Charities make people leave their land

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Charities make people leave their land

Why are the big conservation organizations making forest people leave their homes and getting close to big business? Sophie Pritchard writes about the ‘green imperialists’.


Street art about WWF's business connections in Amsterdam – about the WWF's Living Planet report. (© Bustart /

A recent WWF report said that 40 per cent of our wild animals have been lost over the last 40 years. But the WWF website tells us: don’t panic, just give some money to help make a difference.

A few days later, WWF were in the news again. Survival International fights for the rights of indigenous people; they said WWW helped in the abuse of Ba’aka people in southeast Cameroon. The Ba’aka people have been forced to leave their homes to make space for national parks and wild animal reserves. But groups of people who WWF pay to stop people hunting illegally are using violence, torture and force to stop people killing animals for food.

Mbossi (a teenager) said to Survival: ‘They [wildlife officers] told me they would cut my throat after beating me.’ Sango, a 70-year-old woman, said: ‘I was just holding the machete and they sprayed gas in my eyes. I fell to the ground. If I hadn’t turned my head I would have lost my eye. They then took the machete and smashed my cooking pots with it.’

‘This has continued for far too long,’ says a Survival spokesperson. ‘WWF has known for more than ten years that these anti-poaching groups are doing terrible things to the Ba’aka people with WWF money. But they haven’t done anything about it.’

But it is even more worrying than this. WWF and other large international conservation organizations are involved with national park management across the area, including parts of Gabon and DR Congo, and they have taken a lot of the Ba’aka land – land where they have always lived.

There are many stories of abuse. World Conservation Society helped set up and manage Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in DR Congo in 1993. They forced the Ba’aka people to leave their land. ‘Eco-guards’ working there treat everyone the same: poachers (people who kill animals illegally) and Ba’aka people. They search them, take animals they have killed and their equipment, and sometimes beat them.

In Kenya, 2 US conservation NGOs - African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and The Nature Conservancy - together got money to buy land to set up Laikipia National Park. After they bought the land, the police beat and raped Samburu people and forced them to leave. They gave the park to the government in 2011; a year later AWF had to go to court because it forced the people out.

White man saving the animals

When you look at the history of conservation it’s easier to understand why they force people to leave their land. Rich hunters started the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire (SPFE, now Flora and Fauna International) in 1903. This started the conservation movement. Now we have very big, powerful international NGOs. When SPFE started, hunting was an important part of high society and hunters were getting worried that there weren’t enough animals to hunt. Then the colonialists also felt they had to protect Africa and its animals. The conservationists haven’t changed how they think much since then. They still think like colonialists, with a racist attitude. White man comes to save the animals. He knows better than the people who have lived in the forests for many years. White man is a ‘sportsman’ and the native people kill animals illegally; killing animals to win a prize is good, but killing for food is bad; where mining, cutting trees for industry, agriculture and tourism are necessary but wood for local people to use for cooking is bad.

Africa’s first National Park, Virunga in DR Congo (started in 1925), forced the native Bambuti people to leave. Now there are more than 100,000 protected conservation areas around the world. Many of these areas were started by five conservation groups: WWF, Conservation International, AWF, Wildlife Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy. After the 1950s, they started to look for more land for national parks, and they got the money to buy and manage the parks. The relationship between the conservation NGOs and native communities has got worse over time. Today the NGOs also work with big businesses that try to take the land.

$2.4 billion – the money that all these conservation groups, together, get every year: WWF, Conservation International, African Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy.

In 2011, people said WWF helped wood companies with its Global Forest Trade Network. A Global Witness report said the rules of the network were not very strong. So companies were getting illegal wood and abusing local communities and showing the WWF logo to make it OK. People know the WWF is involved in many industry groups and certification schemes eg. the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); its business relationships get millions of dollars.

Wildlife Conservation Society has worked with FSC-certified Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB) for a long time. This is a wood company near Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. They work together to find the illegal hunters – these are more of a problem than a company cutting trees. A lot of people criticised what it was doing, and they lost money, so (and resulting financial difficulties, Olam International bought CIB. Greenpeace said Olam International is a ‘company that’s destroying Congo’, because it has permission to cut trees over very large areas, 1.8 million hectares of the Congo Basin. Olam is also expanding oil palm plantations in the area.

The big conservation NGOs often have board members who also work with destructive industries. They say they work with them to reduce their environmental damage. But it seems like they buy their way in. In their fantasy world we can keep our lifestyles (but maybe use fewer plastic bags) and have economic growth and save the planet.

Hiding the truth

Big conservation groups try to have everything. They often support ‘carbon offsetting’. This lets companies pay for permission to increase their emissions. They get credits from projects that take carbon out of the atmosphere – often projects that protect or restore land. So they work with government and business on projects like Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation (REDD).

They say native people damage the forest and they force them to leave so they can sell carbon credits. It is often NGOs that do the projects, but because they work with carbon trading, this covers government work. There are many examples of abuse and people being forced to leave their land linked to these projects: the Sengwer people had to leave their land in Kenya for a World Bank-funded REDD project; and 22,000 rice farmers in Uganda had to leave their land for a project by FSC-certified New Forests Company. In both cases, homes were burned and destroyed.

There are similar stories with big conservation groups. In 2011, villagers had to leave their land in Rufiji Delta, Tanzania for a WWF CDM project; and a REDD project in Madagascar (with money from Air France and run by WWF) stopped local communities’ using land for wood collection and growing food.

We read dramatic, emotional writing about extinction and destruction when these NGO’s ask for money. This covers the fact that they work with business. They want everything to stay as it is now, so they don’t understand. They make friends with the people who are guilty, but they say the people with the least impact are guilty.

They don’t ask hard questions about the reasons (political and economic) why we are losing biodiversity. They want to pretend that we can save the world without changing the way we live as a society.

Sophie Pritchard is from Edge Fund. It supports action for radical social change in the UK and Ireland.

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