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The conservation model needs to change – Fern’s response to WWF’s review of human rights abuses

21 December 2020

Efforts to protect and restore forests must recognise community rights to land. 

In early 2019, the environmental movement was rocked by reports that WWF financed and provided technical support to conservation projects that had led to human rights violations including rape, murder and intimidation. Many organisations raised concerns such as in this open letter to WWF asking them to “signal to the world a fundamental shift across its entire international programme away from exclusionary conservation towards rights-affirming conservation.” Fern made no public statement, but engaged repeatedly with WWF staff to raise the issue. We agreed to refrain from making public statements with WWF until they had completed a review of their role in the abuses. 

On 24 November 2020, the independent review was released, pointing to concerns not just about the initial response to killings, torture, sexual and physical violence and intimidation against Indigenous Peoples and local communities, but also serious failings in WWF’s organisational culture, characterised by a lack of transparency, accountability and an inconsistent commitment to human rights. 

A network of NGOs including Forest Peoples Programme have responded by calling for an overhaul of the conservation sector. Fern fully supports this call. 

This would not just mean WWF changing its way of working, it would mean all conservation organisations looking at how to achieve their objectives whilst recognising forest communities’ rights to land. 

Tropical forests are frequently owned and occupied by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who depend on them for survival and have often held them for centuries. Legal developments during the colonial and post-colonial era mean that these rights are often unrecognised by statutory law. It cannot be surprising that creating protected areas in forests with unrecognised community land rights leads to conflict and violence. 

Organisations like WWF must reconsider support for government-enforced protected areas and put their weight behind convincing governments to recognise community rights to forest land. This is the most sustainable solution as evidence shows that where communities’ rights are protected, forests are better conserved than those managed by governments or conservation organisations. 

​Finally, we share other NGOs’ concerns about WWF’s response to the review, where WWF does not take full responsibility for the grave incidents. We support the review's conclusion that the "culture of good news" at WWF and other NGOs – like our own - is problematic. It does not allow organisations to recognise and acknowledge their mistakes. Funders, including the European Commission, need to support radical transparency that allows environmental organisations to shine a light on problems and encourage open dialogue about how they should be solved.

In line with other organisations and donors, we call on WWF to: 

  • Provide reparations to survivors of the abuse. 

  • Implement the review’s recommendations in full. 

  • Commission an investigation into human rights abuses across the whole of its programmes 

  • Establish a complaints mechanism that is easily accessible to communities. 

  • Include recognition of community land rights as a core demand in their engagement with governments of tropical forested countries, and in their global advocacy. 

  • Ensure a full assessment of community land and access rights is done on all WWF-supported projects, and then undertake work to ensure these rights are protected during project implementation. 

  • Ensure their conservation programmes do no harm, and safeguard against dispossession of legitimate tenure right holders. All programmes must respect human rights, and comply with international standards regarding free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of local communities and Indigenous Peoples. 

  • Undertake internal reflections on structural violence, power and the need to transform WWF's way of working so as to change the culture of the organisation from the inside out, and ensure such atrocities do not happen again. 

Category: NGO statements

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