We believe that if we want to survive the ecological crisis and change the system, the WWF and the whole conservation sector needs to transform completely, and they will do so only if we force them. There are 3 main reasons:
WWF and conservation participate in the mass evictions of Indigenous peoples from their land, WWF participates in the greenwashing and legitimation of the worst kinds of pollution, and finally they participate in the brainwashing of the public. All of this actually prevents us from being able to address the climate crisis.
Did you know that WWF and the conservation sector at large are involved right now in the violent systematic eviction of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people, supposedly for purposes of conservation? The following statement from the Indigenous peoples’ Forum at an international conference in 2004 shows that the dispossessed have no trouble in understanding the pattern of abuse: ‘First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.’
It is sad that not bigger parts of the environmental movement fight racist conservation and NGO complicity in nature as fetish excluding Indigenous people as belonging to and care-takers of that land.
So what did WWF do? In 2019 Buzzfeed investigations into WWF found that WWF Funds Guards Have Tortured And Killed People. In it there is a spectrum of terror that WWF has been involved in: ‘WWF has provided high-tech enforcement equipment, cash, and weapons to forces implicated in atrocities against Indigenous communities.’ The research spans over six countries, hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents, including confidential memos, internal budgets, and emails discussing weapons purchases.
Some of their findings include:
|Villagers have been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted, shot, and murdered by WWF-supported anti-poaching units, according to reports and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. The charity’s field staff in Asia and Africa have organized anti-poaching missions with notoriously vicious shock troops, and signed off on a proposal to kill trespassers penned by a park director who presided over the killings of dozens of people. WWF has provided paramilitary forces with salaries, training, and supplies — including knives, night vision binoculars, riot gear, and batons — and funded raids on villages. In one African country, it embroiled itself in a botched arms deal to buy assault rifles from a brutal army that has paraded the streets with the severed heads of alleged “criminals.”The charity has operated like a global spymaster, organizing, financing, and running dangerous and secretive networks of informants motivated by “fear” and “revenge,” including within indigenous communities, to provide park officials with intelligence — all while publicly denying working with informants.
The support that conservationists give to big corporations is enormous! Fortress conservation areas are usually created in the same process in which all the rest of a biodiverse ecosystem is being divided in different sections for industrial exploitation. So first you have a big, healthy ecosystem, then you put a big fence with guards around 30% of it and destroy the remaining 70%! Militarizing a part of the forest is used to justify the destruction of all the rest.
It’s not that WWF and the others just don’t fight pollution, but they provide the legitimacy necessary for it to expand dramatically. Many huge polluting projects that managed to get the funding and permission only after making a small protected area on the side. The extent to which WWF supports corporations is mind-blowing: they have invested in fossil fuels multiple times, they have lobbied for trophy hunting, they made studies for Shell on suitable areas to drill for oil, which were used to obtain concessions from governments, they have reassured governments that palm oil plantations were sustainable while in truth they were destroying the whole forest. There is ample evidence for all of this. And it’s not a surprise since most of WWF’s board members are from these very same corporations. This is a profound conflict of interest.
Finally, everything that WWF says to the public shows that we don’t need to change the economic system, but just stop using plastic straws, run a marathon for the planet, buy a fluffy panda toy and everything will be alright! And WWF is still the biggest NGO in the whole world. We need them to tell the truth.
How can WWF get away with so much harm? They pride themselves on being the largest conservation organization in the world. WWF was founded by Prins Bernard who himself carried many markers of ecofascism: combining deep love for the soil and the nature with exclusionary and violent politics (sympathy for nazis) and hunting animals himself.
The research of Buzzfeed was not the first nor the last. You may also want to check out the article of Groene Amsterdammer from 1997 Optellen en Afschieten or the NPO3 program slash article WWF in schaapskleding. Here WWF gets exposed for pushing the Baka people off the land, violating an eleven year old kid, police killing people during evictions in India – yet the NPO3 article concludes you need not quit your donation-relation with the WWF charity: ‘because WWF also does good things. Colonialism is just not one of them’.
It is this halfhearted attitudes towards the genocides by other means of Indigenous people that makes it feel very unsafe for people of colonized places to feel semi-safe in most Global North green spaces. Because unfortunately WWF is not the only bad boy – just the most horrific one.
It took more than a century and a lot of BLM protests for Sierra Club to formally apologize for its racist founder John Muir that has been held up as a hero for so long. Also his fellow founders of national parks conservation spaces in the settler colony the USA saw conservation as a way to clear Indigenous people of the land and prevent Black land ownership. National parks were mostly dreamed up as spaces for white settler delight and this is still visible in today’s visitor numbers of national parks. The New York Times reports: ”A disproportionately low number of people of color visit national parks. And when a white woman called the police on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park, it illuminated why so many Black people have felt unwelcome and unsafe in public natural spaces.”
