This is Part 2 of a BuzzFeed News investigation.
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The World Wide Fund for Nature was warned years ago that its staff was complicit in “frightening” raids on indigenous villages by anti-poaching eco-guards, internal documents reveal.
A BuzzFeed News investigation exposed on Monday how the beloved wildlife charity WWF has for years funded and equipped paramilitary forces that have tortured and killed villagers living near the national parks it supports.
WWF responded by announcing an “independent review” of the evidence. “We see it as our urgent responsibility to get to the bottom of the allegations BuzzFeed has made, and we recognize the importance of such scrutiny,” the charity said in a statement.
But this is not the first time WWF has launched an independent investigation of this kind. The charity commissioned a report in 2015, obtained by BuzzFeed News, which implicated WWF in violence against indigenous people in Cameroon.
“Indigenous peoples and local communities bordering protected areas are victims of human rights abuses and violations by eco-guards,” the report found — noting the perpetrators were backed by “considerable technical, logistical and financial support” from WWF. But those findings were never made public, and WWF’s director general, Marco Lambertini, went on to dismiss concerns about the treatment of indigenous people as “matters for the government of Cameroon,” while the charity continued backing the park and its guards.
When asked about the 2015 findings by BuzzFeed News, WWF said that its new investigation would examine the way reports of abuse are handled by executives in Switzerland. “All allegations will be subject to our independent review, which will look at specific allegations, and governance,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
The explosive 2015 report was prepared by an indigenous expert hired by WWF to review its operations in Cameroon, who found staff there were “gravely concerned” about the abuses they were witnessing.
According to the report, WWF Cameroon was participating in “coercive” nighttime raids of villages in which eco-guards employed by the government and backed by the charity “violate[d] the rights of communities” by looting houses and beating their occupants. The report found that the perpetrators went unpunished even when there was “evidence and testimony from the victims.”
“Indigenous peoples and local communities bordering protected areas are victims of human rights abuses and violations by eco-guards.”
After obtaining the report, BuzzFeed News contacted its author, Diel Mochire Mwenge. He said that the charity did not acknowledge the findings of his report publicly “because it incriminated them.”
Mwenge told BuzzFeed News it was clear the charity was complicit in the abuse of indigenous people. “We understood that it was WWF that sent these eco-guards, it was WWF who paid, it was WWF who did everything,” Mwenge said. “And so we had to directly conclude that WWF was sufficiently implicated.”
WWF declined to answer detailed questions from BuzzFeed News about abuses in Cameroon. But in a January interview, the charity’s chief operating officer, Dominic O’Neill, said he had personally traveled to Cameroon to make clear to its partners that WWF “can’t tolerate any human rights abuses at all.”
“We’ve had issues and we’ve dealt with those,” he said. “But not to the extent where we said this relationship is now broken.”
BuzzFeed News can also reveal that WWF opened another investigation last summer into allegations including gang rape and murder by eco-guards at Salonga, a massive national park it comanages in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The charity confirmed after inquiries from BuzzFeed News that several rangers have been suspended or fired based on its findings. However, WWF declined to answer questions about its ongoing support for the park’s anti-poaching patrols.
The German government’s development bank, a major backer of WWF, has confirmed to BuzzFeed News it has requested “statements and information” from the charity on the abuses and has said it will monitor the findings of its internal review.
At Lobéké National Park, one of the Cameroonian parks highlighted in Mwenge’s report, allegations of ranger abuses — beatings, torture, torched huts, stolen goods — date back years.
When the park opened in 1999 with the backing of WWF to protect the area’s forest elephants and lowland gorillas, local Baka people lost access to wide swaths of their ancestral forests.
WWF helped recruit Lobéké’s first forest rangers, who patrol the park for poachers. Known locally as “eco-guards,” the rangers are employees of the Cameroonian government run by the longtime dictator Paul Biya.
But secret budgeting documents show how closely WWF’s staff have worked with the government forces. The charity has helped train them, paid their salaries, and built them homes. It has bought them radios, satellite phones, TVs, 4x4s, and boats. And it has allocated a significant portion of the millions in donor money it spends at Lobéké to “enforcement” activities, including patrols and raids. The park’s management plan says WWF will help organize raids, known as “coups de poing,” on local villages suspected of harboring poachers.
In 2012, Sarah Strader, an American Fulbright researcher, witnessed eco-guards near Lobéké pull a man out of their 4x4. They beat him as he “moaned incomprehensibly,” Strader wrote in her diary, which she shared with BuzzFeed News.
“We torture them when they don’t want to tell the truth.”
Strader reported what she saw to a field office shared between the government and WWF. There, a forest ministry official told her the beating was a normal part of the fight against poaching. “We torture them when they don’t want to tell the truth,” the official said, according to Strader’s diary.
Strader was stunned by this casual admission. “Literally WWF is right there,” she told BuzzFeed News, “and he’s telling me that ‘we torture people.’ It was appalling to me that the WWF would stand for this juxtaposition.”
Strader told a WWF senior manager, David Hoyle, about what happened. Hoyle, who has since died, complained to the Cameroonian government. He also reported the allegations back to WWF’s Swiss headquarters.
Strader said she never heard from WWF about her complaint. The charity continued to work with the rangers.
In the years that followed, the Baka continued to complain of assaults by forest rangers, and an indigenous rights campaign group called Survival International that had long been critical of WWF’s human rights record began collecting and publicizing their allegations.
In a 2014 report, a Baka chief recounted the story of a couple who endured a nighttime raid on their home. Rangers forced them from their beds in the middle of the night and beat them with machetes, the report said.
