WWF’s commitment to people and inclusive conservation

Posted on 27 February 2020

Updated September 2020

At WWF, we believe that people must be at the heart of conservation; the driving force for our efforts. Working closely with local and indigenous communities and ensuring that they benefit from conservation efforts is a core principle of our approach and the work we do, and while it has its challenges, this collaboration is vital.

Our work takes us to some of the most difficult places on Earth, places where communities often face debilitating levels of instability, poverty and hardship. While this can present complex challenges for conservation work, we are very clear that it is in places like these where conservation can - and must - help provide a vital source of hope and stability. Under no circumstances can human rights abuses ever be tolerated. 
Over the past year, following allegations against government-employed eco-guards in parts of Central Africa and Asia, staff across WWF have been working extremely hard to respond to the issues raised with the level of seriousness they deserve. We have taken a range of measures to review and strengthen our ways of working - which is especially important in some of the world’s most fragile and high-risk places - and continue advocating for governments to take swift and convincing action to bring alleged perpetrators to justice. This work is ongoing, and we will make sure we continue to learn, improve and evolve; below is a summary of the actions we have taken most recently. 

The Independent Review  

In March 2019, WWF commissioned an Independent Review to examine allegations raised about human rights abuses and other serious misconduct by government eco-guards in landscapes where WWF works, and to review the suitability and appropriateness of WWF‘s broader policies, procedures, and assurances and risk management processes. The Independent Review Panel is led by chair Judge Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights together with Professor John Knox, first United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment and Dr Kathy MacKinnon, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) and former Lead Biodiversity Specialist of the World Bank.
At the time of writing, the panel’s work is ongoing, with the timeline for completion determined by the panel. The results of the Independent Review will be made public and any updates are posted on the website here.

Enhanced Safeguards, Quality Assurance and Risk Management


In the past months, we have taken a deep look at our processes to strengthen how we can deliver better safeguards, quality assurance and risk management to deliver better conservation impact. 

The development and roll out of our Environmental and Social Safeguards Framework (ESSF), adopted by the WWF network in June 2019, continues apace. The result of an in-depth review of existing policies and practices relating to the evolving challenges we face in the most remote and unstable landscapes, the ESSF framework strengthens our organisational processes  relating to risk management, safeguards and quality assurance.

Specifically, we have taken the following steps to ensure effective implementation:

  • A mandatory training on ESSF was rolled out to all 7,000+ WWF staff in April 2020. Now completed by close to 100% of WWF staff worldwide, this individual training is in addition to specific office-based training being conducted in landscapes.​
  • More than 1,300 WWF staff have enrolled in a ‘Human Rights and Conservation’ e-learning and online discussion forum course since its launch in June 2019. At the time of writing, French, Spanish and Portuguese language versions are about to be launched to reach non-English speaking staff.

  • Established a dedicated Global Safeguards Unit, which oversees the ESSF implementation and maintains the safeguards framework. The Director of E&S Safeguards came into post on 1 November 2019, followed by E&S Regional Heads for Central and West Africa and South and Central Africa. Two Regional Heads for Asia have been recruited and recruitment for the Americas post is ongoing. Several network offices are also building their capacity in safeguards, social policies and human rights.

  • We are recruiting for an Ombudsperson role, a first for an environmental NGO. This is an independent position that will oversee compliance with the safeguards framework and help mediate disputes when they cannot be settled locally. This office is independent from WWF International line management and will report directly to the WWF International Board.

  • Established a Network Conservation Quality Committee (CQC) which is responsible for reviewing and signing off on high-risk projects and landscape Safeguards plans. The CQC will also develop a Risk and Quality Assurance Standard for the entire WWF network to ensure processes, roles and commitments are aligned to a shared set of principles and framework.​​​​​

Core components of the ESSF are:

  • A Safeguards Screening Tool (SST) that guides project teams through a rigorous risk and impact analysis, and includes strengthened requirements for mitigation plans and sign-off process for projects.

  • A tiered network-wide grievance mechanism which strengthens existing arrangements to address complaints.

  • A new response protocol, now in place, to immediately escalate any complaints relating to human rights. 

Immediate response on the ground

In countries and landscapes identified as highest risk due to their specific contexts, there has also been a wide range of action taken. These include strengthening or accelerating some efforts already underway, notably in the Congo Basin where realities including war, violent unrest, and armed conflict have presented a difficult set of challenges for conservation work.

