© Troy Enkevist / WWF-Sweden
Embedding Human Rights in Nature Conservation: From Intent to Action. Human Rights and the Environment Report - 2023
Year 3 Implementation Update

In 2020, an Independent Panel chaired by Judge Navi Pillay published a report that reviewed and assessed WWF’s role in connection with allegations of human rights abuses by some government rangers in and around protected areas in the Congo Basin, India and Nepal. The Independent Panel published recommendations regarding country-level programmes – concluding that we must do more to ensure community voices are heard and respected, as well as advocate for governments to uphold their human rights obligations. We have made progress and acknowledge the work we still must do to strengthen how we embed human rights in our conservation work.

In our WWF Management Response to Recommendations from the Independent Panel Report (2020) we made public commitments in response to recommendations made by the Independent Panel, outlining our plans for a three-year programme to better embed human rights in conservation. Since then, across the Congo Basin, India and Nepal − and the WWF Network, more generally − we have worked to deliver on these recommendations.

We committed to reviewing the implementation by the end of 2023, publishing the following annual updates on our progress: the Implementation Update: WWF Management Response to Recommendations from the Independent Panel Report – 2021, the Human Rights and the Environment Report – 2022 and, this report, the Human Rights and the Environment Report - 2023. As previously shared and following this report, an external evaluation of the implementation period following our Management Response will also be undertaken. Today, we share with our partners, supporters, donors, and the public our annual update on the progress made and the challenges we have faced since the Panel concluded its work.

The Independent Panel recognized that many of the landscapes in which we work pose challenges in terms of governance and the rule of law. We were prompted to reflect on our position, role and agency in the delivery of our conversation programmes, and our ability to influence political or systems change in line with our values. This has meant, for example, clearly affirming our human rights commitments and standards to government partners and using our agency to steer decision making to support inclusive and rights-based approaches – this includes developing stronger partnerships with civil society organizations, including Indigenous Peoples organizations.

The implementation of our commitments has not been an effort of compliance, but rather an effort to better our conservation approach and help people and nature to thrive. Our efforts have resulted in the creation of conditions for systems-level change and will continue beyond the life of the three-year implementation period of Management Response commitments, which concluded in December 2023.

In our report, we highlight the following evolution from 2020:

  • In Cameroon we advocated for the recognition and protection of access rights, which led to the September 2023 signing of a historic agreement between the Ministry of Forests and Fauna (MINFOF), representing the government of Cameroon, and ASBABUK, an Indigenous Peoples organization. Further, we continued our work with partners to facilitate the implementation of the grievance mechanism, improved rangers’ training on human rights, worked to embed environmental safeguards and social policies in our work, and finalized our socio-economic strategy.
  • In the Central African Republic, we continued to support the Human Rights Centre in Bayanga, including new funding in 2023; continued to work with Chengeta Wildlife to embed human rights into ranger training curricula, support inclusive recruitment processes and share expertise on monitoring; and collaborated with the Ministry of Justice to implement environmental and social safeguards through a reinforced partnership.
  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we supported the protection and promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and in 2023 the country’s President signed Law n° 22/030 in favour of the “Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples”. We also established a closer working relationship with ICCN, the public enterprise with responsibility for protected areas, and greater alignment and agreement on the necessity of taking a human rights-based approach to law enforcement in the country.
  • In the Republic of the Congo, we continued to strengthen our engagement with Indigenous Peoples and local community stewards of sustainable development through a multi-stakeholder platform, which also provided recommendations on improving our grievance mechanisms, which were adopted. We embedded environmental and social safeguards, and social policies in our work; are working to revise the MoU for the ETIC conservation programme to include environmental and social safeguards and human-rights based principles; supported a code of conduct and supporting disciplinary consequences for government rangers through involvement in the ETIC disciplinary council; provided input into the design of the national training curriculum for rangers; and finalized the process of establishing a country office presence in Brazzaville.
  • In India, we have focused on building capacity and strengthening our internal processes on social safeguarding, and on completing our landscape screenings. We have completed an environmental and social mitigation framework for the Kaziranga Karbi Anglong Landscape; collated, and put into locally accessible formats, information on government grievance mechanisms; continued our efforts to ensure that law enforcement training we support integrates human rights; and are working towards integrating a human rights module into the curriculum of all ranger training colleges in India.
  • In Nepal, we are incorporating and strengthening the human-rights based approach in programmes and activities, proactively reaching out to partners and stakeholders on WWF’s social policies and safeguards, and building our own capacity to fully implement the WWF Environmental and Social Safeguards Framework (ESSF).
On a global basis, we have also made progress, including by:

  • Defining the Office of the Ombudsperson Operating Framework, which was subject to public consultation from November 2022 to January 2023, and adopted in March 2023. Following the end of the first phase of implementation, we have launched the recruitment of a new Ombudsperson who will replace Gina Barbieri. Their focus in the second phase will be on problem solving and mediation.
  • Advancing our ESSF. We continued its implementation across the landscapes and seascapes where we work, learned from that experience, and incorporated lessons in our revised environmental and social safeguards framework, which was approved by our International Board in 2023.
  • Screening landscapes in line with our ESSF. As of January 2024, 280 of 291 (96%) landscapes and seascapes where WWF works were being or had been screened for environmental and social risks.
  • Building capacity in people-centred and rights-based conservation. For example, in the past four years, WWF has hired over 40 new positions globally, linked to environmental and social safeguarding, human rights, and Indigenous Peoples and local community issues.
  • Supporting and improving complaints channels and grievance mechanisms, with 100% of WWF office sites having published a country-level complaints channel in line with our SpeakUp! Core standard as of December 2023. This is an increase on the 63% figure as of November 2021.
  • Including more Indigenous and First Nations Peoples’ voices in our governance. With two new appointments in two different offices in 2022, the number of Indigenous and First Nations Peoples representatives on WWF governance boards and advisory groups now totals 18 (10 and eight, respectively). These trustees sit across nine different offices in the WWF network. In 2023, the International Board approved the appointment of Dr. Ramy Bulan, a land rights lawyer and Indigenous Peoples trustee from the Kelabit highlands in Sarawak, Malaysia.
  • Advancing efforts in ethical law enforcement, and partnering in ranger training on human rights. WWF recognizes the role that conservation law enforcement agencies undertake in tackling wildlife crime and protecting landscapes and seascapes, often in challenging environments. Providing support to ranger training on human rights and ethical law enforcement remains at the heart of our mission. At local, national, regional and global levels, we continue to develop and provide training opportunities, and to partner in human rights training across landscapes in the Congo Basin, India and Nepal – and beyond.

We recognize that the journey is ongoing, and that there will be continuous learning and adaptation into the future, and that our strategies will further evolve to address emerging challenges and opportunities in our ambition to achieve positive outcomes for both people and biodiversity. We look forward to the findings of the evaluation of our three years of implementation of our Management Response, and learning where we can make adjustments, and strengthen our actions. People and nature can only thrive through harmonious coexistence and WWF is committed to this overarching vision.