A few years ago, I was invited to visit the home of a Swiss compatriot, an elderly lady by the name of Martha ("Poppi) Thomas living the life of the privileged in upstate New York. I knew that she was a trustee and a serious financial supporter of the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and after lunch I showed her a copy of the Slaughter of the Apes
brochure that included some of my photos and a little explanatory text.
Her reaction was more than shock. Her conservation world had just crumbled. Since she felt very strongly about the environment and animal welfare, she had been making major donations to conservation organizations essentially as her way of getting a good night's sleep. After leafing through the pamphlet together, we left the luncheon table and all the other guests before dessert. Her chauffeur drove us a few miles to the home of Howdy Phipps, who was then the big boss of WCS. We motored through a beautiful estate right up to the main entrance of a mansion. Poppi informed the servants that we wanted to see Mr. Phipps immediately. She was informed that Mr. and Mrs. Phipps had retired for their Sunday afternoon rest. She made it clear that she did not care. We waited in the hall until the awakened couple descended the wide staircase. We all went to the living room but never got to sit down. Poppi shoved the pamphlet under Mr. Phipps's nose, wanting an immediate response, wanting to know if indeed this sort of thing was still going on in Africa. Of course, I felt like sinking away into the parquet floor.
As the CEO of WCS, Howdy Phipps would have a good idea what was going on in the field, and certainly his Africa experts at the Bronx office and the people in the field in Africa would have been able to tell him that things were not under control—but that is not the message on which money is raised from supporters like Poppi. Poppi, of course, received the WCS annual report with the largely green world map in the center, but she would not have been privy to what I had begun to see as the organization's policy of not publicizing the bushmeat problem in order to maintain "good relations with the African government[s] and indigenous people so that the Society's conservation projects will be permitted to continue." In this case, WCS maintained these "good relations," but on the back of the very wildlife it was meant to protect.
What I found surprising was that somebody like Poppi, a very alert and compassionate lady, believed in all the beautiful "world in order" images and documentaries that the Discovery and National Geographic channels were feeding the American and world public almost 24 hours a day. She also believed the WCS annual report, with its smiles and promises and that largely green world map. She was genuinely convinced that her donations and those of her friends were buying the gorillas and chimps of Africa a safe world.
This gave me the first inkling of the power of selling "feel-good conservation"—on the back of small and ultimately ineffectual "Band-Aid projects"—and the extent to which the conservation establishment had come to depend on it. Individual donors and, I am sure, even the big institutional ones badly want to believe that their money pays for a better world. In the case of WCS, where the top seven executives earned a total of more than U.S. $2.6 million in the year 2000, keeping the cash flow going has to be priority number one. But does all that promotion of good feelings, and all that money, finally earn environmental organizations the full public trust? A recent survey conducted in the United States established that the most highly trusted organizations are religious charities (favored by 47 percent), followed by animal welfare organizations (with 37 percent), while the environmental groups came out were second to last (trusted most fully by 19 percent—which probably included Poppi). So it would appear that overall the public is deep down largely aware that most battles and the war are being lost. Sending a check to the conservation establishment to save some tigers or whales represents the kind of convenient excuse that allows for a good night's sleep.
My main motivation in photographically illustrating what I saw out in the forests of Central Africa was to present the bushmeat threat to Central African wildlife to a wider audience, to try to force them to take a position and stop hiding behind their annual checks to the conservation establishment. Passing on my concerns made me
feel better. With the bushmeat issue now well in the public domain, however, there is not much more my camera can achieve. I had assumed in the early years that once the story was out there, I could go back to "world in order" photography, the beautiful images of apes and other wildlife that are the bread-and-butter business of all wildlife photographers. I also assumed that once people understood that the bushmeat commerce had indeed reached a crisis level, our politicians and the conservation community would gear up and take care of things.
The last few years have convinced me that this is not happening. Although some gearing up has taken place, there has been no rethinking or new approaches, no analysis on why the crisis was not dealt with earlier, no clear learning from the disappearance of West Africa's forests and wildlife. Well, now the projects are on the drawing boards, and bushmeat fits in well with selling more feel-good conservation. Fund-raising has started in earnest.
This is where I believe the matter stands today, and, in some ways, I feel I am back to square one. My instincts again tell me a portion of the public out there would like to hear the full story, to decide for themselves what should be classified as window dressing and what might be genuine progress. Maybe consulting the court of public opinion was easier with pictures than it will be using the written word. This time the question is not: Do you have a problem with a gorilla in a cooking pot? But: Do you believe the conservation establishment is on track as far as mitigating this and a range of other conservation issues—not just in Africa but many other parts of the developing world?
