Abuses by forests "eco guards" are increasingly drawing scrutiny
By Matthew Ponsford
LONDON, Sept 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - International wildlife charities are funding anti-poaching squads that arrest, torture and kill indigenous 'pygmy' people for hunting in their ancestral forests in the Congo Basin, according to a charity for tribal people.
Conservation organisations including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have backed ranger teams who have forced forest dwellers out of national parks in Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Congo Republic, said the report by Survival International.
Since 1989, the expansion of protected parks has led to the eviction of indigenous Baka and Bayaka people from their homelands, the criminalisation of traditional forest hunting, and brutal attacks by wildlife rangers, said Survival.
The report, published on Monday, said forest "eco guards", equipped and coordinated by wildlife charities, are responsible for more than 200 attacks, including burnings with hot wax, maimings with machetes and killings.
"We have met with scores of victims, who have told us about the suffering they have undergone: extreme violence, beatings, in some cases torture and even death at the hands of these squads," Survival campaigner Mike Hurran told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Worldwide, a surge in wildlife poaching, including the slaughter of elephants for ivory, is pitting conservationists, trying to save endangered species, against tribal people, unable to secure rights to land they have depended on for centuries.
Driven from their ancestral forest land, the Baka and Bayaka are now confined to roadside settlements where their health is plummeting, Hurran said.
"They're struggling to find enough to eat, they can no longer use the forest medicines they rely on, they're forced to contend with new diseases that are more prevalent in this environment, from malaria and typhoid, to venereal diseases, HIV/AIDS, and alcoholism as well," he said.
A spokeswoman for WWF said abuses of indigenous people were "totally unacceptable" and the charity protects their rights in the areas where it works, including projects to support education, healthcare and livelihoods.
WWF said it has a complaints procedure in place but Survival has refused to share information about attacks by guards, who are employed by state agencies in the central African nations.
"Contrary to reports, WWF does not employ eco guards, in fact we have repeatedly asked Survival International to share information that could help us to push the authorities who employ those accused to act," she said.
The report collects 18 years of testimony to charities and university researchers by communities in the Congo Basin, a forested area nearly the size of Mexico - that is shared between six equatorial African nations.
In January, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) began examining complaints against WWF of rights abuses by "eco-guards", the first time a charity has been questioned under OECD guidelines created to decide responsible conduct for multi-national companies.
Survival withdrew earlier this month from the mediation process with WWF that resulted from its formal complaint to the OECD.
(Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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