Complaint abandoned, but systematic human rights violations continue for indigenous Baka communities in Cameroon

In September 2017, Survival International announced that it had withdrawn from OECD mediation with WWF, following its 2016 complaint lodged against them in relation to (inter alia) mistreatment of the Baka in Cameroon connected with its conservation activities. While Survival International’s formal complaint might be at an end, the serious abuses of indigenous peoples’ human rights associated with conservation activities in Cameroon (and elsewhere) are persistent, real and ongoing, and reflect fundamental problems with the approach of many large conservation actors.

At an international level, there has been a longstanding engagement by leading conservationists in support of human rights (often provoked by earlier criticisms of the adverse effects that their policies had on indigenous peoples). Indeed, WWF’s website notes that it was “the first international conservation organization to formally adopt a policy recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples”.

WWF’s policy recognises that “most of the remaining significant areas of high natural value on earth are inhabited by indigenous peoples” and states that the organisation “will not promote or support, and may actively oppose, interventions which have not received the prior free and informed consent of affected indigenous communities”. Yet 20 years after the adoption of the policy, implementation on the ground remains highly problematic.

“Too scared to go into the forest”

For more than a decade physical violence by ecoguards, fear of “dobidobi” (WWF), and loss of access to their forest areas in conservation zones have been repeatedly reported by indigenous communities in Cameroon. The problems are ubiquitous. Such abuses are unacceptable regardless of any involvement in unlawful activities by Baka individuals. In any event, Baka subsistence hunting on their customary lands has often been rendered unlawful only because those lands have been absorbed into protected areas without their consent.

Baka are extorted or intimidated when going into the forest, including into those areas in which they are entitled to go. When they hunt they are regularly detained and beaten, whether or not they have acted within the law. Their (lawfully hunted) bushmeat is confiscated by ecoguards (or by Bantu neighbours who “borrow” their uniforms).

Collective punishment, entailing suspension of a whole community’s already limited access rights, has been proposed for Baka villages when any individual member of the community has been, or is suspected of being, involved with poaching. Recently, Baka in one remote area of Cameroon described how they were now “too scared to go into the forest”, with devastating effects on their livelihoods, transmission of traditional knowledge, and the survival of their culture. A “fortress conservation” mentality has created and enabled a raft of new forms of abuses against indigenous peoples.

While WWF staff are not to our knowledge directly involved in these abuses, their level of collaboration with those who are engaged in them is significant. For example: ecoguards use WWF vehicles for transport; in east Cameroon, WWF shares an office with MINFOF and national park management; and through its financial and technical support of these projects very probably contributes to the ecoguard budget – although it is difficult to be certain due to the opacity of WWF’s published accounts.

Moreover, in apparent breach of its own policy, WWF continues to support and promote the creation of conservation areas on indigenous peoples’ lands without their genuine free, prior and informed consent – entailing not only a denial of indigenous ownership but significant restrictions on their traditional land use and access.

Entirely foreseeable consequences

The widespread human rights abuses tied to the creation of national parks, conservation areas and privately-run hunting concessions – coupled with protected area policies focused on armed ecoguard surveillance and patrolling – are well known by conservation actors involved in these projects. And they are not confined to WWF or to Cameroon. This is an issue intrinsically linked to international conservation agencies who (i) operate in countries that do not respect, let alone protect, the rights of indigenous peoples, and (ii) prioritise the creation of protected areas over working for changes in policy and law that can enable genuine support for communities who have sustained (and been sustained by) their ecologically rich lands.

In Cameroon, for example, indigenous peoples’ land rights are not recognised under national law; their villages are not recognised by the State; few indigenous people have birth certificates and fewer still have national identity cards (which are needed to make a formal complaint to the gendarmerie); and since many have received no education they cannot speak in official State languages (French or English). Their access to justice and political representation is close to zero. In addition, indigenous peoples have suffered systematic violence and exploitation at the hands of (dominant) Bantu groups.

When these dynamics prevail, any collaboration between international conservation actors and the State will inevitably put the rights and livelihoods of local people at risk. In Cameroon, WWF knew, or ought to have known, from the outset that the national parks it so strongly supported would incorporate huge tracts of Baka land; that since the Baka had never agreed to give up this land they were unlikely to respect park boundaries or even to appreciate their significance; and that in an effort to teach them the error of their ways (and/or because they were in positions of unchecked power) ecoguards would very probably resort to violence. This is precisely what has happened.

For international conservation actors, the response is frequently that they are “constrained” in what they can do by national laws. For example, in answer to the Survival complaint WWF contended that “protected areas are created and managed by States” and that it can be “challenging” for organisations “working in a sovereign country with distinct legal frameworks”.

