Swiss wade into complaint against WWF over tribe's rights

Swiss authorities have taken the highly unusual step of wading into a dispute between international advocacy groups, agreeing to mediate over claims that conservation group WWF failed to do enough to stop "ecoguards" it supports in Cameroon from abusing members of an indigenous rainforest tribe.

Survival International, a London-based group that advocates for tribal peoples, on Thursday called the Swiss government's unprecedented action a breakthrough in the case it filed last year, which pits advocates of vulnerable communities against defenders of vulnerable wildlife.

Through a $3 million to $4 million program with Cameroon's government, WWF supports "ecoguards" in the West African country — rangers who patrol environmentally protected areas and work to help prevent poaching of forest elephants in the lush southeast, among other things.

Survival International has alleged the ecoguards have abused members of the indigenous Baka tribe through "arrest and beatings, torture and death, for well over 20 years." It filed a complaint in February against the World Wildlife Fund for Nature International, or WWF, which has its headquarters in Switzerland.

WWF has said it takes allegations of human rights violations "extremely seriously."

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said the Swiss government's decision, which went largely unnoticed last month, marks the first time that its guidelines for "responsible business conduct" have been applied to an advocacy group, not a corporate entity.

Switzerland's State Secretariat for Economic Affairs issued a 10-page assessment of Survival International's claim that WWF is responsible for making sure the ecoguards focus on poachers and do not abuse the Baka, who rely on hunting for subsistence on ancestral lands.

It concluded that "the issues raised in this submission (by SI) merit further consideration."

The secretariat said it was contacting the two sides, and would publish any final agreement — or indicate whichever group refused to take part, if a deal can't be reached. It said it could also draw up and publish recommendations for how the OECD guidelines can be met.

The secretariat has agreed to mediate the case, but cannot sanction WWF under Swiss law, spokesman Fabian Maienfisch said. The OECD, which brings together 35 mostly rich, industrialized nations, does not have investigative powers.

Frederick Kwame Kumah, director of WWF's Africa office, called Survival International's insistence on enlisting Swiss authorities "regrettable," and said the group had not taken up WWF's repeated offers for a meeting "on the ground."

"Everyone recognizes that more can always be done to help protect the Baka," he said by phone.