Excusing conservation wrongs? Report finds WWF culpable for human rights violations but does not assign blame
The report by the Independent Panel of Experts investigating WWF’s role in alleged human rights abuses committed in protected areas under its aegis, published by WWF on 24 November 2020, found that the conservation organization repeatedly fell short of meeting its human rights obligations over years in multiple countries. This includes failing to adequately prevent, respond to and remedy multiple allegations of murder, rape, torture, and severe physical violence committed by WWF-supported ecoguards against indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). While the Panel describes how WWF consistently failed to uphold its human rights commitments across various protected areas, it fails to make logical conclusions regarding WWF’s complicity in these abuses or adequately hold the organization responsible for its many shortcomings. The executive summary and accompanying press releases from WWF and the Panel deliberately downplay WWF’s role in human rights abuses to the point where superficial readings have erroneously concluded that WWF was absolved of responsibility.
The deficiencies in the final report reflect a flawed approach to the Panel’s investigation. From the outset, local and international organizations working with affected communities warned that the review’s narrow scope and methodology were wholly inadequate to deal with the seriousness and endemic nature of the allegations. This was borne out in the Panel’s investigation, which did not interview victims of alleged human rights abuses. Although the Panel considered any written submissions made by the public, the process was ill-adapted to receive input from affected communities.
A briefing released today offers an alternative executive summary of the report, underscoring and clarifying salient findings buried in the 160-page document. It highlights the Panel’s documentation of systemic failure by WWF to meet its human rights obligations in the protected areas, emphasizing that:
- In every protected area under review, WWF had knowledge of alleged human rights abuses;
- In every protected area under review, WWF provided financial, technical and material support to park ecoguards despite knowledge of alleged human rights abuses committed by them;
- In 7 of the 10 protected areas under review (in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Republic of Congo, and Nepal), WWF failed to take adequate steps to prevent, respond to and remedy allegations of human rights abuses committed by ecoguards it funded and supported; and
- In 7 of the 10 protected areas under review (in Cameroon, the DRC, Republic of Congo, and Nepal), WWF failed to uphold the rights of IPLCs.
Despite finding that WWF had knowledge of abuses in every protected area subject to the Panel’s investigation, the organization conducted internal investigations in just half of them, often only in the wake of intense pressure from the media and civil society. The Panel also confirmed that WWF continued funding ecoguards even when critical safeguards were not fully operationalized to secure the rights of IPLCs. These safeguards included its own human rights policies, as well as expert recommendations to mitigate human rights risks uncovered by its internal investigations.
The avoidance of difficult conversations with country partners, and the obscuring of facts from its donors (including through WWF’s press release about the reports findings), point to a systemic rather than episodic problem across the organization, heightened by an approach to conservation that has become increasingly militarised over the years. With the review covering a fraction of WWF-managed and supported protected areas, the Panel’s findings may well represent the tip of the iceberg. This makes the way in which the Panel’s findings are framed and WWF’s subsequent self-exoneration and lack of contrition a slap in the face of human rights accountability and a significant blow to people-centred conservation approaches.
As the briefing outlines, to ensure a human rights-abiding approach to conservation, WWF and its donors must redress violations of human rights abuses in the protected areas it supports. WWF donors have a responsibility to commission independent indigenous peoples led reviews in each protected area where violations have been alleged. Donors must stop funding conservation projects in protected areas with unresolved human rights allegations immediately and not reinstate it until externally supervised safeguards have been fully operationalized, and reparations are provided to victims. WWF and its donors must address the underlying issue of the repeated non-respect of customary land ownership when protected areas are created, and take steps towards restitution of customary lands. Senior WWF executives, management, board members and in-country staff members must be held accountable for their role in failures to uphold human rights commitments. Most importantly donors need to radically transform the coercive conservation model promoted by WWF which lies at the root of the abuses subject to the Panel’s investigation. Such redesign must place IPLCs, the world’s most effective environmental custodians, and their biodiversity rich territories, at the centre of conservation while securing their title to ancestral domains. This imperative is not only a matter of international human rights law; it is also evidentially the most effective way to conserve the environment.
- Minority Rights Group International
- Actions pour la Promotion et Protection des Peuples et Espèces Menacés (APEM)
- Forest Peoples Programme (FPP)
- Rainforest Foundation UK
- Survival International
- Global Witness
- Professor Kyle, Whyte University of Michigan, United States
- Instituto para el Futuro Común Amerindio (IFCA), Honduras
- Jared Margulies, University of Alabama, United States
- Francis Masse, Northumbria University, United Kingdom
- Dr. Liz Alden Wily, Independent Land Tenure & Governance Specialist, Kenya
- Initiative for Equality (IfE)
- Anwesha Dutta, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway
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Photo: Mising women have spoken out about the harassment of the forest guards and the threat of eviction from their ancestral land. Kaziranga National Park. Credit: Fiore Longo/Survival International
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