in Cameroon, India, Nepal, Republic of Congo, Thailand

Big Green Politics Podcast: “The Dark Side of Conservation”

For the past two-and-a-half years I’ve been running a website called Conservation-Watch. I recently did an interview with the Big Green Politics Podcast, about the impact of conservation on indigenous peoples – the podcast went live yesterday.

The Big Green Politics Podcast was founded by Seden Anlar and Julia Lagoutte nine months ago. There’s more about them, and why they set up the podcast here, and all their podcasts are available here.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Here are some links to the information mentioned in the podcast.

There are more 230,000 protected areas, covering a total area of 46 million square kilometres (including marine and coastal protected areas) as documented in the 2018 United Nations List of Protected Areas.


In the mid-1990s, I worked in Thailand with a Thai organisation called Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA). One of the areas TERRA was working on was the impact on indigenous peoples of National Parks in Thailand on the indigenous people like the Karen who lived in the forests. The Karen lived in the forest way before the government declared their forests a national park and in the process declared their livelihoods illegal.

The Karen are still threatened with evictions, and in September 2016, Thailand’s Administrative Court ruled that National Park officers did not break the law when they burned the homes of Karen indigenous people in Kaeng Krachan National Park.


The Supreme Court decision in India that could lead to the eviction of millions of forest dwellers was the result of a case filed in 2008, by a group of wildlife conservation organisations. More about the threat of evictions is available here, including a critique of India’s National REDD+ Strategy.

WWF India’s website does not mention the word “evictions” once. The word “eviction” appears several times, but there’s nothing more recent than 2015. For a major conservation organisation like WWF to remain silent in the face of this massive scale of threatened evictions is far too close to being complicit in the evictions.


Buzzfeed News journalists Tom Warren and Katie J.M. Baker spent a year researching their stories of links between WWF and serious human rights abuses. They published these three main stories, and several follow up stories:


Buzzfeed News got hold of budgeting documents that reveal just how closely WWF worked with the government’s ecoguards in Lobéké National Park, Cameroon. WWF trained them, paid their salaries, built their homes, bought equipment (radios, satellite phones, 4×4 vehicles, boats). And allocated money to “enforcement”, including patrols and raids. WWF shares its office with the eco-guards. That’s a few doors down from the jail cell where eco-guards lock up suspected poachers.

In 2017, eco-guards tortured an 11-year-old boy in front of his parents. The village complained to WWF, but the family still hasn’t heard back from WWF.


Buzzfeed News describes how WWF continued to work with eco-guards who were accused of torturing and killing a villager in Nepal.

In 2014, one of the eco-guards, Kamal Jung Kunwar won WWF’s “living planet” award. Then-WWF president Yolanda Kakabadse and then–director general Jim Leape personally handed over the award.

By this time, Kamal Jung Kunwar had published his memoir, “Four Years for the Rhino”. The book describes one of his favourite interrogation techniques: waterboarding.

A challenge to conservationists

Chapter four of Mark Dowie’s book “Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples” is titled “BINGO”. In it, Dowie looks at the role of the big five conservation organisations: The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society and the African Wildlife Foundation.

Dowie writes about a 2004 paper written by anthropologist Mac Chapin. Published by WorldWatch Institute, Chapin’s paper, titled “A challenge to conservationists” is available here.

In its January/February 2005 issue, WorldWatch Institute published a series of responses to Chapin’s paper (some supportive of his claims, and some critical of them).

Chapin’s paper starts as follows:

In June 2003, representatives of major foundations concerned with the planet’s threatened biodiversity gathered in South Dakota for a meeting of the Consultative Group on Biodiversity. On the second evening, after dinner, several of the attendees met to discuss a problem about which they had become increasingly disturbed. In recent years, their foundations had given millions of dollars of support to nonprofit conservation organizations, and had even helped some of those groups get launched. Now, however, there were indications that three of the largest of these organizations — World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC)—were increasingly excluding, from full involvement in their programs, the indigenous and traditional peoples living in territories the conservationists were trying to protect. In some cases, there were complaints that the conservationists were being abusive.

