The scandal of ‘green colonialism’

Published by The i paper (5th February, 2024)

The scenery of lush tropical rainforest was stunning but the stories of atrocities were disturbing. One mother told me of being raped beside the road while clutching her new baby. A father talked of hot wax dripped on his back before being lashed with belts by six armed men, his terrified wife and children forced to watch after their family outing to find sweet honey turned sour.

Two more men detailed what their captors called a “baptism” – heads forced underwater in a flowing river as their hands were cuffed and backs whipped. Another claimed his brother died after they were both badly beaten, leaving him unconscious. A doctor said men with guns routinely entered the hospital to prevent medics and patients logging such crimes.

No wonder these victims of barbarity in the Congo Basin accused the alleged perpetrators of cruelty and inhumanity. I have heard similar testimonies of abuse and torture from frightened people suffering brutality at the hands of dictatorships, fanatics, terror groups and warlords. But this was the first time I had heard such horrifying stories from people blaming a famous charity, an organisation that raises vast sums from foreign donors on the basis of doing good. Their shocking claims turn the spotlight on a “fortress conservation” model being imposed across swathes of Africa and Asia, empowering armed militia funded by Western billionaires and taxpayers to guard wildlife on precious parts of the planet.

My investigation for The Mail on Sunday made waves since it involved African Parks, a charity that last year elevated Prince Harry to its governing board of directors after six years as president. One former insider asked me what special skills a disgruntled member of the British royal family, based in California, might bring to the running of Africa’s most influential conservation organisation. A fair question. Yet many charities enlist celebrities to sprinkle stardust on their cause in order to boost fund-raising and profile.

The bigger issue is whether this scandal exposes how the human rights of impoverished and indigenous communities get crushed by a concept driven by wealthy outsiders to protect endangered animals?

Campaigners condemn this “green colonialism”. Certainly African Parks has become a powerful player on the continent since it was founded at the start of this century with backing from a Dutch billionaire. It grew as cash-strapped governments – struggling to prevent poaching, land grabs, illegal logging and mining – outsourced the running of national parks. Now it has 1,400 rangers in 12 countries, guarding land almost the size of Great Britain.

This includes Odzala-Kokoua park in the Republic of the Congo, where I heard those alarming accusations in villages of the Baka, an indigenous people once known as Pygmies. Their lives, food, medicines and identify have revolved around the bountiful rainforest since time immemorial but now they say they are being terrorised into abandoning their traditional lifestyle.

These are far from isolated issues. I first came across this concept a decade ago in neighbouring Gabon when meeting Lee White, a British forestry expert who went there to conduct research for his doctorate and ended up overseeing a force of armed rangers. His mission was clear: to save forest elephants in their most important home. “Either people like me can keep studying these animals until they disappear or we have to join the fight to protect them,” he stated.

Yet this involved moral conundrums. The affable professor later joined the cabinet of a dynastic dictator whose family were notorious for theft in a petro-state rife with poverty – until both were ousted last year in a military coup.

African Parks – which professes “zero tolerance” of human rights abuse – has hired London-based lawyers to investigate. In its response to my investigation, the charity said “policies and procedures are in place to prevent abuses” and that it has channels for reporting grievances and procedures to investigate and resolve them.

African Parks claims to have received details about the Congolese allegations last June when sent a letter by Survival International. The campaign group says it has raised such concerns for more than a decade, even publishing a report in 2017 saying the Baka suffer “harassment, theft, torture and death at the hands of wildlife guards” in the Congo Basin. A senior US government official also wrote in a 2020 memo about alleged human rights violations summarily dismissed by the charity after finding “no fault”. And I heard those damning charges after spending just a few days in the Baka regions.

This charity boasts of working with local communities. Yet as indigenous people claim to be kept out of their forests, rich tourists can fly on private planes to stay in luxury lodges, helping fund conservation efforts.

African Parks, which also operates in conflict zones and faces more uncomfortable revelations in a forthcoming book by an investigative journalist, admits to the complexity of the challenges it confronts. Its Congolese rangers are recruited from the majority Bantu population, many of whom see the Baka as inferior beings.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has also faced claims of rangers beating, torturing and killing tribal people in both central Africa and south-east Asia under the guise of anti-poaching operations, which led to criticism from an independent review and pledges to respect human rights.

So is this another sordid saga of a charity operating in developing nations that set out with noble intentions but ended up in a dark place to protect its brand and flow of foreign funding, as seen too often in the aid industry? Regardless, it raises profound questions about equality, justice and racism. Yet fortress conservation does not simply clash with human rights. It is counter-productive since communities should feel empowered to protect their own terrain rather than feeling invaded by an alien force.

Above all, we know indigenous peoples in these lightly-populated regions are the best custodians of the flora and fauna having lived in harmony with it for so long, as well as possessing untapped knowledge of its riches. Instead, they are driven from their lands by fences and armed guards, displaced into poverty as their hunting and gathering lifestyle is criminalised in the cause of conservation and under the mantle of “modernity”. Sadly, we seem to have learnt so little from history.

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