WWF distances itself from rights abuses at U.S. congressional hearing

  • At a U.S. congressional hearing last week, WWF was accused of refusing to take responsibility for its failure to meet its human rights commitments at national parks in Africa and Asia.
  • John Knox, former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, testified that WWF not only knew about abuses allegedly committed by the rangers it funded and supported, but also mischaracterized a 2020 independent review as exonerating the organization.
  • WWF insists the rangers in question were government employees of the countries in which it operated, even though it funded and equipped them, and effectively ran the national parks where they were employed.
  • WWF is criticized for the practice of “fortress conservation,” where Indigenous peoples and local communities are displaced from their ancestral lands to create “pristine” protected areas, often involving the abuse of their human rights.

WWF has come under fire at a U.S. congressional hearing over its funding of rangers who allegedly carried out rights abuses against Indigenous peoples and local communities in Africa and Asia.

Members of the House Committee on Natural Resources and former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, said at the Oct. 26 hearing that there’s enough evidence supporting the accusation that WWF had engaged in “fortress conservation.”

In 2019, Buzzfeed News published a series of investigative articles alleging that WWF financed and equipped park rangers accused of torturing, raping and killing dozens of people at six national parks that it managed or co-managed in Cameroon, Congo, Nepal and India.

Facing pressure from the U.S. government, WWF commissioned an independent panel of experts, chaired by Navi Pillay, a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, to determine whether it played a role in the abuses. A systematic review of the organization’s practices was also conducted. The final report was published in November 2020.

In his written testimony to the congressional committee, Knox, who served on the independent review panel, now spoke in individual capacity. According to him, while WWF’s social policies had strong human rights commitments, its implementation and monitoring of what was occurring on the ground was inconsistent and, in some cases, ineffective.

A man bails rainwater out of a WWF pirogue
A man bails rainwater out of a WWF pirogue (dugout canoe) on the shore of Lac Tumba in Ntondo, DRC. Image courtesy of Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI / Flickr

He said WWF’s response to the report at the time was disappointing, as it refused to apologize and accept responsibility for its failures to meet its own human rights commitments in those regions. In WWF’s statement and management response to the report, the organization expressed deep sorrow for those who had suffered at the hands of “government rangers,” emphasizing that the panel’s report found the accused rangers were not technically employed by WWF.

“We have worked diligently since the panel released its report to embrace their 79 recommendations, driving change at all levels of the organization,” WWF told Mongabay, reiterating its values and commitment to human rights.

‘Government park rangers’

Almost a year later, WWF’s position remains the same. At last week’s congressional hearing, WWF refused to take responsibility for the alleged violations of human rights brought against it after members of the committee called on it to do so.

Shortly before WWF’s senior vice president of wildlife conservation, Ginette Hemley, testified at the hearing, Republican Congressman Cliff Bentz urged WWF to admit that it was at fault, calling its refusal to do so “embarrassing.”

Democrat Jared Huffman, chair of the subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife, also criticized WWF for not accepting responsibility over its failure to meet its own human rights commitments while equipping the rangers and patrolling with them in the knowledge of the human rights abuse allegations against them. If organizations like WWF want to continue their work, Huffman said, they need to be held accountable for their actions.

But Hemley distanced the organization from the allegations. According to her, WWF condemns human rights abuses wherever they occur and does all it can to support communities and hold governments accountable in their human rights obligations. In the Central African Republic, it helps manage Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, which employs mostly Indigenous Baka people through ecotourism opportunities. In Africa, WWF testified, it has built free health facilities, supported local women, provided Indigenous children with scholarships, supported hundreds of local development committees, and created more than 70 community forests with hunting zones.

