Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development investigates complaint from Survival International
PARIS, France––Acting at request of Switzerland, the 35-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has agreed to investigate a complaint from the London-based charity Survival International that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has repeatedly, systematically, and severely violated the human rights of the Baka people, better known as pygmies.
Formally called the World Wide Fund for Nature, outside the U.S., WWF “funds anti-poaching squads in Cameroon and elsewhere in the Congo Basin,” explained Survival International director Stephen Corry. “Baka and other rainforest tribes have reported systematic abuse at the hands of these squads, including arrests, beatings, torture and even death, for well over 20 years,” Corry said.
Findings could hit WWF in the wallet
Formed in 1961 to “promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world,” the OECD works chiefly “with business, through the Business & Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD, and with labor, through the Trade Union Advisory Committee, according to the OECD web site.
The OECD has no actual authority to enforce penalties against an entity found to be in violation of human rights or ethical business standards. But a negative finding could significantly depress corporate, foundation, and governmental support for WWF. Only about a third of WWF funding comes directly from donations by members of the public.
“This is the first time a nonprofit organization has been scrutinized” by the OECD, Corry said. “The acceptance of the complaint indicates that the OECD will hold WWF to the same human rights standards as profit-making corporations.”
“Violent abuse & harassment”
Summarized a Survival International media release, “Survival submitted the complaint in February 2016, citing numerous examples of violent abuse and harassment against Baka ‘pygmies’ in Cameroon by WWF-funded anti-poaching squads. Survival also alleges that WWF failed to seek communities’ freely given, prior and informed consent for conservation projects on their ancestral land.
“Survival first urged WWF to change its approach in the region in 1991,” the release summarized, “but since then the situation has worsened.”
Survival International took a formal complaint on behalf of the Baka to Switzerland in February 2016, the release continued, because WWF International is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, while Cameroon is not a member.
WWF approach “market-based”
Determined the OECD Swiss office, before referring the Survival International complaint to the OECD headquarters in Paris, “WWF’s approach to conservation is to a certain extent market-based, and it undertakes commercial activities (e.g. income of the WWF network from royalties as well as from other trading activities). WWF for example sells collectors’ albums and the panda emblem for more environmentally friendly products.
“This would not be possible without projects such as the ones in southeast Cameroon which are part of its activities to protect the environment. Therefore, WWF’s involvement in the establishment and maintenance of protected areas in southeast Cameroon can also be considered as activities of commercial nature, to which the OECD Guidelines are applicable.
“Based on these considerations,” the Swiss OECD office concluded, “In the particular case of the present submission, the OECD guidelines apply to the responding party.”
“Giant step for vulnerable peoples”
Said Corry, “The OECD admitting our complaint is a giant step for vulnerable peoples. They can already use OECD guidelines to try and stop corporations riding roughshod over them, but this is first time ever that the OECD had agreed that the rules also apply to industrial-scale nonprofit organizations.”
WWF responded in a prepared statement that it “takes any and all allegations of human rights violations extremely seriously. We have worked over the years to verify any alleged abuses,” WWF said, “and we have taken all appropriate measures to address allegations brought to our attention, including communicating these to the appropriate authorities.”
Physical abuse “a regular complaint”
Commented Forest Peoples Programme, another British-based charity that works with the Baka, “”FPP has limited knowledge of the specific facts of the complaint made by Survival International and cannot corroborate its contents. However, we can confirm that physical abuse by eco guards (including in some cases very serious injuries) has been a regular complaint by Baka community members in several areas where we or our partners work.
“FPP is not aware of any information which would suggest that WWF has been directly involved in abuses by eco guards,” Forest Peoples Programme continued, “or that it has encouraged or incited these abuses in any way. However, WWF does work closely with and provides funding to certain government authorities who are responsible for employing and managing eco guards (including, reportedly, WWF vehicles being used for eco guard patrols).
Concluded Forest Peoples Programme, “It is our view that WWF, as an international organization, has a responsibility to ensure that the actors with whom it is working are not engaging in, and/or the policies which it is pursuing are not resulting in, human rights violations.”
Longtime critics of WWF policies
Both Survival International and Forest Peoples Programme are longtime critics of WWF policies in general.
“In our view,” Forest Peoples Programme explained, the underlying “widespread and longstanding problem” is “tied to the creation of national parks, conservation areas and privately-run hunting concessions.
