WWF responds to Survival International’s criticisms: “Protecting our planet is as much about respecting the rights of the people that depend on it as it is about protecting wildlife”

Recently, Survival International published a report titled, “How will we Survive?” It documents in detail the impact on indigenous communities of the national parks, logging concessions and trophy hunting zones that have been imposed on vast areas of land in the Congo Basin. The report is critical of the roles of the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society have played in conservation in the Congo.

Conservation Watch had some questions for ​Frederick Kwame Kumah, director of WWF’s Regional Office in Africa, about the accusations against WWF in Survival International’s report. Kumah’s replies to the questions are posted here in full:

Conservation Watch: Survival International’s report states that, “National parks and other protected areas have been imposed on their lands without their consent, often with little or no consultation. Some of the world’s largest conservation organizations, principally the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), were the key players involved in this carve-up of indigenous lands.” What is WWF’s response to this accusation?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: Protected areas are created and managed by governments especially in countries like Cameroon where all land belongs to the state. WWF has always supported efforts to ensure indigenous communities who have depended on these forests and lands have a voice in any such decision. This can be challenging, especially as a civil society organization working in a sovereign country with distinct legal frameworks but we remain undeterred. Our staff, most of whom belong to the region including from indigenous communities, are continually lobbying for change – our efforts to extend and formalize FPIC in Cameroon were also cited by the UN as an example of best practice.

Where parks were created before FPIC, conservation efforts can help support indigenous communities in their efforts to strengthen their rights, which are subject to challenges associated with deep-rooted historical and socioeconomic marginalization. Today in Cameroon for example, while WWF advocates for changes in national legislation, we are also working with communities to help ensure their rights and access to lands are respected through conservation.

Through these efforts, we have helped ensure the creation of 23 community forests in Southeast Cameroon. Each of these are a minimum of 5,000 hectares in size. Three forests are managed solely by the Baka, and all others where Baka are present are managed by a mixture of Baka and Bantu people, with revenue being shared. The government has created 13 community hunting zones in Southeast Cameroon, surrounding the parks with a minimum size of 50,000 hectares where the Baka can hunt freely and WWF and a local NGO are facilitating direct agreements between indigenous Baka communities and the Cameroonian Ministry of Forests and Wildlife concerning all aspects of Baka use and access to Boumba-Bek National Park and other such agreements are in preparation for the Nki National Park and Lobéké National Park.

Today more than ever, the pressures on these lands that communities and wildlife have depended upon for centuries is mounting. We believe being present on the ground can contribute more toward protecting the forests for those who depend on it, than criticizing from afar without helping craft a solution. This is why we continue to work with communities and organizations in the region and, have also invited Survival International to join, to no avail.

Conservation Watch: Survival International states that the “real causes of environmental destruction in the Congo Basin” are logging and corruption. Do you agree?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: The pressures forests, resources and communities are under are multiple and growing, coming from different sectors as well as rooted in historical socio-economic challenges. Identifying a way to sustainably maintain and use these resources is critical for the well-being of local communities, wildlife and economies and extends beyond any organization or conservation. It requires transparent, consistent dialogue with all actors on the ground, from communities to government authorities and NGOs and companies that may be present in the region. This is what WWF has been trying to encourage, including by supporting the creation of a multistakeholder platform led by various ministries and representatives of indigenous communities.

Conservation Watch: In June 2016, I sent some questions to WWF about its partnership with logging company Rougier in Cameroon. The questions are available here. I received a reply from Phil Dickie at WWF International. Because my questions were “quite broadranging”, Dickie said he would have “a few internal inquiries to make” before responding. More than one year later, I’m still waiting for WWF’s replies to my questions. Why is WWF avoiding answering these questions? When can I expect a response?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: The statement issued by WWF-Cameroon locally at the time (May 2016) can be found attached. The statement by Rougier is also available here.

We have been working in the Congo Basin for several decades acutely aware of the opportunities and challenges in protecting its valuable natural resources. Over the years, our experience has shown us that sustainability needs to be a joint priority and we need to engage diverse actors and entities to create lasting impact. This includes indigenous communities who are important stewards of the environment as well as companies who, given the scale and scope of their impact and activities, can be key drivers for change.