I consider the avalanche of partnership agreements with multinational commercial logging companies as a very representative example of what is going on. I ask for your indulgence while I once more summarize how it all started and where it seems to be going. To me it is a perfect example of selling feel-good conservation and avoiding the harsh realities, even when knowing the truth is an absolute prerequisite for dealing with the root cause of the problem.
We have learned that the starting gun was fired with the signing of the 1995 Protocole d'accord,
which began a formal relationship between the conservation group the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the logger Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB). I am not sure whether this first formal relationship was a small mistake, a big one, or a stupid one. What I do know is that it was not based on the board of WCS sitting down and discussing it as a policy decision with specific, agreed-upon negotiating strategies and parameters. This was a tactical error with huge consequences: a divided conservation community and loggers calling the shots as to who is allowed to clean up after them.
Ironically, when the Protocole
was signed, the bushmeat issue was hitting at least some logging firms hard in the public relations department. The tropical logging industry was, in the words of the respected expert commentator Glen Barry, "on the ropes and near collapse. Because of massive advocacy campaigns and boycotts organized by hundreds of modest forest conservation groups, consumers of export logs had begun to realize that their purchase directly destroyed ancient old-growth forests. Demand was slowing and along with global economic troubles, many predatory loggers were pushed out of business." In other words, at that time, the mid-1990s, conservationists were in a unique negotiating position to get some real concessions from CIB, and possibly the whole tropical timber industry. It was a time when a wildlife management code of conduct could have been added to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification system, when loggers could have been given ultimatums to accept their responsibilities under the FSC system, when they could have been forced to recruit wildlife-management experts and to pay for setting up control systems as well as auditing by qualified third-party experts. At the time, environmentalists would have been able to keep up the pressure to push for tighter and more extensive boycotts.
Instead there was the Protocole d'accord:
some 7,000 inhabitants of Pokola were in 1995 granted "traditional rights" to hunting and bushmeat—and within a few years that number had doubled. National laws, as far as the closed hunting season, cable snares, and so on, went out the window. Nobody was designated to monitor and enforce anything that was agreed on. And from there it went straight downhill, to the point that only five years later, conservationists had decided that it was their responsibility to keep certain loggers economically competitive and profitable. To quote from the report of a November 2000 conference in Gabon titled "Reducing the Impact of Timber Exploitation on Wildlife in Central Africa": "loggers need technical help as they have no expertise in wildlife management," but at the same time they "need to remain competitive economically." What does that mean? It means that by the year 2000, conservationists were asking the donor community, the taxpayers in the West, to pay for cleaning up after the loggers. And what were the loggers willing to chip in? Well, perhaps the collaboration between WCS and CIB gives us an idea how far they would go. CIB management agreed to contribute "in kind" (that is, not actual money, but an estimated value for goods and services) $75,000 for a two-year period in wildlife management in a concession where the total project cost $640,000. A little old lady on a U.S. $1,000 monthly pension, sending in a $50 check, would actually contribute proportionally more than CIB was giving. In CIB's subsequent cooperation agreement with the government and WCS, enforcement for company employees did become part of the deal. Company rules allow for unspecific fines for infringing on hunting laws or "unjustified" transporting of hunters and their products; three days' suspension from work for ignoring barriers; and eight days' suspension for hunting in protected areas. Such small penalties are hardly a deterrent, plus in many instances they contradict the laws of the land. How painful can a three- or even an eight-day suspension be, especially considering the wages paid by CIB? In addition, CIB has reached a point where it feels completely absolved of any responsibility for the bushmeat problem. The problem now belongs to someone else (in this case, WCS and its supporting donors). As Hinrich Stoll, president of CIB, recently phrased the concept in a letter he wrote to an auditing organization:
(a) CIB cannot and does not want to interfere with the obligations of other parties [in the collaboration],
(b) data collection for fauna is WCS's responsibility,
(c) the Congolese government and WCS . . . have to try to settle conflicts, establish understanding of and collaboration also with the pygmies,
(d) CIB has not implemented a policy of protected areas for the Fauna. Within the collaboration of the stakeholders, this is under the responsibility of WCS (Fauna), which has implemented a policy of protected areas.
