At the World Wildlife Fund’s UK HQ in Woking on Tuesday morning (31st Aug), more than a dozen young activists ran into the Living Planet Centre, unfurling banners and announcing they were there in peaceful occupation to speak to staff and make demands on behalf of Indigenous partners facing eviction and human rights abuses in Asian and African countries.
For decades the charity has been accused of backing or at least turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, including rape, torture and murder carried out by “conservation rangers” across several African and Asian countries.
Despite apologies, internal investigations, and promises of change, the ‘protected area’ model is still the main thrust of their environmental campaigns and they are backing the 30×30 land grab which will seize control away from millions of Indigenous peoples and lead to mass eviction in the name of conservation.
At the Living Planet Centre, activists unfurled their ‘Defund WWF’ and ‘Decolonise Conservation’ banners, security staff called the police. Initial dialogue with staff was promising, and by lunchtime a meeting was arranged between activists and two senior staff, Mike Barrett (Executive Director of Conservation and Science) and Rosalind Mist (Director of Education and Youth Engagement).
The activists explained they had four immediate demands:
- To speak out against Tanzania’s new multiple land use and resettlement plan which is evicting 80,000 Maasai people.
- To publicly endorse the Gbabandi Declaration on Conservation and Human Rights and to pressure WWF International to respond to it.
- For WWF UK (and if possible WWF International) to speak directly with those affected – leaders from Kenya, Tanzania and Cameroon are all available to jump on a Zoom call for this.
- For WWF UK to put pressure on WWF Kenya and their partner Kenya Forest Service to ensure the rights and leaderships of Indigenous peoples facing eviction there.
After listening to the demands, Barrett said that WWF UK would not be making any such endorsements or statements, and that he would not be speaking with Indigenous representatives in a Zoom meeting. He then confirmed to police that he was asking the activists to leave the premises.
Mr. Barrett was asked if he’d like to make any statement on behalf of WWF UK for our film or article, but he declined.
Using D-locks, climbing high on the structure of the building, and also using small thumb locks – a new technique for resisting eviction – the occupiers settled in, while a group of supporters outside engaged with local people.
WWF staff refused any access to the toilet and prevented a laptop from being plugged in to facilitate the meeting. They also refused to allow a battery pack into the building as an alternative. The Zoom meeting went ahead, organised by supporters outside who also set up an amplifier so that interested local people could listen in, and attended by those inside on phones.
During the course of the day it seemed to dawn on WWF staff that having a group of young people arrested was not a good look and so later on that evening, police announced that although they’d be around to prevent any offences the matter was now between the WWF and the protesters.
Over the next few days, there were some further attempts to negotiate a meeting, but on Thursday afternoon, all staff evacuated the premises refusing further dialogue.
On Friday morning, some young people locked on higher up, while others gained access to the conference room, where for a time they held another livestreamed Zoom event with Indigenous leaders as a final goodbye.
Final day – Zoom meeting livestreamed from WWF conference room
After four days of occupation, and out of provisions, they left the building to cheers from their supporters, vowing to return another day.
The IUCN conference began on Friday, where the so-called 30×30 plan is being pushed. The fear is that corporate interests will override Indigenous interests and ultimately the interests of humanity.
Protesters have promised they will return to the Centre at a later date to continue their campaign.
If you are thinking of moving your donations away from WWF, you can see how to fund Indigenous partners directly here. The WTFWWF website has plenty more information and links about the issues and how people can help.