Murder, Rape, and Torture: Fortress Conservation on Trial

hunting camp
Charlie Swaney scanning for animals from his hunting camp, East Fork of the Chandalar River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. (Photo: Subhankar Banerjee, August 2002).

On November 1, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres opened his remarks at the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, with these words: “The six years, since the Paris Climate Agreement, have been the six hottest years on record. Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink. We face a stark choice: either we stop it, or it stops us. And it’s time to say, enough. Enough of brutalizing biodiversity…!”

It was not the first time that Secretary General Guterres had acknowledged the biodiversity crisis gripping our planet in such a prominent manner. In September, during his address to the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he used similar language to deplore the “shocking biodiversity loss.”

For many years now I have been urging policy makers and the public to recognize that the intensifying biodiversity crisis is just as significant and consequential as the climate crisis. To hear the UN Secretary General, begin his remarks at COP26 with a reference to devastating biodiversity loss was reassuring. Such public acknowledgements of the current crisis are desperately needed to convince people that the time to act is now.

With that preamble, let me now accompany you to an unprecedented congressional hearing that took place just last week in the United States, a hearing that clarified to me that the “brutalizing” of biodiversity has many faces and takes many forms.

On October 26, a Natural Resources subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing titled, “Protecting Human Rights in International Conservation.” Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) chaired the session. The nearly two-hour-long hearing, excruciating to watch, put “fortress conservation” on trial. The atrocities discussed during that hearing were, in the eyes of Fiore Longo of Survival International, conservation industry’s “Abu Ghraib scandal,” a moment from which the industry “will never recover.” But you likely don’t know anything about this because the hearing was not reported in the U.S. mainstream press. Silence from The New York Times. Crickets from the Washington Post.

Before I discuss the hearing, a few words about fortress conservation may prove helpful.

The Dawn of “Fortress Conservation”

Fortress conservation originated in the United States with the establishment of the Yellowstone National Park in 1872. In his very readable book, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (2001), grounded in meticulous scholarship, historian Karl Jacoby relates the origin story of the Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world. Five tribes—the Crow, Bannock, Shoshone, Blackfeet, and Nez Perce—actively used the Yellowstone Plateau for subsistence hunting and gathering. Undeterred, supporters of the park idea “persisted in describing the region as existing in ‘primeval solitude,’ filled with countless locations that ‘have never been trodden by human footsteps.’” And thus began the ignominious era of conservation colonialism. “Drawing upon a familiar vocabulary of discovery and exploration, the authors of the early accounts of the Yellowstone region literally wrote Indians out of the landscape, erasing Indian claims by reclassifying inhabited territory as empty wilderness,” writes Jacoby. Subsistence hunters were denounced as “poachers,” inhabitants ridiculed as “squatters,” and subsistence gatherers branded as “thieves,” charges that criminalized the age-old cultural activities of the land’s original inhabitants.

Yellowstone National Park was the first and the most iconic example of fortress conservation. The idea is straightforward: establish a fortress, drawing a hard boundary around an area deemed worthy of conservation; evict the original human inhabitants; and declare their traditional practices illegal.

After displacing Indigenous peoples in the United States, fortress conservation continued its colonial march through Asia and Africa. In his influential, combative essay “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” first published in Environmental Ethics in 1989, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha wrote this: “The initial impetus for setting up parks for the tiger and other large mammals such as the rhinoceros and elephant came from two social groups, first, a class of ex-hunters turned conservationists belonging mostly to the declining Indian feudal elite and second, representatives of international agencies, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), seeking to transplant the American system of national parks onto Indian soil. In no case have the needs of the local population been taken into account, and as in many parts of Africa, the designated wildlands are managed primarily for the benefit of rich tourists.”

In the thirty-two years since Guha penned those words, fortress conservation has only expanded its tentacular grasp, reaching deep into the hearts and pockets of the global South. The brutality of that reach was laid bare during last week’s House hearing.