So conservationists and their supporters will have to take care of the problem. In the meanwhile, the logger continues to bask in the warm glow generated by this happy relationship. It seems that hardly a letter leaves Mr. Stoll's office these days without some reference to that close collaboration with the world's oldest conservation organization. However, it doesn't stop there. Now the close collaboration also means that CIB no longer has to worry about the old-fashioned sort of green certification, via the FSC. To quote from the same letter:
By no means will CIB give up parts of this protocol and change unilateral responsibilities of each stakeholder. Those FSC criteria and indicators for certification, which are theoretical, cannot be fulfilled by anybody. There are only two solutions: Either CIB and all the other companies working in West and Central Africa give up their aim at certification according to FSC's present conditions; or FSC accepts the experience of the protocol partners. Their agreement of collaboration has become an acknowledged pilot project for IUCN, WCS and the World Bank. We do not doubt that it is considered also as such by anybody else who knows what has to be done in Central Africa.
There cannot be many cases of negotiating on environmental issues where one party has demanded and gotten more in return for giving less. It would appear that this pattern was then repeated with the handing over of the Goualogo Triangle and the high-profile press conference WCS mounted for its partners, CIB and the Congolese government. Having looked at a satellite map of the area in question, I have concluded that most likely this area would never have been logged at all. Most of it is swamp, and to build a bridge or bring in a ferry to cross the rivers would not be viable. A confidential subscription newsletter recently unveiled another possible motive behind this initiative. The story describes the logging industry's fear that timber might go the way of West African diamonds: with conservation NGOs calling for a boycott of "blood timber" (as they did on "blood diamonds"). It goes on to say that CIB was the first to counteract this threat by announcing at a press conference at the Bronx Zoo that it would not exploit the 260-square-kilometer Goualogo Triangle. WCS celebrated the news as the greatest success for conservation in Central Africa ever, and Dr. Stoll and the Congolese Minister of Forestry left New York after being celebrated as environmental heroes.
I started wondering how much more of this kind of heroism we might see in the future, when government officials and logging company executives start searching the Congo Basin for biodiversity-rich areas that can not be logged economically, then allocate them as logging concessions only to return them for conservation and the worldwide acclaim that seems to come with it.
In this context it is interesting to summarize some other recent fund-raising developments. Dale Peterson has pointed out how after the December 2001 Brussells Conference organized by WWF, the European Union coughed up some $2 million to help collaboration efforts and then added another $3 million for good measure. (As of 2002, the CIB/WCS project cost has increased to $1 million per year, and that was for 500,000 hectares or less than half of a single logging concession.) By European standards, that was surely a cheap price to buy its logging industry some credibility. As we have seen, the World Bank, which also has an interest to keep the logging of the remaining rain forests going, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the WCS/CIB deal. The Jane Goodall Institute, in turn, had been shopping around a proposal for $6 million to once again help CIB clean up the mess at the bushmeat front. The problem, of course, was that WCS was already firmly established and did not want to share its feel-good success and the associated fund-raising potential, and so a turf war broke out.
I can imagine Dr. Stoll and his logging colleagues breaking out the champagne and celebrating a new area where conservation organizations fight each other to be allowed to clean up after logging.
In October 2001, the ATIBT (Association Technique International des Bois Tropicaux) met in Rome for its fiftieth anniversary celebration. Jane Goodall agreed to address the gathering. When I questioned the appropriateness of helping logging celebrate fifty years of unsustainable practices, I was informed by the director for the Africa programs of the Jane Goodall Institute that Dr. Goodall "would shame the loggers into reforming." To address the meeting, she had to walk through Greenpeace protesters with mock chain saws and illustrated samples of Africa's megafauna.
My suggestion to Dr. Goodall had been to ask for specific commitments from the European loggers operating in Africa, who were at the very moment bragging about an annual turnover of $800 million. I suggested that if she came back with an annual commitment of one percent ($8 million) for wildlife management, I would drop all my objections and join the celebrations. She came back with no commitment. In an interview with a Canadian magazine, she made the following point: "Considering the logging companies maintain a heavy presence in the Congo Basin, and are not going away any time soon, it only makes sense to include them in a solution partnership. Some might contest this approach, preferring to shame the industry into better environmental practices, but it is better to change through praise than criticism."
So who are we going to praise? CIB and the empire it belongs to? Besides the unaudited success stories coming out of CIB's Congo, Greenpeace has exposed Inter Continental Hardwoods, a new company formed as part of tt Timber International, which is part of Stoll's Hinrich Feldmeer Group, as importing Brazilian mahogany from export Peracchi and Tapajos Timber Company, two of the companies known to be involved in the illegal trade (of mahogany) in Brazil. The same tt Timber International was also exposed as buying timber from a company in Liberia, which was accused in a U.N. report of being involved in arms dealing. Or should the praise go to the logging companies in Cameroon that WWF is in bed with? As we have learned already, they were involved and probably still are in a range of illegal activities, including falsifying certificates to overcome a treaty (CITES) meant to protect endangered species from international trade. Nothing seems to have been learned from the experience with Prince Philip when he was sent out to praise an Italian logging firm that was later classified as being one of the worst offenders in the country.
