The European Union has suspended funding for a proposed wildlife reserve in central Africa, citing "shortcomings" in the World Wide Fund for Nature's treatment of indigenous people.
WWF has been pushing for the creation of a 1,500-square-kilometer nature park in the Republic of Congo, known as Messok Dja, since 2010. The EU agreed in 2016 to send the global megacharity 1 million euros for Messok Dja — as long as WWF ensured that indigenous villagers living in the area gave their consent.
Last year BuzzFeed News obtained a copy of WWF’s application for that EU funding. It declared that locals were “favorable” to the new park — but did not disclose findings from a confidential report showing that some vehemently opposed it.
The right of indigenous people to grant or deny “free, prior, and informed consent” to any project that affects their land is officially recognized by the United Nation and is a cornerstone of WWF’s indigenous peoples policy.
The confidential report found that some villagers were worried the new park would drive them off their ancestral land, prevent them from gathering food for their families, and subject them to mistreatment by forest rangers, known locally as “eco-guards.”
“They associate this initiative with the rise in repression from eco-guards,” the report said. An ongoing BuzzFeed News investigation has found that WWF-funded rangers have raped, tortured, and killed locals living near nature reserves across Asia and Africa.
Some Messok Dja villagers were “very hesitant” to even speak to the researcher conducting the report, because of their “mistrust” of WWF. Yet these fears were not noted in WWF’s filing with the EU.
When the confidential report was exposed in March 2019, the EU said at the time that WWF had shown “a careful respect for this process” at Messok Dja.
But a few months later, a consortium of NGOs published reports stating that WWF had not properly sought the consent of Messok Dja villagers. Concerned by the findings, the European Commission’s delegation in Brazzaville asked an independent Congolese human rights group to perform a review.
As a result of these reviews, in mid-April of this year, the European Union partially suspended funding for Messok Dja until a new contract is signed with WWF that has additional human rights considerations.
In a statement, the EU said it “acknowledges” that the review showed “shortcomings” in WWF’s methods for seeking consent, and said an “independent organisation” should be brought in to oversee the process going forward. The EU said support will only be restored to the project once more protections for indigenous people are established.
The EU also announced it will also conduct a wide-ranging human rights review of parks it funds across the region to ensure they meet international standards on indigenous rights.
In a statement, WWF said it is working actively with the EU to resolve the situation. WWF added that it has been lobbying the Congolese government to add more protections ensuring indigenous villagers give their consent for such projects.
“We know the best way to protect many of the remaining critical landscapes on the planet is by working with the communities that live there,” a spokesperson said. “As we work with partners and stakeholders to protect the forests of Messok Dja from escalating environmental pressures, we believe this must be done hand in hand with indigenous people, their communities, respecting their traditions and helping ensure their livelihoods.”