Wildlife & Biodiversity

Why the WWF’s ‘Fortress Conservation’ model is ethically wrong

As India gets ready for the July 24 Supreme Court verdict on possible eviction of its forest-dwelling communities in response to conservationists’ petitions, here is a primer on how the biggest such organisation has actively indulged in such an approach over the years

By Abhijit Mohanty
Published: Wednesday 17 July 2019
The WWF has been accused of promoting palm oil production, which is destroying forests in Southeast Asia and endangering orangutans like this baby and its mother in Borneo. Photo: Getty Images

The World Wide Fund for Nature, famously known by its cuddly panda logo, has been under the scanner of late.

In March 2019, BuzzFeedNews alleged human rights violation by WWF across Africa and Asia. Its investigation claimed that WWF funds, equips, trains and works with paramilitary forces accused of beating, torturing, harassing, sexually assaulting and murdering tens of thousands of forest-dwelling people. 

Similar investigations have been conducted earlier, yielding alarming results. 

In 2017, Survival International claimed it obtained a confidential WWF report titled, Participatory evaluation of the implementation of WWF strategies and principles on human rights in selected sites around Lobeke, Boumba Bek and Nki National Parks in Cameroon.

According to that, the WWF knew that the Baka ethnic group was not consulted and it did not give a free, informed and prior consent to the establishment of national parks on their lands, the United Kingdom-based charity alleged.

Several cases of abuse and violation of human rights were enumerated by communities and their perpetrators were identified in the report. They had not been admonished by their hierarchy despite the evidence and testimony of the victims, says the report.  

“The Baka are the eyes and ears of the forest and could really help conservation”, said Charles Jones Nsonkali, a Cameroonian indigenous rights activists. “With deep knowledge of the land and its animals, these communities should be ideal partners in WWF’s war against poaching.”

The situation of indigenous communities is even worse in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

According to an investigation by Rainforest Foundation, a UK-based charity organisation, “Communities living around the Salonga National Park in DRC have been subjected to torture, murder and gangrape at the hands of park rangers supported by funding from the WWF”.

Alleged crimes included two cases of gangrape, two extra-judicial killings, and multiple accounts of torture, abuse, harassment and other forms of mistreatment committed by the park guards.

“WWF has known about these atrocities for years. Let us not forget that, at this moment, WWF is calling for a new Protected Area, called Messok Dja, which is stealing Baka “Pygmy” land in the DRC. What we need is a public outcry against fortress conservation, which is so damaging to the planet and its peoples”, said Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International.

How green is the cause

Considering the rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic, which threatens the future of the polar bear, Coca-Cola Inc extended $2-million to WWF Canada. This leads to the question: Should WWF Canada accept funding from a corporation that destroys the environment and wildlife in other parts of the world?

Activists think otherwise — that non-profits should not accept support from corporations with questionable social and environmental records. 

Coca-Cola, which sells 1.7-billion drinks a day, has been listed among the world’s 10 worst corporations. In India, it is accused of many serious rights violations, including the destruction of the environment and local agriculture by privatising scarce water resources, severe pollution of ground water and land around its processing plants.

WWF has also been allegedly involved in promoting palm oil production through reinforcing the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and consolidating its criterion of certification.

Globally, palm oil provides 35 per cent of the world’s edible oil needs on just 10 per cent of the land, according to WWF.

Regrettably, WWF is misleading people across the globe with claims in its scorecard that RSPO certified palm oil “ensures that the palm oil company products do not contribute to deforestation”.

But according to Greenpeace, “RSPO members continue to destroy critically important forests and peatlands”. The palm oil industry is associated with deforestation, habitat destruction, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses.

The environmental and social costs of producing palm oil is largely ‘greenwash’ by international organisations like WWF. Take for instance, the deplorable conditions of millions of workers on plantations across Malaysia and Indonesia, which have exposed the true human cost of this cheap oil.

A third of Indonesia’s mammals are already endangered, thanks to the clearing of large tracks of forest for commercial palm oil cultivation. It is reported that, palm oil production kills 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans annually.

Without orangutans, the entire ecosystem of Indonesia could possibly collapse, warn conservationists. “The WWF is involved in the transformation of our world into plantations, mono-culture and national parks”, said Feri, an environmental activist who supports the Indonesian environmental protection organisation called Walhi’.

The ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign grants the WWF half a billion euros in donations each year. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, one of the founding members, is a former ‘tiger-hunter’.

He shot a tiger in Ranthambhore National Park in India shortly before WWF was founded.

In an interview with Wilfried Huismann, author of ‘Pandaleaks’, Prince Philip said, “I have never been big game hunting. No, never, except that one time in India. The only way you can be sure of getting a reasonable wildlife population is by making sure that they are balanced. You cannot just leave it to nature”.  The statement was severely condemned conservationists and activists worldwide. 

Prince Philip stands for the rich and promotes an alliance with powerful businesses that destroy nature and use the WWF brand to greenwash their operations.

Companies like BP Plc and Cargil Inc destroy the rainforest to produce biofuel from soya and palm oil — the WWF gives its blessings. Forest-dwelling people are resettled and when small farmers resists, the bulldozers come. 

Take for instance, in Indonesia’s easternmost, restive region of Irian Jaya or West Papua, where 9 million hectares of forest shall be changed into palm oil plantation, the WWF cooperates with the government.

The future of indigenous communities in West Papua seems dark, as their habitats shall be transformed into palm oil cultivation. Palm oil is a gigantic business.

The WWF works together with the agribusiness agencies and collects consulting fees. Multinational banks finance the bio-industry boom with billions in loans and concessions. 

The WWF even indulges in factory farming in the sea. It makes a deal with the business corporations, which contaminate the sea with toxic chemicals and antibiotics. For the production of just one kilogram of salmon fish, five kilo of wild fish are killed — an ecological nightmare.

It is high time for the supporters and allies of WWF to advocate for an ethical conservation approach. WWF should promote more transparency and accountability in their operation.

It will be a ‘win-win-situation’ if international conservation organisations like WWF, local civil societies, academic institutions and government join hands with indigenous communities to protect nature. Displacing indigenous communities to create protected areas, sanctuaries and game reserves is not a sustainable solution to save the wildlife and forest. 

Yes, conserving biodiversity is a global responsibility, but the indigenous people can play a very crucial role — because even though they comprise less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, indigenous communities protect 80 per cent of global biodiversity.

Their traditional wisdom and insights about protecting forests should be incorporated in policy formulations and it is imperative to ensure their active participation in conservation-based activities and initiatives across the world, right from conceptualising, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

Abhijit Mohanty is an Indian development professional currently based in Cameroon, Central Africa. He has extensively worked with the indigenous communities across India, Nepal and Cameroon, especially on the issues of land, forest and water

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