What about some praise instead for Greenpeace, whose report on illegal mahogany exports led the Brazilian government "to freeze all mahogany logging, transport and export operations." Or possibly to Global Witness, which got the Cambodian prime minister to announce the suspension of all logging operations based on exposure of illegal activities. As Glen Barry declares: "Global Witness work in Cambodia provides a model for how forest conservationists can work within the system without having conserved forests usurped and weakened by endless dialogue and a reform process that ultimately legitimizes and subsidizes continued forest devastations."
I am often accused of not being a team player, for tearing down whatever limited success stories exist. I respond by pointing out that I do not feel like playing on a team that has as its target to lose by one less goal, basket, or wicket. I am convinced that this minimalistic approach has become part of the problem. I am also convinced it has a lot to do with the public perception of the conservation industry that retains the trust, as mentioned earlier, of only 19 percent of the American public.
As Greenpeace and Global Witness have shown, it is possible to win battles by standing up to big business. Other options are clearly out there. Maybe if we were all on the same page there actually might be a chance to win the war—or the game. However, to get to this point might require some soul searching by some of the establishment players, requiring an analysis of their track records, establishing what went wrong and when and where they lost the trust of the public and were forced to sell out to the industry and the big institutional donors to meet the budget expectations set out by their highly paid executives. This might be the biggest problem of all, admitting that we are not winning the war, that the quiet diplomatic approach is not working and the public at large senses it, and that the feel-good conservation approach has become a liability.
But what are the alternatives, if any? Richard Leakey included in a recent speech most of the components of the approach I am imagining:
Kenya cannot eradicate polio without international money, we cannot deal with the problems of the children without international funding, we cannot deal with education without international support. We can take millions of dollars from the World Health Organization to eradicate polio and other diseases. So why can we not find the support for the cost of conservation measures in Kenya and other African countries using international funds? Why not set up a decade of support for wildlife management programs to pay the project implementation costs—not for theories and experts but for the guys on the ground? Why not structure it in such a way that if we do not deliver in terms of audit we would not get any more money, and not only would we not get any more money for wildlife, but we would not get any more money for polio, roads and other things?
We cannot expect African governments to turn wildlife or environmental issues into priority items. If we want to get their attention we have to come with the kind of carrots that allow us to compete with loggers, the oil industry, et cetera. But before anybody will agree to finance a decade for African wildlife or a more general Marshall Plan, it might be necessary to get back the faith of the supporting public and donor institutions. The past approach has not worked. That is clear. So how about proposing a new big-picture approach, based on some mea culpas and agreeing to some new, more businesslike conditions as far as accounting for conservation money?
Auditing in this context has to be priority number one. I am not talking about the auditing of money spent against proper receipts but rather about auditing results. This would mean designing projects with measurable results in mind. Preparing budget proposals with the auditing component built in. Offering to make these audits available to the public. And, of course, there must be an internationally recognized body to carry out such audits.
When Richard Leakey talks about not spending money on the "experts," I assume he is referring to the highly paid expatriate conservation "experts." I would go somewhat beyond that and say: stop spending money on outside theorists and professional biologists. Put more reliance on practical people who are already there, on the ground, supporting people who like people and who consider the studying of wildlife and habitat as a secondary priority. Shifting to a more multidisciplinary basis for recruiting field personnel might represent a new angle. Let me give a concrete example of what I am talking about. A few months ago I received a report about a professional ape researcher returning to her study site in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This event was described as "the first return of an outsider (Western researcher) to a long term field site within the bonobo range of occupation" and therefore "a real victory for conservation." The "return," however, must have cost thousands of dollars of donor money; the stay on the ground seems to have been limited to a few hours; and, naturally, the professional researcher was unable to reach any conclusion as to the status of the bonobo after three years of war in the area. The report also referred to a letter having been smuggled in to the area Catholic missionary who has stayed on through the entire war with his motorcycle being the only mechanized transport in the zone.
