By Chris Lang
“In the past we knew no boundaries in the forest. A Baka knew that the forest belonged to him.” This is part of a statement from an indigenous Baka man explaining how the Baka live in and with the forest in the north of the Republic of Congo.
His statement is part of a complaint sent to the UN Development Programme in August 2018. He was concerned about a Global Environment Facility project to establish a new National Park called Messok Dja on the Baka’s land. For years, WWF has been pushing the government of the Republic of Congo to create the National Park.
Now they have brought boundaries to the forest. What do they want? We are suffering – they come and beat us, they take our meat to sell it in town, if we make camps in the forest the ecoguards burn them down.
Many Baka are dead today. Children are getting thinner. We are already finished off with malnutrition and the lack of forest medicines. . . .
We tried to explain our difficulties to WWF but they did not accept them. They just came to tell us that we can no longer go there.
Survival International collected six statements from Baka indigenous people and submitted them as a formal complaint to UNDP.
A second Baka person said,
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.
Before submitting the formal complaint, in July 2018, Survival International raised the issues with Jean Félix Issang and Bourges Djoni Djimbi, UNDP staff in Brazzaville. “Our concerns were met with a round of laughter,” Fiona Watson, Advocacy and Research Director at Survival International wrote in the cover letter to the formal complaint. “They showed no intention of investigating the matter further.”
A team of investigators sent to northern Congo by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to assess allegations of human rights abuses gathered “credible” evidence from different sources that hunter-gatherer Baka tribespeople living close to a proposed national park had been subjected to violence and physical abuse from the guards over years.
Vidal writes that, armed ecoguards partly funded by WWF “beat up and intimidated hundreds of Baka pygmies living deep in the rainforests”.
UNDP’s draft report, dated 6 January 2020, states that,
“These beatings occur when the Baka are in their camps along the road as well as when they are in the forest. They affect men, women and children. Other reports refer to ecoguards pointing a gun at one Baka to force him to beat another and guards taking away the machetes of the Baka, then beating them with those machetes.
“There are reports of Baka men having been taken to prison and of torture and rape inside prison. The widow of one Baka man spoke about her husband being so ill-treated in prison that he died shortly after his release. He had been transported to the prison in a WWF-marked vehicle.”
The UNDP draft report also states that,
“The violence and threats are leading to trauma and suffering in the Baka communities. It is also preventing the Baka from pursuing their customary livelihoods, which in turn is contributing to their further marginalisation and impoverishment.”
The Messok Dja National Park is part of a US$21.4 million project set up in 2017. Funding comes from WWF, UNDP, the European Commission, the US and Republic of Congo government, the Global Environment Facility, and logging and palm oil corporations. UNDP’s report reveals that funders simply assumed that the project would bring environmental and social benefits.
A UNDP spokesperson told the Guardian that, “Following an initial assessment of the allegations, UNDP suspended the project in March 2019.”
The UNDP team interviewed Congolese WWF staff, who “acknowledged the evidence of abuse against the Baku” by the ecoguards. UNDP’s draft report states that,
“Such occurrences were presented as isolated incidents due to the existence of a few bad apples among the ecoguards in what was otherwise a successful operation. A WWF staff member . . . explained that these incidences were occurring because of the psychological ramifications of putting someone in a uniform and giving him a gun, which for some men represents a licence to commit abuse. . . .
“Baka men find they can no longer go into the forest to obtain honey. They fear that they are no longer able to trap small animals without running the risk of being severely punished by the ecoguards. There are numerous reports of Baka caught in the forest being beaten.”
In 2017, Survival International published a report titled “How will we survive?” The report includes six pages of reports about abuses against indigenous peoples in the area of the proposed Messok Dja National Park.
Following the report, I interviewed Frederick Kwame Kumah, director of WWF’s Regional Office in Africa. In quite a long interview, Kumah avoided answering my questions about how WWF intends to address the ongoing attacks against indigenous people by ecoguards funded by WWF.
His answers certainly did not give me the impression that WWF was taking seriously Survival International’s carefully documented allegations of human rights abuses.
WWF is “appalled”
Three years later, WWF states in response to the UNDP draft report:
“We are appalled by the observations and allegations of the report. Although it is vital the forests of Messok Dja are protected from escalating environmental pressures, it cannot come at any cost to indigenous people, their communities, traditions or livelihoods.”
And then WWF challenges the findings of the report, arguing that the report “does not reflect the current position on the ground”.
This makes no sense. The statements from the Baka explicitly oppose the Messok Dja National Park. One of the Baka points out in the complaint to UNDP that,
Together, we the inhabitants of Zouoba – Bantu and Baka – refuse the park outright. WWF arrived in our forest and is establishing boundaries without our consent. They are going to create the park five kilometres from our village, at the Zouoba river. But we cannot accept that.
And WWF has known about the problems with Messok Dja for years. A March 2019 investigation by BuzzFeed News revealed that the Baka’s opposition to the National Park was clearly documented in a July 2017 internal WWF report.
Stephen Corry, director of Survival International comments that,
“This is a devastating indictment which should spell the end of WWF’s model of ‘fortress conservation’ which has caused so much damage to people and the environment throughout Africa.
“Millions have already been spent on the proposed park, much of it coming from logging, palm oil and tourism companies, as well as conservation NGOs. They are working together to steal Baka land. Rangers have been installed, who have terrorized the local Baka for years.
“All the relevant UN policies and laws regarding respect for indigenous peoples and human rights were ignored from the beginning as it was felt that a conservation project somehow rose above them.
“All this was because it was far easier to target innocent Baka men, women and children than to challenge the criminal networks, which include local and government officials. None of these abuses seemed to have the slightest effect on reducing poaching.
“Thirty years ago, we told WWF that its projects in the Congo Basin risked depriving the local tribal people of their land and self-sufficiency, and reducing them to penury. We repeated this warning at various times but it fell on deaf ears. WWF is engaged in a land theft, and gross human rights abuses on a big scale.”
PHOTO Credit: Fiore Longo, “WWF is complicit in human rights abuses and illegal land theft”, Survival International, November 2018.