Anti-poaching squads supported by one of the world's top conservation groups beat and harassed African hunter-gatherers whose traditional territory has been turned into wildlife preserves, Western advocates said Wednesday.
Villagers from Cameroon's Baka population — the people long known as pygmies in the West — are being beaten and chased out of the forests that sustained them for generations, according to a complaint filed with an international agency by Survival International. The group, which works with indigenous populations in places like Africa and South America, says "ecoguards" funded and equipped by the Worldwide Fund for Nature abused the Baka because they made an easier target than commercial poachers.
"The wildlife officers arrived at night. They started to beat us right there on the road to Elandjoh," one Baka villager recounted in a document included in the complaint. "They said that we were hunting elephants but they didn't find anything. They rummaged in our houses and found nothing. And after that they beat us and then carried on to their base."
Survival International is asking the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to intercede and work out a deal to protect the Baka, said Mike Hurran, Africa campaigner for the group. The 228-page complaint marks a new phase in a long-simmering dispute between Survival International and the WWF.
"This problem has been going on for a long, long time — at least 14 years. WWF has been made aware of it time and time again," Hurran said. "This is quite a novel thing to try."
The problem dates back to the early 1990s, when the WWF lobbied Cameroon's government to create a network of protected areas to save the habitats of animals like forest elephants and lowland gorillas. That put the government on a collision course with the Baka, who depend on the forest for subsistence, hunting boars, antelope, and, occasionally, elephants.
"Now the Baka are being illegally evicted in these areas and criminalized when they hunt," Hurran said. "When they're found hunting, they risk being harassed, intimidated, beaten up, even tortured, or perhaps even killed by anti-poaching squads, who are also funded by the WWF."
Phil Dickie, a WWF spokesman, said his organization had not seen a copy of the complaint. But he acknowledged that there have been "some verified instances of abuses" involving the ecoguards in the past, and said the WWF has pledged to support investigations into previous complaints by Survival.
"We similarly commit to cooperate with any process initiated by the OECD," he said.
"Conditions in Cameroon are difficult, and Baka do suffer extensive disadvantage and discrimination," Dickie wrote in an e-mail to VICE News. "WWF has been trying to protect forest and improve the situation of local communities for more than two decades."
But Hurran said the WWF has ignored its own pledges to prevent abuses and to consult indigenous groups before launching a conservation project.
Previous efforts to preserve forest and wildlife habitat in Africa have encountered similar problems. A 2013 study by researchers in South Africa and Uganda criticized conservationists who set up protected areas "without taking into account that local people depend on those resources for livelihood and survival."
"Conservationists must realize that the biodiversity that parks are designed to protect
is a social good," Moses Muhumuza and Kevin Balkwill wrote. "More than 80 percent of the people in eastern and South Africa depended on the immediate forest resources for livelihood and survival."
In Cameroon, Survival International says the programs the WWF supported made human rights abuses "a certainty." The anti-poaching units it funds "are frequently said to raze to the ground any Baka camps they come upon … and to destroy or confiscate any property they are able to seize," Survival International states. One Baka man described being beaten with machetes and left in the middle of his village after ecoguards arrived.
"They handcuffed us here and threw us to the ground, in this square here," he recounted in an interview with SI staffers. "They beat us on our bottoms, with a machete. […]. Every day they were here they beat us."
Even outside protected areas, the Baka complain that their homes are unlawfully searched and their property confiscated.
"Baka have also claimed that they have been assaulted under interrogation, and several are even said to have died from their injuries," the document states.
Dickie said the region has seen a surge in arms smuggling, more organized poaching, and an inflow of refugees since 2009. He said the WWF has recorded two incidents of "serious and unacceptable conduct" by police, ecoguards, and government troops in 2012, one against a Baka community and one involving a mixed community.
"It remains a possibility that officers involved will be held to account," he said, adding that one allegation reported by Survival didn't check out.
Hurran said the abuses have made conservationists into enemies of the Baka, alienating a potential source of information on the poachers. Some have turned against "the whole concept of conservation … because all it's meant to them is hardship and violence."
"WWF has a lot of work to do to try to restore trust and build up equal and fair relationships with the Baka and their neighbors," he said.
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