Democratic Republic of Congo (Salonga National Park)

Actions include:

  • Rolling out the Enhanced Environmental and Social Safeguards in the Salonga programme.

  • Commissioning, in partnership with local human rights organizations, two fact-finding missions (late 2018 and October 2019) on allegations against eco-guards dating from 2002 to the present, and providing the findings to the government's l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the military prosecutor’s office, which holds jurisdiction related to eco-guards for legal follow up and action.

  • Establishing a framework in the Salonga National Park which brings together major stakeholders with communities (represented by traditional chiefs), civil society organizations and local elected representatives to ensure that local communities are consulted and fully engaged in local governance structures. 

  • An ongoing project partnership with OXFAMWorld Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), and Italian NGO, ISCO - who each possess expertise in community and rural development - to help improve the livelihoods of the local population including indigenous groups, as well as access to basic health and education services. 

  • Developing an enhanced complaints mechanism for local and indigenous communities tailored to the remoteness and complexity of the Salonga landscape, which is due to undergo full consultations with communities in 2020. 

  • Supporting holistic training and ongoing mentoring for all (300+) government eco-guards in Salonga based on human rights approaches, good conduct, and community safeguards since January 2020 - this builds on human rights training of eco-guards that started in 2016. 

  • Rolling out an eco-guard code of conduct with ICCN. The above referenced training programme incorporates this code.

  • Ongoing discussions with the DRC government on Salonga National Park to ensure that WWF’s participation is conditioned on a mutual agreement to operationalize protections for human rights, including a demonstrated commitment to systemic changes to ensure that human rights are given the highest priority.

These efforts are in addition to ongoing work in the DRC that includes:

  • Supporting more than 340 communities in organizing themselves to form and build up local development committees.

  • Supporting the construction of two health centers and three warehouses (for stocking agricultural produce) and the training of around 6,500 people in sustainable agricultural techniques in local surrounding communities. 

  • A partnership with Action d'Aide Sanitaire et de Développement aux plus Démunis (AASD) to provide capacity building to empower women to be actively engaged in local development committees for land-use decision-making.

  • Supporting Congolese women’s fight for land rights, culminating in the government’s 2016 reinforcement of the law that stipulates that women must be engaged at all levels of decision making in community forest concessions. 

(Read more about the challenges and opportunities of inclusive conservation in Salonga here.)

Republic of Congo

 Actions include:

  • Supporting training for 17 new eco-guard recruits (about 50% of total) on respect for human rights and Indigenous Peoples and developing a code of conduct for eco-guards and ETIC personnel. 
  • Rolling out WWF’s Enhanced Environmental and Social Safeguards in the Espace TRIDOM Interzone Congo (ETIC) programme (including Messok Dja forests), with completion of risk screening in February 2020 and development of a risk mitigation plan to be completed around April 2020.  

  • Helping to initiate a new consultation process with government, donors, and local community and indigenous representatives around the Messok Dja forest, with a joint workshop held in November 2019, following concerns raised by communities on the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process previously underway flagged through two independent external analyses commissioned by WWF

  • Hiring a Community Liaison officer, a Social Policy Officer and an Indigenous People Officer to drive rights-based conservation practices and improve engagement with communities, especially indigenous groups, across our projects..

  • Advocating for the inclusion of a formal FPIC process requirement for both Indigenous People and communities in the Congolese forest code bill; the decree formalizing this was adopted in July 2019 by the Ministry of Justice, Human rights and Indigenous People. 

  • ​Since June 2019, supporting regular refresher training for all rangers in the ETIC area on respect for human rights.

  • Launching an enhanced complaints mechanism which was informed by 2018 consultations with local communities, and has been fully operational since January 2019 and includes weekly visits to villages.

  • ​Holding ongoing discussions with the European Union and the government of the Republic of Congo to amend our ongoing project in Messok Dja in light of the recent enactment of the country’s first Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) laws.


 Actions include:

  • Providing human rights training to 380 government eco-guards in Cameroon since 2015, in an ongoing programme run in collaboration with the National Human Rights Commission.

  • Signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in April 2019 with the Ministry of Social Affairs to promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples. This followed ongoing engagement with the Ministry which included the publication of a three year action plan (2017-2019) on Indigenous Peoples rights protections in conservation. The MOU is currently under re-negotiation to further strengthen the government’s responsibility to assure the conduct of eco-guards.

