the Bushmen. Later, in the new century, complaints were coming out of Africa, signifying a clash of interests between peoples in the Congo along with the severe harassment of the Bushmen, by groups wanting to set up lucrative safari tours. Survival objected strongly to the mistreatment of these two peoples, and this set up a friction between the conservationists of wildlife and the rights of the tribes that had lived in their African locations for thousands of years. There should be no conflict between such interests, as the native people understand the human part of the jigsaw of what makes up a complex interaction of many species of plants and animals in a “habitat”. Any school kid could tell you that, who does elementary Biology! What we have now, is a combination of factors, such as the international resource hunters for timber, minerals, beef, palm oil, such as China, and oil/gas prospecting companies backed by big banks, clashing viciously with vulnerable communities with no “legal” title to their ancestral lands, and the racist attitude that they do not count as human beings and can be cleared off site. WWF has entered the world of high politics and doing deals with the Devil that they think will lessen the impact of extractive industries on the environment. The Heart of Borneo relationship with a large mining company used such a ploy, but it has lead to an intrusion into rainforest, with the consequent conflict with wildlife, such as the Elephant and constant movement of trucks laden with material. What has happened to the forest dwelling people there; have they been displaced to roadside living or to the squalor of towns?

    Humanity has not learned a lesson from the opening up of North America and the genocide of the Native Peoples there, along with the almost extinction of the Bison. That harassment continues there to this day, with Trump sanctioned intrusion into tribal lands for fracking and oil, and the indiscriminate hunting down of Wolves and other predators by the gun/trophy shooting lobby. Where is WWF in this hecatomb of wildlife killing and removal of protection for vulnerable species?
    Where are they in South America, where a new Brazilian President does not give a fig for conservation and the protection of tribal interests? I think WWF has to stop sitting in on councils of ungodly men and women, and pay more attention to the extinction threat for many creatures. Their support for trophy shooting funding wildlife conservation has failed, as most of such money goes into the pockets of corrupt politicians, or the wildlife is sold off to China and other countries for theme parks, with Zimbabwe and South Africa being good examples of that, with their selling of baby Elephants and other wildlife species.

    The Earth needs a united front of genuine conservationist groups, which have an understanding of the human presence in the natural environment, going back to the very origins of human evolution to what it is today. What we have got, is a free-for-all since civilisation industrialised on a grand scale, with economic systems demanding more and more resources, and not caring how it got them. The conservation of the natural environment and wildlife and the need for protection for vulnerable communities, as to be looked as a whole, and not a competitive mass of different interests, all vying for attention and fund donation. Surely, humanity’s leaders must see the mess the world is in, and develop an over-riding attitude that arm wrestles all dissent to the contrary, and makes the planet safer to live on for all forms of life, and that means the removal of crime from the world and pure unselfishness to reign. We have to begin somewhere, as many good people are becoming weary of the continued bad news coming through the media about threats to humanity, and what it depends upon, namely, a healthy and biodiverse natural world, with respect for the positive existence of those wishing to live their lives free of menace and domination. Failure to achieve that goal, will mean our lack of stewardship will force upon us a tyranny from which we will not escape, with the loss of human progress. That progress, if ethically based, could carry us far into the Universe, but not as a monster from an Alien film.

  2. WWF does amazing work on behalf of wildlife and the citizens who fund and support them. I regret these article take what may be abuses by government park rangers and miscast them, as if somehow WWF is to blame. In these tough parts of the world, criminals with machine guns kill innocent elephants, tigers and rhinos, pushing them to the brink of extinction. WWF is one way the citizens of the world who care about nature can push back. Funding government parks and their rangers is vital to this work – indeed, these rangers are out-gunned by poachers, who work like organised paramilitary, killing not only animals, but guards who get in their way. So a few anecdotes of abuses by guards – while horrific – do not at reveal the reality in places such as the Cameroon and Nepal.

    Indeed, WWF is committed to human rights, and does not tolerate abuses – they have reaffirmed this core value in their response to the allegations, as well as creating a commission to investigate exactly what has happened. Indeed, their whole approach to conservation sees nature and human commutes thriving together…the Buzzfeed article unjustly paints a false picture. I have supported WWF for years, currently at the level of Partner in Conservation. I know these people. Their hearts are in the right place, and they are striving to protect magnificent species from extinction. I sincerely hope organisations such at REDD do much more than simply repeating allegations, but do their own research and due diligence before casting stones. Show us the full reality of WWF in your reporting, REDD!

  3. @Tim Ward – I’m not sure you read the post you’re commenting on. WWF has been pushing to establish a new National Park in the Republic of Congo for years. WWF claims in its report to the EU that indigenous people living around the park support the park. The reality is that some of the Baka are “almost favourable” to the idea of the park, others strongly oppose it. They live in fear of the eco-guards. The source for this is an internal WWF report, obtained by Buzzfeed News. WWF was caught lying about the supposed process of free, prior and informed consent.

    When I interviewed Frederick Kwame Kumah, director of WWF’s Regional Office in Africa in October 2017, I asked him what WWF intended to do about the abuses that are taking place – with WWF’s financial support. Kwame Kumah declined to answer.

    Here’s WWF’s response to the Buzzfeed News allegations so far (in full):

    WWF has hired a firm of London-based lawyers, Kingsley Napley.

    Kingsley Napley is not known for its expertise in indigenous peoples’ rights, but one of its areas of expertise is reputation protection. Previous clients include: General Pinochet, when he was threatened with extradition to Spain; Charlie and Rebekah Brooks, after the News of the World phone hacking scandal; Nick Leeson, the fraudulent trader who brought down Barings Bank; and Rolf Harris, who was found guilty of indecently assaulting young girls. Oh, and now WWF.

  4. The article speaks loud and clear. This is not only happening in the Congo region but all over Africa. Am in Elgon forest and like what other indigenous people go through in Africa, Benet people is worst hit by those projects.

    We have been harassed, tortured, killed while others maimed and since then, no compensation has ever been made to the victims. It was uncalled that some people sat somewhere in Uganda and passed into law Benet ancestral homeland. Cazetted it a national park and excluded us the Benet from ANIMAL RACE. Just because of their selfish interests.

    WE DON’T LIKE THE PARK. IT HAS DONE TO US MORE HARM THAN GOOD. WE DID NOT BORROW IT FROM ANYONE, AND IF SO, COME AND RETURN YOUR THING. I rest my case.