The WWF, REDD and Tanzania

At the peak of the claim and counter-claim thrown around over Amazongate Simon Lewis a forest researcher at the University of Leeds emerged briefly at its centre. Lewis’ defense of the actions of the IPCC helped the organization avoid confronting its use of advocacy and environmental pressure group material from the WWF. A little-examined fact at the time was that Lewis’ parent department was involved along with contributions from the University of East Anglia (UEA), the Royal Society, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and other non-governmental organizations in a UN REDD+ pilot project in Tanzania. Called ‘Valuing the Arc’, it was designed to work out putting a ‘price on carbon’ to provide “input to the policy process, … including PES mechanisms”. ‘PES’, is payment for ecosystem services, i.e., REDD. The most prominent NGO at the the centre of the project? WWF-Tanzania.

News has now emerged of a major embezzlement scandal involving the WWF in Tanzania. The sponsoring Norwegian government has stopped payment on both projects the NGO was involved. From the Tanzania office, six WWF employees have been sacked and a seventh has resigned. Reportedly two senior WWF figures have resigned as well. The UK DFID – a funder for the projects – has suspended payments it makes through WWF-UK, pending results of an audit of WWF books by private firm Ernst and Young. The DailyNews informs us that the DFID “eagerly awaits” the results of the audit.

Trouble erupted on the longer-running project of the two – called RUMAKI – that began in 2008. With funding coming in from WWF-Switzerland, the Norwegian goverment aid arm Norad, Barclays Bank, and the DFID via WWF-UK, the project was to  “[help] civil society organisations build capacity”. Apparently money had been diverted in the guise of attending educational seminars, a seeming euphemism for activity that involves award of  travel allowances, hotel expenses, and other forms of personal expenses. A preliminary audit report suggests amounts of upto $1.3 million, already higher than the initially quoted $85,000 by the WWF. In its latest release, the WWF admits that four projects have been engulfed, with total allotted amounts of ‘ $US15.4 million’.

The Great Seminar Hunt – Bistandsaktuelt

In December last year Norad’s own trade magazine Bistandsaktuelt reported on the form of greasing that runs Tanzanian aid-driven bureaucratic functioning. Hints of Norwegian embassay officials being informed of similar activities in WWF-Tanzania accompanied. Called ‘per diem’, the system takes on a form of daily allowances for sundry activities to be paid out, in cash or in kind, to people participating or conducting projects. It is reported that upto 70% of the budgets in Norwegian aid went to per diem payments in some of the programmes. Ironically such methods fell into place in poverty-stricken Tanzania in the 1970s driven by aid agencies themsevles, who used it to lure officials in engaging in charity-driven  activities.

The allegations come against the backdrop of a larger simmering controversy. In the chess game of Tanzanian conservation, counter-conservation and industrial growth, the Rufiji delta mangroves have been a hotspot. The WWF says it wants to preserve mangroves by persuading local farmers from cutting them down for rice cultivation; measurment of coastal ‘forest carbon stocks’ for REDD by photographic methods were planned in this location as well. Ironically, the government’s Forestry and Beekeeping Division (FBD) is engaged in the same area implementing a fortress-conservation approach, a method the WWF advocated years prior but now no longer allegedly supports. In October last year the FBD evicted thousands of locals from the forests, burning down crops and huts. The state points to ‘illegal rice cultivation’ as justifiction. The numbers are indeed astounding –  18,000 evicted. WWF projects suffered a setback as locals scarcely distinguish NGO from state — both appear only to prevent use of forest resources.

The story of the Rufiji evacuations reported in Norwegian media

Into this mix, a timely paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change by Betsey Baymer-Farris and Thomas Bassett provided further substantiation. The authors discussed how conservation approaches, especially those billing themselves as ‘participatory’ and ‘community-based’ paradoxically enabled ‘fortress conservation’ under a REDD regime. The WWF, for its part blew a fuse. Stung by what it characterized as incorrect criticism, Neil Burgess, WWF activist and professor at Copenhagen University, and Stephen Makiri, head of WWF-Tanzania lashed out in an angry letter to the journal in early February. Burgess, in particular, appeared to be fuming: (emphasis mine)

In addition, as this paper and its numerous factual errors has personally damaged my reputation as a professional scientist and that of a number of colleagues working in Tanzania, several of us would welcome a face to face meeting for a discussion of this paper and the process that was used during its publication. This meeting should, amongst other things, address how the Journal plans to remedy the reputational damage that this article has caused WWF, its office in Tanzania, and several of its staff who have been working on projects in the Rufiji delta for many years and on the WWF REDD project for the past year.

As is standard in climate change, the WWF questioned the peer review and the publication-worthiness of the paper. In a move reminiscent of the Simon Lewis complaint to the PCC in UK, the WWF bundled a note filled with quoted passages from the paper disputing every claim it felt was wrong, and included alternate ‘reviews’ of its own of the already published paper.

