By Chris Lang
In March 2019, BuzzFeed News published a year-long investigation that found that WWF had funded and equipped eco-guards who have tortured, sexually assaulted, and killed people. In response, WWF launched an “independent review”. WWF finally released the review this week. It is, of course, pure coincidence that the review came out just days after WWF received US$100 million from the Bezos Earth Fund.
The 160-page “independent review” is available on WWF’s website.
BuzzFeed News’ journalists Katie J.M. Baker and Tom Warren note that,
Overall, WWF paid too little attention to credible abuse allegations, failed to construct a system for victims to make complaints, and painted an overly rosy picture of its anti-poaching war in public communications, the report found. “Unfortunately, WWF’s commitments to implement its social policies have not been adequately and consistently followed through,” the report’s authors wrote.
In a press release, Rainforest Foundation UK comments that, “This long overdue 160-page report lays bare institutional failings and problems with its organisational culture that allowed these abuses to occur and go unaddressed.”
Rainforest Foundation UK points out that in its response to the review, WWF International fails to take responsibility and does not issue a sincere apology to the many individuals who have suffered human rights abuses. In many cases, WWF continued to finance and equip park rangers even after hearing about allegations of horrific human rights abuses.
And Rainforest Foundation UK notes that,
WWF has done little to address the situation – the organisation did not investigate the situation beyond the specific cases that made media headlines, provided no support whatsoever for victims to seek redress, and has implemented barely any of the social measures they promised.
WWF’s suite of nice-sounding social policies and safeguards seem to have little bearing on how its projects are implemented on the ground. The review found that its opaque funding and operational structure, complex interrelationships between WWF International, its country offices and it host governments have all obscured lines of responsibly and accountability. While the organisation has taken some steps to address its failings, it remains to be seen if these will be any different from its previous commitments.
Six NGOs put out this statement following the release of the “independent review”:
Independent report on WWF-linked human rights abuses shows conservation sector needs root and branch change
Killings, torture, sexual and physical violence and intimidation have no place in conservation
- A report commissioned due to intense media pressure reveals systemic problems resulting in violence and abuse in protected areas managed or supported by WWF and major problems in WWF’s organisational approach to human rights
- Systematic denial of traditional and customary rights to lands underpins the emergence of violence, intimidation and other human rights abuses in protected areas
- Global inter-governmental negotiations seek a doubling of protected areas over the next 10 years, creating significant further risks of dispossession of customary rightsholders from their territories.
WWF has financed and provided technical support to conservation projects that have been rife with human rights violations including rape, murder and intimidation, and WWF failed to deal with these issues adequately, confirms a review (released yesterday) into WWF’s global operations.
The independent review into human rights violations in WWF programmes includes serious findings about WWF’s response to killings, torture, sexual and physical violence and intimidation against indigenous peoples and local communities connected with WWF operations in several areas of the world.
The report also points to serious failings in WWF’s organisational culture, characterised by a lack of transparency, accountability and inconsistent commitment to human rights. In the worst cases, WWF has not investigated human rights violations brought to its attention, apparently so as not to upset its relationships with government.
The flawed practices highlighted in this report that permit and facilitate human rights violations must end and WWF must take further concerted steps to ensure that they do. We urge WWF to implement the report’s recommendations in full, commission an investigation into the full extent of human rights abuses in its programmes, apologise unreservedly to survivors of abuse carried out in their name, and provide remedies to those affected where appropriate.
Some of the most serious findings were in relation to Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the report finds that, despite allegations of sexual and physical abuse by rangers being raised with senior management in 2016, a planned investigation was not implemented “apparently out of concern that doing so would meet with resistance from ICCN [the DRC state conservation agency]”. A subsequent investigation carried out in 2019 – only after significant media attention had been brought to the situation – “identified widespread allegations of extremely grave abuses by ecoguards and army personnel, including allegations of multiple murders, rapes, torture and beatings.” To this day, few of the remedial measures promised by WWF have been implemented and the organisation has provided no or inadequate support to victims in seeking redress.
On the basis of this and other findings, the panel points to the need for a substantial, practical integration of human rights expertise throughout WWF, as well as much greater transparency from the organisation. The independent panel’s report also makes a significant contribution to clarifying the obligations and responsibilities of conservation organisations in respect of human rights. Importantly, it recognises that multinational conservation organisations have the same responsibilities as businesses to respect human rights under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This is a welcome confirmation in light of the huge – and increasingly business-like – scale of intervention of conservation organisations across the globe.
The human rights abuses suffered by indigenous peoples and local communities listed in the report highlight fundamental issues that arise across the conservation sector as a whole, not isolated to WWF. The underlying cause of these abuses, as recognised in this report, is the exclusion of indigenous peoples and other communities with collective customary rights from their ancestral territories. The frequency and severity of abuses has been exacerbated by the increasing militarisation – with little or no oversight – of protected areas, especially in contexts where human rights abuses by security forces are widespread. We urge other conservation organisations as well as conservation funders to read this report closely and evaluate and amend their own practices in line with the recommendations made.
The sector must transform to ensure the human rights of indigenous peoples and other local communities affected by conservation projects are upheld, including their right to their customary lands and to protection from violence, intimidation, and abuse. This transformation is urgently needed, both to end violations and to move towards a community-led approach to conservation that acknowledges that sustainable conservation of indigenous peoples’ lands is most effective and durable when it is based on secure tenure.
The report is also timely as governments are currently negotiating a global target for radically increasing the area of the globe under some form of protected status. The currently proposed target is 30% of the land area of the globe by 2030, a near doubling from today’s proportion of 15.4%. This report highlights the very real and significant dangers that are associated with such a target if it is applied in countries where indigenous peoples and local community rights are not recognised or respected and if it does not explicitly include commitments to increase the area of land under secure title for indigenous peoples and local communities.
“This long overdue report lays bare the failings of WWF in protecting the human rights of those affected by its programmes and of an outmoded model of conservation that should be consigned to history. Yet WWF’s response shows an utter lack of contrition or accountability for these failings. We now need a paradigm shift that places local communities and Indigenous Peoples, not international organisations, at the front and centre of conservation efforts. The future of our planet depends on it.” – Joe Eisen, Executive Director at Rainforest Foundation UK
“This report rightly points to the exclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities from their customary lands and territories as the ‘original sin’ that underpins the serious human rights violations it records. We must see securing such rights, and supporting local ownership and management, as a central element in reducing human rights violations and in securing the ecosystems that they protect.” – Helen Tugendhat, Programme Coordinator at Forest Peoples Programme
“Indigenous Peoples’ rights must be at the centre of conservation actions to avoid further rights abuses by the sector. An integral part of this is the recognition of the contribution of Indigenous Peoples to conservation. 80% of the remaining biodiversity is on Indigenous Peoples’ lands and still, many major conservatists act as if they know better. This report clearly shows the opposite.” – Signe Leth, Senior Advisor at IWGIA