An investigation by the Rainforest Foundation UK has found that communities living around the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been subjected to torture, murder and gang-rape at the hands of eco-guards supported by WWF with funding from a range of international donors.
Rainforest Foundation UK reports serious incidents that have taken place in recent years. These include, “two cases of gang rape, two extra-judicial killings, and multiple accounts of torture and other forms of mistreatment committed by park guards”.
WWF started working in the park in 2004. The park covers a total area of 36,000 square kilometres. Since 2016, WWF has been responsible for the park’s management. About 300 eco-guards are employed at Salonga.
About 700 communities live around the park, including about 130,000 people living in a 45-kilometre-wide “corridor” between the two separate halves of the park. When the park was established in 1970, many of these communities were evicted from the park. Since then, they have been prevented from accessing their traditional land and forest.
As a result of conservation-related limits to traditional hunting and fishing, these communities suffer widespread malnutrition.
The protection of wildlife in the park has become increasingly militarised in recent years. Anti-poaching initiatives are run by the Congolese protected area authority, ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), sometimes in collaboration with the Congolese army.
Torture, murder and rape
“It is common for women who venture into the park to be raped, and men face extortion and torture,” one of the villagers told Rainforest Foundation UK’s research team.
In March 2019, Joe Eisen, head of research and policy at Rainforest Foundation UK, spoke to the BBC World Service about the research in Salonga. “We found serious human rights abuses. We documented cases of gang rape, murder, torture,” he said.
In interviews with 231 people Rainforest Foundation UK’s research team heard that a quarter of them had been harassed by the park’s eco-guards, including unauthorised searches and destruction of property.
“We only managed to interview communities from 11 villages next to the park,” Eisen told BBC World Service. “There are as many as 700. So it really is a small snapshot of a much wider problem.”
Eisen commented that,
For a number of years the international conservation community have been making all the right sounds about people friendly conservation but we’ve seen very little tangible evidence of it happening. Now that this is beginning to come into the public domain, again we’re hearing lots of noises, but we need to hear concrete changes in policies.
People can’t suffer as a result of nature conservation. And ultimately it’s self defeating. If you work against the people who live in and depend on that forest, then you’re turning the best allies we have from saving it.
WWF’s confidential investigation
In May 2018 and in October 2018, Rainforest Foundation UK informed WWF and KfW, the German Development Bank – one of Salonga’s funders, about the alleged human rights abuses.
In January 2019, at a meeting with WWF and KfW, WWF agreed to commission an investigation by its lawyers into the case of abuse in Salonga.
An article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that in February 2019, two teams travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate six cases of murder, rape and torture. The investigators interviewed victims, witnesses, and alleged perpetrators.
The investigation confirmed the murder of three men, the rape of six women, and the torture of three men by eco-guards between 2002 and 2016. But last week, WWF told Rainforest Foundation UK that it will not make this investigation available, except under conditions of strict confidentiality.
Rainforest Foundation UK comments that,
At no time was it agreed that the report of this investigation would be confidential, there was no requirement for confidentiality in the investigation’s Terms of Reference, and local Congolese observers who helped with the investigations were never informed that the results would be kept confidential.
Simon Counsell, director of Rainforest Foundation UK, told the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung that, “We have always made clear to WWF that we have a moral obligation to the victims who have given us a mandate to publicise their cases and help them find justice.”
So far, KfW has funded €5.4 million for the Salonga National Park. Neither KfW nor the German Ministry for Development Cooperation responded to the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung‘s requests for a comment.
KfW and Germany’s Freedom of Information Act
BuzzFeed News has taken out a legal case to get KfW to release documents about Salonga. BuzzFeed News wants to know when KfW, and the German government, found out about the serious human rights violations and how it dealt with them.
The legal case also will clarify whether KfW falls under Germany’s Freedom of Information Act. BuzzFeed News’ lawyers argue that KfW acts as a federal agency, or at least on behalf of the state, and therefore falls under the Freedom of Information Act. KfW argues that it is a bank operating under private law, and therefore not a federal agency.
Two interviews from 2014 and 2017, with WWF employees in Salonga reveal that WWF has had a pretty good idea of the problems in the park for many years.
“You can cause a lot of trouble with rifles”
In November 2014, WWF Germany posted an interview with Jonas Eriksson on its website. Eriksson works for WWF in the Salonga National Park and he talks about protecting the 5,000 bonobos in the park from poachers.
Erikson described removing wire and nylon traps that the bonobos get caught in. “When we see fresh traces of people, the hunt for the poachers begins,” Eriksson said.
He described what happens when the eco-guards find a camp. “It is always a very tense situation,” he said. “The last thing you want is, of course, a firefights.” Often he left the guards and went alone into the camp, armed with a traditional bow and arrow. He tried to make them talk. “It is much harder to kill someone if you’ve already had contact with them.”
The eco-guards are employed by the state, but WWF gives food and equipment. “It’s a job, but not like any other,” Eriksson says. “You need paramilitary training and carry a rifle.”
When asked about the local people’s attitude to the eco-guards, Eriksson replies,
“OK, if they behave themselves. People are also skeptical. Eco-guards have rifles. And you can cause a lot of trouble with rifles.”
WWF Germany has now removed the interview from its website. An archived version is available here.
“They were a law unto themselves”
For a year, from February 2016, Oliver Nelson was park director at Salonga. On its website, under the headline, “New hope for Salonga National Park in DRC”, WWF included this photograph of the head of ICCN formally handing Nelson an assault rifle at the start of his new job:
After he left the job, Nelson gave an interview with Nomad magazine. He talked about the difficulties patrolling a park the size of Salonga:
Most of our patrols were done by river. There were foot patrols, too, of up to two weeks, but sometimes they’d only manage five miles a day, and had to hack through tropical forest. We had many confiscations of bush meat, and ceremonies to burn it. We would arrest poachers with AK-47s, with ammunition got from the army. I had rangers shot and killed, rangers with fingers blown off. It was very dangerous. Most donors will not allow us to spend money on firearms and ammunition, so we had to use old firearms, which barely worked.
Asked about the communities living in Salonga, Nelson replied,
I spent my first five days on a dug-out canoe visiting various sectors of the park. The deeper you get, the more isolated and undeveloped it gets. There’s a heavy-handed police presence. I went to a very isolated village, where a contingent of police greeted me in full riot gear, with rocket launchers. It was very intimidating. It’s about control. There were always stories of extortion, theft, rape and beatings. They were a law unto themselves, as were the Congolese army assigned to the park to control poaching. They did a good job reducing poaching, but in a rather heavy-handed way.