Under pressure from the seminar per diem scandal, the same Stephen Makiri has now resigned. For reasons unknown, the head of WWF-Norway was replaced in March this year. The presence of intra-WWF political intrigue is inescapable —in just November last year, Prince Charles of the United Kingdom gave away awards to five ‘community members’ who lived in the ‘operational area of WWF-Tanzania’s award-winning RUMAKI Seascape programme’ (i.e., the Rufiji delta). At the same time on the other side, auditors in Norway were uncovering irregularities to the tune of $53 million in Tanzanian projects over the years. By the 15th, Norwegian scientists Tor A Benjaminsen, Ian Bryseson and Hanne Svarstad had penned a searing op-ed in Norway’s leading newspaper the Aftenposten. They laid the exacerbation of fortress conservation squarely at the feet of three players – the state, big NGOs and the aid donors themselves:

Several of the most productive fishing reefs [in the Rufiji delta] have been illegal to exploit the local population, and unreasonable restrictions are introduced for fishing in other areas. Tourist industry is thereby given an exclusive access to exploit the areas where wealthy tourists can spend their “tropical vacations” on the beaches and snorkeling on the coral reefs. Protests from fishermen have been turned down by armed force. Military has been set to withdraw and destroy nets and boats from the fishing families who have lived in a sustainable manner.

How has this serious situation happened, and why we find everywhere a glossy picture of nature conservation in Africa which is in stark contrast to the reality we observe? The trend is driven by an alliance of three teams in the lead.

In response, just as it did with the Himayalan glacier error and the Amazon error with the IPCC, the WWF simply sought to disown responsibility. It distanced itself from the actions of the Tanzanian FBD and denied connections with REDD, blaming the researchers for making ‘provocative’, ‘loaded’, and ‘unscientific’ statements. The approach to the Global Environmental Change journal was just as with the case of the Sunday Times article by Jonathan Leake – retraction and censorship (emphasis mine):

Of course this will not correct the reputational damage, nor the significant potential financial damage, that this factually inaccurate article has already caused, and continues to cause. In the meantime, while a suitable response is being prepared, we request that the article is removed from the online web site where it is currently located and the authors of the paper are A) informed of the problems in the science and facts of their paper; B) given an opportunity to correct their work based on the various comments provided here.

The original authors Beymer-Farris and Bassett responded in the Aftenposten:

WWF cooperates actively with the Tanzanian Ministry of Forestry (FBD) for projects in the Rufiji. … FBD staff, one day wearing a WWF had, get involved in conservation initiatives, and then another day to forcibly move people wearing a FBD had*. […]

The problem is not our method, recently met the academic requirements for publication in one of the world’s most recognized environmental journals. The problem is that Hansson [WWF-Norway head] not like the questions we travel*.

(* sic, machine translation)

The menace of per diem payments was well recognized by government wings from both Norway and the UK running charity projects. For some reason however the latest eviction with its direct connection to the institution of REDD projects with Norwegian funding seems to have prompted a soul-searching exercise in Norway. One long-term Norad employee wrote in an Aftenposten editorial:

We are easily amateurs in the game of corruption compared with participants in the receiving country

For their part it appears that a subset of researchers siezed a rare opportunity to go public on how activist organisations such as the WWF work against their proclaimed objectives, and against scientific norms. How vastly influential the WWF has become is evident from a slide from Dr Svarstad’s presentation:

With the latest saga, it can be said that a watershed event in conservation and the climate change debate has occurred. For the first time an organisation as the WWF finds itself at the wrong end of all things – locals and government officials, scientists, and aid agencies. The vision it tries to impose seem alien to all comers, the problems it faces as earthly as everyone else’s.

More importantly the episode defines the lack of a scientific temper at the WWF. The utter bewilderment that environmental scientists might be against some of its activities and speak about it openly is evident in the unprofessional response – bullying journal editors and scientists, demanding censorship of scientific papers, and a charactertistic denial of responsibility toward its contribution to the larger evolving mess.



  1. alexjc38

    Good article. According to newspaper The Citizen, the score is now 13 employees sacked by WWF’s Tanzania office:

    On the subject of “fortress conservation”, there was a Channel 4 documentary last year called Conservation’s Dirty Secrets, which makes for some interesting viewing (although I would take issue with some of the assumptions made by the programme-makers, e.g., that we are facing the loss of a third of all species on the planet). It’s on YouTube – blocked in the UK but there are extensions for Firefox and Chrome which circumvent this. Part 1 is here:

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  3. Shub Niggurath

    Thanks Alex.
    I just posted videos of ‘The Silence of the Pandas’ by a German documentary film-maker that is not at all dissimilar to the one posted by you.

    You’d be hard-pressed to find English language Wikipedia entries for both these films. In fact, they do not exist!

  4. hro001

    It’s worth noting that the organization featured in the video Alex posted, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), was accredited as a UN NGO with “Special Consultative Status” in 2009 – along with 95 other NGOs that year [see my recent post for details of their “privileges].

    They get funding from the MacArthur Foundation (the same org that made Gleick a jolly good Fellow in 2003) – for their Climate Change program.

    They were at COP 17 (Durban) … But the video suggests that they’ve given a whole new meaning to “livelihood targets”

    AWF is designing climate change adaptation strategies, preventing deforestation, and integrating carbon, biodiversity, and livelihood targets

  5. Arvind Devadasan

    There’s always the good and the ugly when it comes to conservation work on the ground. I have been involved with turtle nesting research for six years and i have seen locals selfishly devoid the hawksbill turtles of their breeding grounds and a chance to of a future where theyhave been around for millions of years before people. People can adapt but these pure animals who are endangered and murdered simply because of ancient delicacies. It was acceptable before but the human population are out of control and these poor ancestry creatures just can’t compete.

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