Even if this true it is beside the point. All organisations working in countries with difficult governance systems understand that there are challenges and compromises involved. But that does not mean that all compromise and collaboration is acceptable. No one is entitled to hide behind the skirts of local legislation which fails to protect basic rights. In the words of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the duty of WWF and other businesses to respect the human rights of communities affected by their projects “exists over and above compliance with national laws and regulations”.  Principle 13 goes on to state that, whatever those laws may say, enterprises must “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations … even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” It is also overt non-compliance with WWF’s own policies.

Unacceptable compromises

Too often international conservation actors have shown by their conduct that they are prepared to accept the “cost” of human rights violations against indigenous peoples, provided that their access to governments to achieve their conservation aims is protected. That position is simply unacceptable – not least because it is a price paid by indigenous communities and not conservationists.

In defending their actions, WWF and others often cite the counterfactual scenario – that the situation would be even worse if they were not there – or point to minor “benefits” which their programmes bring to indigenous peoples. However, those benefits (if and to the extent that they actually materialise) do not compensate for what is lost. More fundamentally, it is not the place of WWF (or any other organisation) to judge what is in the best interests of indigenous peoples. Only indigenous communities themselves can decide whether to make such compromises. Yet this arch paternalism continues.

WWF will never be respectful of indigenous peoples’ rights until its actions are genuinely led by the informed decisions of communities, after a full and independent explanation of the constraints involved and the pros and cons of different courses of action – and undistracted by the minor benefits so often tacked on to pre-designed projects in supposed recompense for the devastation they likely bring in their wake.

Indigenous peoples are not against conservation

Communities are not perfect, but in general they are deeply committed to maintaining and continuing to use their forests. They are also capable of pragmatism, and can recognise that in many cases a conservation area may provide better security than a forestry or agro-industrial concession that could entail even worse effects. They are equally aware of the limited powers of NGOs, and of the political constraints and realities of their own contexts, and of course they take these factors into account in their decision-making.

Many indigenous communities in Cameroon would likely be supportive of appropriate, locally-owned conservation initiatives which respect their rights. However, the conservation models implemented in Cameroon have been developed without genuine input from indigenous peoples, and do not respect their rights or their long histories of natural resource management and sustainable use. The result is a lose-lose situation. Not only do indigenous peoples suffer significantly from the “conservation” that has been foisted upon them, but an increasing body of evidence shows that policies that respect traditional indigenous ownership and management of the land have a far better outcome than those which do not. This is a reality which has recently been highlighted by both the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

Enough is enough

Operating in complex political realities involves nuance and compromise, but there are red lines that cannot be crossed. FPP is working with communities in areas in which WWF and MINFOF are also active, and has been assisting community members to bring indigenous peoples’ concerns to the table in meetings with these actors. WWF is aware of many of the problems and has shown a willingness in principle to discuss them. The practice, however, has been rather different. Perhaps fearful of harming its “special relationship” with MINFOF or of missing project targets, to date WWF has continued to side with officials when they push back, as they so often do, against propositions made by indigenous communities.

FPP continues to believe that effective engagement is the way forward, but there must be a fundamental change. Human rights law and conservation science are clear: we need to support communities to conserve their land, rather than criminalise their presence on it. It is time for international conservation actors to do more than pay lip service to indigenous peoples’ human rights, and to get serious about ensuring they are implemented in practice in their programmes – and be prepared to withdraw if they are not.

This article was initially published on Forest Peoples Programme here

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Forest Peoples Programme

Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) was founded in 1990 in response to the forest crisis, specifically to support indigenous forest peoples’ struggles to defend their lands and livelihoods. It registered as a non-governmental human rights Dutch Stichting in 1997, and then later, in 2000, as a UK charity, No. 1082158 and a company limited by guarantee (England & Wales) Reg. No. 3868836, with a registered office in the UK and an administrative office in the Netherlands.

FPP’s focus, in the beginning, came from the expertise and relationships that the small founding team had with specific communities, primarily in the Guyanas and in South and South East Asia. Forest Peoples Programme has grown into a respected and successful organisation that now operates right around the tropical forest belt where it serves to bridge the gap between policy makers and forest peoples. Through advocacy, practical projects and capacity building, FPP supports forest peoples to deal directly with the outside powers, regionally, nationally, and internationally that shape their lives and futures. Forest Peoples Programme has contributed to, and continues supporting, the growing indigenous peoples’ movement whose voice is gaining influence and attention on the world-wide stage.