OECD takes up complaint that WWF has funded abuses of Cameroon's forest peoples

Evicted from their forests for a flawed model of conservation: Baka 'Pygmies' in the Cameroon forest. Photo: ..zuzu.. via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Evicted from their forests for a flawed model of conservation: Baka 'Pygmies' in the Cameroon forest. Photo: ..zuzu.. via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
The OECD is pursuing a complaint that WWF has funded abuses against the indigenous forest-dwelling Baka or 'Pygmy' peoples of Cameroon, after determining that its human rights guidelines do apply to WWF owing to the 'commercial nature' of its conservation activities.
Turning indigenous people's lands into national parks turns the very people who have looked after the forest into criminals. They're often evicted from their former homes, or banned from hunting and gathering, so they're no longer able to feed themselves.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has agreed to investigate a complaint that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has funded human rights abuses in Cameroon.

Survival International submitted the complaint in February 2016. The 228-page complaint document submitted by Survival International to the OECD includes many statements from indigenous Baka 'Pygmies' in Cameroon about violence and harassment at the hands of WWF-funded anti-poaching squads.

For example, this statement was given to Survival International in July 2014: "The wildlife officers arrived at night. They started to beat us right there on the road to Elandjoh. They said that we were hunting elephants but they didn't find anything. They rummaged in our houses and found nothing. And after that they beat us and then carried on to their base. There were three cars, and there were many of them, mixed with BIR [Bataillon d'lntervention Rapide]. I didn't know their names."

According to a brief statement on OECD's website last February the group's Swiss National Contact Point (NCP "will make an initial assessment of the matter in accordance with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and decide whether the issues raised in this specific instance merit further consideration. If it concludes that it should pursue the matter, it will offer the parties involved its good offices with the aim of reaching a mutually acceptable outcome."

This first step has now concluded and OECD has now determined that the matter does fall under its auspices - despite the charitable status of WWF:

"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 NCP concludes that in the particular case of the present submission the OECD Guidelines apply to the responding party."

'Fortress conservation' turns conservators into criminals

On its website, Survival International explains the background to the problem: "Over the last 15 years, large parts of southeast Cameroon have been turned into national parks. Other areas have been set aside for safari hunting. But much of this region is the ancestral homeland of the Baka 'Pygmies', who have lived in these forests for centuries."

Survival International adds that the problem is the model of conservation employed: "The problem is that this model of conservation - turning indigenous people's lands into national parks - turns the very people who have looked after the forest into criminals.

"They're often evicted from their former homes, or banned from hunting and gathering. Or these activities are heavily restricted. So they're no longer able to feed themselves, and end up at the bottom of the pile, destitute, with terrible social problems."

This is the first time that the OECD will investigate an international charity organisation under its guidelines for multinational enterprises.

In a statement, WWF states that it "takes any and all allegations of human rights violations extremely seriously.We have worked over the years to verify any alleged abuses, and we have taken all appropriate measures to address allegations brought to our attention, including communicating these to the appropriate authorities."

But the human rights abuses have been going on for many years. In February 2003, Martin Craddick of Global Music Exchange wrote to Prince Philip, then-President of WWF, to express his concerns about "the activities of the WWF in the rainforest region of South East Cameroon."

'Now the Baka approach the forest with fear'

Craddick had been working with the Baka for ten years on a musical project. Craddick was concerned about a WWF project that was supposed to set an example of how conservationists could work together with local people.

But while WWF claimed to have consulted local people about the project, Craddick wrote that he "did not meet a single Baka who knew anything about the project." Instead, the Baka "only knew of the WWF as a European body who was trying to throw them off their traditional hunting grounds."

Craddick is still working with the Baka in Cameroon. In this September 2016 video by Global Music Exchange, one of the Baka says: "It is often said the Baka are the keepers of the forest. But today we are no longer the keepers of this forest. Now the Baka approach the forest with fear."

In December 2016, Forest Peoples Programme put out a statement about Survival International's complaint against WWF (and here's the article in The Ecologist that FPP refers to in its statement):

FPP statement on Survival International's complaint against WWF, 22 December, 2016

"Following the recent article in The Ecologist by Lewis Evans of Survival International concerning a complaint to the OECD brought by Survival against the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), Forest Peoples Programme has received some queries regarding our view of the situation in Cameroon (where we have a substantial programme working alongside forest indigenous peoples).

"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 ecoguards (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.

"In our view it is a widespread and longstanding problem tied to the creation of national parks, conservation areas and privately-run hunting concessions, which has been insufficiently addressed (and indeed largely ignored) by the government and conservation actors in Cameroon, including WWF, whose actions have precipitated these abuses.

"The need to conserve forests is not the issue; 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 recognised rights to their lands.

"FPP is not aware of any information which would suggest that WWF has been directly involved in abuses by ecoguards, 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 ecoguards (including, reportedly, WWF vehicles being used for ecoguard patrols).

"It is our view that WWF, as an international organisation, 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."



Chris Lang runs Conservation Watch,  REDD-Monitor, which aims to facilitate discussion about the concept of reducing deforestation and forest degradation as a way of addressing climate change.

This article was originally published by Conservation Watch. This version includes some additional reporting by The Ecologist.

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