The following is a letter from Andy White (RRI Coordinator), Gam Shimray (Secretary General of Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact), and Samuel Nguiffo (Executive Director of the Center for Environment and Development), sent on behalf of the RRI Coalition to Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. The letter is a follow-up to an RRI meeting with Mr. Lambertini and his team, held on February 6, 2021.

The first RRI open letter to WWF, which initiated this meeting, can be seen here

April 26, 2021

Marco Lambertini

Director General

WWF International

Dear Marco,

Thank you again for the candid and constructive conversation we had with you and your colleagues on February 6, 2021. We appreciated the opportunity to learn more about your work and to share our experiences with WWF around the world.

With this letter we would like to follow up on our conversation, respond to your offers of collaboration and recommend next steps for your consideration. But first we would like to recognize and express our support for two steps we understand the WWF network has already undertaken. First, the establishment of a new ESSF that requires respect for Indigenous and community land rights that we believe was endorsed in November of 2020 and is binding for all members of the WWF network; and second, the commitment to establish grievance mechanisms that can be easily accessed by affected Indigenous and community members. If implemented in a manner whereby compliance and complaints can be independently verified, transparent, and publicly accessible, these two steps would enable positive, incremental changes to how the WWF network operates.

In addition to explaining the reforms underway by WWF, during the meeting you and your team expressed interest in collaboration with RRI on the 2022 Living Planet Report (LPR), and also asked for our help in recommending participants for the planned in-country consultations on the new ESSF. Our team sought to better understand why the WWF network has not taken more responsibility for the abuses of the past, and what kept the WWF network from at least demonstrating more accountability. We conveyed that indeed it would be difficult for RRI to consider any formal collaboration with the WWF network unless a stronger public demonstration of responsibility was undertaken. Given that there was a long history of abuses of local people and limited changes to operations despite repeated inquiries from WWF International and donors, we also discussed the importance of changing WWF’s KPI’s – inserting more social metrics to hopefully address the situation whereby WWF has continued to grow in influence and budget while also continuing to abuse local people.

We also learned from you about your constraints to ensure alignment and compliance across all members of the diverse WWF network of member organizations. We discussed the challenge WWF faces in respecting Indigenous and community rights and complying with its own standards in situations where it formally engages with governments that do not endorse these rights. And we discussed the reality of the highly effective WWF logo and branding – which results in a situation where both donors and local people are led to expect consistency and accountability across the brand and are not likely to understand the nuanced legal differences between the different members of the network, their different legal obligations, and the differences between WWF and WWF-financed government staff when operating in the field. We expressed our hope that the WWF network would address the features of its business model that militate against it becoming an organization that consistently respects community rights and promotes rights-based conservation.

Near the end of our conversation, you commented on the responsibilities, as well as the rights, of Indigenous Peoples. We shared our differing view that Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendant Peoples and local communities with a long history of collective governance of a land area have a right to that land that should be formally recognized. And furthermore, if external actors would like them to conserve those resources, those actors are obliged to either compensate and incentivize them for such conservation or encourage them to undertake it on their own. If we understood you correctly, this last point emerged as a fundamental philosophical as well as practical difference between the position of the WWF network and that held by RRI and the international legal frameworks governing both human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Given the importance of this issue we would welcome any clarifications from you on your and WWF’s position on this question.

After reflecting on our meeting with you we would like to share with you our candid and hopefully constructive observations, a recommendation, and an offer for collaboration.

We have two overarching observations. The first is that until each WWF organization is legally required to respect the full set of rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities and Afro-descendant Peoples in order to carry the WWF logo, and until all of the MOUs with governments are reformed to meet national and international laws requiring the respect of those rights, and until WWF International publicly and pro-actively promotes these rights in all situations, then WWF, as a global institution, cannot legitimately claim to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendant Peoples, and Iocal communities. Our second observation is that the current structure and business model, as well as perhaps the philosophical orientation of the WWF network, challenge, if not preclude, achieving the standard above The steps taken recently are important and essential but reactive and are designed to diminish risks. They would catch the worst offenders after the fact rather than address the structure of incentives and beliefs that are the underlying drivers of the criminalization and abuse.

Given the above, and the fact that some members of the WWF network are already eager to uphold Indigenous, Afro-descendant and community rights, we recommend that the network considers devising a transition strategy to transform the WWF network and brand to that of an organization whose operations are founded on the respect for human rights, promote rights-based climate and conservation actions, and are accountable to local peoples. In our preliminary view, such a transition strategy would address at least the following questions:

  1. How will WWF address its legacy issues – situations where member organizations of the WWF network played an instrumental role in establishing and/or maintaining conservation areas that were created on Indigenous and community lands without their consent – and how will WWF leverage and support the restitution of community rights in those areas?
  2. How will WWF revise or renegotiate MOUs and agreements with government agencies to ensure they are consistent with national and international law, and full, transparent and public accountability to the local rights-holder constituencies in its areas of operations – a step that is particularly urgent in countries where national law recognizes community and Indigenous land rights?
  3. How will WWF identify and apply criteria where members of the network would not be permitted to engage with a government because it did not meet WWF’s commitment to adhere to national and international law?
  4. How will WWF ensure its branding and logo apply to “rights-based” climate and conservation action only, or perhaps how will WWF bifurcate the brand and network, distinguishing between those members that respect human and Indigenous rights and those that do not?
  5. How will WWF adjust its fundraising strategy and reporting so that public and private donors are well informed of WWF’s performance across the network on both the social and the biological KPIs; and adjusts the structure of the network, or the authorities of the secretariat, so that compliance is regularly, fully, and transparently monitored and enforced across the WWF network?

We would be pleased to meet again if you or any member organization of the WWF network are interested in exploring the development of such a transition strategy. We would also be pleased to collaborate more formally on the LPR or other analytical initiatives, or on country-level engagement, when WWF more explicitly recognizes the human and collective rights abuses of Indigenous Peoples and local communities that have been affiliated with WWF network member operations in different parts of the world.

In closing, we are left with the overall sense of the risk of a missed opportunity – not only for WWF but for the world. There are between 1.6 and 1.8 billion people in the high value biodiversity areas in the world that are not yet in formal conservation status – all in addition to the hundreds of millions of people living in and around existing formal conservation areas. These people are the face and the future of conservation. No significant goals can be achieved without embracing and supporting them. An overly defensive approach, whereby WWF focuses on minimizing its risks in its existing operations and structure, would not only mean that WWF would miss the opportunity to set those areas on the path towards sustainable conservation, but would also miss the opportunity to play a key role in the dramatic expansion of conservation that is required to protect our planet. This would be a tragic waste of the vast influence, power, and potential that WWF has established since it was created in the early 1960s.

In the mid-1990s WWF demonstrated leadership in the international conservation community when it was the first to develop an Indigenous Peoples policy. That step was controversial at the time, both inside and outside of WWF. The environmental crises faced by the world are much greater now, requiring courageous action by all with wealth, power, and influence. It is our hope that WWF seizes this opportunity to demonstrate leadership once again by transforming itself, and by so doing, help drive the transformation of conservation across the planet.

We thank you again for your gracious consideration and candid conversation and look forward to another opportunity to meet.

On behalf of the Coalition:

Andy White, Coordinator, RRI

Gam Shimray, Secretary General, Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact

Samuel Nguiffo, Executive Director, Center for Environment and Development, Cameroon