Several GOP House members call to continue to withhold international conservation grants until oversight measures implemented

Several GOP House members call to continue to withhold international conservation grants until oversight measures implemented
© Greg Nash

Several Republican representatives are requesting the Interior Department continue to withhold international conservation grants until it can implement oversight measures after reports that a major international animal aid group supported by the U.S. is responsible for several human rights abuses. 

The GOP lawmakers told the Interior Department in a Wednesday letter to Secretary David Bernhardt that “further scrutiny is warranted” in the department’s review of grants, specifically to “high-risk areas” to prevent the U.S. from funding organizations that participate in human rights violations and prevent taxpayers from funding human rights abuses. The department reported it was withholding millions in grants in a September letter.

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The letter comes in response to staggering reports released in March that local guards and rangers working with the World Wide Fund of Nature (WWF) in Asia and Africa allegedly took part in abusing the indigenous communities near their stations through rape, torture and murder. A BuzzFeed News investigation from March found that the U.S. gave WWF about $157 million in the last 15 years, including about $10 million for “armed guards, rangers and enforcement.” WWF has also announced that it launched an investigation into the allegations.

We strongly recommend that you continue to withhold specifically identified high risk grant funds until the Department can ensure that taxpayer dollars are not being used to support human rights abuses,” the letter states. “Failure to ensure accountability harms the integrity of our nation’s international conservation efforts.”

The department’s withholding of funds could have broad implications beyond the WWF grants if such actions are applied to other grants as well. Democrats have argued the grants fund important conservation efforts in Africa that should not go by the wayside.

The letter from Reps. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopWalden retirement adds to GOP election woes Overnight Energy: Automakers group sides with Trump in emissions lawsuit | Latest on California wildfires | Walden won't seek reelection | Park Service scraps plan to charge protesters for security Oregon GOP Rep. Greg Walden won't seek reelection MORE (R-Utah), Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanSix memorable moments from Ex-Ukraine ambassador Yovanovitch's public testimony Democrats say Trump tweet is 'witness intimidation,' fuels impeachment push Live coverage: Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies in public impeachment hearing MORE  (R-Ohio), Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockSeveral GOP House members call to continue to withhold international conservation grants until oversight measures implemented Overnight Energy: Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest| Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records| Trump's plan to boost ethanol miffs corn groups and the fossil fuel industry Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records MORE (R-Calif.), Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertLive coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing GOP lawmaker invokes possibility of 'civil war' after House votes on Trump impeachment procedures Why the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy MORE (R-Texas), Jody HiceJody Brownlow HiceGOP lawmaker calls impeachment inquiry a 'disaster' for American people House Republican: Impeachment vote timing 'up in the air' GOP Congressman weighs in on impeachment hearings MORE (R-Ga.) and James ComerJames (Jamie) R. ComerNew hemp trade group presses lawmakers on immigration reform, regs Kentucky Senate president: Bevin should concede if recanvass confirms results Overnight Energy: Jerry Brown testifies on emissions fight | Brown presses climate action: 'Impeachment is important, but the climate is even more important' | Dems look to protect Grand Canyon from drilling MORE (R-Ky.) stated the department confirmed in an email last month that it would withhold $12.3 million in grants for fiscal 2018 “until proper oversight mechanisms are in place.” No Democrats signed the letter, despite their criticism in relation to the news.

A Republican committee aide said they did provide the Democrats the opportunity to sign, but the Republicans "do have a difference of opinion."

Each of the lawmakers that signed sit on either the Natural Resources or the Oversight and Reform committees.

The representatives are encouraging the department to take a particularly close look at grants that involve law enforcement activities or in regions with recorded human rights violations, in response to the reports about WWF. They urge the department to make a list of high-risk areas and review its ability to hold organizations funded in these areas accountable.

“Until the Department has appropriate accountability mechanisms in place, a moratorium on funds being distributed to high-risk areas, especially for law enforcement related activities will help minimize the risk for U.S. taxpayer-funded human rights abuses,” the letter states. 

The letter adds that it is “imperative for the successful execution of international conservation grants” for the department to take these steps. 

The Interior Department sent a letter to the Natural Resources Committee in September declaring it launched an internal review into the lack of oversight of the international conservation grant program. The letter stated the department was withholding $22.5 million in grants, but a spokesperson told The Hill in late September that “a few” of the grants were renewed because “we feel confident the proper controls are in place."

Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee Raúl Grijalva sent a letter to Secretary David Bernhardt earlier this month saying the “concern for human rights issues does not mandate stopping funding for international conservation grants in Africa,” according to the GOP letter. The lawmakers say in the letter that they disagree with Grijalva because human rights abuses should not be tolerated.

A WWF spokesperson said the organization has put together an independent review panel to examine the allegations against the guards.

"We remain deeply committed to our partnership with the U.S. government to support community-based natural resource management, conserve endangered species, and address the global wildlife trafficking crisis," the spokesperson said.