By Simon Counsell
Straddling the borders of Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, the so-called ‘TRIDOM landscape’ covers 178,000 square kilometers, or around half the size of Germany, and 10% of the whole Congo Basin rainforest. Its acronym is derived from ‘Tri-National Dja-Odzala-Minkebe’, after the three protected areas – one in each country – which it spans.  According to WWF, the area is inhabited by “up to 25,000 elephants and 40,000 gorillas and chimpanzees, as well as a host of other species, including buffaloes, giant forest hogs, sitatunga, pythons, and monkeys”. It is also the home to many thousands of indigenous Baka ‘Pygmy’ people.
Mining the heart out of TRIDOM
But now this area is threatened by an onslaught of industrial development, especially mines, roads, palm oil plantations and, of course, logging. Of particular concern is a series of iron ore mining concessions known as the Mbalam-Nabeba project, covering around 150,000 hectares spanning the Cameroon-Congo border. When developed, these concessions will tear a hole in the very core of TRIDOM (see map, below).
The opening of what are known to be vast deposits of iron beneath Mbalam-Nabeba was already conceived in 2009, but has been delayed by complex corporate manoeuvrings and government chicanery. Above all, the region’s inaccessibility demands massive investment in new infrastructure and in particular, access to new supplies of power. This could be set to change with the planned construction of a huge hydroelectric dam in the centre of the area.
Hydropower to unleash the destruction?
As recently revealed in a report from Rainforest Foundation UK, the construction of a proposed new 100-metre high barrage, known as the Chollet Dam, could be the catalyst to the devastation of TRIDOM. The dam would itself almost certainly flood part of the nearby Nki National Park in Cameroon, and have other indirect impacts.
More seriously, its power could unlock the Mbalam-Nabeba project, including a proposed railway line slicing west through 500 kilometers of Cameroon’s rainforests to a newly built port on the Atlantic coast, from where iron ore would be exported. An agreement to build the railway was signed in June 2021. In turn, companies leading the mining developments say that their operations will help the hydro-power project become viable .
The Chollet dam is named after a stretch of waterfalls – described by WWF as “a pristine site” – on the Dja river, which forms the border between Cameroon and Republic of Congo and is one of the major tributaries of the River Congo. The dam, proposed as long ago as 2006, took a big step forward in 2020 and 2021 when contracts for its construction were awarded to the China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC), and preliminary studies began. The aim is to complete the dam by 2025.
Whither TRIDOM’s supposed protectors? Follow the money . . .
International donors including Germany’s KfW, the European Commission and the World Bank have spent hundreds of millions of dollars protecting TRIDOM over the last couple of decades, much of it channeled through the area’s main champion, WWF.
The establishment and management of several of the protected areas inside TRIDOM is now known to have involved brutal measures against indigenous and other local communities in a bid, conservationists have claimed, to protect the area’s wildlife.
In the Nki National Park, established in 2005 after a campaign by WWF, which has maintained a central role in the reserve, indigenous peoples’ camps have been burned down and the inhabitants evicted, whilst others have been beaten tortured and murdered by eco-guards, even outside the park’s boundaries.
The Odzala National Park in the Congo, now managed by African Parks, was long funded by the European Commission and similarly associated with eviction of, and harsh measures against, many thousands of local residents.
Establishment of a proposed new national park, called Messok Dja, in the Congolese part of TRIDOM, has been held back after an inquiry carried out for the United Nations Development Programme (one of its funders) found that WWF had failed to seek the proper and legally required free, prior and informed consent of local communities as to whether they wished their land to be designated as a reserve. Even before the park has been established, eco-guards supported by WWF were involved in beatings, torture, sexual abuses and even the killing of members of indigenous communities who live in Messok Dja.
One might expect, given the extent to which conservation agencies have terrorized local people in the name of conserving TRIDOM, that WWF and others would be up in arms about the existential threats now facing the area. Instead, the developments have been met with virtual silence. Despite saying that TRIDOM is “one of the most intact forest blocks remaining in the Congo Basin” and a “haven for large mammals”, “sheltering its largest elephant population”, WWF has said nothing about the iron mines and dam that could rip the region apart, other than that they “pose additional pressures” on the proposed new Messok Dja reserve.
A document obtained by Survival International from the European Commission through a Freedom of Information request perhaps helps to explain why. In a recent (and successful) funding proposal to the EC for the proposed Messok Dja park, WWF explains that it expects the mining companies eventually to finance its protected areas. The document states that:
Ultimately, if the Chollet dam is created, it should be accompanied by environmental compensation measures. These should include funds for biodiversity conservation. Several large mining projects (iron) are in preparation in the [TRIDOM-Congo] zone (Nabeba, Avima, Badondo deposits) … These are mining projects with investment costs estimated at 4.5 billion USD (Cam Iron-Congo Iron project) and, once in operation, cash flows of around 2 billion USD / year … We believe that over time mining operations should bear the full cost of conservation in the [TRIDOM-Congo] area. The amount of 800,000 Euros represents approximately 1% of the projected annual cash flow of the Cam Iron – Congo Iron project in full operation. 
Far from aiming to defend TRIDOM against mining companies, WWF wants simply to tap into their money. 800,000 euros per year to run a small protected area seems to be the price of buying acceptance of a vast and no doubt destructive mining operation. The highly controversial Messok Dja park is seen as an ‘offset’ for the damage to be done by the Chollet Dam, even though the proposed park has already inflicted misery on local inhabitants. Of course, foreseeing the mining companies as the future cash cows for its nearby protected areas, WWF is unlikely to offer any concerns or criticisms of their activities or seek to halt the destruction. It is blatantly putting money before principle.
TRIDOM and its diverse human and wildlife inhabitants are going to need some much better friends than WWF to survive the tidal wave of destruction headed their way. Local human rights advocates, campaigners, monitors and whistleblowers will be essential, as will those willing to help empower local communities. But in many ways, WWF’s supine stance in TRIDOM is an indictment of a much wider, and ever-worsening, failure of the conservation industry: its willingness to blame poor local communities for harming wildlife, whilst simultaneously self-interestedly ‘accommodating’ the very corporations causing the worst damage. For the sake of money for their little fiefdoms of ‘wilderness’, organisations such as WWF will willingly abandon the rest of the planet to destruction.
 The Congolese part of TRIDOM is within a huge World Bank-backed REDD+ project – which a forthcoming article on REDD-Monitor will explore.
 Lodhia, S. (2018) Mining and Sustainable Development: Current Issues. Routledge
 European Commission, Programme d’appui pour la préservation de la biodiversité at les écosystems fragiles (ECOFAC VI). Formulaire de demande de subvention. Conservation inclusive de la biodiversité dans l’Espace TRIDOM Interzone Congo (ETIC), WWF, Bureau de Gabon.
Simon Counsell is the former director of Rainforest Foundation UK. He is currently adviser to Survival International and researches and writes on nature-based solutions and colonial conservation.