And what about Greenpeace? While this organization was founded by more of a combination of green (and ocean) protection and social well being (peace) there are numerous blunders that involve disrespect for Indigenous people. The most famous being the early Greenpeace work to ban sealing in Canada impacting Indigenous people in their livelihood in non-industrial hunting. The National Post reported on the apology Greenpeace Canada made in 2014: “For more than 30 years, Greenpeace’s role in the anti-sealing campaigns have made it the bitter enemy of Arctic people. Across Nunavut, the group is not only blamed for kneecapping one of the region’s only sources of income, but for driving once-proud hunters to welfare dependency and suicide.” In the article they speak to an Indigenous woman, Rosemarie Kuptana, a former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, an international organization representing the world’s 160,000 Inuit who says: “Our young men started committing suicide in the 1970s because people couldn’t feed their families anymore,” Greenpeace, she said, has never acknowledged “that there’s a whole generation of young people today who grew up without fathers.”
Another example of Greenpeace not recognizing Indigenous sacred land is when they used an ancient site without permission as a place for a stunt action: the Nazca Lines in Peru.
There is a big difference between WWF (listing their own top 10 achievements and naming the logo of the panda and their work with corporations) and an organization such as Greenpeace that also has worked in solidarity with Indigenous tribes fighting toxic corporations. But one thing that is prevalent across the spectrum of bright green NGO’s is that its staff is very white, and that their major offices are in the Global North. Also there might be land defenders speaking four local languages but not English that can be a barrier to be hired in a local frontline office in an International NGO. This is a systemic devaluation of local (Black/Asian/Indigenous/farmer) knowledge and results in hiring people who are more remote to the local situation.
From more and more Indigenous activists and their allies there is a cry for decolonizing the wealth and decision making power of green campaigning. If Indigenous people protect the majority of remaining biodiversity – why shouldn’t they get to decide what happens with 80% of the green budget? In today’s green NGO’s you find most people of color working in the canteen, the reception, as cleaners or in finance. People of color that do work in the sector carry the burden of representation, have to code switch at work and have to constantly challenge the predominant frames and racist micro-agressions. When there is a call out of a green NGOs in the Netherlands or in Germany the go to response is denial and gaslighting. There is a reason why people of color do not feel safe in a lot of ‘green’ spaces. There is the time in the UK when green organizers of a climate march sent the police on the decolonial bloc carrying signs that rocked the boat too much for the NGO’s. Or the the instance when the police harasses POC attendance and there is white silence by supposed allies. And then there are times when the Green orgs communicate environmental concerns quoting racists such as David Attenborough. There are both small and big actions that communicate it is a space without racial justice practice or knowledge.
The racism in conservation is systemic: one of the most dangerous threats is the conservation project 30×30 (a project that envisions 30% of land is to be cleared of humans by 2030 – guess which land is going to be ‘given back to Nature?’)
It is essential that people who care about ecological justice take a look at the conservation plans at large that are discussed at the UN as climate solutions, that are very blunt tools to enhance landgrabbing of Indigenous People, those who have a track record of taking care of 80% of planet earth’s remaining biodiversity. It is a direct assault on Indigenous peoples home, livelihood and sense of belonging and culture. So even if you only care about ‘nature’ humanity at large really NEEDS Indigenous guardians of the land to survive to teach the rest of the world to live as a guardian – not as an invader. What the WWF and fortress conservation are doing is further eroding their ability to protect fragile ecosystems under threat. So much evidence points to the fact that Indigenous and local communities who live in relation with the land are the best conservationists: far better than governments and the private sector and significantly better than conservation NGO’s themselves.
We also desperately need their cultures and knowledge. Who is able to live completely off the land, independently from the system? Who is able to regenerate a forest in a completely degraded area? Nobody, apart from these millions of people who are the only ones who can teach us and everybody else how to do it! If their cultures, practices and knowledge are gone, because they get kicked off the land by conservationists, nobody will know how to live with and heal the land! Then it’s game over.
Furthermore, these people have defended and are defending the land from industrial pollution! Once they are forcibly removed for “conservation”, governments regularly move on to build polluting development projects onto national parks a few years later. It happened in Nairobi national park, with railways and hotels, in Virunga, with oil extraction, and many others. These conservation organizations are handing out forests from local people who take care of the land to militarized eco-guards and governments who don’t care about it and regularly take bribes from poachers, loggers and other businesses. Conservationists instead need to support community-led conservation, which is cheaper, more sustainable in time, more ecological and way more just!
As a decolonial antiracism bloc for climate justice it is essential to have this conversation in the movement. If you have read this far you are probably the kind of environmentalist that genuinely wants to know and learn more. So we close this one with a few tips for further engagement.
1: Check the website of WTF WWF: https://www.wtfwwf.org/
This is a UK based action group that does solidarity work for frontline communities displaced by WWF. You can help by donating (all donations going to the frontline) or by helping to get the zine about abusive practices out there.
2: Reading list: Thanks to Sara Cannon there is a decolonizing conservation readinglist