The violence of ‘conservation’

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The violence of ‘conservation’

Fiore Longo of Survival International says we should stop big conservation projects. They abuse and destroy the people who know how to protect the land.


Conservation projects have stolen a lot of land from tribal people and local communities. The projects say that this is necessary for conservation. That is wrong. Credit: Fiore Longo

In February 2020, The Guardian newspaper saw a report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that armed eco-guards were violent to Baka tribespeople and violated their human rights. The WWF paid for some of this to protect wildlife in the Republic of Congo.

The big conservation organisation has tried to create a protected zone around Messok Dja, a big forest rich in wildlife and biodiversity. The Baka people have lived there for generations. The UNDP found that no one spoke to the Baka about the project and they suffered serious violence from the eco-guards. The eco-guards also stopped them from going to the forests for food and medicines.

The WWF, palm oil and logging companies, and the UNDP help to pay for the $21.4 million conservation project. A big part of this money goes to ‘conservation’ in Messok Dja. The rest of the money goes to TRIDOM, another forest across Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon. The UNDP started an investigation after receiving letters from the Baka in 2018 and complaints from Survival International (SI).

One letter, signed by Baka people in Mbaye village, said: ‘They stop us from going to the forest. If we make camps in the forest, the eco-guards burn them down. Many Baka are dead today. Children are getting thinner. We already have very few forest medicines. We tried to tell our difficulties to the WWF but they do not accept them. They just tell us we cannot go to the forest.’

A report from the investigation, dated 6 January 2020, says eco-guards beat Baka men, women, and children. Other reports say eco-guards forced Baka to beat each other at gun point, guards took away machetes, and eco-guards forced Baka women to take off their clothes ‘to be like naked children’.

The report also says, ‘The violence is leading to suffering in the Baka communities. It is also stopping the Baka from living their normal lives.’

Unfortunately, this is only a small part of the story. It is shocking how long WWF have known about this and done so little to put it right. It is also shocking how until now international organisations like the UN paid no attention to what was happening.

‘Eco-guards see Baka as animals, they don’t see us as humans,’ a Baka man from the Congo Basin told Survival International.

Survival International and the indigenous and tribal people have been protesting since the 1980s against the violence of conservation.

Nature groups, national governments, and international organisations have supported agents who have tortured and murdered many innocent and vulnerable people. Park rangers and government officials have burned down villages, knocked down houses, gang-raped women, stolen possessions, beaten people, and injured them for life.

Conservation projects have stolen a lot of land from tribal people and local communities. The projects say that this is necessary for conservation. That is wrong. The stolen land is then called a ‘protected area’ or ‘national park’, and they keep out the people living there, sometimes with violence, like with the Baka.


WWF has been working in the Congo Basin for over 20 years. WWF has supported eco-guards who have committed violent abuse against tribal people. ©WWF

Cultural Imperialism

The first national parks were in the United States in the 19th century. The idea was that nature is ‘untouched wilderness’ until white people ‘discovered’ it. Chief Luther Standing Bear is from the Sicangu and Oglala Lakota. He says, ‘Nature was a “wilderness” only to the white man. White men said it was full of “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame, not wild.’

Thousands of Native American people were not ‘just’ living on the land, but using and looking after it. They played a very important part in these ecosystems and understood them very well. But people saw the Native Americans as a problem to solve, just like the peoples in African and Asian protected areas today.

The sad story is that tourism, trophy hunting, and ‘sustainable’ logging and mining are often welcome in the areas where they have stopped the original inhabitants from living and using the land.


A man from a village near the proposed Messok Dja national park shows where the eco-guards beat him. Credit: Fiore Longo

Both in 19th century North America and in much of Africa and Asia today, ‘conservation’ means the original people cannot live on their own lands. But tourists can come there on holiday. Local people cannot hunt for food in places where foreigners hunt for sport. The word ‘sustainable’ here means to allow logging and mining on ‘protected’ land.

The idea that indigenous peoples don’t understand how to look after their lands comes from cultural imperialism. We know that across the world land rights for indigenous communities produces as good as or better conservation with very low cost.

People who care about the planet must stop supporting ‘conservation’ projects that destroy indigenous and tribal peoples. It’s time for conservation to see them as senior partners in the fight to protect their own land: for their tribes, for nature, and for us all.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)