In Cameroon, even as we work together with indigenous communities like the Baka to help promote and protect their rights through conservation, we provide technical advice and guidance to companies that hold legal licenses issued by the government to operate, to engage them in responsible forest management practices according to internationally recognized standards such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). We insist on these companies adhering to strict guidelines and practices which include transparency, measurable conservation outcomes, due diligence and respect for WWF’s independence and mission. When made aware of any concrete instances of deviation from our stated conservation principles, we have not shied away from dissociating with companies – for example, the participation of Decolvenaere in the Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN) was terminated in May 2015 when the company decided not to pursue FSC certification. SEFAC and Danzer were also terminated from GFTN, in 2009 and 2013 respectively.

The GFTN review is available online here.

Conservation Watch: WWF was involved in setting up the Lobéké, Boumba Bek and Nki National Parks and the Ngoyla Wildlife Reserve. Survival International writes that, “Nowadays anti- poaching squads supported by WWF routinely raze entire forest camps to the ground, both inside and outside national parks. The violence they visit upon the Baka and their neighbors knows no bounds: victims have included pregnant women, the elderly and infirm – even small children.” Does WWF acknowledge that there is a problem of violence against the Baka? And if so, what action has WWF taken to stop the violence? Has WWF published any reports about the violence against the Baka? When WWF reports cases of violence to the Cameroonian government what action does WWF take if the government fails to take any action, or implement any meaningful steps to prevent violence in the future?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: We do not want to speculate on people’s lives and would thus refrain from commenting on allegations of such gravity.

We have never denied that marginalization of indigenous communities is a challenge, and a deep-rooted one at that. As with any society, vulnerable communities and existing prejudices, we recognize there is a potential for abuse to take place which is why we have always tried to see how conservation can help protect and promote peoples’ rights, be it by helping build human rights awareness or ensuring trainings and projects are designed in a way that conservation can help strengthen the rights and well-being of vulnerable communities.

This is also the reason why we have never dismissed Survival International’s allegations. Instead, we have repeatedly requested further detail to enable investigations and also checked with authorities and local communities we work with to understand if any instances have been reported. This is also why we agreed to meet Survival International at the third-party mediation process offered by the Swiss NCP in the hopes of improving a two-way communication: unfortunately, Survival International chose to walk away from that despite an initial discussion.

Eco-guards are government employees. We consistently raise all allegations of abuse brought to our attention to the authorities. Between 2015 and 2017, five rangers were sanctioned following a formal complaint WWF lodged with Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife. Our work depends on the communities we work with. We are continually looking to raise awareness among communities and government actors to prevent abuse and also ensure mechanisms that people can trust and use easily are in place to flag any instances. This includes our project complaints resolution process as well as support provided to community-based mechanisms led by local Baka and other associations and initiatives like the government-led multistakeholder platform that includes a national observatory for indigenous peoples.

Conservation Watch: Recently, Survival International pulled out of an OECD complaint it had made against WWF. Survival International accuses WWF of failing to apply its own policy on indigenous peoples. I understand that the sticking point in the OECD negotiations came when Survival International asked WWF to get the consent of the Baka about how conservation on their lands will be managed in the future. According to Survival International, WWF refused to do so. What is WWF’s version of why the OECD negotiation collapsed? Is it true that WWF refused to get the consent of the Baka about future conservation management on their lands? If so, why?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: This is an allegation that is alarmingly inaccurate. While the discussions held as part of the Swiss NCP process are confidential, it is wrong to accuse us of refusing a point that we do not have the ability to negotiate on. We have repeatedly informed Survival International that securing FPIC for government-designate​d protected areas is a government responsibility. We believe that we are having an impact in defending the Baka’s rights by supporting the creation of park management plans that ensure access to resources and by continually and actively advocating to the best of our ability for the Government of Cameroon to formalize and extend FPIC for the people living and depending on these areas – efforts also acknowledged by the UN. There are different ways to achieve progress and we are seeing improvements in the protection of rights by working on the ground, with the Baka and other actors to help ensure the Baka have a voice on issues that matter to them and that will remain our focus.