Investigative Reports Spark Congressional Hearing

In 2019, BuzzFeed News published a series of investigative reports that exposed the mistreatment of Indigenous and local peoples in and around parks managed or co-managed by the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF.  “Murder. Gruesome torture. Dozens of reports of rape. Burning a village. Killing men, women, and children. Conducting night raids and terrifying local community members.” These charges rang out during the opening remarks of Rep. Huffman, who added: “When I saw these articles, I immediately asked the (House Natural Resources) Committee to start an investigation.”

Warning the attendees that the incidents to be discussed were graphic, the Congressman provided representative examples, each one more chilling than the last.  “In one report, a park ranger in Salonga National Park (in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC) whipped and raped four women carrying fish by a river. Two of the women were pregnant, one later had a miscarriage. In another case, a 52-year-old woman said she was arbitrarily detained and raped for two consecutive days and her husband had to pay a fine to secure her release. Another victim alleged that he and several other men were detained while fishing, and were tortured by rangers beating them, tying their penises with fishing line, hanging them by the branch of a tree. In another case, victims were tortured and killed by rangers through beating and stabbings. And these were not isolated incidents. WWF’s review found 21 accusations of murder in this one park alone.” Fiore Longo’s comparison between these atrocities and the Abu Ghraib scandal was not far-fetched.

Let’s make an important distinction at this juncture. Thanks to the important work of Global Witness, the extrajudicial killings of “environmental defenders” (as they are traditionally called) are widely known and have been reported in the press. Most of those killings are committed by corporations and nation states who aim to expand destructive drilling, mining, and other capitalist projects into territories inhabited by Indigenous and other local peoples. But the murder, rape, and torture that were discussed in the House hearing are of a different nature. Here the victims are not environmental defenders but local people who live in or around protected parks. And the perpetrators are the good guys, or so one would think: the park rangers, known as “ecoguards” in central Africa, whose salaries are paid for by WWF.

A key aim of the hearing was to find out if WWF would take responsibility for the atrocities. Sadly, the answer, as the hearing revealed, was a resounding NO!

“To be perfectly blunt, I and others on this Committee have been extremely frustrated with how WWF handled the situation,” Rep. Huffman pointed out, referring to the time that had passed since the BuzzFeed revelations. The hearing, as it turned out, did little to alleviate his frustration. “Unfortunately, WWF’s President and CEO Carter Roberts declined to testify,” Rep. Huffman said. In Roberts’ place, Ginette Hemley, Senior Vice President for Conservation at WWF, appeared. She boldly went where her bosses had feared to tread. They would have been proud of her: Hemley refused to give straight yes or no answers when asked and her remarks were evasive and misleading, including, in several instances, blatant lies.

Murder. Rape. Torture.

Among the witnesses who testified at the hearing was Professor John Knox of the Wake Forest University School of Law, who is a former and the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. In 2019 and 2020, following the allegations reported in BuzzFeed News, he participated in an independent expert panel which, in his words, “conducted an in-depth investigation of WWF’s involvement in alleged human rights abuses in six countries, four in central Africa and two in south Asia.” His 30-page written testimony provides shocking details about those abuses. Here is one example, in Knox’s painstaking reconstruction delivered during the hearing:

“WWF has co-managed Salonga National Park in the DRC since 2015. WWF appoints the Park Director and pays the park rangers. Salonga is an example of fortress conservation. When the park was created the government expelled the communities who used to live there; they now live around the outskirts of the park, and it’s illegal for them to return to their ancestral homes. In 2016, a WWF staff member reported that Salonga park rangers were regularly accused of abuses against the local communities. The WWF country Director and park Director decided not to investigate because they wanted to avoid conflicts with the government. Only after NGOs made public allegations of abuse in the park the WWF commissioned an independent investigation which finally took place in 2019, nearly three years after the staff member first raised the alarm. The investigators went to only a few of the hundreds of villages around the park but they found multiple credible allegations of murder, rape, and torture. In fact, they concluded that rangers used torture and other cruel integrating treatment as a regular part of their operations. WWF has never published this report. WWF continues to provide financial and material support to the park. The surrounding communities still don’t have access to the park, and there is no reason to believe that the abuses have magically stopped.”

