Josi Emerson, president of the Baka pygmy village of Seh in the Congolese rainforest, was working in his field in June 2018 when he heard vehicles and shouts. Forest rangers, known as ecoguards, dressed in paramilitary uniforms and carrying guns, had arrived in Jeeps.
Emerson rushed home but it was too late. The guards, employed by the Congolese government to stop poaching and supported by international conservation group the WWF, were going from hut to hut accusing the Baka villagers of killing an elephant.
“A guard slapped me three times in the face. ‘You know what is happening here,’ he said. “[Then] they started beating everyone. They beat my brother with a machete and cut his back, right to the bone – and they beat my mother with a piece of wood. They beat everyone. They made me lie down in the ashes of the fire. They destroyed our cooking pots with their boots, they looked for ivory in our houses but they found nothing,” he said.
Emerson’s allegation of physical violence by forest rangers was one of many reported to a UN Development Programme [UNDP] team sent to Baka villages to investigate reports of human rights abuses in one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects.
Its report into what was happening in the proposed 1,345 sq km Messok Dja national park in the Republic of the Congo reveals not only how the Baka were treated, but condemns the way western countries, global bodies and wildlife protection groups failed to respect human rights in central Africa.
The team found Baka communities in a state of “deep distress” and were told of multiple beatings, houses being burned down and guards forcing women to strip.
The report documents “credible” testimony that the guards engaged in violence and threats against the semi-nomadic Baka people in the Messok Dja.
Some Baka reported that they were taken to prison, tortured and raped. One woman said her husband was treated so badly in prison that he died shortly after his release. He had been taken to the prison in a WWF-marked vehicle.
Other Baka, says the report, were told they could no longer go into areas of the forest where they had traditionally hunted because a “park” was going to be set up. The guards made no distinction between the Baka’s small-scale, traditional hunting for survival and illegal wildlife poaching.
The proposed Messok Dja protected area is the centrepiece of the much larger Tridom project which since 2007 has attracted tens of millions of dollars to protect a key part of the Congo basin – the world’s second largest rainforest after the Amazon.
Financed in different stages by the UNDP, the Global Environment Facility, the EU, the US, WWF and other global conservation groups, as well as logging and palm oil companies, it covers 10% of the Congo basin.
Safeguarding this part of the basin, a “hotspot for great apes and elephant poaching”, is intended to create a wildlife corridor between protected areas in Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo and combat the illegal wildlife trade. An estimated 25,000 elephants, 40,000 gorillas and chimps as well as buffaloes and monkeys live in the wider area and are increasingly threatened by logging, palm oil plantations and mining.
In a sobering critique, the investigators found multiple faults with the way the UNDP and Tridom’s partner organisations set up and managed the project. Communities, says the report, were barely consulted about plans that would have a severe impact on them, policies were not implemented, there was widespread failure to identify risk, and an overoptimistic assumption that conservation would bring benefits to the indigenous people.
But the wider findings of the report challenge the multibillion-dollar western conservation industry and global bodies to rethink how they work with indigenous peoples. According to the investigators, they are locked into “old thinking” about how to protect nature.
That analysis reflects the recent landmark report of IPBES, the intergovernmental science policy platform on biodiversity, where it’s argued that indigenous people are not threats but essential to conservation.
“The establishment of national parks in the Congo basin has a history of being focused on conservation while ignoring the human rights of the indigenous communities. This approach considers indigenous people a threat and fails to take into account the role that they have historically played in conserving biodiversity,” it says.
“The prevailing conservation model is still dominated by the ideological view that protected areas have to be empty of people. However, evidence from other regions shows that empowering indigenous peoples to manage the biodiversity in their own territories results in more sustainable and cost-effective ways to protect biodiversity,” says the report.
The lesson to be drawn, it says, is that conservationists must work with indigenous peoples who have managed landscapes for centuries rather than trying to exclude them. “Evidence from across the world shows that indigenous peoples, like the Baka, understand well how to care for their traditional lands and can do so for a fraction of the cost of western conservation programmes.”
Earlier this year the EU suspended its EUR1m funding to the WWF for the project and said it would conduct a human rights review of other schemes it supports in the Congo basin.
The result is a vindication for BuzzFeed news, which had reported in 2019 how the WWF had declared in its application for funding that the Baka were “favourable” to the new park but had omitted to say that many had vehemently opposed it, fearing “repression” from ecoguards and their removal from the forests.
In a statement, the EU said that it acknowledged that the UNDP investigation showed “shortcomings” in WWF’s methods for seeking the consent of the Baka and said financial support would be restored only when more protections for the Baka had been established.
Observers in central Africa say the Messok Dja and the wider Tridom project have been a human rights disaster, further impoverishing already marginalised indigenous peoples who have lived in or adjacent to Messok Dja’s boundaries for millennia.
According to the Forest Peoples Programme [FPP], an international NGO commissioned last year by WWF to assess the situation in Messok Dja, the proposed protected area should be completely rethought.
“Multiple communities oppose the overlap of the protected area with their lands … Communities experience ecoguards which they associate with WWF as violent and unjust. Engagement and consultation with communities started far too late in the process [of setting up the park],” says the FPP report.
Indigenous peoples defence group Survival International said the UNDP report should be a wake-up call for conservationists everywhere. “By targeting the weak semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers like the Baka, the global bodies and businesses involved in Messok Dja are alienating the very people who have conserved the forests since time immemorial,” says its director, Stephen Corry.
“Millions of dollars have been spent on the proposed park, much of it coming from mining, logging, palm oil and tourism companies, as well as conservation NGOs. They are working together to steal Baka land. All the relevant UN policies and laws regarding respect for indigenous peoples and human rights were ignored from the beginning as it was felt that a conservation project somehow rose above them,” said Corry.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, says that up to 250,000 people worldwide have been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for conservation projects since 1990.
“Protected areas continue to cause chronic patterns of abuse and large-scale human rights violations. There is a growing body of evidence that forests thrive when indigenous peoples remain on their customary lands and have legally recognised rights to manage and protect them,” she said.
When the UNDP draft report was published in April this year, the WWF said in a statementthat it had already changed its approach to working with indigenous Baka groups.
“The [UNDP] report, based on a field mission in early 2019, does not reflect the current position on the ground. We have worked tirelessly in recent months with all concerned – from representatives of indigenous peoples and other NGOs working in the area, to logging companies and RoC (Republic of the Congo) government officials – to overhaul practices regarding community engagement and help ensure [the] indigenous group participate in finding solutions and do not feel their way of life is under threat due to conservation efforts,” it said.
“We are especially distressed by concerns around the relationship between RoC government-employed rangers and local communities, including allegations of abuse, and are treating these matters of the highest importance. Any breach of our social policies and commitments is unacceptable and we will take all action needed,” it added.
But the Baka, in a letter to the European commission, say the conservationists must learn from them.
“The forest is our home. We rely on it to live,” wrote Celestin Angama. “But you people have stolen our forest. What are we going to do? How will we survive? We do not understand why you don’t come to us for our advice and our guidance about how to protect our forest. Haven’t you thought of that? If the forest is so beautiful it is because we are here. We are the ones you should be working with.”