Survival International has today abandoned trying to get a resolution to our formal complaint that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is violating international standards about corporate responsibility, and is reverting to using public pressure to try and stop the abuses.
Survival made the complaint in February 2016, in an attempt to stop the conservation giant from contributing to the mistreatment of tribal peoples, and it was admitted under the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) process in Switzerland, where WWF is headquartered. Surprisingly, this is the first time that an NGO has been seen as subject to the same guidelines as other multinational corporations. This is a great leap forward for those who think non-profits must also be held accountable for any negative consequences of their work.
The complaint detailed Survival’s allegations that WWF was party to the theft and control of the lands of Baka “Pygmies” in Cameroon, and that the Baka were suffering catastrophic levels of abuse as a result. We said that WWF had made no attempt either to apply its own policy on indigenous peoples, or to abide by the OECD guidelines, which are designed to prevent human rights abuses arising from corporate activities.
The guidelines are recommendations to multinationals which stress the duty to “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts.” Multinationals must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and cannot hide behind a government’s failure to uphold human rights. Simply abiding by local legislation is no yardstick for anyone claiming a moral position: That’s what underpins the whole concept of human rights, and is why international laws and conventions are necessary.
Although WWF’s own policy requires that the organization ensure proper consent has been given to projects on indigenous peoples’ lands, and construct systems to handle problems, Survival believes that WWF has done neither.
Survival’s complaint was, firstly, that WWF had made no attempt to consult the Baka when it partnered with the Cameroon government to carve up the tribespeople’s forests into trophy hunting zones and national parks. The Baka were kicked out, and even now WWF won’t consult them over how these areas are managed. Secondly, we pointed out that WWF funds park guards who regularly assault, and sometimes torture and kill, Baka.
Tribespeople are victimized both when they dare to re-enter their land to hunt or gather food or medicinal plants, as well as when they’re outside park boundaries. The notion that this reign of terror aids wildlife protection is nonsense: Some WWF-funded guards are themselves poachers and the Baka have shown themselves better conservationists than WWF anyway.
Survival highlighted WWF’s violations of both its own 1996 policy and the OECD guidelines, but WWF responded that the guidelines did not apply in its case, and brushed off responsibility for failing to ensure Baka agreement to what happened to their land.
During the toing and froing over the complaint, the Swiss agency tried to stop Survival campaigning against WWF, and said it may be forced to halt the process if we continued (we did). But finally a mediation was agreed between the two organizations for June 6-7, 2017, in government offices in Bern.
Survival did wonder whether Switzerland, a country priding itself on never taking sides, was likely to arrive at any criticism of WWF. The latter is an important organization with a global turnover of three-quarters of a billion dollars (its U.S. chief executive is paid double the salary of the American president, and the international office alone has an income of nearly two hundred million Swiss Francs). Therefore, in an attempt to extract something helpful to tribal peoples, we reduced our several requests to just one: WWF must establish a high-level unit to ensure indigenous peoples’ consent to work on their land, foresee problems, and investigate and act on abuses. In other words, it should have an office to ensure compliance with its own policy.
The Bern mediation took place over two days of grapple and struggle in Switzerland’s largely intact medieval capital, famous for its sunken bear pits. The details are confidential, but nothing new was said. WWF repeated that the OECD complaint process should not be invoked for its work, and asserted that none of the Baka’s allegations were proven. It said it already had a complaint mechanism, so there was no need for the new office that Survival was calling for.
In reality, Survival has first-hand testimony, including from within WWF, confirming that our allegations are the tip of an iceberg which WWF has known about since at least 2001. The conservation giant even commissioned an independent report into the matter but when its findings confirmed the abuse its existence was denied.
WWF treats its policy on indigenous peoples as merely aspirational, despite the fact that it has existed for over twenty of WWF’s 56-year existence. It claims it is trying to do better and admits no wrongdoing.
Following the struggle in Bern, the next step was to see if a “joint outcome” could be agreed. Despite the best efforts of an accomplished mediator, this proved more tortuous. WWF sought to include justifications of its position, while rejecting Survival’s objections. The grappling continued for two months before grinding to a halt over one point: Would WWF accept that the Baka must agree to how the conservation zones on their land were managed in the future? Although this is no more than its own policy and the OECD guidelines require, WWF refused.
It’s not surprising. Although conservation organizations are supposed to ensure that the “free, prior and informed consent” of those whose lands they want to control has been obtained, this never actually happens. It’s what they fear. They know that being bound by such consent would take power out of their hands and give it to local people, who’ve been conserving these lands for generations. In spite of much dissimulation, Western conservationists in Africa know that requiring local consent will erode their control over huge areas and vast budgets.
