Up to $500m (£346m) spent by the US, EU and other donors to protect the world’s second largest swath of rainforest has failed – for the trees, the animals and the people who live among them – a major study has found.
Analysis of five equatorial African countries in the Congo basin has found that destructive developments including illegal logging, oil and gas exploration, and palm oil plantations are taking place in 34 large protected areas, and that conservation has displaced villages and led to conflict and human rights abuses.
According to the Rainforest Foundation – whose researchers spent 18 months interviewing people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo – elephants, bongos, gorillas and chimpanzees are declining at alarming rates while communities report abuse by people paid to protect the environment.
“Without exception, all communities in the countries where field research took place associate protected areas with increasing hardships due to restrictions to their livelihood activities, including diminished access to food,” said the report, Protected areas in the Congo basin: failing people and biodiversity. “Whenever gains may have resulted from protected areas, very little, if anything, has reached local communities to date.”
In only eight of the 24 areas did conservation provide any work, and this was sporadic employment as park rangers or tourist guides. No evidence was found of compensation paid to communities for stopping hunting or taking timber.
According to the Rainforest Foundation, the biggest overall funder of Congo rainforest conservation has been the US government – mostly through the US Agency for International Development (USAid), but also through the State Department.
“We have identified at least $110m that has been put into conservation efforts just by USAid from 2004-10, and they have committed to spending another $50m from 2013-18,” said Simon Counsell, Rainforest Foundation director.
The next biggest funder has been the EU, which spent about $118m between 1992 and 2010. Money was channelled through the Ecofac project (pdf), with a further €30m (£24m) for funding committed for the next five years.
A further $50m has come through the African Development Bank, the Norwegian government, Germany, Japan and others.
“Taking into account all the money that has come through organisations such as WWF and WCS [the Wildlife Conservation Society] from private donations and foundations, we calculate that probably $400m has been spent on these protected areas in the last 15 years or so, and quite possibly as much as $500m,” said Counsell.
The report said most conservation in the Congo basin is based on a militaristic approach, known as “guns and guards”. It depends on armed anti-poaching “ecoguards” restricting hunting and stopping people going into the forest.
But this model is described in the report as heavy-handed, leading to communities being threatened and turning them against conservation. Indigenous groups, such as the Pygmies, are said to suffer the most, largely because their semi-nomadic lifestyles tend to overlap with protected areas.
The authors blame governments, saying they are obliged by law to uphold land and human rights as well as people’s rights to free, prior and informed consent.
“Business as usual in the form of top-down conservation in the Congo basin can be counterproductive and is often downright unjust as human rights abuses are perpetrated in the name of conservation,” said the report.
“Local people bear the brunt of anti-poaching measures even though they are not the drivers of poaching. At the same time, systematic efforts to tackle high level illegal wildlife trade networks have not taken pressure off local communities or diminished the abuses they suffer.”
Counsell said: “A new, more sustainable form is needed in Africa, which works with local people rather than against them. Donor governments need to carefully consider whether their support to strict forest preservation is effective.”
Of the 34 protected areas included in the study, 26 reported displacement of people to make way for conservation, 21 reported conflicts between park management and communities, and 18 said they were not consulted before the protected areas were created.
The study follows a complaint by Survival International to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development accusing WWF of inadvertently facilitating serious human rights abuses against Pygmies living in Cameroonian rainforests.
The WWF, in a response included in the report, said enforcing protected areas is problematic across the Congo basin and made more difficult because of nearby armed conflict.
“Militarisation of the south-east Cameroon area – linked to arms trafficking, well-armed poaching and conflict in Central African Republic – has been identified as a factor in an increased number of reports of unacceptable conduct and alleged abuse by ecoguards and others,” Frederick Kwame Kumah, WWF’s director for Africa, said in the report.
The authors recommend a shift away from the conventional people-free parks philosophy to one that sees the remaining Congo basin rainforests not as pristine nature to be saved but as places where local communities are part of the equation and can benefit from the forests.