It was cold when I arrived in Brussels, yet in the sumptuous atrium of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, it didn’t feel cold at all. This lavish building was formerly known as the Palace of the Colonies, and in the late 1800s it served as a paean to the Belgian “civilizing mission” in the Congo. The exhibitions here included a human zoo, in which three "tribal villages" were built in the grounds of the palace and inhabited by "imported" Congolese people, instructed to "act indigenously" for the benefit of visitors. It was cold in Brussels back then too, and, wearing only what they had worn back in Africa, seven of these “villagers” died.
Over a hundred years later, I arrived at this great monument to racism and oppression to attend the eighteenth meeting of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP). CBFP is a non-profit initiative to promote the conservation and responsible management of the Congo Basin's tropical forests, led by the United States. I was shocked, though sadly not surprised, to see how few of the attendees were African.
Why do all these white people at meetings in Europe still hold such sway over the fate of land in Africa?
During these meetings, key decisions are made about the Congo Basin’s forests which will have a huge impact on people who live there. Why do all these white people at meetings in Europe still hold such sway over the fate of land in Africa? In the past, this was justified, horrifically, by the so-called "civilizing mission" of the "superior white race." Now it’s justified by "conservation." In the name of "conservation", thousands of families, tribes and communities in Africa and Asia have had their land stolen from them and been forced into destitution and despair. Apparently, it is claimed, the local people don’t know how to look after their own land and care for its wildlife, so they should get off it and let “the real experts” manage it instead.
The reason outsiders are so keen to get their hands on this land is that these areas are very rich in biodiversity. Though indigenous territories make up only 22% of the world’s land, they hold 80% of Earth’s biodiversity. The fact that endangered species still survive on their land yet have been wiped out elsewhere should speak for itself: the truth is that tribal people are the best conservationists and understand their environment better than anyone else.
I was attending the CBFP meeting because the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working with the Congolese government to create a protected conservation zone in Congo, known as Messok Dja. This land is home to the Baka people, one of the "Pygmy" tribes of central Africa, who rely on these forests for survival. Already, even though the park is not yet established, rangers funded and supported by WWF have stolen the Baka’s possessions, burnt their camps and clothes, beaten and tortured them.
The organization I work for, Survival International, is campaigning with the Baka against the establishment of Messok Dja protected area. In December 2018, Survival released letters signed by over a hundred people from six villages outlining their objections to the Messok Dja project and the abuse they have suffered at the hands of WWF-supported ecoguards. These objections, and many others, have been largely ignored. I was here in Brussels to make the Baka’s voices heard.
I wanted to ask someone from WWF about this personally, face to face. My question was simple: why is WWF pushing ahead with the creation of Messok Dja protected area despite the Baka’s objections?
The response from one of the WWF reps at the conference was evasive: meetings, negotiations, process, more meetings. I suggested that, perhaps in the interests of conservation at the least, WWF should actually be talking to these communities, because they know better than anyone else how their ecosystem works and how to protect this forest. His reply was simple: no, you’re wrong, they don’t know better.
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His opinion is born of prejudice, not fact. The Baka and their neighbors have lived as hunter-gatherers for generations, which means that their day-to-day survival depends entirely on their profound understanding of their environment, and the ability to maintain healthy wildlife populations. The Baka play as vital a role in maintaining the ecosystem as any apex predator. For example, it is well known that elephants and other large mammals in these forests spread seeds, trample paths, and perform other roles which facilitate the growth and flourishing of other species. Likewise, Baka forest camps create clearings, which, well fertilized by ashes and organic material, result in more food and better habitats for gorillas.
WWF would never impugn the Baka’s knowledge like this publicly however, as global powers now have to at least pretend they respect indigenous peoples. International law says that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous and tribal inhabitants must be obtained before such projects take place on their land. The fact that the Baka do not consent means that WWF forcing through the demarcation of Messok Dja is not only unjust, it is actually illegal.
In the case of Messok Dja, WWF has outright lied about getting FPIC from the Baka, but produces a lot of warm-sounding words to justify their land grab. A recent article on Messok Dja said:
"Local and indigenous communities warmly welcomed the approach used to consult them prior to the creation of the protected area. They showed a real enthusiasm to continue the consultation process until the consultations, where they will have the opportunity to express their opinions to decision-makers and managers of natural resources."
This is at best consultation, not consent. Consent means you have the right to say no and have that "no" respected, but the only thing conservationists are granting the Baka apparently have is "the opportunity to express their opinions to decision-makers and managers;" they can voice their objections, but, on their own land, the Baka are not the decision-makers.
WWF have now, finally, started what they refer to as a process to secure the Baka’s consent, but it cannot be free, or prior, or informed. Notwithstanding the fact that Messok Dja is not even officially a protected area yet, the horrific brutality of ecoguards supported by WWF have sown terror among the Baka in the region. As long as communities associate WWF with violence and oppression, “free” consent is impossible. As ecoguards have operated in the region for 10 years already, "prior" consent is equally impossible.
The Baka were not properly informed about the Messok Dja project prior to its initiation either. One member of the tribe told me: "WWF hasn’t explained why they’re here or what they’re doing." WWF has been working on this project since 2005, but only began the consultation process with local communities at the start of 2019, doubtless when the embarrassment inflicted on them through Survival’s media campaign got too much.
So here I am, in a colonial palace surrounded by westerners who’ve gathered here to carve up African land, who pay agents on the ground who use violence and oppression to enforce their will against tribal people who are scorned and undermined because “they don’t know better, we do.” What takes place in this former Palace of the Colonies hasn’t changed all that much in the last century, and the Baka know it. "Conservation is actually worse than colonization," one man told me, "it’s about slavery."