Wildlife & Biodiversity

Activists at Berlin conference call out German, Western complicity in funding Fortress Conservation

They urged Western governments to stop taking land from indigenous people in the name of conservation

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 29 April 2022
Yannick Ndoinyo, Maasai land rights activist makes a point during Survival International's Berlin conference on April 28, 2022. Photo: Survival international
Yannick Ndoinyo, Maasai land rights activist makes a point during Survival International's Berlin conference on April 28, 2022. Photo: Survival international Yannick Ndoinyo, Maasai land rights activist makes a point during Survival International's Berlin conference on April 28, 2022. Photo: Survival international

Activists called out the role of Western, especially German, funding in helping create and maintain Protected Areas (PA) in sub-Saharan Africa, which led to the indigenous inhabitants of these areas being displaced or killed, all in the name of wildlife conservation, at a conference in Berlin on April 28, 2022.

They urged Western governments to stop funding projects which resulted in indigenous peoples losing their land and identity in the name of conservation.

The activists also said the Western model of conservation had failed. It had now been proved that indigenous peoples made the best conservationists and there could thus be no biodiversity without cultural diversity.

The event No biodiversity without human diversity: Conference on the decolonization of conservation was organised by Survival International, a non-profit that works for the rights of indigenous and uncontacted peoples.

Funding atrocities

Panelists in one of the sessions Made in Germany? A look at international conservation projects and the role of Germany also cited instances of German support to Fortress Conservation in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Tanzania.

Incidentally, Cameroon and Tanganyika (as the mainland was known before its political union with Zanzibar) are former colonies of the German Empire.

Colin Luoma, a researcher at Minority Rights Group, a London-based international human rights organisation and a panelist, cited the example of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

The park was established in 1970 on the western bank of Lake Kivu in the eastern part of the DRC, near the Rwandan border. It is one of the last refuges of the Eastern Lowland Gorilla.

Luoma talked about how, in the lead-up to the formation of the protected area , the Batwa, a pygmy people indigenous to the area, were violently and forcibly removed from the area.

“Shortly after the park was created and the Batwa were violently expelled, GIZ, the technical corporation in Germany, helped secure the borders. It helped to improve the patrolling and monitoring. It helped to ensure that the original human inhabitants of that forest could no longer access it,” he said.

The Batwa have returned to the park since then, but still face threats to their lives.

Luoma said there were four critical ways in which German development actors had failed to live up to their human rights obligations in connection with their support to this particular park.

First, for 40 years, they had supported a project without the free and informed consent of the indigenous people to whom the park belonged.

Second, German organisations like GIZ and the KfW Bank, when asked to disclose how they support certain parks, hide behind tenous legal arguments about whether they are operating as a private or public legal entity, Luoma said.

“There is a complete lack of monitoring, of not being able to know what is happening on the ground. When you are reliant on conservation organisations that have an incentive to not share unsavoury information, then the information flows are not getting to the donors so that they can make appropriate decisions,” he added.

Germany in 2019 had explicit warnings that guards were shooting the Batwa inside the park and that violence was imminent.

But their funding continued. There is no indication that they took remedial action, Luoma said. In July 2019, the first of three large-scale operations took place inside the park with guards and Congolese soldiers targeting the Batwa.

“Germany has funded the militiarised training of the guards. They walk with machine guns, use mortars on civilians. This funding was done with public money. Under international law, such support was legal only if an advanced notice was provided to the UN. But this was not done,” Luoma noted.

Charles Nsonkali, a programme officer at OKANI, a community-based indigenous organisation in Cameroon, told the conference about the plight of the Baka, another pygmy people in Lobeke National Park, the largest PA in Cameroon.

“The PA (working on the western model of conservation) has caused the Baka to be relocated away from the forest. This has limited their subsistence activities, their traditional practices related to natural resources and created misery, poverty and health problems among them,” he said.

Yannick Ndoinyo, managing director of Traditional Ecosystems Survival Tanzania and an activist for Maasai land rights in northern Tanzania, started his presentation with a quote (from 1958) about how the world-famous Serengeti National Park in Tanzania was created:

…We, the elders of Ngorongoro, in the Loliondo division of the Maasai district agree on behalf of all the Maasai living in these areas to renounce our claim to all those parts of the Serengeti plains lying within the Northern and Lake provinces, which lie to the west of the line shown to us by the district commissioner…

He talked about how Bernhard Grzimek, a German researcher, studied the significance of Serengeti as a national park. He convinced the British colonial administration to push the Maasai out of Serengeti.

Grzimek later founded the Frankfurt Zoological Society which perpetuated the conservation models that he had formulated, Ndoinyo said.

“Right now, they are speaking of extending the line that I mentioned, to make more layers for Serengeti because the 14,000 sq km they took in 1959 are not enough to conserve biodiversity,” he said.

“There is no biodiversity without cultural diversity. It is the practices of these people that are conserving biodiversity. Stop taking land for conservation because you are causing pain, displacement and loss of identity to indigenous peoples,” Ndoinyo appealed.

“Some 97 per cent of German money goes to African nations. The German Development Bank currently contributes to supporting 740 PAs. This is an area equal to Germany, France, Poland and Sweden put together,” Fiore Longo, research and advocacy officer at Survival International, said.

She added that Germany also donates to several big non-profits in the name of aiding conservation. But such organisations are the biggest violators of human rights, she said.

“We have approached German politicians to stop such funding but nothing has been done,” Longo added.

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