Following the increasingly public allegations, WWF International commissioned an internal investigation. They hired Mwenge, an indigenous rights expert, to prepare a report on the charity’s work in Cameroon.
“In almost all of the communities we worked in, people confirmed these accusations and said that eco-guards used violence against them.”
Mwenge spent 18 days in the country. He met with hundreds of people, including villagers near the national parks and WWF staff. He noted that some of WWF’s own staff members in Cameroon had raised fears that the abuses “undermine” WWF’s “conservation efforts and damage its public image.”
He submitted his report in April 2015. Its findings were unequivocal: WWF “shared responsibility” for the violence.
The report acknowledged that local people knew “WWF’s contribution and support of conservation is of great importance” and cited some examples of the charity’s work to improve their living conditions including health and education services.
But it said WWF’s involvement in “coercive” and violent raids on local villages was alarming.
The Baka community was forced to “endure the behaviours of some eco-guards acting as masters and lords” and using their powers to “violate the rights of communities,” the report found.
The situation “must be resolved as soon as possible,” the report said, and WWF should separate itself more clearly from the Cameroonian regime and implement new human rights policies to ensure it was not complicit in any further abuses.
After he delivered the report, Mwenge presented his findings in Yaoundé in front of top WWF staffers, including a senior manager from Switzerland. The meeting resulted in a series of draft recommendations, obtained by BuzzFeed News, for the charity to improve its relationship with the local community. One was to create and promote a new complaint system for locals to report forest ranger abuses; another was to thwart “corruption among eco-guards and establish harsh consequences.”
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But a month after the report was filed, Lambertini, WWF’s chief executive, sent a strident letter to Survival International asserting that concerns the group had raised about indigenous rights were “most directly matters for the Government of Cameroon,” not WWF. He called the campaign group’s claims that WWF had “done nothing” for the local Baka people “untrue and insulting.”
Internal documents show WWF still supports rangers at Lobéké and continues to help park officials organize raids.
It is unclear how WWF responded to many of the staff recommendations in the wake of the report, including the plan to thwart corruption.
In 2016, the charity launched a new global complaint resolution process, overseen by officials in Switzerland, designed to allow “any community or group” to submit complaints about human rights abuses.
But in October 2018, thousands of miles away from WWF’s Swiss headquarters, a Baka couple named Mongue and Janine told BuzzFeed News they had seen no improvement in their village near Lobéké. Forest rangers had attacked them and their 11-year-old son in the summer of 2017, they said, hitting the soles of their feet with machetes.
Their village was outraged. They had never heard of WWF’s complaint service, but Survival International helped them submit a complaint last summer through a separate whistleblowing system, which is advertised outside the Lobéké bureau on a tattered piece of paper.
“We suffered under the hands of the guards,” Mongue told BuzzFeed News. The family had been working in fields near the park, and now they were afraid to go back, he said. “We’re not allowed there. Where can we go get mangoes?”
WWF promises to investigate such complaints thoroughly — but months later, the villagers told BuzzFeed News that they had received no response.
“It hurts us,” the young boy’s uncle said. “They didn’t even come to our house.”
Last year, the German development bank commissioned a team to travel to Cameroon to carry out research in Lobéké. WWF was a partner on the study.
The researchers’ findings, which they unveiled at a November 2018 conference in Berlin, echoed key passages of the Mwenge report.
There was an atmosphere of “fear and mistrust” between the forest rangers and the local villagers, the researchers found. “In almost all of the communities we worked in” people reported that “eco-guards used violence against them,” said Yannic Kiewitt, one of the members of the research team.
Like Mwenge, the researchers advised WWF to separate itself from the Cameroonian government, and said the park needed a functioning complaint system.
By the time the German researchers had made their recommendations about the allegations in Cameroon, WWF had been forced to respond to reports of abuse at another park several hundred miles away.
WWF is deeply involved in anti-poaching enforcement at the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Salonga National Park, Africa’s largest tropical rainforest park. In 2015, the charity became “co-manager” of Salonga, assuming shared control of the park alongside the Congolese government. A WWF employee was named the park’s top official, in charge of its hundreds of eco-guards. As part of the formal announcement, WWF posted a photograph on its website of Congolese officials ceremonially handing him an assault rifle.
“All allegations will be subject to our independent review, which will look at specific allegations, and governance.”
Last May, the nonprofit Rainforest Foundation sent WWF a report detailing allegations that eco-guards had raped and murdered members of indigenous communities living near Salonga.
In August 2015, the report said, eco-guards beat up a man who was fishing, then brought him back to a village square where they allegedly made “an example out of him” by torturing and then killing him.
Forest rangers in Salonga also gang-raped four women in 2015, the report found. Ayme Elema, a lawyer working on behalf of the victims, told BuzzFeed News that the women had been fishing at the time. “Unfortunately, that’s when they saw eco-guards,” Elema told BuzzFeed News. The rangers “violated” them in a “very degrading way,” Elema said.
The Salonga report has stayed under wraps until now. A WWF spokesperson acknowledged to BuzzFeed News that the charity had “carried out an investigation” into “allegations of human rights abuses” there and “suspended or fired” several rangers. “WWF is working with the DRC authorities to pursue the completion of the cases,” the statement said.
WWF’s German development bank backers told BuzzFeed News that they will be watching the situation “closely.” ●
François Essomba, Marcus Engert, Jules Darmanin, and Morgane Mounier contributed reporting to this story.