Allegations of Rights Abuses in WWF-managed Ntokou Pikounda National Park
March 28, 2023
Worrying reports of forced displacement and human rights abuses have emerged from the Republic of Congo’s youngest national park.
Rainforest Foundation UK’s local partner Centre d’Actions pour le Développement (CAD) just published an investigation around Ntokou Pikounda National Park, finding that neighbouring indigenous and local communities have suffered and continue to suffer serious harm as a result of conservation enforcement.
The park, which was created in 2013, is co-managed by WWF since 2017-2018, and the situation exposed here is at odds, to say the least, with the organisation’s recent human rights policies and commitments in the aftermath of widespread allegations of rights abuses linked to their programmes in 2019 and the Independent Review that followed and largely confirmed them.
Most worryingly, it is reported that between 2019 and 2021 potentially hundreds of fishing camps said to be located inside the park have been destroyed or burned down and entire families forcibly removed, often violently, by park rangers. Communities interviewed, who have long-standing claims to the lands and rivers inside and around the park and are heavily dependent on fishing for their subsistence, explain that this happened without consultation, prior warning, and no relocation or compensation scheme in place whatsoever.
“[eco-guards] arrived at the camp and fired shots in the air. They told us to leave. They took our 12 bundles of fish and four canoes and set fire to the camp. They even burned our clothes,” said one of the fishermen quoted in the report.
These communities say they were not consulted by authorities during the park’s creation in 2013, which was pushed for by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) at the time, and continue to feel left out of decisions affecting them.
Communities describe being routinely and unfairly targeted for carrying out their subsistence activities, with specific accounts of physical violence and mistreatment such as the use of sleep deprivation. They are also prevented from simply trying to access rivers and circulate around the area. In one sobering case, communities reported that an ill child had died after park rangers blocked her and her family from accessing a river that would have allowed her to reach medical facilities quickly.
These forced displacements and the heavy-handed restrictions on access and use of land, rivers and resources inside the park have far-reaching impacts on the food security and well-being of local communities who are left with little to no alternative. This situation fuels tensions between communities and park managers, ultimately undermining conservation success.
CAD only visited a small portion of the park and its impacts are therefore likely to be all the more extensive. An independent and thorough investigation should now take place, and the findings made public, to assess the breadth of the problem and provide remedy to the communities.
RFUK and CAD have taken the matter to the WWF’s newly established Ombudsperson’s office, urging them to assess the situation in line with the organisation’s Environmental and Social Safeguards Framework. It should be noted that according to the co-management agreement signed between WWF and the government conservation authority, WWF ensures coordination of all park personnel, which makes the question of the organisation’s responsibility even more salient. So far, WWF has been receptive to discuss the situation, but it remains to be seen if this engagement will lead to tangible change on the ground.
The environmental footprint of the populations around Ntoukou Pikounda is several hundred times smaller than that of the average person in the global North. This again begs the question of whether castigating people who retrieve so little in terms of natural resources for their survival is moral or even effective in protecting forests.
With the new Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework setting the stage for international conservation efforts this decade, a new model of conservation is needed, which tackles the real drivers of biodiversity loss while respecting the rights of indigenous and local communities.
Maud Salber, Monitoring and Rights Manager at RFUK said:
“Against a backdrop of nice-sounding policies and language on the rights of local and Indigenous communities in international conservation circles, this case shows there is a long way to go to purge tropical forests of this model of abusive and ineffective ‘fortress conservation’. WWF and the authorities must now act swiftly and appropriately respond to this case and provide redress to the effected communities.”
For Ntokou Pikounda, CAD’s report provides practical recommendations to make this happen.