Professor Knox didn’t mince words about the WWF’s stonewalling at the hearing: “WWF’s statement to this subcommittee shows that WWF’s leadership is still in a state of denial about its own role in fortress conservation and human rights abuses.”

After Knox’s remarks, Rep. Huffman engaged Ms. Hemley of WWF in a back and forth that was, to put it mildly, exasperating.

Rep. Huffman takes on the WWF

Rather than giving Ms. Hemley another opportunity to air her falsehoods and obfuscations, I want to share some of the more memorable rejoinders by Rep. Huffman. The tenor of Ms. Hemley’s non-answers, devoid of further substance, can be deduced from Rep. Huffman’s insistent prodding.

Huffman: I noted, Ms. Hemley that, you are very careful in how you describe these park rangers. Every time you mention them, you call them, government park rangers. You might just as well mention that these are WWF trained and supported rangers driving around, often in WWF-branded vehicles, in parks managed and funded by WWF. The first things you mentioned were the fact that the rangers accused of abuse were employed and managed by governments, not WWF. There are a number of damning—damning facts in [the panel’s findings] and yet, we’d never know it from listening to your testimony here today. So, let me just ask you: Do you believe WWF bears any responsibility for the abuses that happened in any of the parks that it manages or co-manages?

Huffman: Just yes or no, Ms. Hemley. It’s a simple question: Does WWF bear any responsibility for abuses at the parks you manage?

Huffman: You are declining to answer yes or no, whether you bear any responsibility.

Huffman: I’m not going to give up all my time for you to deflect and dissemble, ma’am, with all due respect. To our knowledge, not a single person in the leadership at WWF has lost their job or resigned over any of these incidents, including the people that that panel found received allegations of human rights abuse and chose not to act on them. So not a single person within the WWF network lost their job. Is that correct?

Huffman: It’s a yes or no question, ma’am.

Huffman: No. No. No. No. You hear my question. It’s a yes or no.

Huffman: There you go again, ma’am. I’m asking, did anyone lose their job? Yes or no.

Huffman: I can only take that as a “NO” and, that itself is just as remarkable.

Rep. Huffman’s frustration brings to mind another, more high profile, congressional hearing that also happened last week, during which the heads of four oil companies (BP America, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell Oil) and two trade groups (American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), collectively known as the “Slippery Six,” testified before members of the U.S. Congress. The hearing was chaired by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

In a tweet, Rep. Maloney wrote: “I demanded that Big Oil Execs pledge to simply no longer spend ANY MONEY to oppose emission reductions and climate action. Unsurprisingly, none took the pledge.” At the end of the hearing, she stated her intent to issue subpoenas to BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute for documents they have withheld from the congressional committee’s investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation campaign. “We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas, we will,” Rep. Maloney said.

Will Rep. Huffman also try to “get to the bottom” of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the WWF? Given that Carter Roberts, the CEO of WWF, declined to appear at Rep. Huffman’s congressional hearing and that the testimony of his proxy Ginette Hemley was marked by evasions and lies, will Rep. Huffman also issue a subpoena to WWF, and possibly other large conservation NGOs, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, who are also implicated in human rights abuses in the global South?

International Conservation Funding

The U.S. Department of Interior channels millions of dollars into the coffers of the WWF and other large U.S.-based conservation organizations in support of their international work. The House subcommittee’s “bi-partisan investigation into WWF’s practices and the Department of Interior’s oversight of international conservation funding” has yielded clear and unambiguous evidence that crimes were committed by the WWF. It would seem obvious what needs to happen now. Professor Knox predicted that “organizations like WWF will not change their behavior until the United States and other donor governments force them to do so by withholding grants until they make the necessary changes.” And he went on to offer three concrete steps: “First, WWF needs to apologize for its past human rights abuses; take responsibility for its failures; and be open and honest going forward. A good starting point would be, for WWF to commit, here, today, to publish all of its internal reports on human rights abuses. It should never again be the case that the U.S. government finds out about these abuses in parks that it supports only after they are reported in the press. Second, there should be clear red lines. Parks should not receive support unless they have demonstrated respect for Indigenous rights, effective training, and oversight for park rangers, and access to complaint mechanisms for local communities. Finally, to receive funding for any purpose, WWF and other conservation organizations should demonstrate that they have expertise on Indigenous peoples and human rights compliance at every level of the organization, including at the top.”

