“If this is all about protecting the rainforest, then, I don’t know, something has gone wrong here. Something has gone very, very badly wrong.”
That’s Ade Adepitan in a recent documentary on Channel 4’s “Unreported World”.
Adepitan travelled with director Karim Shah to the Republic of Congo to report on the impact of the proposed Messok Dja National Park on the indigenous Baka who live in and around the forest. He found that the Baka are living in fear of the eco-guards.
For years, WWF has been pushing the government of the Republic of Congo to establish the Messok Dja National Park.
In 2016, the European Union agreed to €1 million funding for the new park, on condition that WWF sought 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 an internal WWF report dated July 2017 reveals that WWF knew that the Baka opposed the park, and were worried about repression at the hands of the WWF-funded eco-guards.
What’s happening to the Baka is not “empowerment”
On its website, WWF claims to be “empowering communities”. The reality that Channel 4 found in villages around the proposed national park is the precise opposite of “empowerment”.
Missing from WWF’s list of the “growing challenges” that communities face, is the intimidation and violence at the hands of eco-guards.
The eco-guards around the proposed Messok Dja National Park work for the government, but receive funding from WWF. Adepitan explains that,
Protecting the elephant is one of the WWF’s main causes. And it has a fight on its hands. Thanks to poaching gangs, including Chinese syndicates, the elephant population here has plummeted by 60% in the last ten years.
Adepitan and his film crew travel on a new road, built with the help of Chinese logging companies. As well as helping the logging companies, Adepitan says, the road “provides a speedy getaway for the poachers”.
New laws prevent the Baka from living off the forest
Adepitan travels to the town of Sembe and meets Mkosi, one of the few Baka to be educated. He asks Mkosi to tell him about the issues the Baka are facing. Mkosi replies,
Many are marginalised in the forest. People look down on them. There are now laws that stop them living off the forest.
They travel together to a village on the edge of the forest. Adepitan asks the village chief whether many of the villagers have had problems with the eco-guards. The chief points to one after another of them. The villagers are reluctant to talk to Adepitan. “Talk to them, or people have suffered for nothing,” the chief says.
Eventually they begin to talk. One villager says,
I saw a torchlight, then I saw their uniforms. Then one of them fired a warning shot at us…. They push us around because they just see us as ‘Pygmies’.
WWF told Channel 4 that respect for human rights is at the core of their mission, and they have stringent policies designed to ensure that their partners are safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples.
But the Baka say that they hunt outside the proposed park, and only for animals that it is legal to hunt. They say that the eco-guards don’t care, and just carrying a rifle makes them a target.
Bushmeat is their main source of protein. They eat meat only once a week. That’s if they catch anything. When they don’t, the village goes without meat.
“You can only complain if you have money”
Adepitan visits another village, where a woman called Milon, recently buried her father. He was killed a year ago after eco-guards arrested him. “They arrested him for nothing,” she says. He was convicted of killing an elephant and spent six months in prison where he was sexually abused by other inmates. He died three days after his release.
The villagers say that none of them even owned a rifle.
Adepitan asks whether anyone has made a complaint to the authorities. “You can only complain if you have money,” Milon replies.
“I don’t know if her father was guilty,” Adepitan comments. “But I can see that his death has left these people terrified of the eco-guards. Nobody deserves that.”
The film crew tries, without success, to talk to the eco-guards. They see the eco-guards going out on patrol, heavily armed. “I can see why the Baka are so intimidated,” Adepitan says. “They look more like soldiers.”
In one village, Adepitan asks villagers what will happen if the forest becomes a national park. “We are afraid to go into the forest,” a villager replies. While they are talking the atmosphere changes. An eco-guard has joined the group and is listening.
Off camera, the eco-guard tries to tell the villagers what to say to Adepitan. But when Adepitan tries to talk to him, he walks away. He does not want to appear on camera. The villagers are too intimidated to talk with the eco-guard there.
At one point in the documentary, Adepitan sums up the problem in a nutshell:
To me, it looks like the creation of these parks is all about the animals. I’m sure the WWF’s intentions are good, but who’s standing up for the people who are running out of options?
Survival International is campaigning in partnership with the Baka to stop the Messok Dja National Park. Survival has set up an email writing campaign to Marco Lambertini WWF’s Director General. The Baka oppose the proposed park, and it is therefore illegal.