To me, therefore, the report describes anything but "a real victory for conservation." And at the same time, it points out the stark differences in commitment between professional researchers playing ecomissionary as compared to real missionaries who are not in a position to "play." To the foreign researchers and conservationists, the D.R. Congo is a playground to visit when they feel like it. To the real missionaries it is, simply, the battlefield they labor in. To be sure, I am generalizing from this one case and therefore being unfair to many. There certainly are research projects that have an impact on conservation. Nevertheless, I believe we have yet to consider other ways to find the best conservation professionals.
I am spending several months a year in some of the rebel-held areas of the Congo and have done so for several years. I have met dozens of Western missionaries who stayed on while, as the war heated up, all the biologists and field workers fled. I work closely with an eighty-five—year old Norwegian missionary lady who almost single-handedly keeps a basic education and health care system going in a sizable township in northern Congo. I have asked an Italian missionary what he hoped to achieve under the present conditions. His answer was very little as far as the spiritual or even physical health of the flock; however, his presence allowed the people to live in their homes. He felt that if he was not there, the villagers would have fled to the forests. His presence protected them from looting and raping by the rebel army and associated officials. (The Catholic mission in Congo has a communication network that has regularly broken stories of massacres and other human right issues in the international media.) So, having met all these very dedicated missionaries who spend year after year in the same areas that professional biologists, by and large, seem to be avoiding, I have begun to wonder why we cannot have ecomissionaries working to help protect the bonobos, for example, in the way that missionaries look after their people. Why is bonobo conservation mostly being discussed in five-star hotels in the West? If we cannot find conservationists with the same dedication as the faith-based missionaries, why not turn the faith-based missionaries into dedicated conservationists? I am convinced this is a very viable option if we could find the resources to take care of some of the people on the ground.
Next there is the concept of donor conditionality. Richard Leakey's point is that the misspending of donor funding on a conservation project should result in other donor financing being suspended as well. This sort of conditionality clause could be a major stick; if joined with bigger carrots, it ought to get conservationists a seat at the negotiating table with the top Central African leadership. I keep expressing my doubts that any of the grassroots or what I call Band-Aid projects will go anywhere, starting as they do from the bottom up, until we can create political pressure from the top down. How do you ask a hunter not to pull the trigger on a gorilla when he knows that gorilla meat is the governor's favorite food? Most of the present efforts to get the leadership of the range countries on board center around inviting midlevel bureaucrats to conferences. The fact is that midlevel bureaucrats in Central Africa, even with the best of intentions, have no hope to affect national policy or lead cultural change. So my view is that if we do not get to the top leadership we will go nowhere. The problem, of course, is how to get to the top leaders, the real decision makers. The new cliché seems to be "recipient-driven" projects. In spite of the fact that some of these countries are receiving up to 60 percent of their national budget in donor support, it is still considered politically incorrect for the donors to say that the environment and wildlife should be a priority. Major donor sources—the European Union, for instance—still seem to have a hard time making the link between an unsustainable exploitation of resources in the present and humanitarian problems a little farther down the road.
Richard Leakey talked about Kenya not being able to wipe out polio without international help. When it comes to the bushmeat crisis, Central Africa has an even more serious public health issue that needs to be addressed. A recently completed study of nearly 800 monkeys in Cameroon that had been killed for bushmeat or kept alive as pets revealed that a surprisingly high proportion of them were infected with SIV, leading researchers to conclude that "people handling bushmeat are exposing themselves to a plethora of highly divergent viruses." Does the world need an HIV-3 epidemic? Is this not in itself enough to make the point that the opening up of the forest of Central Africa and the hunting of new primate populations exposes all of the world's population to new health risks? If that is not the basis for some more donor conditionality, then what is? Remember what we know about the rain forests of Central Africa and about the loggers savaging it:
Only 20 percent of the world's original rain forests remain intact.
Nobody can agree on what sustainable forestry management is or what it might require to fulfill its undefined promise.
In Central Africa we are dealing with dysfunctional governments; and with dysfunctional governments you do not get genuine development.
Prominent loggers have gone on record stating that the authorities did not want them to log legally, because the corruption potential is higher if the licenses, documents, tax calculations, etc., aren't quite right.
The industry has again and again rejected the only internationally accepted certification standards (FSC) for environmentally sound logging.
Given all those established facts and situations, what justification can there possibly be for conservation organizations to stand on the front line of endorsing and subsidizing logging?
The only justification I can think of is this: the continuing need to buy and sell feel-good conservation. While I have implied earlier that many of the players in this commerce might be playing for the sake of getting a good night's sleep, a recent feature by conservation biologist David Lavigne in BBC Wildlife
magazine takes the issue quite a bit deeper. Lavigne argues that ten years after the Rio environmental summit, the single thing that has been sustained, in terms of any real commitment, is the term sustainable development
. He asks the question: "So why, in the face of all the evidence that things have continued to deteriorate, do academics, politicians, big business, and even some members of the environmental community continue to advocate sustainable development as a viable solution to the problems confronting the human condition?" His answer to that question: politics. The term sustainable development
allows for enough different interpretations that all parties are happy with it. Why? Because, he believes, man is hardwired for deception and self-deception. "It is now widely agreed that deception is a common feature—perhaps the key to survival—of all living organisms, from virus to human. However, we distinguish ourselves from other animals by having evolved a large brain that is capable of the ultimate in deception: self-deception."
So we clearly are up against some of the very basics of human nature. While locally the problems in Africa and other parts of the southern hemisphere might center around the lack of political will and the need for cultural change, the overall bushmeat and eating apes crisis—and possibly other conservation issues—is great compounded by the players in the northern hemisphere: their need for political correctness and success, which in the absence of real change can be sustained with deception and self-deception.
In the fall of 2001, I received a videotape with a program that had been broadcast by WDR in Germany. The documentary traces the collaboration between CIB and WCS and strikes a very positive note when assessing the results. It is also very well done in technical terms. Too well, by my standards. It seemed to me that most of the scenes were staged. For example, it showed the raiding of a poachers' camp by the ecoguards. The camp, according to this film, had been spotted from the air by project personnel. I have been trying to spot a camp I was familiar with in the other Congo from the air—in thick forest as the first camp was shown to be—and I could not locate it despite having the GPS position. So I could only conclude that the camp had been specifically set up for this shoot.
Then there was the scene of the ecoguards searching logging lorries for bushmeat. They were in immaculate uniforms and were all over and under the lorry. Having set up some roadblocks in Cameroon and watched the officials in operation, I was convinced that what they presented was not the day-to-day scenario but "Hollywood" and a propaganda piece for CIB. The question arose as to what would happen at such a roadblock if there were no cameras trained on the ecoguards. That was the basis for Joseph's trip with some hidden camera equipment in February and March of 2002.
Joseph's gorilla habituation project at Lomie had just collapsed, , after exaggerated expectations by several of the players led to an unrealistic increase in the budget—to $150,000 a year. He was keen to have some income while looking for other permanent employment opportunities. I had done several trips with him in Gabon and Cameroon where we operated with hidden camera equipment. We had worked out a routine as what to do with curious officials and how to react should real problems arise. Joseph's attitude always was that the officials one met out in the bush were not interested in enforcing any laws; they were only interested in implying the infringement of laws so that "local fines" could be imposed. He would tell the story of often throwing his bushmeat at officials at barriers, fed up with negotiating bribes, and telling them: "I hope you are going to enjoy my meat." I did not think of warning Joseph that there might be more of a political component to this investigation than we had experienced with previous ones and that he should not rely on the "laws of the street" necessarily applying. However, I made sure Joseph had enough money to buy himself out of any tricky situation.
When he came back from the February/March trip, he reported that all the barriers he drove through were open: there was no control and no stopping. He also came back with bushmeat footage and reports that hunters and meat were still regularly transported on CIB lorries, that the hunters were still not licensed with badges as stipulated in company rules, that high-caliber elephant guns and ammunition were still available (including the steel tips produced in a CIB workshop that fit on top of the standard shotgun shell, turning it into a very potent elephant bullet). He accompanied a hunter on a night hunting trip (illegal under Congolese law and CIB regulations). He also talked to a Pygmy family about how their life had changed. For example, an old man told him how he had been retired from CIB and his pension consisted of a shotgun (without the necessary license), and how his son had been killed in a logging accident some six months earlier and all he had seen from CIB so far was "free transport home for the body of his son."
What struck me watching this material with Joseph was the discrepancy in what CIB was saying, as far as the social infrastructure they were supposedly providing, and what these locals were telling Joseph on tape.
It was a reason to send him back to get clarification on the above issues. Greenpeace Switzerland and Retted den Regenwald in Germany agreed to finance Joseph's per-diem allowance and salary while I provided the camera equipment. He was supposed to arrive at the very end of April and be back by the end of May. On June 3, however, I received a message from Greenpeace Switzerland stating that they had heard from the CIB parent company that Joseph had been arrested on May 13 at Pokola. In the next ten days, with the help of Greenpeace, we learned that Joseph had been transferred to Brazzaville to a high-security prison operated by a political service unit. As for the effectiveness of that extra money he carried with him: it turned out that they took the money, supposedly to pay for his food and his transportation costs to the prison.
Since the World Bank was the main party financing the African Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (AFLEG) Process, which was to take place in Brazzaville the following week, on June 12 I wrote the following letter to James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, and some of his associates: Open Letter to the World Bank
Att: J. Wolfensohn, T. Ahlers, A. Kiss, G. Topa
Dear Sirs—and Agi,
It would appear that ignoring my last e-mail message, on the imprisonment of Joseph Melloh, has not resulted in the problem going away.
I heard from Greenpeace International about next week's conference in Brazzaville on "Forest Governance and Law Enforcement," which I understand will be attended by all the major players deciding on the future of the forest and wildlife of the Congo River Basin. There hardly seems a more appropriate opportunity to take the bull by the horns if indeed Joseph is now in some jail in Brazzaville, which is the latest rumor coming out of CIB.
What about inviting him to present the findings from his recent investigations? He could always be handcuffed to the podium. I have not spoken to him since several weeks prior to his departure and I would like to suggest that if he reports that everything is as perfect and under control as some of the statements and propaganda pieces coming out of the CIB concession make it out to be, that he, I, and the NGOs who have financed the investigations unreservedly, then and there, apologize to CIB, WCS, and any other party we might have offended by doubting their word. If Joseph has information—he traveled with a specific catalogue of questions—which should turn out to be of value to the logging company, the conservation executives and the law enforcement authority in Pokola, then maybe a medal should be pinned on him.
The fact is if it were not for Joseph, there would be no bushmeat crisis. While he did his share of killing wildlife that is not what I am referring to. He is the one who introduced me and journalists from CNN, BBC, the New York Times,
Discovery, etc., to the real story behind the scene. Without these undercover investigations neither the loggers nor the government nor the conservation NGOs would have come forward to point out that there is a huge crisis in the making.
I am today convinced that similar investigations into illegal logging activities and the social impact of commercial logging would yield similar results. Except the doors have now mostly closed, with CIB being the exception where it has always been closed—except for selected prearranged guided tours.
Whatever independent auditing is being suggested by the CEO or the above forum, it is very clear that some expatriates asking some expatriates some questions will yield very different results from locals asking locals. As such I want to recommend that the CEO and the above mentioned forum adopts a plan to officially set up undercover audits by local operatives. With the World Bank being the champion of transparency and accountability I would have hoped for Guiseppe Topa to table such a motion. I see it as the only way to keep the various players honest, and that includes myself.
In the meantime, I feel the time has come where CIB puts the cards on the table as to where Joseph is held and what his condition is. Anybody who knows a little about the power politics of northern Congo knows that this is a question of one phone or radio call for one CIB executive.
I plan to be in Brazzaville next week, and while I am not invited to this meeting, I would be happy to make a presentation on the "Necessity for Undercover Auditing of Logging Operations and Performance." Thanks for your understanding.
In talking to participants at the above meeting it became clear that the imprisonment of Joseph was a real embarrassment to many of the organizations and institutions represented and that it went as directly against the spirit of AFLEG as it possibly could. I was, however, told that the CIB/WCS cooperation deal was a very crucial pilot project in the AFLEG process and that the "voluntary cooperation deal with logging" was going to be a cornerstone of a new initiative by the United States government for Central Africa and one of the key initiatives to be launched at the upcoming Rio Plus Ten conference in Johannesburg. So the whole thing had become a lot more political then even I had assumed. Anyhow, World Bank, the E.U., donor agency representatives, and U.N. officials assured me that they were working hard behind the scenes to get the issue resolved. I returned to Kenya frustrated but assuming that the above pressure would bear results sooner rather than later. At this stage Joseph had been held for some six weeks without charges, while national law stipulated that any prisoner not charged within 72 hours had to be released. He had no access to a lawyer or a doctor, nor was he allowed to contact the Cameroon embassy.
However, the Brazzaville trip had been an eye opener as far as the larger political game plan that was in place and the fact that the WCS/CIB cooperation project now had a budget of just under $1 million a year, with 90 percent of the contributions coming in the form of donor and taxpayer money. I also discovered that the taxpayer money included some $600,000 from Switzerland, which opened a new avenue for donor pressure—since I am a Swiss citizen.
In some ways it was gratifying to see the response by the Swiss authorities, since they were willing to debate their position. Certainly a far cry from the attitude of other of the donors to this project. Juergen Blaser, head of the International Tropical Timber Association and the Swiss NGO administering the funds contributed by the Swiss government, returned to Brazzaville and Pokola and played three hours of table tennis with the minister of forestry economy, Henri Djombo. He came back informing me that the minister wanted to have his say and would do so in form of a press conference on Monday, after which Joseph would be deported.