“The need to conserve forests is not the issue,” Forest Peoples Programme said. “The issue arises when conservation is pursued following the failed ‘fortress conservation’ model that excludes local communities, impoverishes them, and does not build on their expertise and on their internationally recognized rights to their lands.”
The New York City-based Rainforest Foundation reached similar conclusions in April 2016. Summarized Guardian environment reporter John Vidal, “According to the Rainforest Foundation – whose researchers spent 18 months interviewing people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo – elephants, bongos, gorillas and chimpanzees are declining at alarming rates, while communities report abuse by people paid to protect the environment.”
Protected areas associated with hardship
Said the Rainforest Foundation report, entitled Protected areas in the Congo basin: failing people and biodiversity, “Without exception, all communities in the countries where field research took place associate protected areas with increasing hardships due to restrictions on their livelihood activities, including diminished access to food. Whenever gains may have resulted from protected areas, very little, if anything, has reached local communities to date.”
The Rainforest Foundation identified the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAid), as the largest single funder of conservation in the Congo basin.
“We have identified at least $110 million that has been put into conservation efforts just by USAid from 2004 through 2010, and they have committed to spending another $50 million from 2013 through 2018,” explained Rainforest Foundation director Simon Counsell. “The next biggest funder has been the European Union, which spent about $118 million between 1992 and 2010. A further $50 million has come through the African Development Bank, the Norwegian government, Germany, Japan and others.
“Guns & guards”
“Taking into account all the money that has come through organizations such as WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society,” Counsell said, “we calculate that probably $400 million has been spent on these protected areas in the last 15 years or so, and quite possibly as much as $500 million.”
Wrote Vidal, “Most conservation in the Congo basin is based on a militaristic approach, known as ‘guns and guards.’ It depends on armed anti-poaching ‘eco guards,’ restricting hunting and stopping people from going into the forest.
“But this model is described in the Rainforest Foundation report as heavy-handed, leading to communities being threatened and turning them against conservation. Indigenous groups, such as the Pygmies, are said to suffer the most, largely because their semi-nomadic lifestyles tend to overlap with protected areas.
“Local people bear the brunt of anti-poaching measures even though they are not the drivers of poaching,” Vidal explained.
“At the same time, systematic efforts to tackle high level illegal wildlife trade networks have not taken pressure off local communities or diminished the abuses they suffer.”
Militarization “identified as a factor”
World Wildlife Fund Africa director Frederick Kwame Kumah blamed weak national governments and warlord activity for the violent incidents decried by Survival International, Forest Peoples Programme, and Rainforest International.
“Militarization of the southeast Cameroon area, linked to arms trafficking, well-armed poaching and conflict in Central African Republic, has been identified as a factor in an increased number of reports of unacceptable conduct and alleged abuse by eco guards and others,” Kumah said.
But WWF and USAid, pursuing a model of wildlife conservation funded by sport hunting revenue, have long advanced programs and policies throughout Africa that contribute to destabilization.
CAMPFIRE burns huts in Zimbabwe
The centerpiece of U.S. African wildlife conservation policy under the George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidential administrations, for example, was the Zimbabwean Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, CAMPFIRE for short.
Purporting to encourage villagers to protect wildlife by enabling them to share in the profits from trophy hunting, CAMPFIRE received USAid subsidies of $20.5 million during fiscal years 1997-2000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, after receiving $8 million from USAid 1989-1996.
CAMPFIRE was highly praised by the hunter/conservationist establishment for allegedly enlisting village support. But CAMPFIRE appears to have done more to enrich Robert Mugabe regime insiders than to help either poor villagers or wildlife. In December 1999, for instance, the Zimbabwe Standard published allegations that the Gokwe North rural district council had cleared “a buffer zone for safari activities” under CAMPFIRE auspices by torching the homes of 114 villagers, along with all their possessions.
Kidnapped & dumped
“Mafera Chitoto, who vocally opposed the project, had his entire homestead razed to the ground, including his granary,” the Standard reported. “His 24 bags of corn were taken away by the council, and out of 26 cattle in his kraal, only one remained. Worse still, four of Chitoto’s children, aged between four and 13, were inexplicably taken away by the raiding party, without their parents, and dumped at an abandoned mine site,” where they survived for three weeks without food or shelter before they were found and rescued.
Whether the issue is elephant ivory, rhino horn, or pangolin poaching, or simply protecting habitat for wildlife, successfully promoting wildlife conservation in Africa––or anywhere––tends to become a test of national political stability: of the ability of nations to make and enforce laws, with fair and expeditious judicial processes and meaningful punishments, apart from just might-makes-right.