Now, consider this sinister scenario: what if WWF, which operates in more than 100 countries, suddenly stops taking money from the U.S. government but continues its current practice of fortress conservation and human rights abuses? Will the U.S. government still be able to hold WWF accountable for human rights violations that result from the organization’s operations outside of the United States? Likely not. And that scenario is not as unrealistic as it sounds. For it seems entirely possible that WWF may no longer need U.S. government money; the shortfall could be met by private funding.

In September, nine U.S.-based foundations and NGOs collectively pledged five billion dollars for conservation; a significant chunk of that could certainly go to WWF. Although there is enormous need for conservation funding in the United States, as numerous species are in peril here, not a single one of those nine organizations has expressed major interest in supporting conservation in the U.S. Instead, from what we know so far, their funds are headed for the global South. In a recent opinion piece, I characterized the pledge as “billions for biodiversity boondoggle” and brought attention to the potential colonial violence that the boondoggle might unleash on the global South. In that piece, I focused my analysis on one of the smaller institutions, Rainforest Trust, and the largest, the Bezos Earth Fund. Both of those entities have explicitly expressed their intention to provide support for conservation in the Congo Basin. This was the main region discussed in the House hearing where unimaginable human rights abuses have occurred in the name of conservation, including in and around the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in Messok Dja, a forested area on the northern border of the Republic of the Congo.

In light of the “billions for biodiversity boondoggle,” I’m not so sure that Professor Knox’s action plan will provide the remedy that is needed.

Where I Find Hope

“Going forward, we will see legislation in response to these matters that we have been discussing today,” Rep. Huffman said at the closing of the hearing. I’m cautiously hopeful.

On October 26, the day the hearing was held, the Princeton University Press published a significant and beautifully produced book, Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective, edited by Dr. Karl Kusserow of the Princeton University Art Museum. The back cover of the book features a humble photograph I took in 2002. It shows my friend Charlie Swaney, from Arctic Village, Alaska, in his hunting camp along the East Fork of the Chandalar River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, scanning the landscape for animals.

That photograph acquired its own history. During 2001-2002, I traveled to Washington, DC several times to take part in various activist campaigns. During one of those visits, upon seeing my photograph, a young environmental activist demanded to know, with honest bewilderment, “How could there be a hunting camp in a pristine wilderness?” That day, I didn’t have a good answer. But that young activist’s question, more than anything else, prompted me to learn more and think deeply about the history of American conservation.

More than sixty years ago, the Arctic Refuge was established without consulting the Indigenous peoples who have lived there for thousands of years. Having been involved in protecting the refuge over the last two decades, I can confidently state that the Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the conservation campaign to protect the refuge from industrial development. In this campaign, Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples collaborate with each other as part of a larger coalition of conscience that includes environmental NGOs, religious organizations, human rights groups, and more. The unlikely alliances that have emerged from these collaborations are the subject of historian Finis Dunaway’s recent and revelatory book, Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice (2021).

Biodiversity conservation does not need to look like a horror movie that we witnessed at the House hearing. It can be just. It can be inclusive. It can protect our nonhuman relatives. It can support the needs of Indigenous and other ecosystem peoples. It can protect the relations those people have built with their nonhuman kin.

I do strongly believe that we are living through a significant turning point in the history of biodiversity conservation. Moving forward, rights-based approaches should shape global conservation policy. I hope that fortress conservation will fade away as a historic, racist relic.

Subhankar Banerjee is editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point and co-editor of Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change. He is the Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair and a professor of Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico where he serves as the founding director of both the UNM Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities and the Species in Peril project.

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