Notably, Hemley said, the instances of “government park rangers” committing human rights abuses were not only intolerable, but the independent panel of experts found no evidence of WWF staff being involved in those crimes.

coguards gather in Monkoto, DRC for a ceremony commemorating the completion of their latest round of training. Image courtesy of Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI / Flickr

“The panel found that WWF has no direct management responsibility for the government rangers implicated,” Hemley said, including no evidence that WWF purchased or procured the weapons that the rangers allegedly used against the people living near the WWF-backed part. Staff did not direct, participate in, or encourage human rights abuses of any kind, she said.

Knox, however, said WWF was giving a false impression of the panel’s findings.

“It is frankly shocking to hear WWF portray the report as if it largely exonerated WWF, when in fact, the panel found that WWF knew, often for many years, about alleged human rights abuses at the parks it supports in each of the countries,” he said at the hearing. “WWF nevertheless continued to provide financial and material support. Most importantly, WWF often failed to take effective steps to prevent or respond to the abuses.”

In Cameroon, WWF’s program office allegedly knew since 2008 of human rights abuses committed by eco-guards against local Indigenous Baka people in three conservation areas it supports: Boumba Bek, Nki, and Lobéké national parks. WWF commissioned three reports between 2015 and 2017 that found widespread allegations of beating, torture and the burning of huts, but did not make these reports public. While continuing to provide financial support to park rangers, it also provided support for at least 63 raids on villages between 2014 and 2018, according to Knox’s testimony. Some WWF staff accompanied the patrols.

The panel found a similar pattern in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which WWF has managed since 2015; WWF also appoints the park’s director and pays the rangers who work there. The abuse allegations that Buzzfeed raised in 2019 were not the first at Salonga, the panel found. Its report showed that in 2016, a WWF DRC staff member reported to the organization’s country director and conservation director that Salonga park rangers were regularly accused of abuses against communities living near the park.

Knox testified before Congress that WWF and park directors seemed to prefer avoiding conflicts with the ICCN, the DRC government agency that oversees conservation in the country. According to him, WWF perhaps believed the ICCN would react negatively to efforts looking into past human rights abuses. WWF DRC and Africa offices chose not to investigate, ignoring the alleged crimes of the rangers in the process. However, allegations of human rights abuse at the park surfaced in 2019 and WWF was forced to commission an independent investigation, three years after the first alarm was raised.

Rangers on a boat
Rangers from Garamba National Park, in the north eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ford the Dungu river on a barge at the start of their deployment into the park, 2015. Image courtesy of Jerome Starkey / Flickr

The report on the incidents at Salonga was never published by WWF, which continues to provide funding and other support for the park. Knox said nearby communities still don’t have access to the park territory, and there is no evidence to prove the abuses have stopped.

“WWF has had policies that are supposed to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples since 1996,” said Sophie Grig, senior research and advocacy officer at Survival International, an Indigenous rights organization that documents abuses committed in conservation areas. “Yet, it has turned a blind eye to the most horrific abuses for decades.”

Survival International said it doesn’t expect WWF to apologize to victims or take responsibility for its actions, and that WWF is treating the problem as a PR issue.

Engaging in fortress conservation

The creation of Salonga National Park in 1956, under the colonial Belgian authorities, has been criticized as an example of fortress conservation, where Indigenous and local peoples are displaced from their ancestral lands without consideration of their role as environmental stewards. When its borders were expanded in 1970 under the newly independent government, it became Africa’s largest forest national park, home to approximately 40% of the world’s threatened bonobo population. WWF joined the ICCN in managing the park in 2015.

The practice of forcefully expelling communities living within the boundaries of a designated conservation area isn’t new. The creation of “pristine” protected areas free from human presence is an initiative that’s part of the draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’s “30 by 30” target: protecting 30% of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030. Proponents see it as urgent in addressing global biodiversity loss.

