As the world celebrates the 46th annual Earth Day on Friday, a major study shows that illegal activities including logging and mining are taking place in some of the planet's largest protected conservation areas.
The new Rainforest Foundation report - "Protected Areas in the Congo Basin: Failing both People and Biodiversity"- shows that despite the millions of dollars in international support spent on conservation efforts in equatorial Africa in recent years, biodiversity continues to dwindle and hardly any funds go toward actually protecting the rainforest.
In fact, up to $500 million aimed to protect the world's second-largest rainforest, which is spread over five African countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo, appears to have had little to no impact.
"It's difficult to track down where it goes to," Simon Counsell, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK and co-author of the report, told CNBC in a telephone interview. "There needs to be more transparency about where the money is going… international donors and their recipients need to make funding more transparent and more importantly show how effective it's been."
According to Counsell, there is little evidence that more than a tiny percentage goes to communities or community-based organizations. "More funding needs to be put toward local communities, for clean water, education and health care," he told CNBC.
The conservation efforts have also displaced villages and led to conflict and human-rights abuses. During 18 months of on-the-ground interviews, local communities living in and around national parks in the Congo told researchers that they mostly saw heavy-handed policing by eco-guards as a threat to their rights and their livelihoods.
Indigenous Pygmy communities suffer the most, said Counsell. Some of the issues get really complicated, "down to racial and ethnic lines," he explained.
"The relationship between forest peoples and conservationists is largely conflictual," according to the report, "There is little evidence that the 'guns and guards' approach to protected areas is being effective."
Communities around the protected areas said they were disproportionately targeted for hunting, particularly at the hands of park rangers. Such abuses were generally associated with aggressive anti-poaching policing; local communities are seen as easier to target than the criminal networks driving commercial hunting – mostly for illegal ivory trade purposes.
Poaching also persists widely, with large mammal populations such as elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees "declining at alarming rates."
Of the 34 protected areas examined for the report, 62 percent have mining concessions inside, 39 percent have oil concessions inside, and one reserve has three logging concessions within its boundaries. A further 68 percent have logging concessions directly bordering the park.
"International donors need to rethink how they're funding these projects," said Counsell. "We should stop establishing new protected areas and replicating problems from the past and start working with the existing communities."