Reading Global Witness' report this week on how WWF let timber companies use its panda brand logo while they were razing some of the world's most biologically rich rainforests, I was reminded of a trip I took to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007.
I was in the village of Isangi on the south bank of the river Congo at its junction with the river Lomami. Isangi was up in arms. A foreign logging company called Safbois had been awarded, without the villagers' knowledge, a massive concession of more than 100,000 square miles just to the south of the town, and was now felling the forest for the precious Afrormosia tree, or African teak.
Here is what the villagers told me at the time:
"I see the logs going down the river, and it makes me cry," one villager says.
"Our forests are being stolen from us," says another. "It is misery for the communities. Safbois has come in and is taking our future. We do not know what to do."
"With the loss of forest we have much more death and illness," says a third.
"But it is with our complicity, if foreigners profit from our forests," says a teacher.
I went with the villagers to the logging camp deep in the forest where hundreds of trees had been felled and were waiting to be transhipped to Europe and China. To my astonishment, there was a WWF office, complete with toy panda, right in the middle of the camp. As far as the villagers were concerned, WWF was the logging company, responsible for taking their timber. I tried to tell them that it was a conservation group trying to protect the trees, but it was useless. "WWF and Safbois are as one," they said.
The young WWF man in the camp was embarrassed. He and Safbois were being accused of taking the wood, failing to build a promised school and destroying people's fields but he dared not stand up to the loggers. The company had offered the villagers a few bags of salt and some bicycles. It was like something out of the 19th century when King Leopold of Belgium could "buy" much of central Africa with beads.
What no-one could understand was why WWF was working in close partnership with one of Africa's biggest logging companies and perceived to be working against local people. The conservation group said it was trying to improve the company's practices. It did not seem to be helping the people affected by logging.
At the time, Safbois's head, Daniel Blattner, told me: "You went [to our camp] without warning. We were shocked. It was simple politeness to ask. We have good relations with the community. We are there for decades. We are employing people. We are developing the regions, we are building schools and roads. There is no infrastructure. It's not simple!"
I have seen WWF working in the forests of Gabon, Cameroon, Indonesia and Congo, and the fact is it is mostly outwitted by the companies who use it cynically, buying the use of using the panda to promote a green image, or in Safbois's case, even going into partnership.
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