The Bakas, National Forests, and the Conservation Conundrum

Dispute between WWF and Survival International highlights how some conservation efforts continue to displace Indigenous peoples

Complaints about deforestation and human rights abuses in an African nation are so common that, sadly, they hardly make headlines anymore. But when the complaints are leveled at one of the biggest environmental groups in the world – that’s unusual enough to draw attention.

two Baka people sitting in a forestPhoto by Zuzu/FlickrSurvival International alleges that the World Wildlife Fund bears some blame for the harassment and displacement for the Baka people in three national parks that WWF helped create in Cameroon.

Survival International, a nonprofit that campaigns for the rights of Indigenous people worldwide, has lodged a formal complaint this year against World Wildlife Fund for Nature, contending that conservation group bears some blame for the harassment and displacement for the Baka people in three national parks that WWF helped create in Cameroon.

The Baka, a semi-nomadic forest-dwelling Indigenous tribe who live in the tropical rainforests of southern Cameroon, have allegedly been abused and booted off their lands by “ecoguards” funded by the WWF, one of the world’s largest and best-known environmental organizations.

In February, Survival complained that anti-poaching squads, financed and equipped in part by WWF, subjected Baka people in Cameroon ( who are often called “pygmies”) to violence and denied them access to their lands. It alleges that the parks – established between 2001 and 2014 – have “engulfed almost all of the ancestral territory that the Baka had not already lost to the loggers, miners, and farmers.”

The complaint, filed with a Swiss government agency, cites violations of human rights and due diligence provisions of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD. The OECD is a Paris-based consortium made up of 35 countries, including the United States, whose stated mission is to promote the economic and social well-being of people globally. (The complaint was filed in Switzerland because that’s where WWF’s international headquarters is based) It says WWF didn’t make a serious enough effort to understand just how much of the forest area was occupied by the Baka, who traditionally survived on yams, fruit, honey, and wild game from the rainforests, and neither did the conservation group obtain the Baka’s full and informed consent before helping establish the parks.

The OECD says complaints against nonprofits alleging violations of the OECD guidelines are rare. (It usually receives complaints against multinational corporations.) And a grievance by one NGO against another? Unprecedented. A decision on the matter is still pending.

Then in June, Survival issued a press release accusing WWF of partnering with a logging company that felled trees in an area of nearly 1.5 million acres in Cameroon without the consent of local Baka. It castigated WWF for being an “official partner” of Paris-based timber products company Rougier Group.

Survival’s claims fly in the face of WWF’s assertion that it works “to support Indigenous and traditional peoples to sustainably manage their resources, and … strengthen their traditional ecological knowledge.”

WWF, for its part, says the accusations are baseless. It says that it helped establish a Baka community forest, and unlike Survival, has staffers on the ground in Cameroon. WWF consults with Cameroon government officials, but ultimately many issues raised by Survival concern matters that must be addressed by the local government, such as land use decisions and the conduct of its employees, the conservation group says.

WWF also denies Survival’s allegation that it’s involved with the Rougier Group because it is “more interested in securing corporate cash than really looking out for the environment.” 

“This claim is entirely false,” says Brendan Rohr, a WWF spokesman. Some of the trees are in an area that will be inundated by a future dam and aren’t subject to the WWF partnership, he says. He says that Rougier is required to recognize Baka land rights by the Forest Stewardship Council, which promotes responsible management of forests, and must take actions to advance their welfare as part of its partnership with WWF. Rohr pointed out that Rougier undergoes independent and transparent annual audits, and the auditing body sought input from Survival, which didn’t respond.

The dispute between the two nonprofits began back in March 2014 when Corry wrote to Hanson Njforti, WWF’s country director for Cameroon, saying that Baka in and around the three national parks “are a routine target of violence and intimidation, and sometimes of murder.” Ecoguards and armed troops are the perpetrators, he said, and they couldn’t intervene without the “technical, logistical and material support that WWF provides.”

Njiforti responded that poaching in general and elephant poaching, in particular, had reached “alarming levels” in recent years, and the Baka were increasingly being supplied with assault weapons like AK-47s to kill wildlife on behalf of “white collar poachers.” Some 4 of 10 AK-47s seized by ecoguards between 2010 and 2013 were from Baka involved in killing elephants, Njiforti added. But he admitted that discrimination against the Baka was also a problem. Many park rangers and soldiers in the region are poorly educated and “their attitudes towards Indigenous groups are marked by social norms and stereotypes against the Baka,” Njiforti wrote. WWF has provided basic training in human rights and WWF’s principles on Indigenous peoples to ecoguards, he added.

