Embedding human rights in conservation

Update: April 2024

Having concluded the third year of work on WWF’s three-year Action Plan to implement the recommendations of the Independent Review, we are sharing the steps we have taken as well as an assessment of work that remains. We are committed to deepening our connections with people, strengthening our safeguard systems, and incorporating the lessons of community partners and human rights experts everywhere WWF works. Read the Year Three Implementation Update: Embedding Human Rights in Conservation - From Intent to Action

In 2019, WWF commissioned an independent panel of experts to review how we were responding to reports of human rights abuses by law enforcement officials in complex and remote landscapes in Central Africa, India, and Nepal. Embedding Human Rights in Nature Conservation: From Intent to Action is the resulting report. We wanted a tough and unbiased evaluation of our efforts in order to continue to learn and improve our programs. We published the Independent Review, which you can find in the column at right, in November 2020. Importantly, the panel found no evidence that WWF staff directed, participated in, or encouraged any abuses. When concerns were raised, our staff took actions to respond. The panel was also unsparing in its conclusion that we need to do more. We embrace the panel's recommendations, and have been addressing all of them, in addition to actions already taken to better meet our commitments to communities. We committed to reporting regularly on progress made against these actions.

The reported law enforcement abuses horrify us, and go against all the values we stand for. We feel deep and unreserved sorrow for those who have suffered. We are determined to do more to make communities’ voices heard, to have their rights respected, and to consistently advocate for governments to uphold their human rights obligations. Our conviction is that the steps we are taking will help safeguard communities and the nature upon which they depend, and that we and our partners will deliver more lasting conservation as a result.

Who led the Independent Review?

Led by Judge Navi Pillay, chair of the panel and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the panel also included Professor John Knox, first United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, and the late Dr. Kathy MacKinnon, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) and former Lead Biodiversity Specialist of the World Bank. The panel members were selected for their extensive expertise and experience in human rights, development, and conservation. We wanted a tough and unbiased evaluation of our efforts to continue to learn and improve our programs.

What were the findings of the Independent Review?

The Independent Review found no evidence that WWF staff directed, participated in, or encouraged human rights abuse of any kind. The panel recognized WWF was one of the first conservation organizations to embrace human rights principles; that WWF’s commitments often set higher standards than the laws and practices of the states in which we work; and that WWF took many steps to support communities.

The panel also identified shortcomings and called for more rigor in how we implement our policies, listen and respond to communities, and advocate for governments to protect human rights.

We welcomed the panel’s recommendations, which underpinned efforts already underway and have served as important guidance in our evolution as a conservation organization, and committed to addressing all of them.

What steps has WWF been taking?

WWF has long recognized that conservation and human rights are at the heart of sustainable development. In line with the panel’s recommendations, over the past four years, we have designed and implemented measures to more consistently integrate human rights into our conservation work. Important steps we have been taking include:

  1. Implementing strengthened social safeguards, a mandatory set of actions to better engage communities, identify and manage risks, and ensure consistency in our work in landscapes. 
  2. Promoting ethical law enforcement, such as making human rights training mandatory for WWF’s projects that involve enforcement, and continuing support for the Universal Ranger Support Alliance, an international coalition dedicated to professionalizing rangers, including developing a global code of conduct.
  3. Establishing complaints and grievance mechanisms in every country in which WWF works so concerns relating to our work can be raised, received, tracked, and addressed. 
  4. Mandating review of WWF's activities in high-risk places by a global committee of WWF’s leading conservation experts, including WWF’s commitments to safeguards and human rights in relevant agreements, and more firmly using our influence if rights are not upheld.
  5. Building staff capacity, including having trained all WWF staff around the world on our enhanced safeguards system.
  6. Including WWF’s commitments to safeguards and human rights in relevant agreements, and more firmly using our influence if rights are not upheld.
  7. We have established an Office of the Ombudsperson to provide conflict resolution services around local concerns when required.
  8. We have defined clear boundaries on what we will and will not fund, and we are prepared to suspend projects if our safeguards are not met.
  9. We have continued to expand Indigenous representation across WWF boards and advisory roles.

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