This is why we engaged in good faith in the voluntary mediation process started by Survival International and we are disappointed that they chose to walk away in spite of the dialogue. The Swiss National Contact Point for the OECD has expressed its regret on the breach of confidentiality and highlighted that it ‘does not agree with the description of the mediation process’ (statement dated 7 September 2017). Out of respect for this NCP-led process, WWF will not comment further on the confidential proceedings.

Conservation Watch: Survival International has documented a long list of abuses against the Baka, at the hands of wildlife guards (page 6 to page 48 of the report). Does WWF deny that these abuses took place? What has WWF done to prevent such abuses taking place in the future?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: We have zero tolerance for human rights abuses and are shocked at the allegations. We have repeatedly urged Survival International to share information that will enable authorities to investigate those accused and take appropriate action.

Ecoguards are government employees. As an NGO, we seek to provide human rights trainings and workshops and also have a formal complaints procedure in place. Whenever we receive a complaint, we take all appropriate measures to address allegations brought to our attention, including communicating those related to ecoguards to the Ministry of Forests in Cameroon for example, which is the authority responsible for their good conduct and capable of taking appropriate action.

In addition, we work with traditional and cultural mechanisms that can help flag issues – the Baka people can approach Baka-led civil society organizations (CSOs) and other local CSOs which are spread over the areas in which WWF operates, and via local churches in most villages as well. We have also supported the creation earlier this year of a government-led multistakeholder platform which includes a national observatory for indigenous peoples to identify issues and forward-looking solutions with the various actors on the ground.

With regard to the complaints, we have consistently reached out to Survival International for more clarity and information, but received none.

We believe our work can make a difference – we are already seeing progress and we cannot walk away, it is our responsibility toward the communities and people we work with.

Conservation Watch: Survival International writes that a 2013 study about the Bayaka indigenous people in the Dzanga-Sangha protected area complex in the Central Africa Republic found that “conservationists and government officials had neglected to consider the people who depended on these forests for their survival”. A 2007 WWF report found that the Bayaka were struggling to feed themselves. The Bayaka interviewed for the report said that the conservation project had forced them out of their richest hunting and gathering land, and had left them with too little land for their vegetable gardens. They also reported violence at the hands of the wildlife guards. Survival International writes that, “Calls for change were ignored, and today the Bayaka are still being forced out of the forest by WWF-funded wildlife guards. WWF has failed to take effective action to stop this.” Why not?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: Protecting nature, its places and resources, is as much about protecting and respecting the lives and livelihoods of the people that depend on it as it is about increasing numbers of endangered wildlife.

We work in 100 countries, and know that we cannot protect wildlife without communities and we believe our work to protect wildlife can – and should – help benefit communities.

This belief guides our conservation work and we are continually looking to strengthen our social policies and the impact we can have. In the Congo Basin, we have helped develop programmes and initiatives that address historical issues of marginalization of indigenous communities and provide access to vital services such as education, healthcare and livelihoods in addition to building local capacity and awareness on human rights.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), a country affected by civil war since 2012, we have always worked with the communities on the ground, listening and engaging with them to understand the challenges they face and how conservation can help protect and promote their rights.

Our staff, almost a third of whom in Bayanga are from indigenous communities, have worked with the BaAka, authorities and partners to:

  • Help define a Community Hunting Zone (ZCC) between the 2 parts of the Dzanga and Ndoki National Park. The ZCC was created not only for hunting but also to allow indigenous peoples to continue promoting their own traditional culture.
  • Help establish the Ndima-Kali youth project to educate and empower young people within the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area. Members of the project have developed theatre pieces and produced a video dealing with discrimination, and have broadcast a series of radio programs on social, cultural and environmental issues. A social mapping project has helped identify sacred sites and trees which are culturally and economically important to the BaAka, also providing the basis for indigenous communities to challenge government authorities and logging companies while defining access and use.
  • Set up an education project to help 30 students obtain secondary school-level education each year, including covering costs of school fees, clothing, and various materials and through supporting boarding houses run by local partners.
  • Set up a Human Rights Centre in Bayanga to provide legal support and access to justice for BaAka communities.
    Set up a mobile health programme for a doctor to visit baAka camps.