  • An ongoing partnership with Plan International  to strengthen the rights of indigenous communities, improve access to and governance over natural resources and access to education, including providing scholarships for students and building teacher capacity. Discussions with the Ministry of Education to scale this to the national level are underway.

  • Facilitating an agreement between Baka communities and the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF—which manages these parks) which was signed in February 2019, enabling the Baka to regain access to the three national parks - Nki, Boumba Bek and Lobéké. This enforces rights to traditional hunting and natural resources access and promotes the recruitment of local Baka people for park management work.

  • Expanding and strengthening the independent complaints mechanism, launched in 2017, and since 2019 run by RACOPY, a network of local indigenous rights civil society organizations, across Baka territory in Nki, Boumba Bek and Lobéké National Parks and Ngoyla Wildlife Reserve, covering the 20,000 Baka living in this southeast region of Cameroon. As part of this enlarged complaints mechanism, in 2019, WWF funded the set up of a human rights centre in Lobeke which is run by CEFAID, one of WWF’s local rights partners. 

  • Developing an internal complaints mechanism which started its roll out in WWF intervention areas in 2019 - this work is ongoing.

  • Hiring a full time Indigenous Peoples Manager in 2017 to drive rights-based conservation practices and improve engagement with communities, especially indigenous groups, across our projects.

  • Implementing WWF’s Enhanced Environmental and Social Safeguards, starting in late 2019 in Lobéké, Nki and Boumba Bek National Parks.

Central African Republic

Actions include:

  • Implementing WWF’s Enhanced Environmental and Social Safeguards since late 2019.
  • Advocating for social agreements in the health and education fields which are currently being signed between the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area (DSPA) and local communities to help foster greater community involvement in the management of the Dzanga Sangha park.

  • Assisting in the coordination of multiple workshops throughout 2019 by the local Ndima-Kali Association focusing on the sustainability of traditional activities of the Baka as part of a programme of inclusive conservation. This includes support to indigenous communities in the creation of Yobe’-Sangha community Association and the Bayanga Development Committee. Support is also being provided to indigenous communities to obtain birth certificates and citizenship.

  • Helping to establish the Human Rights Centre in Bayanga in 2016, an institution which helps address and resolve local conflicts for the Baka and other local community members and provides legal support where necessary. Since its founding, the centre has been involved in the resolution of 127 cases. Of these, four complaints related to eco-guards were recorded and either resolved or passed to the justice system. 

  • Supporting various local indigenous associations that promote women’s rights and empowerment, in association with the Human Rights Center, including Ndima Kali, Re Palca, UCB and Organization des Femmes Centrafricaines (OFCA).

  • Helping to provide free healthcare to almost 10,000 people through DSPA initiatives in 2019.

  • Signing a new contract with the EU for a project entitled ‘Programme d’Accompagnement aux Peuples Autochtones’ (‘Support Program for Indigenous Peoples’), which will provide support for Indigenous communities in education, healthcare and justice and includes provision for the recruitment of a new post responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Environmental and Social Safeguards Framework.

  • Coordinating with the Human Rights Centre to ensure regular visits by a lawyer  to the law court in the town of Nola to follow up on relevant cases, including those involving any allegations of human rights abuses, to ensure they are being fully investigated

Global Dialogues

In June 2020, WWF convened the first of a global dialogue series to explore approaches and best practices in conservation that can help meaningfully balance benefits for people and nature in a rapidly changing world, particularly in the current context of the global pandemic. 

Committed to doing conservation with people, for people, we invited participants from a diverse range of backgrounds, regions and perspectives to share their experiences and understanding of working together, within and alongside communities. 
In this series, we are focusing on three key components of conservation practice: 
A rights-based approach to planetary and human health – balancing individual, collective and nature rights. 

Socio-economic imperatives – exploring how to materialise and share the benefits of nature conservation, both emotional and material, cultural and economic, including for livelihoods and health.

Inclusive Nature Conservation in practice – working with and for communities in landscapes.
The learnings from the dialogue series will further inform our ongoing efforts as we seek to ensure local communities are recognized and empowered in their efforts to defend and restore nature as we work together to help build a more just and resilient future for people and the planet.


Our mission is all about people and nature thriving together. This is our guiding principle in our pursuit of a sustainable future for people and our planet. 
Many of our most important successes have come from working with people including local and indigenous communities, finding practical ways for people and nature to thrive together. We are committed to do more and do better and will make every effort to do so. 

Here, you will find a link to all of our statements relating to the allegations and Independent Review. The results of the Independent Review will be published.