The WWF Congo conflict pits fortress conservation against the rights of indigenous people. Find out more about this troubling dilemma.
I’m lucky enough to come from a family that kept close track of its pioneer history. Even so, in the last decade or so, I’ve also had a sense of chagrin.
I’ve come to realize that a wave of abuse against Canada’s First Nations swept up my family. The Anishnaabe people lost the land taken over by my ancestors and their neighbours with no compensation.
Another ugly part of settler life influenced my family; wiping out the natural habitat. They got the deed to a beautiful virgin forest which they promptly cleared away with an axe as fast as they could.
EMBRACE BOTH INDIGENOUS RIGHTS AND CONSERVATION
Waking up to all this has led me and others with my background to embrace both indigenous rights and conservation. I feel close ties to both the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and to Survival International, for example.
Those ties became a snag for me last week. I learned a new term from the field of sustainable development. It’s called “fortress conservation”, or “green-grabbing.”
Fortress conservation comes from the idea that the best way to manage protected areas is to keep out any kind of human disturbance so that they can function in isolation. If we’re talking about poachers or resource extraction companies, nobody has a problem with that.
FORTRESS CONSERVATION APPLIED TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES
Where fortress conservation gets controversial is when conservation authorities apply it to local peoples. Rather than viewing indigenous tribespeople as part of nature, fortress conservation assumes that all human activities are incompatible with conservation.
The reason I started thinking about this is that the Guardian reported that the WWF and the Congolese government had paid for so-called “eco-guards” as part of a protectionist conservation program. These armed park rangers have assaulted and abused hundreds of people from the local community called the Baka.
Guardian staff got hold of a January 6, 2020 draft of an independent review by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It says that the Baka people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been putting up with violence for years.
BAKA PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PUTTING UP WITH VIOLENCE
We mentioned the Baka in a previous story about DNA. Along with the Aka, the Baka are what we used to call pygmies. The Congo basin has been their territory for thousands of years and they’re famous for their ever-present, sophisticated, vocal music.
As hunter-gatherers, their way of life is inseparable from the woods. The Baka rely on the forest habitat to hunt and trap small game and to gather their traditional medicine.
The Baka have historically faced oppression, not only from European colonizers but also from their African neighbours, the Bantu. Both groups even kidnapped Baka children and forced them into zoos or displayed them in cages at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
TARGETS OF RWANDAN GENOCIDE AND SECOND CONGO WAR
The Baka people were also targets of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Movement for the Liberation of Congo murdered sixty thousand Baka and Aka civilians in the Second Congo War between 2002 and 2003.
Even today, the Bantu force many Baka people into slavery. Whether enslaved or not, many Bantu still view the Baka as inferior and act in entitled ways around them, hoping to make them a displaced people.
In 2017, the Congolese government announced plans for a world heritage site called Tridom 11. The heart of the project is the Messok Dja, 1,456 sq km of forest on the Baka’s customary land.
MESSOK DJA, 1456 SQ KM OF FOREST ON BAKA LAND
There were lots of supporters. Sponsors included the WWF Congo, the UNDP and the Global Environment Facility, the US and the EU governments and logging and palm oil corporations.
Some of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas live in Messok Dja. Thriving populations of forest elephants and chimpanzees also make their home in that forest.
SITE CONTAINS CHARISMATIC MAMMALS
For 20 years, a huge part of the WWF’s work in the Congo has been to push the government to close off this area. They want to stop poaching and the Messok Dja is in just the right spot to join an ecological corridor with parks in neighbouring Cameroon.
The Congolese government hired the eco-guards. Tridom 11 sponsors, including WWF Congo, trained, equipped and paid them. That seems to be where the green-grabbing mentality caught on.
In 2018, the UNDP started receiving letters from the Baka about human rights abuses. One letter read, in part, “They ban us from going to the forest…Many Baka are dead today.” The UNDP’s social and environmental compliance unit received orders to look into it.
ECO-GUARDS TREATED THE BAKA AS SUB-HUMAN
The unit found that the eco-guards beat Baka men, jailed them for no reason, kicked them out of the forest, burned their property and stole their food. They also heard that the eco-guards treated the Baka as sub-human and forced some Baka women to strip naked purely to humiliate them.
Their report continued, “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.”
Readers may wonder what WWF Congo was doing about this green-grabbing mentality. According to the Baka, “We tried to tell our difficulties to the WWF but they do not accept them. They just tell us we cannot go to the forest.”
UNIFORM AND GUN – LICENSE TO COMMIT ABUSE
The unit talked to WWF Congo staff. They knew about cases of abuse against the Baka. Staff told the UNDP that “a few bad apples” were responsible for some isolated incidents. They called the operation “otherwise successful.”
Much of the issue seems to stem from tribal tensions. WWF Congo staff described, “putting someone in a uniform and giving him a gun, which for some men represents a licence to commit abuse.”
It may have been “a few bad apples”, although that’s a pretty hackneyed alibi. That aside, according to the Baka, WWF Congo seems to have condoned at least some of the eco-guards’ brutality in the name of fortress conservation.
WWF CONGO SEEMS TO HAVE CONDONED BRUTALITY
Stephen Corry is the director of Survival International. He named the issue publicly, calling the UNDP report “a devastating indictment which should spell the end of WWF’s model of ‘fortress conservation.'”
Corry thinks fortress conservation does more harm than good. Not only do indigenous people suffer but ironically, so does the African environment.
The WWF rejects accusations of a fortress conservation mentality. In a statement, the world wide fund for nature declared, “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.”
“CANNOT COME AT ANY COST TO INDIGENOUS PEOPLES”
The WWF insists, “We are especially distressed by concerns around the relationship between Republic of Congo-employed rangers and local communities, including allegations of abuse. Any breach of our social policies and commitments is unacceptable and we will take all action needed.”
Let’s hope so. There’s a more troubling dilemma on top of the discipline issues. As we move forward with measures to fight the mass extinction crisis, how do we take the needs of indigenous people into account?
In the case of WWF Congo, the answer is “they didn’t.” The UNDP condemns this and other central African projects, saying “Conservation projects in the Congo Basin largely exclude indigenous peoples and treat them as threats rather than partners.”
“TREAT THEM AS THREATS RATHER THAN PARTNERS”
This has to stop, not only in Africa but around the world. We need to stop telling indigenous peoples what they can and can’t do when it comes to green-grabbing on their own customary territories.
They’re not the problem; we are. In fact, based on their way of life, they have many things to teach us about how to manage our Earth’s biosphere.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Conservation and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Fortress conservation, wildlife legislation and the Baka Pygmies of southeast Cameroon
Forests of Belonging: Identities, Ethnicities, and Stereotypes in the Congo River Basin
Mass Extinction Happening Again
Prehistoric Africa Revealed by Ancient Children’s DNA
Is the Birthplace of All Humans in the Kalahari?