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.

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 BishopOVERNIGHT ENERGY:  House passes sweeping clean energy bill | Pebble Mine CEO resigns over secretly recorded comments about government officials  | Corporations roll out climate goals amid growing pressure to deliver House passes sweeping clean energy bill OVERNIGHT ENERGY: California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 | EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities | House energy package sparks criticism from left and right MORE (R-Utah), Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHouse panel pulls Powell into partisan battles over pandemic Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election House passes resolution condemning anti-Asian discrimination relating to coronavirus MORE  (R-Ohio), Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockHouse to vote on removing cannabis from list of controlled substances House votes to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Cook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats MORE (R-Calif.), Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertRep. Dan Meuser tests positive for COVID-19 Watchdog calls for probe into Gohmert 'disregarding public health guidance' on COVID-19 Massie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies MORE (R-Texas), Jody HiceJody Brownlow HicePelosi must go — the House is in dire need of new leadership House Republicans investigating California secretary of state's contract with Biden-linked firm GOP lawmakers want answers from Disney on Mulan, China MORE (R-Ga.) and James ComerJames (Jamie) R. ComerHouse panel advances bill to ban Postal Service leaders from holding political positions House Republicans investigating California secretary of state's contract with Biden-linked firm GOP lawmakers want answers from Disney on Mulan, China 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.