Active fishing camp on the Lualaka River. Fishing is a common way of life around the DRC’s Salonga National Park. Image courtesy of olly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI / Flickr

The estimated number of conservation-displaced people worldwide currently runs into the millions. According to one analysis, 250,000 individuals were displaced in 15 countries from 1990 to 2014. Some Indigenous and local peoples who have tried to regain access to these lands have faced violence or detention. An investigation by Rainforest Foundation UK and Actions pour la Promotion et Protection des Peuples et Espèces Menacées (APEM) found that 56 of 231 community members near Salonga National Park reported being victims of physical violence by eco-guards or the soldiers working with them.

In an interview with Mongabay two days after the congressional hearing, Knox said there’s a direct link between fortress conservation and human rights abuses. When Indigenous peoples are forcefully displaced from their ancestral territories, they often lack proper alternatives, as their culture, way of life and material and spiritual well-being are tied to these lands.

“Fortress conservation in itself is a human rights abuse,” he said. “They have a right to their lands. This displacement of Indigenous peoples then leads to a host of other human rights abuses. WWF’s statement to the subcommittee shows that WWF leadership is still in the state of denial about its own role in fortress conservation and human rights abuses.”

WWF said it’s been implementing meaningful actions to ensure its efforts to protect biodiversity also protect local communities. These steps have been presented to the committee as examples of better conservation practices as new legislation for conservation organizations is developed.

“We have hired new leaders in key roles and expanded human rights and safeguards specialists across our programs,” WWF told Mongabay concerning its response to the panel’s recommendations. “All our staff are trained to be better allies to Indigenous peoples. Most importantly we’ve made many significant changes to ensure that we support the human rights of communities and take a strong stand with governments to bring perpetrators to justice.”

Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos face a bleak future due to human-driven factors: climate crisis, growing human population, and the clearing of wild areas. Image courtesy of tsauquet / Pixabay (CC0)

During the hearing, Huffman said that organizations like WWF should stop thinking that equipping a conservation park with heavily guarded borders will solve the complex geopolitical problems that already exist in a given region.

While not all park rangers are bad actors, it is widely known that some are often poorly paid, trained, supported and monitored. The instructions they are given inherently put them in conflict with Indigenous peoples and local communities when barring them access to lands. Some of these confrontations have then led to abuses. The NGO investigators who visited a few of the villages around Salonga National Park found multiple credible allegations of murder, rape and torture. In fact, it was concluded that some rangers used torture and other cruel and degrading treatment as a regular part of their patrol operations.

Recommendations for U.S. government

According to Knox, organization like WWF will not make efforts to implement effective strategies to address human rights violations unless major donors, such as the U.S. government, force them to do so by withholding grants until they make the much-needed changes.

“The U.S. government needs to have stricter requirements for funding and carefully monitor the actions of these conservation organizations,” he told Mongabay. “Or there shouldn’t be any funding at all.”

In his testimony, Knox recommended putting systems in place to ensure money does not reach parks and organizations unless they respect Indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent and can vouch that rangers are well-trained, monitored and overseen. For WWF, he reiterated his previous recommendations that weren’t addressed: the organization needs to do more to build capacity to implement its human rights commitments, have at least one Indigenous person on its board, and be more transparent by admitting that it made mistakes and by publishing its internal reports.

Wall surrounding WWF’s office in Mbandaka, DRC. Image courtesy of Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI / Flickr

During the hearing, Huffman added that the involvement of Indigenous peoples and local communities as core stakeholders in conservation projects is critical. He promised legislation to address the issues of human rights abuses in international conservation.

“The gap between commitments and implementation is not a problem unique to WWF,” Knox said. “Other conservation organizations say they reject fortress conservation but they haven’t brought leadership in that is actually driven by rights-focused biodiversity protection. The next generation of leaders may well bring that change but we don’t have time for it. We need that change to happen now.”


Banner image: ‘1600 pandas’ campaign installation by WWF in Nantes, France, April 4, 2009. Image courtesy of DocChewbacca / Flickr

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Reporter Katie Baker details Buzzfeed’s explosive investigation of WWF’s human rights violations against Indigenous and local communities. Listen here:

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