The two sides have agreed on little since. For example, WWF asked Survival for details on incidents of Baka purportedly being abused so it could investigate. Survival insisted that WWF should commission an independent inquiry of the issue as a whole, not focus on individual clashes. Survival said the Baka have asked WWF to suspend support for protecting the forest. Not true, WWF maintains. Survival argued that WWF should suspend financing wildlife law enforcement. WWF countered that this was simplistic and would harm, not help the Baka.

The exchanges between the two nonprofits quickly became testy, a review of three dozen letters and emails over a 21-month period in 2014 and 2015 reveals.

July 24, 2014: Njiforti to Corry: “We [are] all concerned at the amount of time all of us have spent on letters, telephone and Skype calls” without progress.

October 2, 2014: Corry to WWF International chief Marco Lambertini: WWF’s “supine approach” to incidents of Baka abuse make a “mockery” of its principles on indigenous peoples and conservation.

Oct. 16, 2014: Lambertini to Corry: “Survival International’s campaign of denigrating WWF hardly helps foster the collaborative action that will most advance the cause of the Baka.”

Oct. 28, 2014: Corry to Lambertini: “I … would be grateful if you would take steps to ensure our concerns are not further belittled.”

May 27, 2015: Lambertini to Corry: “The insinuation that WWF has done nothing and is doing nothing for the Baka is both untrue and insulting to the many WWF staff” working with the Baka.

Dec. 7, 2015: WWF’s head of issues management, Phil Dickie to Corry: “A preoccupation with capitalizing on incidents is likely to impede rather than assist in resolving them.”

The dispute shines a light on tensions that can arise when Indigenous peoples are barred or restricted from their traditional lands due to conservation efforts to protect flora and fauna.

“Without knowing much more about this particular case, I can say that this appears to reflect a trend we’ve seen for decades,” says David Pellow, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is a “problem that has been endemic with global conservation groups both inside and outside of the U.S,” he says.

Survival has railed against major conservation groups in the past, especially WWF. Corry maintains that Indigenous people, “not the ideologues and evangelists of the environmental movement,” are the best stewards of their traditional lands in Cameroon and elsewhere.

There is a hummingbird-versus-giant panda quality to this dispute. WWF has 1.2 million members in the United States and nearly 5 million worldwide. It reported operating revenues of $289.4 million in fiscal year2015. With a US headquarters in Washington, D.C., it is active in about 100 countries. The London-based Survival has offices in seven countries. The US office is in San Francisco. The organization says about 250,000 people “over the years” have contributed money. It reported income of 1.7 million British pounds — about $2.3 million — in 2015.

The dilemma over how to balance conservation needs with those of Indigenous people has played out elsewhere in the past, such as with Bushmen in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve, who have been displaced from their ancestral homes over the past two decades in the name of conservation.

Pellow’s own research on the creation of a national park in Uganda similarly found that wildlife officials there had violently forced Indigenous locals, the Benet, to leave the area. Park rangers killed more than 50 people in 2004, Pellow wrote. A judge later ruled that part of the park be set aside for the Benet and they be allowed to farm there. 

Indeed, the story of Indigenous people being forcefully removed from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation,is an old, well-known one. In many cases, conservation is simply used as an excuse to clear out lands that are then taken over by industry. The unfortunate fact is that despite our awareness about what is basically a human rights abuse, this same narrative is still playing out in forests across the world.

The issue is being raised at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s annual conference that’s currently underway in Hawai’i.

“The world’s most vulnerable people are paying the price for today’s conservation,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, told The Guardian last week. She has already sounded the alarm at the UN over the impact that conservation is having on Indigenous peoples across the world, especially as hundreds more parks are being created every year in an effort to meet the United Nation’s goal to protect 17 percent of this planet’s land by 2020.

As the world’s population continues to grow and wildlife habitat shrinks, conflicts between Indigenous peoples and conservation advocates are bound to grow. “I’m quite sure this problem will intensify,” Pellow says.

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