Following this 2003 meeting, the Ford Foundation commissioned a report, titled, “Study of Critical New Forest Conservation Issues in the Global South”. The report, written by Arvind Khare and David Bray, notes that,

The last decade has witnessed a dramatic shift in the field of biodiversity conservation. Led by a handful of large conservation organizations, the new conservation strategy marks a major departure from the earlier approach of creating ad hoc protected areas toward scientifically identifying unprotected, endangered areas of high biodiversity concentration, and is accompanied by a shift from a species focus to an ecosystem and landscape focus.

The large landscape approaches “have brought the large NGOs face to face with millions of impoverished people and their livelihood issues, which are now a definite part of the new conservation agenda”, Khare and Bray write.

They also note that, “large conservation organizations, with notable regional and programmatic exceptions, do not necessarily see it as their responsibility to make links between biodiversity conservation and local sustainable livelihoods.”

And they write that, “The growing power and clout of these organizations raises questions about accountability which could be offset by more rigorous, publicly available evaluations.”

But Khare and Bray’s report was not supposed to see the light of day.

Dowie writes that this was thanks to Yolanda Kakabadse, who at the time was on the Ford Foundation Board of Trustees, was a member of The Nature Conservancy’s board, and was president of IUCN. (She later became director general of WWF.) TNC had recently faced a series of blisteringly critical articles in the Washington Post and Kakabadse was keen to avoid more criticism.

Dowie writes that,

The report’s authors, Arvind Khare and David Bray, were told not to give their reports to the board but were invited in to make a verbal presentation of their findings. A bland summary was presented to the board at the next meeting, some members of which asked for and did receive “confidential” copies of the full report.

One paragraph in Khare and Bray’s report is very disturbing – particularly given that it was written 15 years before the recent Buzzfeed News reports:

There is also a discernible trend that some activities of the large NGOs in these countries tend to be more controversial at community levels, especially in the countries where land tenure laws are not settled and communities are engaged in a struggle to claim their land rights. There are subtle distinctions between what is legal and what is legitimate, between actual displacement and threatened displacement and between suppression of land rights and non-recognition of land rights. In some cases, the positions taken by the large NGOs are similar to the current position takens by local governments and local conservation organizations. The local governments themselves, in some cases, do not have participatory processes in place or a robust legal system to help resolve the difficult issues of resource rights. The large NGOs are not directly involved in the displacement activities. That can only be done by the legally authorized government agencies. There are however sporadic examples that show that large NGOs are intervening in very complex tenurial situations, taking positions in multi-stakeholder disputes, and supporting displacement of “illegal” communities. This situation sometimes acquires a conspiratorial overtone in the local press due to a lack of reliable information. Few of the large NGO projects undergo rigorous, publicly available evaluations and there is an increasing demand for transparency and accountability. The history of some large conservation NGO involvement in particular areas of Latin America, such as the Petén in Guatemala and the Lacandon Rainforest of Mexico appear to have been highly problematic, yet there have been almost no publicly available evaluations on the part of the NGOs as to the outcomes in these areas. There are also very disquieting reports of large-scale displacements for protected areas in the Congo Basin. As the finances handled by large NGOs increase in size, it may be the opportune moment to improve systems of information sharing and accountability that would not only reassure the donors but also help win local support.

In his response (in 2005) to Chapin’s report, Simon Counsell of Rainforest Foudation UK wrote,

Some conservation organizations adopted more progressive policies towards indigenous peoples during the 1990s and early 2000s. However, these seem to have been, at best, only patchily applied on the ground or, at worst, simply abandoned altogether. For example, a recent survey estimated that some 54,000 indigenous people have been evicted or expropriated from 12 protected areas in the Congo Basin region, most of them run by the big international conservation organizations.

WWF’s response

WWF has posted a short statement in response to the Buzzfeed News reports on its website.

The Guardian reports that WWF has hired London-based law firm Kingsley Napley to “look into the claims”.

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. And now WWF.

Deforestation is lower in community-managed forests

In April 2017, I wrote a post on Conservation Watch collecting some of the evidence that deforestation is lower in community-managed forests than in strictly protected forests:

Giving land rights to communities stops deforestation. Here’s the evidence

Messok Dja, Republic of Congo

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.

Rainforest Foundation UK

More about Rainforest Foundation UK’s work in the Congo Basin is available on their website Mapping for Rights.

Guest Post – Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend of the ICCA Consortium: Seeds of nature and culture at the grassroots

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