Survival International and Tribal Conservationists

Survival International is an organisation promoting the rights of tribal peoples to their ancestral lands. These marginalised groups are often overlooked in the global demand for ‘development’ and ‘progress’ as, although they often live in evolving societies, there is a stigma and often an idealisation that they represent a ‘primitive’ or ‘edenic’ past.

This year the link between conservation and the protection of tribal people on their own land has become more recognised. Let us take the example of the Baka ‘pygmies’[1] in Cameroon, where the Baka were denied access to their homelands after it went under the authority of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the largest conservation organisation in the world. Accused of ‘poaching’ for hunting their food (while fee-paying big game hunters are encouraged) they were evicted from their home – a trend affecting tribal peoples globally in the name of ‘conservation’. Far from harming wildlife “The Baka are taught not to overhunt the animals of the forest. A Baka woman said, “When you find a female animal with her young, you must not kill her. Even worse, when the little animals are walking next to their mother, it is strictly forbidden to kill them.”” Over the last 20 years the Baka have spoken out against the WWF who funded anti-poaching squads that engaged in the violence, abuse and sometimes torture and even killing of their people. This included forced evictions and land theft, breaking the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The WWF denied these accusations by claiming the attacks had “tailed off”, blaming the situation on the lack of political stability in Central Africa.

The Baka have repeatedly testified to Survival about the activities of these “anti-poaching” squads in the region (who end up making money out of poaching) and their unhappiness with the conservation projects. In 2015 one Baka man said: “When they came to beat me here in my home, my wife and I were sleeping. They beat me with machetes. They beat my wife with machetes.”

The WWF failed to seek the communities’ prior and informed consent for their conservation projects and leaked reports have shown they knew about the abuses taking place. However, last month Survival International successfully managed to make the WWF face the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), a process normally invoked against multinational corporations. The outcome is yet to be seen, but it is a positive development in the growing awareness of the tribal conservationist movement.

Survival recognises that tribal people have an accumulated and inherited knowledge of their territories, and as they live in synchronisation with the natural world, they naturally know how best to protect it. This is opposed to the current global trend of natural spaces either being sold to corporations seeking to exploit resources or foreign conservation giants who claim they know how to better protect these areas than the people who have lived there for centuries.

What is taking place could be argued to be the conservation ‘con’. 80% of the top biodiversity areas on Earth are inhabited by indigenous and tribal peoples. The misconception of the world’s famous ‘wildernesses’ from Yellowstone to the Serengeti as areas free from human life obscures the fact that many have been managed as the ancestral homelands of millions of tribespeople for generations. As a Native American proverb goes: “only to the white man was nature a wilderness”. Survival acknowledges that tribal peoples “are better at looking after their environment than anyone else” and that the economical and better solution is to uphold tribal people’s land rights, rather than spend huge sums on conservation organisations.

This process is unfolding across the world where biodiverse areas are bought either by multinational conservation giants or corporations seeking to exploit their resources, sometimes they make partnerships under the premise of ‘sustainability’ (Coca Cola for instance is now partnered with WWF). As tribal peoples represent a minority in human society, their struggles are often overlooked. Does a Western environmental organisation really know how to better protect a habitat than the people who have sustainably lived there for millennia? Why does the solution mean the eviction of the people who live and depend directly on their land? After evictions, tribal peoples face increasing violence, poverty and disease and often have nowhere to live other than by road-sides. Instead of allying with those who have an invaluable relationship with biodiversity, the conservation giants partner with exploitative corporations and the exploding ‘eco’ tourism industry. Survival does not look to take away from other aspects of the WWF’s work, but rather wants to ensure justice for tribal peoples and their land rights.

This all forms part of Survivals “Tribal conservationists” campaign. “Tribal peoples are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world. They should be at the forefront of the environmental movement.”




[1] “Pygmy” is an umbrella term commonly used to refer to the hunter-gatherer peoples of the Congo Basin and elsewhere in Central Africa. The word is considered pejorative and avoided by some tribespeople, but used by others as a convenient and easily recognized way of describing themselves.


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