New cases of human rights abuses emerge as Buzzfeed exposé shows how WWF tried to cover up earlier reports of atrocities

July 12, 2019

Recent investigations by the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) and Congolese group APEM have documented new violent crimes at the hands of park rangers supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Salonga National Park in Democratic of Congo (DRC).

In 2017, a local school director was allegedly shot dead by Salonga’s eco-guards and another man was severely beaten, causing him to die a few days later. The father of one of the victims, who talked to our investigators, explained that he raised the case with the park authorities, yet nothing was done.

This comes as a new Buzzfeed investigation into the human rights impacts of WWF’s anti-poaching programmes reveals that the mega-charity has attempted to cover up evidence of numerous violent crimes exposed by RFUK in 2018.

These abuses, which include gang-rapes, murders and multiple cases of torture, were brought to the attention of WWF and the Congolese conservation agency (ICCN), who co-manage the UNESCO listed World Heritage site. A report detailing conservation-related rights abuses and other social impacts (including malnutrition) suffered by eleven communities around the park is available here.

A joint investigation between WWF, ICCN and independent observers from APEM was carried out in February 2019. This confirmed that all the alleged atrocities had occurred as we had reported.  Yet despite repeated calls from RFUK and APEM, WWF has kept these findings under wraps and have failed to deliver an apology to the victims.

The full scale of abuses by eco-guards around Salonga is not yet known but it is feared that what RFUK and APEM have documented is only the tip of the iceberg, with as many as 700 communities counting more than one-hundred fifty thousand people around the park, some of who had been evicted from it.  WWF announced this week it would conduct another investigation in Salonga in August, though it is unclear what the organisation will look into and whether the findings will be made public.

Community representatives have recently called for urgent action to address new reports of human rights abuses and intimidation of human rights defenders around the park. They also asked for local civil society to submit information and evidence to the Independent Review set up by WWF to look into wider allegations of rights abuses in the context of their programmes.

Significant questions remain as to whether this Review is fit for purpose, and as yet it has failed to provide a means for victims of abuse to contact it, other than through WWF itself.

RFUK’s executive director, Simon Counsell, said:

It is extraordinary negligent that it is only now, under scrutiny from the international media, that WWF appears to be putting some systems in place to ensure its projects do not result in gross human rights abuses – especially as they have been aware of such problems for many years. It’s notable that not a single senior manager in WWF has yet accepted any responsibility for these long-standing problems and offered to resign, which contrasts sharply with the responsibility accepted in the case of recent aid organisation scandals.”

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