HOW has conservation come to this?’ asked one campaigner a few weeks back. They were reacting to film footage from India’s Kaziranga National Park, where officials have been engaged in a long struggle with rhino poachers. Over the years, this conflict has become increasingly violent, and increasingly divorced from the rule of law. In 2017, a BBC documentary revealed that park guards had been beating and torturing anyone they suspected of involvement in poaching, and had adopted what appeared to be a policy of ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ when they came across humans within the park boundaries. Worse, much of the violence appeared to have been funded by the conservation charity, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), which paid for ‘combat and ambush training [and] specialist equipment included night vision goggles’.
The involvement of such a pillar of the NGO community was shocking, but unfortunately the story has now become even worse. The Indian government, encouraged by WWF, has been trying to expand the boundaries of the national park, a policy that has brought it into conflict with the people who live there. The result has been first discontent and protest, and then violent evictions by WWF’s combat-trained park guards. Footage from a Dutch TV station showed villagers’ homes in flames and protesting women being beaten with sticks. At least two people were shot dead.
Official from India's "shoot on sight" park asks "I don't know why you're calling them VIOLENT evictions"
Maybe because women were beaten, huts were bulldozed and set on fire, and two people were shot dead… ?
Clip from @ZEMBLA documentary.
— Survival International (@Survival) May 28, 2019
WWF might have written this off as an aberration; after all, they work in many places and fund many activities. ‘Problems will arise,’ they might say. But unfortunately, human rights problems seem to have become a regular feature of WWF programmes.
A few weeks ago, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that WWF-funded guards at a national park in Nepal had beaten, sexually assaulted and even shot local people. Another report claimed that WWF had helped set up a park in the Congo without the consent of the local people; when they objected, villagers were forced from their homes, and many were said to have been beaten and tortured. There have even been tales of WWF trying to buy illicit arms.
The problems seem to go back for years. The charity Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, says that WWF has known of such human rights abuses since 2001. Survival has fought a long battle to get the conservationists to change their ways, in particular by getting them to agree that the creation of any park should have the full and informed consent of those who live there. Unfortunately, it seems that WWF has no intention of giving up control in this way.
WWF is often seen as being above criticism. It is so venerable and has been a part of so many people’s upbringing that to suggest it has done wrong seems like heresy. This is, after all, a body that has the Duke of Edinburgh on its letterhead and one that receives millions in funding from the Department for International Development each year. Given the steady stream of evidence that those funds are paying for the trampling of human rights in the developing world, we might wonder it’s time to ask some very hard questions of the ministers involved.