A UN investigation has suggested that rangers funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have beaten up, abused and murdered people in the forests of Congo. These atrocities were committed in the name of conservation.
The victims are members of the Baka tribe, living in the Congo rainforest in an area called Messok Dja, which is a biodiversity hotspot known for its gorillas, elephants and chimpanzees. The beatings and murders occurred because WWF has been trying to turn Messok Dja into a protected area.
Since 2008, when WWF set up a field base headquarters in a nearby town, the rangers have sown terror among the Baka in the region. Rangers have stolen the Baka’s possessions, burnt their camps and clothes, abused, beaten and tortured them, apparently to stop them from entering the forests these rangers are paid to protect.
The UN draft report stated that: “These beatings occur when the Baka are in their camps along the road as well as when they are in the forest. They affect men, women and children.
"Other reports refer to ecoguards pointing a gun at one Baka to force him to beat another and guards taking away the machetes of the Baka, then beating them with those machetes.”
The Messok Dja project affects 48 communities of Baka people and their Bakwele neighbors. All depend on Messok Dja forest for subsistence, and the rainforest also provides the Baka with natural medicine and contains sacred areas where their ancestors used to reside.
They say: “Our forest is a forest that has everything. Everything that a Baka looks for: meat, fruit, honey, small rivers; this why the Baka love this forest."
National and international law, not to mention WWF’s own policy, state that tribal peoples must give their free, prior and informed consent for any project undertaken on their land. This did not happen at Messok Dja, making the very creation of the park illegal.
The Baka told Survival International: "They never asked for our opinion, they just gave us an order: ‘this is the park and you won’t be allowed to enter.’"
In any case, the violence that the Baka have suffered means that they were in no position to give free consent to anything associated with WWF.
They live in fear of park rangers, who they equate with WWF entirely: the Baka word for park ranger is “dobi dobi,” an abbreviated form of WWF.
The UN report says: “There are reports of Baka men having been taken to prison and of torture and rape inside prison. The widow of one Baka man spoke about her husband being so ill-treated in prison that he died shortly after his release. He had been transported to the prison in a WWF-marked vehicle.”
Fear of ranger violence has led many Baka to abandon their traditional hunting expeditions (called molongo), which used to keep them in the depths of the Messok Dja forest for months. These forest trips are fundamental for community identity: young Baka learn values and skills and are taught the history of their tribe through stories and songs.
The Baka now spend much of their time in permanent forest camps along a road. Their villages have become, they say, a prison. “The WWF has ruined the forest. There were many important things for us in there. The forest needs us and we need the forest. But now we go inside as if we were thieves and they hit us with their machetes when we do.”
When they are beaten by rangers, the Baka use the verb ‘chicotter’, from the Portuguese ‘chicote’, a heavy leather whip used by French and Portuguese colonialists across Africa to beat the local population.
The term is apt: colonialist mentalities seem alive and well within the conservation movement. According to one Baka man: “They see the Baka as animals, not as people. When they see us they only see Pygmies, thinking that we know nothing and that they can hit us when they want.”
As colonialists did before them, conservationists presume they know better than local people, and that their cause justifies anything; physical violence, humiliation, death, apparently in service of some alleged 'greater good'.
They are convinced that tribal peoples’ deep understanding of how to protect the environment is inferior to their own, and they dismiss centuries-old indigenous practices that nurture the forest as backwards, primitive and even damaging.
The Baka have in fact developed their own sophisticated codes of conservation in order to nurture, maintain and protect their land. Baka women often divide up parts of the forest to avoid overharvesting wild plants, and families won’t stay too long in one forest camp.
The Baka are experts in animal behaviour. They have, for example, over fifteen different words for elephant, depending on the age, sex and temperament. Many believe that their ancestors' spirits walk side-by-side with elephants in the forest.
A member of the tribe says: “The Baka protect nature. We enter the forest to get meat, sweet potatoes, and vegetables to eat, not to sell it. We don’t have machines that can cut down trees. We climb on the trees to collect honey but we don’t hurt them. The logging companies are taking all the trees away, destroying everything.”
Indeed, many protected areas encourage tourism, facilitate trophy hunting, or permit logging, mining or other resource extraction, often in partnership with the big conservation organisations.
In practice, a “protected area” or “national park” turns out to be a place where the original custodians are forbidden from living on their ancestral lands but tourists can come there on holiday; local people are forbidden from hunting for food in places where foreigners hunt for sport; indigenous communities are banned from using resources they depend on to survive but the definition of “sustainable” is conveniently bent to permit logging concessions and industrial mining on “protected” land.
Targeting tribal people like the Baka has also diverted attention away from the true causes of environmental destruction: logging, criminals colluding with corrupt officials (who lead poaching networks), and western consumerism.
Putting too much power and too many weapons into the hands of a group of ill-trained and poorly paid rangers creates a cycle of impunity. Rangers are inevitably drawn towards the infinitely more lucrative wildlife crime while their power and guns prevent them from being punished.
For the local population the link between corruption and poaching is very clear. As a Bakwele person told Survival: “A soldier asked my brother to bring an elephant’s body parts to Brazzaville.
"When we arrived at the barrier where the ecoguards were, they let the soldier pass while they tried to arrest my brother who was only the driver. He ran away out of fear and was chased down by the ecoguards, who punished him with ten lashes.”
It’s time for all conservation efforts to recognize indigenous and tribal peoples as senior partners in the fight to protect their own land, not as “squatters” and “poachers” to be evicted and criminalised.
Evidence proves they manage their environment and its wildlife better than anyone else. WWF must be held accountable for its actions, and conservation must change. We must demand a new approach that puts indigenous peoples at its heart. It’s best for tribes, for nature, and for all humanity.
Right of Reply
A WWF-International spokesperson told The Ecologist: “We are appalled by the observations and allegations of the report. Although it is vital the forests of Messok Dja are protected from escalating environmental pressures, it cannot come at any cost to indigenous people, their communities, traditions or livelihoods. We know the best way to protect many of the remaining critical landscapes on the planet is by working with the communities that live there.
“The report, based on a field mission in early 2019, does not reflect the current position on the ground. We have worked tirelessly in recent months with all concerned - from representatives of indigenous peoples and other NGOs working in the area, to logging companies and RoC government officials – to overhaul practices regarding community engagement and help ensure indigenous groups participate in findings solutions and ensure their way of life is not under threat due to conservation efforts.
"The report acknowledges all this work and we have seen a strong and positive engagement from the communities, with 95% participation in workshops as recently as November.
“We are especially distressed by concerns around the relationship between RoC government-employed rangers and local communities, including allegations of abuse, and are treating these matters of the highest importance. Any breach of our social policies and commitments is unacceptable and we will take all action needed.”
Fio Longo is a campaigner on conservation for Survival International. The Baka and Bakwele people who spoke to Survival have had their names withheld for security.
Image: Survival International. A Baka woman whose husband, named Komanda, was arrested by rangers in Messok Dja, then imprisoned on false accusations of poaching. In prison he was brutally assaulted by other prisoners, and died soon after being released.