WWF Accused of Abusing Forest Dwellers

‘Old Model of Conservation’ no longer relevant

Survival International, a London-based global NCO that guards tribal rights, is charging the conservation organization World Wildlife Fund with human rights abuses in Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic, and other countries by driving native populations out of conservation areas.

The WWF escaped condemnation in 2017 when Congo park rangers the organization funded and trained allegedly committed human rights violations. But the more recent report, which was aired in a hearing by the US House Committee on Natural Resources, alleges beatings and torture in several countries to enforce conservation carried out by local park staff.

The area in question is Salonga National Park, the second largest in the world, 3.6 million hectares of mostly lowland tropical forest—a type of forest that has almost disappeared from Asia and is fast vanishing across the rest of the planet. It is home to numerous species including forest elephants, slender-nosed crocodiles, tree pangolins, and much more. Until the WWF stepped in, it was also home to numerous indigenous groups, such as the Bako people.

Paulette, a female member of the Bako community who declined to give her last name, told researchers of recently being thrashed by WWF-supported park rangers and describes the forest as being “taken over.” She told researchers that anyone found wandering around in the forest faced beatings or worse, although it is an ecosystem on which they have relied for millennia. Oftentimes, local people are seeking wild yams, medicinal plants, or are conducting small-scale hunting for the dinner plate—not for the commercial market. “It’s terrible what these people have done,” she said. “The forest has been taken over. They have taken that forest for themselves.”

WWF is the world’s largest conservation group, with an operating budget that dwarfs that of smaller conservation NGOs which work on a more local level and which engage more with communities. Asia Sentinel reported last month on how WWF and other large NGOs suck up most of the international funding and are accused of often leaving protected areas in worse shape than they were in when they first arrived.

Some see this “old school” type of conservation in which tribal people are thrown off the land and large blocks of wildlife habitat are fenced off for preservation as a form of colonialism. Rich and powerful foreigners come in with their plan and “take over,” and local people are regarded as a nuisance. This approach in itself may lay the foundation for abuses to occur as it is a kind of “fortress conservation” in which local people are essentially the enemies.

Nor is this type of behavior limited to Africa. The report notes that “no formal mechanism is in place for WWF to be informed of alleged abuses during anti-poaching missions” in Nepal, even though reports of torture, rape, and murder had surfaced from the early 2000s through early 2021 including India, Cameroon, the DRC and Nepal, and other nations. The UK-based Rainforest Foundation cites a “lack of contrition” on the part of WWF and demanded an apology to the victims, even though an independent 2017 review found that WWF staff had not directed the violence committed by local “eco-guards” whom they had trained and funded.

Fiore Longo of Survival International, speaking of the recent reports for which WWF representatives were called before the House Committee on Natural Resources, described the findings as “the conservation industry’s equivalent of the Abu Ghraib scandal – a moment from which it will never recover.”

Wildlife Conservation Society and African Parks are two other well-known NGOs that are implicated in human rights abuses in the name of conservation.

While it is true that their payrolled staff on the ground were not directing the violence, but as the backers of these projects they have a responsibility to ensure that this never happens, and they clearly dropped the ball, according to Survival International. With 60 years of experience, the critics say, they ought to know that the model of “fortress conservation” is badly outdated. Wherever they work in the world, WWF needs to engage with local people, because it’s a local who fires the bullet or the arrow at the last of a species. He’s the one they need to reach out to. Many of the smaller NGOs, such as PRCF, are doing just that in places like West Kalimantan in Indonesia—people are and have always been part of the landscape, and by understanding their needs, NGOs can find ways to preserve wildlife and habitat and keep local people in the picture.

Lastly, rather than beating down “forest trespassers” who are stunned by the concept that they are trespassing in the place from which they have always derived resources, they should be investigating wildlife trafficking middlemen and their Chinese contacts in the nearby towns. 

If WWF doesn’t change course quickly, the critics say, they will be forever known as human rights abusers, rather than protectors of wildlife and the environment.

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