Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
The WWF may have a friendly panda for a logo, but amongst the poorest of the poor it’s known for something else: violent thugs called ecoguards.
Last week, an appalling complaint was filed against the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Survival International, an organization that champions the human rights of indigenous people. Invoking a process normally used against multinational corporations, the complaint accuses the WWF of abusing and victimizing rain forest dwellers in Cameroon.
Located on Africa’s west coast, Cameroon is about the size of California. Approximately half of its 23 million people lack basic sanitation, so the risk of contracting waterborne diseases there is high. Life expectancy is 57 years, amongst the shortest in the world. Per capita GDP in the European Union is $37,800. In Cameroon it’s $3,200. During the past few years, Cameroon’s government has had its hands full responding to Boko Harem terrorist attacks near the border it shares with northern neighbour, Nigeria. But fundamental rights and freedoms were fragile well before that.
The most southerly part of Cameroon is tropical rain forest, home to a distinct people called the Baka. Formerly referred to as pygmies, they’re hunter gathers who lead a semi-nomadic existence. Their traditional diet of yams, fruit, honey, and wild game comes from the forest.
The WWF, which is interested in preserving rain forests, has helped the Cameroon government establish national parks. But neither appears to have gone to much trouble to understand beforehand the extent to which the forest was being actively occupied by the Baka.
Survival International alleges that four parks – established in 2001, 2005, and 2014 – have now “engulfed almost all of the ancestral territory that the Baka had not already lost to the loggers, miners and farmers.” 9,200 square kilometers has been made the “private property of the State.” Human habitation is forbidden.
It isn’t surprising that Baka living in isolated, largely non-literate communities didn’t get the memo. Or that they didn’t pay much attention. Which is where the ecoguards, who patrol the park, come in.
The formal complaint alleges that ecoguards have been recruited, trained, equipped, and funded by the WWF. Around the mid-2000s, they apparently became employees of the government amid allegations of “physical assault, racist conduct and corruption.” Some of the details in this complaint are unbelievable:
The ecoguards…seek to “protect” conservation assets which are largely WWF’s creation, and often do so in conjunction with WWF personnel. Indeed, most Baka do not distinguish between WWF officers and ecoguards.
…Ecoguards are supported financially by WWF, and often transported in WWF vehicles driven by WWF personnel to the villages or other places in which they have abused Baka “suspects.” They have even interrogated suspects in WWF-built facilities.
…Virtually every NGO which has had dealings with the Baka…has reported the ecoguards’ regular use of force against them, and a clear pattern has emerged.
Ecoguards are frequently said to raze to the ground any Baka camps they come upon in a [National Park], and to destroy or confiscate any property they are able to seize. They are said to often assault those Baka that they can catch, and to even threaten to kill them if they return.
In the villages outside the [parks] there are regular complaints that…Baka huts have been unlawfully searched and property seized. Baka have also claimed that they have been assaulted under interrogation, and several are even said to have died from their injuries.
The original target of the ecoguards was supposed to be large-scale, commercial poachers. Survival International describes this as a difficult and often thankless task. Commercial poachers, when caught, are sometimes shielded by corrupt officials and influential friends.
The Baka, on the other hand, are defenceless, easy prey. So,
In an attempt to be seen at least to do something, ecoguards have often searched for an easier target. As the most economically and politically marginalized group in the country, the Baka have fitted the bill admirably.
Survival International alleges that, despite early indications that the Baka were being terrorized, the WWF chose to press on with more parks,
and to place itself in the vanguard of the so-called “war” against the poachers. It took no effective steps to protect the Baka against this [sic] risks to which this war was likely to expose them.
Let us be clear: the Baka are under attack – now. They are being robbed of their ancestral lands and traditional way of life. Politicians and WWF activists have, with the stroke of a pen, turned the Baka into squatters and poachers.
The Cameroon government identifies the WWF as a “joint manager” of these national parks. A June 2011 posting on the WWF website (which has since been removed) talks about the WWF training 50 Cameroon officials so that they can better catch wildlife ‘criminals’ and punish wildlife ‘crimes.’
Despite the fact that a public Statement of Principles says the WWF won’t participate in projects that haven’t “received the prior free and informed consent of affected indigenous communities,” exactly that appears to be happening here. Ongoing victimization of the Baka is no secret.
Survival International says the WWF has encouraged a “guns and guards” approach to conservation in Cameroon, and has “actively supported the deployment of a heavily armed military unit called the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide” (the Rapid Response Brigade or BIR). In September 2015, it alleges, assault rifles were issued to ecoguards in two of the parks.
Survival International is urging members of the public to write to the director of the WWF. It wants the WWF to take responsibility for this horrendous mess. Rather than actively pursuing remedies, it says, the WWF is being evasive and uncooperative. It refuses to make public vital documentation about the parks and their management, and won’t release the findings of an investigation it conducted in 2015.
Thugs with guns. Against the most marginalized, in one of the poorest nations on the planet. That’s the WWF’s idea of making the world a better place.
see also these stories about the conduct of the WWF and other eco-activists in struggling nations: