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OECD Fails to Recognize WWF Conservation Abuses

WWF-funded park guards attacked this Baka woman’s village and assaulted her with pepper-spray. Photo: Survival International.

How intertwined are governments and big conservation NGOs? And to what extent do they view fundamental human rights – particularly for powerless minorities – through a lens of self-interest tinted by self-delusion? And what happens when they’re challenged?

Survival International is closer to some answers after engaging with a process devised by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) (a grouping of the world’s richer, Western-facing countries). Survival submitted evidence that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has colluded with the Cameroonian government in evicting Baka “Pygmies” from their homelands, and in keeping them out.

Today, the Swiss government office charged with furthering the OECD’s “Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises” issued its “Final Statement” on the matter. The purpose of the Guidelines is to press for “responsible business conduct” that is “consistent with… internationally recognised standards.”

What that means is that companies must take responsibility for all the harmful results of their activities, not simply avoid directly harming people. According to the Guidelines, a company can’t sidestep these responsibilities by hiding behind the fact it’s acting within local law. Nor can it claim powerlessness in the face of a partner government’s actions. It must, instead, set up its own systems to make sure that its activities don’t contribute to violations.

The OECD Guidelines, and human rights in general for that matter, only make sense if they’re considered “above” national legislation. That’s because countries have laws which hurt people: South African apartheid; Nazi atrocities in Europe; American prohibitions on interracial marriage; and countless other horrors, were all perfectly “legal” under their national laws.

Those who think the OECD Guidelines sound fine but don’t achieve anything much – Amnesty International, for example, which concluded they weren’t “fit for purpose,” as far as the UK was concerned – will gain ammunition from the Survival International case. We lodged a formal complaint nearly two years ago in Switzerland (where WWF is headquartered) about the conservation giant’s work. Our evidence showed that WWF projects resulted in the eviction of the Baka, and the permanent – often violent – abuse of their rights. Things were so bad that the very fabric of their society and identity was threatened. It still is.

The complaint was submitted to the Swiss National Contact Point (NCP), the office which exists to “further the effectiveness of the Guidelines,” and that’s the same body which has now issued its “Final Statement”. The problem is that a diligent examination of the case shows the NCP’s unmistakable bias in favour of WWF.

Survival’s complaint focused on WWF’s treatment of the Baka in Cameroon, but could apply similarly to other big conservation organizations in many other countries. (“Fortress conservation” which abuses tribal peoples and evicts them from their lands, is the norm in Africa and India, just as it was in the United States when the indigenous people were thrown off their territory to create America’s famous National Parks.) We described how WWF ignored the local Baka when it colluded with government to carve up their land for conservation zones and trophy hunting areas ­– vast swathes were also given as concessions to logging companies, some of which partner with WWF. Survival reported on the systematic mistreatment of Baka by park guards, who find it easier to blame and beat up poor locals instead of attacking what’s really behind poaching – corruption of senior officials in government, often involving “ecoguards” themselves, many of them using resources originating with WWF.

The Swiss NCP “admitted” the case in 2016, though reluctantly: Survival had to submit detailed legal arguments to show that WWF was unquestionably a “multinational enterprise” within the OECD’s definition. It was a groundbreaking move which signalled that big NGOs must be subject to the same human rights responsibilities as any other multinational – so far, so good.

But after 18 months of toing and froing, “Survival withdrew” from the process over WWF’s refusal to countenance that it would make sure the Baka had consented to how the so-called protected areas were now managed.

The Swiss NCP’s Final Statement, however, omits any explanation of why Survival pulled out. Worse, Survival’s comprehensive complaints about “ecoguard” abuse of the Baka have been shrunk to vanishing point. The Final Statement has Survival claiming that, “ecoguards should be held accountable if they used… violence against the Baka” (my emphasis). What we actually said, repeatedly, was that WWF-supported guards do abuse Baka, and have been doing so over at least fifteen years. The violence is “systematic and largely unchecked”, but there’s no mention of that in the Final Statement.

There are other contortions too, only apparent to those in the know. For example, the Final Statement doesn’t mention that WWF falsely told the NCP that it was having discussions with Survival outside the OECD process, thereby halting everything for months. Why did the NCP believe WWF, and not ask Survival? The NCP wrongly claims a “joint agreement was reached at the conclusion of… mediation.” It wasn’t. The Statement also refers to “drafting of the Confidential Joint Outcome,” but doesn’t mention Survival’s real reason for withdrawing from the lengthy and futile attempts at trying to agree one.

What the Final Statement’s posits as “agreements,” in fact, do not reflect Survival’s position at all. They include, for example, that Survival “agrees” that WWF “will continue its… support to strengthen the Baka with regard to the land on which they rely.” Actually, we know, and have repeatedly made it clear to the NCP, that WWF has done the opposite. The conservation organization is party to the ongoing eviction of the Baka. All serious reports, including one commissioned and then suppressed by WWF, confirm that the Baka have never consented to the zoning of their land, that they are subject to abuse by the ecoguards, and that WWF’s so-called policy has been roundly ignored. Big conservation organizations, including WWF, are currently seeking to establish new parks elsewhere in the Congo Basin. They don’t bother to pretend they have the consent of the tribal peoples to whom the forest belongs, which, of course, they don’t. For the NCP to cite WWF “supporting” the Baka on their land is nonsense.

WWF’s work threatens the Baka’s existence as a people. If that sounds deplorable, so it should: The Baka have been almost entirely dispossessed. Some, including children, have been driven to serious alcohol abuse. Their health is plummeting. They are subject to beatings, torture, and even death at the hands of WWF-supported park guards. But their predicament appears to leave the NCP unmoved: The only thing which it “deplores” (by far its strongest word in the Final Statement) is Survival’s “inaccurate description of the mediation” and our “breach of confidentiality.” The NCP doesn’t, on the other hand, “deplore” the violations of the Guidelines it exists to support ­– it doesn’t even admit WWF’s violations occurred.

When we asked the NCP what it thought was “inaccurate” in our account, it came up with one example. It believed that the fact that it had “admitted” the complaint in the first place showed that my statement from an earlier article, “governments don’t want complaints about flagship NGOs which they themselves fund,” wasn’t true. I suppose I should have said that they don’t want to investigate complaints about such NGOs, at least not properly.

The NCP goes no further than recommending that WWF “engages to help ensure” Baka consent “processes.” It proffers no view on what such “processes” might consist of, merely suggesting they include “pushing for the government to publish FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) information.” It’s more empty rhetoric. WWF has obligations. They’re contained in the OECD Guidelines, which the NCP is meant to further, as well as in various UN declarations, in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and even in WWF’s own policy. The conservation organization is supposed to steer clear of land grabbing through taking people’s territory and resources without consent. It is supposed to make sure that indigenous peoples first agree to how their lands are managed before embarking on projects on those lands. It’s supposed to prevent the park guards, which it funds, equips and trains, from abusing people.

WWF constantly cites its own policy (which is excellent, by the way) in order to rebuff critics but behind closed doors it describes it to the NCP and Survival as merely an “aspirational work in progress.” In real life, it’s not policy at all, more of a public relations tool which is ignored. There are mining companies nowadays that go much further in respecting their human rights obligations.

It should be a serious concern that WWF is breaking OECD Guidelines and destroying the Baka, but an additional disgrace is for bodies such as the NCP – which exist to further those Guidelines – to let it get away with it. If the NCP acts as a steward, then who holds it to account when it fails to do its job?

In fact, there is a consortium of NGOs and companies founded with this end in mind. It’s the Dutch-based “OECD Watch,” but our tragedy morphs from George Orwell to Lewis Carroll with the realization that WWF is, itself, a member!

In other words, WWF is supposed to watch that the various government offices (the NCPs) of the OECD countries do their job of furthering the OECD Guidelines which it itself is breaking. Doubtless all parties can persuade themselves of their moral stance, but it’s a tragedy for those tribal peoples which WWF has had a hand in destroying. It’s also an example of how government and the conservation giants support each other to the detriment of the powerless.

If the OECD Guidelines are thought to be a stride forward for human rights, and if they can be treated in such cavalier manner by those subject to them as well as those charged with furthering them, then it’s a step of Lilliputian proportions.

However much all this may sound technical and legalistic, it couldn’t be more important for the thousands of tribal people being destroyed by the dominant conservation ideology. The fact that this “fortress conservation,” based on colonial ideas of empty “wilderness,” doesn’t help the environment either is another matter.

Survival will continue pressing WWF to start abiding by its own policy and stop harming the Baka. We will also continue asking those who care for the environment to press, in turn, for a different model of conservation, one which respects tribal peoples as the best guardians of the environment which they have created. They may not be perfect, but the evidence shows they do much a better job than organizations like WWF.

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Stephen Corry has worked with Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, since 1972. The not-for-profit has a San Francisco office. Its public campaign to change conservation can be joined at www.survivalinternational.org/conservation. This is one of a series of articles on the problem.

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