Any confidentiality around the OECD process is obviously trumped by our duty to tell tribal peoples about policies which look great on paper but which threaten their future. They would clearly be wise to demand fair, explicit and binding written agreements – with time and advice to consider carefully – before accepting any conservation projects.
Coincidentally, at exactly the same time as this back and forth, Survival met with a company we’ve been campaigning against for years. We’ve supported India’s Dongria Kondh in preventing Vedanta plc from mining bauxite on their land. Now, following years of scrutiny and opposition, Vedanta claims it has bowed to change: It agreed that the mine could not go ahead without Dongria Kondh consent, which it accepted was not forthcoming.
It had abandoned the mine because the local people didn’t want it and, of course, because they could call on vociferous and organized national and international support to make their feelings heard. The contrast with WWF’s position couldn’t be starker. Some mining companies now accept the idea they cannot operate without the agreement of the local people; most conservation NGOs still don’t, they just pretend to.
Both the mining and conservation industries have a long history of stealing land, particularly in Africa, and if one thinks the latter might be justified because the land is subsequently “conserved,” then consider that both are in fact destructive. Both smash the local people who have often been protecting the land, and, through conservation’s commercial partnerships with loggers, both destroy large areas of the environment too.
The parallel can be taken further: Both industries tolerate or support armed groups to further their interests. In the case of the proposed bauxite extraction, these were called “goons,” and operated with police collusion. They intimidated and physically assaulted those who opposed mining. The conservationists’ goons are the park guards. They operate in collusion with the authorities, and also threaten and assault people.
If supporters of conservation are shocked by the comparison, and by the fact that some mining companies now occupy a higher moral ground than many conservation organizations, then they should be. The idea that you must ensure that local people have given their free, prior and informed consent to any planned project on their land is seeping through to a mining industry under pressure to change (with some notable exceptions). That’s just not happening in the big conservation organizations.
During the months of trying to thrash out a mutually agreed text to complete the OECD process, Survival tried the different WWF complaint mechanisms. We raised incidents of guards abusing Baka, and a new national park (Messok Dja in Congo) proposed without even telling the tribal people. At the time of writing, not a single complaint has received a substantive response. The best we’re told is that WWF will look into some of them. Even if the Baka didn’t fear reprisals, which they do, they would find it impossible to use any of these supposed complaint mechanisms.
Anyway, we are now exiting the bear pit with the conclusion that WWF has no intention of seeking, leave alone securing, the proper consent of those whose lands it colludes with governments in stealing. It has no intention of facing the fact that its own indigenous peoples policy isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on: It’s just public relations fluff used to rebuff criticism.
WWF is also incapable of controlling the forces it funds and unleashes on the hapless tribal people who have seen their land stolen, and it seems unwilling or unable to try. It continues to partner with destructive industries, such as logging. It continues to be responsible for guards employed to protect safari-hunting areas, where rich, invariably white, people (including a WWF trustee) hunt elephants, at the same time as poor tribespeople are beaten and abused for trying to feed their families. It continues to perpetrate its version of “fortress conservation” which, we believe, will lead to the destruction of conservation itself.
The OECD complaints process has proven incapable of stopping this. A cynic might think those charged with adjudicating OECD violations will be relieved: Governments don’t want complaints about flagship NGOs which they themselves fund. The conservation behemoths are accustomed to being fêted as progressives in America and Europe – the fact that they’re hated and feared in much of rural Africa must be kept out of sight.
Encouraged by a growing movement of concerned environmentalists, Survival has decided to revert to other mechanisms to get WWF to abide by the law and its own policy, to stop its abuse of tribal people, and to start working for the environment instead of against it. We have no illusions about how strongly the conservation industry will fight back. If this struggle were easy, it would have been won decades ago. Inept conservation has become one of the principal problems faced by tribal people today and has destroyed the lives of millions; it’s also laying the basis for its own destruction and great environmental damage. This is a struggle whose time has come and which should be engaging those who care about the environment and human rights.
Wealthy conservation organizations must start asking local people whether they want outside help to protect their own lands, and offering their resources only where they’re wanted. The power structure must be inverted. That would be a win-win for both the environment as well as the people. The losers though would be conservationists, unwilling to give up their own power and money, and justifying their reign with the claim that they know best, in spite of all the evidence that they really, really don’t.
 The Swiss government agency responsible for examining the complaint, SECO (which had itself funded WWF), delayed examination for several months because it believed WWF’s false claim that the matter was being resolved.
 In both cases, they can include individuals from the societies they oppress.
 WWF itself seemed confused about which ones were for what.
 WWF described one mechanism as available to anyone to voice complaints, including anonymously. However, our first call to the relevant number was met with the curt reply that it was for WWF employees only (something which the organization had specifically refuted). We were told that WWF would be “unlikely” to take the complaint further. (A more recent call was heard and we were told it would be passed on – so that’s a small step!)