THE offices of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Woking, Surrey, were recently occupied by a loose coalition of groups called ‘WTF WWF’ protesting about WWF denying indigenous peoples’ rights in protected areas in many parts of the world. One of the leading bodies was ‘XR Youth Solidarity’, part of Extinction Rebellion.
The action wasn’t much covered in the mainstream press (criticism of WWF rarely is) but it was noticed by Alexander Stafford, the first Tory MP for Yorkshire’s Rother Valley and a former WWF employee. He unleashed a bizarre Twitter fury, calling the youth group nihilistic, extremist, wannabe thugs, bullies, selfish, and an extremist group that care more for their own egos than for the planet.
If the occupation enraged him, it mystified others. WWF, with its cuddly panda logo, is supported by David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and prominent royals. Surely it is a major player in protecting the environment from industrial ravage and climate change, and so be above reproach?
I should declare my own interest: I’m the former CEO of Survival International, the tribal peoples’ rights charity, and I have criticised WWF for over 30 years. I was instrumental in bringing a formal complaint against it under the OECD guidelines for multinational corporations, the first mounted against any NGO: it was ‘admitted’ for consideration and resulted in two days of high-level mediation in Switzerland. I’ve pressed the US government and the EC not to fund environmental NGOs which violate human rights (something which had not previously been thought necessary!) and cheered at the subsequent withholding of funds destined for WWF projects.
To understand why, one has to look behind the relentless WWF publicity machine and be prepared to challenge deeply-embedded beliefs.
WWF, then called the World Wildlife Fund, was conceived in April 1961 to save wildlife by raising money – largely from governments, corporations and wealthy individuals – to secure land ‘where wildlife treasures are threatened, to send out experts, disseminate propaganda and train helpers in Africa and elsewhere’.
Africa was always key, and the jewel in the crown was East Africa. The articles by Julian Huxley which led to WWF’s founding were focused there. WWF was started just two months after Kenya’s first election in which all, including Africans, were allowed to vote: unsurprisingly, independence followed two years later. The idea that African wildlife needed saving from Africans as colonial rule faded wouldn’t have been far from the minds of WWF founders.
That remains the nub of the problem facing conservation in the Global South today, and it explains the protests against WWF. However, the idea that ‘Protected Areas’ needed clearing of the people living there long predates WWF: it was seeded in the 1860s USA with the removal of Native Americans to make the Yosemite and Yellowstone parks. A century later, colonial Britain embraced the ideology in Kenya when it banned the Waliangulu people from their traditional hunting lands in Tsavo, at one stage imprisoning about a third of all their men and largely destroying them as a tribe.
So it has continued. ‘Pygmy’ peoples in the Congo Basin were, and still are, pushed out to make way for national parks, and beaten, imprisoned, even killed if they try to return, if only to collect medicinal plants. Not a single sizeable African protected area has been established without evicting the locals, and it’s still happening, not only in Africa but throughout Asia as well. Adivasi (tribal) peoples in India and Nepal are kicked out of parks and tiger reserves, and even their children risk being shot if they so much as wander back in to pick up firewood.
It’s not just WWF which is behind all this: their own ‘people-friendly’ rhetoric aside, all the major conservation NGOs follow the same creed, known by critics as ‘fortress conservation’: that is, build a wall around ‘nature’ and don’t let local people in, even – often especially – if they’ve been there since time immemorial. Paying tourists, on the other hand, are OK.
The belief is founded on two key articles of faith: one is that these areas are ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’; the second, that indigenous land use, including undergrowth burning, subsistence hunting and grazing, harm biodiversity – in other words, local people damage nature.
The fact that neither of these is true is now becoming accepted in scientific circles, but has yet to gain media or public attention. The reality is that indigenous land use usually enhances, not destroys, biodiversity in ways the colonial West failed to understand for generations and largely still does. Tigers thrive where the Adivasi communities in India have stayed put. Undergrowth burning helps the propagation of more diverse plants. Subsistence hunting keeps game healthier and stronger than if it’s banned, when herds grow to outstrip the food supply. Elephants for example can double their numbers every twelve years or so; the massive culls routinely needed in southern Africa had to be kept away from public gaze. The classic ‘out of Africa’ grass plains beloved of wildlife documentary makers are the creation of centuries of grazing, partly by pastoralist tribes such as Maasai and Samburu.
The fact is that humankind has changed the landscape almost everywhere for tens of thousands of years, and the only truly ‘wild’ places on land are high mountain tops and glaciers. About 80 per cent of the planet’s land biodiversity is now found in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, and that’s no coincidence: it’s because the people are enhancing the environment and, in their own way, caring for it.
This makes the act of evicting them in the name of conservation doubly criminal, both a violation of their rights – often their right to life itself – and an assault on Earth’s biodiversity. It turns out that biodiversity depends on human diversity, people with different ways of life managing an environment they have long understood. The conservation NGOs wanting everyone removed from their fantasy ‘pristine’ nature have consistently opposed people who feed themselves directly from the land. Yet what could be more sustainable?
‘Fortress conservation’ is really anti-nature and has actually begun to threaten protected areas; just as local people had enough of land grabs for colonisation, so they are beginning to have had enough of land grabs for conservation. Herders in Kenya for example are pushing back against their land being cordoned off for ‘conservancies’: they are cutting fences and leading their livestock back in.
Many conservationists know they can no longer enforce protected areas against the hostility of a local population, even with more money thrown at militarising ‘rangers’.
The solution is simple but will require a huge change in ideology. Traditional inhabitants must be supported in their diverse ways of life, and offered help and resources only when and if they want it: that’s the only real future for 21st century conservation. That’s why there are protests against WWF, and that’s why this story has only just begun.