Everybody assumed that this would most likely be the end of the saga.
At the press conference, Minister Djombo told the assembled diplomats, NGO representatives, and the press how Congo was a leader in sustainable forestry and wildlife management and how they did not need anybody looking over their shoulder. He handed out the question list that Joseph had carried with him as conclusive evidence, announcing that Joseph would be charged with economic espionage and that the law would now take its course. Up to this point, many of the above players had considered Henri Djombo a player they could rely on in negotiating the future of Congo's and possible Central Africa's forests. They were stunned, it seems, that he would totally ignore his country's constitution regarding the supposedly independent judiciary by handing out the evidence, passing judgment, and then dumping the case back on the judges.
On the positive side, it was the first time that actual charges had been mentioned officially. Up to then the lawyers had been told that Joseph would be charged with espionage and the sabotaging of CIB, illegal entry in the country, and filming without permission. He had in the meantime been moved from the special security prison to the regular prison, where he was housed on death row—presumably since espionage carries the mandatory death penalty. Then, on July 27, Joseph was charged for the first time with "attacking the external security of the state." This charge carries a one- to five-year sentence but gives the judge leeway in applying mitigating circumstances. The trial was on Monday, July 29, with the lawyer scrambling over the weekend to pull together a new defense based on the new charges (which would require that Joseph had "engaged with the agents of a foreign power to damage the military or diplomatic position of the Congo").
The judge finally ruled that Joseph was guilty of the above, on the grounds that he had been working under my instructions, and that I was an agent of a foreign power! He did not say which one. As for impacting the diplomatic or military position of the Congo, the judge concluded that Joseph's investigation was intended to show that: the state of the Congo took a passive attitude in controlling the logging companies; international donor institutions were financing a logging company (CIB) that destroyed the forests rather than protected them; WCS was implicated in the above, as CIB's partner; and despite the peace prevailing, arms transactions were still continuing, resulting in poaching and the ignoring of the closed hunting season.
I wished the judge's conclusions could be turned into a fair trial against some of the above players, with the evidence Joseph collected being used to prove all of these allegations. In any event, in the sentencing phase of the trial, set for August 12, the judge ruled that Joseph would be sentenced to 45 days in prison. Having served 90 days already, he was released. All the camera equipment and videotapes were retained by the court. Joseph returned to Cameroon, but at the same time, he, myself, and Greenpeace decided to appeal the verdict as a matter of principle.
Many of the players in this saga from day one onwards were convinced that Joseph was essentially a political prisoner. He was asked by his fellow prisoners what he had "really done." Nobody could believe that he ended up in a high-security facility for filming scenes having to do with a bunch of dead animals. None of his fellow prisoners had heard of anyone ever ending up in jail for poaching wildlife; Joseph himself has pointed out that when he only smuggled petrol or poached gorillas he was always able to beat the system. Only when he started trying to demonstrate the lack of enforcement of hunting laws did the authorities decided to throw the book at him. His lawyer agreed with this assessment and so confirmed that we should go for the appeal.
What I find more than distressing in this whole saga is that neither the diplomatic nor the donor community, nor even CIB, seemed able to read the local politicians on this issue. Everyone seemed to agree from the very beginning that this was not a legal but a political issue and that there was no point in relying on the legal system to deliver a fair verdict. Most of the players also seemed to agree that continuing this saga—keeping Joseph in prison—was no longer in anyone's interest. But no one could agree on how to communicate this message to the politicians calling the shots. We consulted a wide range of players to try to figure out the best way to resolve the matter. The feedback ranged from "apply as much external pressure as you can" to "hold off applying pressure so that the authorities can find a face-saving way out."
The question then arises, why would logging companies invest millions of dollars in a country where the minister goes to such great lengths to demonstrate that the judiciary is not independent, that the executive branch of government pulls all the strings? Why should conservation NGOs sign multimillion-dollar partnership agreements with the very ministry that points out the lack of an independent legal system for any dispute? Why would donor organizations spend millions of dollars in endorsing or even subsidizing logging of primary rain forest knowing that the rule of law cannot be relied upon when it comes to the crunch?
In this context, does it make sense to encourage the exploitation of a limited resource in countries where governance is so poor that we have to accept that the rule of law is beyond the understanding of the executive powers one has to deal with—and that therefore genuine, long-term, and actually sustainable
development is nothing more than a utopian dream and more self-deception?