Even as we work on all of these projects and initiatives, we recognize that the challenges the communities face are deep-rooted, further exacerbated by civil unrest, and beyond our individual scope as a conservation organization. We are working with the local people, authorities and other organizations present on the ground to do our best to address the gaps and will continue to do so as change can only be created through engagement and action on the ground.

Conservation Watch: Survival International also presents a list of abuses and evidence of problems from the Bayaka in the Dzanga-Sangha area (page 52 to page 74 of the report). What is WWF’s response to these abuses? And what actions has WWF carried out to address these problems and to ensure they do not continue in the future?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: We do not want to speculate on people’s lives and would thus refrain from commenting on allegations of such gravity. We have zero tolerance for human rights abuses. We have repeatedly urged Survival International to share information that will enable authorities to take action against those accused but so far to no avail.

As described above, our staff, many of whom are from vulnerable communities themselves, are consistently seeking to develop solutions that can address historical prejudices and discrimination through conservation and working with indigenous peoples, for indigenous peoples, will always be our priority.

Conservation Watch: In the Republic of Congo, WWF is pushing for the creation of Messok-Dja National Park. Survival International has documented a series of abuses in this area too (page 98 to page 104 of the report). How does WWF intend to address the ongoing attacks by wildlife guards? Has a process of free, prior and informed consent been carried out with the indigenous communities living in and around the proposed National Park?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: In the Republic of Congo, WWF is working with multiple actors, including the government, local communities and companies to protect the area in and around Messok Dja and its incredible biodiversity as logging and poaching remain significant threats. In a landscape that is covered by logging concessions (65 per cent), we are working with the government and companies to identify land for conservation use and also the government to help create the Messok Dja park overlapping with the existing concessions. Specifically, we are providing technical support and have supported the ecological and socio-economic baseline study validated by the government.

Throughout these discussions, recognizing that FPIC has much more stringent requirements than the standard legal procedure in place for community engagement and consultation, we have been advocating for FPIC with the government as they conduct the process. Participatory mapping has already been carried out in 39 villages surrounding Messok Dja and the next step of the process, which we continue to support, involves geo-referencing the areas with the communities to thereafter identify the impacts and solutions that can be devised together with the government.

Conservation Watch: Survival International asks WWF, WCS and their government partners to seek the Baka and Bayaka’s consent if they are to continue their work in the Congo Basin. Does WWF intend to carry out a (somewhat belated) process of free, prior, informed consent with the Baka and Bayaka relating to their future work in the Congo Basin? If not, why not?

Frederick Kwame Kumah: We are consistently and continually advocating for FPIC with the governments of the Congo Basin. This involves a lot of challenges related to existing legal frameworks and the lobbying capacity of local actors. In addition, and especially in the cases where protected areas were created before FPIC, we are working, to improve and strengthen rights and recognition for indigenous people and their access to forest resources. This includes initiatives like the forum we helped create in April – the first time all relevant ministries, indigenous communities, human rights and conservation organizations came together in Cameroon to identify issues and solutions to protect rights through conservation. In parallel, we are also working to help redress social marginalization through initiatives on education, healthcare and livelihoods, including with partners such as Plan International. Protecting our planet is as much about respecting the rights of the people that depend on it as it is about protecting wildlife. This is what we believe and will always try our best to achieve.

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  1. M.S. Pottinger

    Interesting but I think there may be a mix-up? WWF’s policy says that it will never support any intervention that hasn’t received indigenous peoples’ consent. That’s in line with basic CSR standards.

    So whether or not seeking consent is the government’s job doesn’t change anything. If it hasn’t been given, WWF should stay out.

    That seems deliberately misleading on Mr. Kwame Kumah’s part.

    Thank you for posting – it’s good that this stuff is being talked about.

  2. Really important posting, and very revealing.

    Can you please go back to Mr Kwame Krumah and ask to see some evidence of WWF’s claimed “continual and active advocating to the best of our ability for the Government of Cameroon to formalize and extend FPIC for the people living and depending on these [protected] areas”?

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