Time and again, efforts toward strengthening African institutions of civil justice, and thereby strengthening public confidence in government, have been undercut.
Ruthless poaching, conducted by local warlords to buy the arms they need to stay alive in the bush, is typically met with equally ruthless responses from mercenary armies funded by conservationists, who on the one hand perceive an urgent need to save wildlife, and on the other, quickly lose patience with the slow and often uncertain process of nation-building.
Indeed, losing patience with corrupt and incompetent regimes whose leadership often includes poachers, traffickers, and facilitators of wildlife poaching and trafficking is both understandable and inevitable.
Frequently factions within African governments have eventually been found to be in league with the very warlords and other poaching mafias they are supposedly fighting.
At war with civilization
Some of those warlords, moreover, are allied with entities that are more-or-less at war with civilization itself.
Anti-Israeli guerrilla factions reportedly funded themselves by selling ivory and rhino horn during the 1980s, and maybe still do. Osama bin Laden and al Qaida apparently muscled into wildlife trafficking before becoming known for terrorist attacks culminating in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.
More recently, leaders of ISIS have allegedly been involved in wildlife trafficking. The roster of enemies includes also the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the Mai-Mai, Boko Haram, the Janjaweed, al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
But poaching and wildlife trafficking are also sometimes major source of food and cash for impoverished squatters, including people displaced by conservation projects.
Since landless masses can become a potent political force, especially if armed, shaky African governments often find leaving squatters in a reserve more expedient than trying to oust them. Under Mugabe, the Zimbabwean government circa 2000 actually made encouraging squatter takeovers of conservation areas a focal public policy.
The World Wildlife Fund, meanwhile, was among the first major international conservation charities to promote use of armed “eco guards,” and was associated with the project, Operation Lock, that probably did most to bring this approach into disrepute.
Exposed most thoroughly by London Independent reporter Stephen Ellis in January 1991, Operation Lock was formed in 1997 by WWF International founding president Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and WWF Africa program director John Hanks. Not officially a WWF program, Operation Lock worked closely with covert units of the South African military, which simultaneously funded covert operations in nearby nations, including Mozambique, through elephant and rhino poaching.
From Operation Lock to Renamo
As Ellis revealed, Operation Lock collapsed with funds and horn stocks missing.
To what extent the corrupt elements within Operation Lock were associated with the Renamo rebel army active in neighboring Mozambique during same years is unclear. Renamo soldiers reportedly killed tens of thousands of elephants, trading their tusks for South African-supplied armaments. Transitioning from a rebel force into a political party circa 2004, Renamo returned to armed insurgency in 2012 and may again be involved in poaching.
The histories of Operation Lock and Renamo enabled Zimbabwe to claim in 1999 that resurgent poaching in a region where both had been active was “sponsored by some non-governmental organizations and countries that want to discredit Zimbabwe.”
Mobuto Sese Soto
The corruption associated with Operation Lock was in many respects just business-as-usual for WWF, which from inception in 1961 has tended to work with whoever is in power, wherever, by whatever means to achieve conservation goals. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, was ruled from 1965 to 1997 by Mobuto Sese Soto, a military dictator and member of the World Wildlife Fund’s 1001 Club for billionaire patrons, who reputedly managed elephant poaching as a virtual concession until his 1993 departure into well-cushioned exile. Mobuto supporters reportedly killed 50,000 elephants for ivory during the last five years of his regime, stashing the take in Swiss banks.
WWF is scarcely the only international conservation charity to fund paramilitary anti-poaching mercenary armies that appear to have ended up doing more harm for animals and habitat than good.
ANIMALS 24-7 has identified at least eight other paramilitary projects undertaken since circa 1990, funded by other donor individuals and organizations in the U.S. and Europe, which have failed in the long run to stop poaching and encroachment on protected habitat, and worse, have often inadvertently supplied arms, equipment, money, and political cover to poachers and traffickers.
Ultimately, coming to grips with African wildlife poaching requires coming to grips with African realities, including that a continent dominated and exploited by warring soldiers of fortune has little hope of ever developing stable governments able to keep either wildlife reserves or anything else secure.
Neither does reserving wildlife to be sold to trophy hunters tell poor Africans that poaching is wrong. Rather, this practice, chiefly benefiting well-placed officials, reinforces the view that one is wise to get the best price one can, before freebooting strongmen horn in on the deal.
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