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New law would tie U.S. conservation funding to human rights protection

Rangers on a boat

Rangers from Garamba National Park, in the north eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ford the Dungu river on a barge at the start of their deployment into the park, 2015. Image courtesy of Jerome Starkey / Flickr.

  • Legislation has been introduced by members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources that would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to vet the human rights record of conservation grantees.
  • The draft bill follows an investigation by the U.S. Congress into human rights abuses at protected areas in Central Africa and South Asia that were receiving U.S. funding.
  • If it passes, the law would require groups receiving USFWS funds to set up grievance procedures and promptly investigate allegations of “gross” human rights abuses, or risk losing funding.

Lawmakers from the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced a bill that, if passed, would require human rights safeguards to be embedded in Department of Interior grants given to conservation organizations working overseas. Co-sponsored by Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican, the bill follows a congressional investigation into U.S. support for protected areas in Central Africa and South Asia where park rangers committed serious human rights abuses against local villagers.

“With this bill, we are sending a signal to the world that the United States demands the highest standards of respect for every human life; we will not tolerate human rights abuses in the name of conservation,” Grijalva said.

The legislation comes in the wake of a series of Buzzfeed News exposés from 2019 in which conservation powerhouse WWF was linked to torture and extrajudicial killings carried out by rangers working for governments in the Congo Basin, India, and Nepal. Supporters of the bill say it closes a loophole by requiring grants disbursed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to include human rights standards, including the vetting of ranger units receiving funds and procedures for investigating allegations of abuse.

“One thing that Congress has realized is that the U.S. government really has not had clear enough standards for an oversight of conservation funding,” said John Knox, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. “This bill is a really important step in that direction.”

The bill singles out the USFWS, which was among the federal agencies providing support for WWF projects where abuses occurred. If it becomes law, any organizations receiving support from the USFWS will have to vet their local partners for any history of human rights abuses, and would be required to have safeguards in place that allow people living near protected areas to lodge complaints over mistreatment.

“There are literally millions of people around the world who are living in these biodiversity-rich areas,” Knox said. “For many of them, it’s ancestral land to which they have cultural as well as material ties.”

One source with working knowledge of the bill told Mongabay that it would be akin to “Leahy-plus” for conservation, referring to the Leahy Law, which bars the U.S. State and Defense departments from providing funding to foreign security forces that have been credibly accused of “gross” human rights abuses. Conservation groups receiving funding from USFWS would be required to inform both the agency and local U.S. consular officials of any reports of such abuses within 30 days. The Department of the Interior’s inspector general would then have the authority to carry out its own investigation and either suspend or cancel the grant, depending on its findings.

Children coming back from a food-gathering trip in the forests bordering the Aruwimi River in northern DRC. Image by Gloria Pallares for El País

The law would be a milestone in U.S. financing for global conservation, bringing it under a human rights framework that has the potential to impact support for global protected area expansion in the future. At this year’s U.N. Biodiversity Conference, many states are expected to support a call for 30% of the planet’s land and oceans to be placed under some form of conservation management by 2030. Critics have said the plan could dispossess Indigenous and other communities living in areas marked for rezoning.

The bill includes a provision that would require conservation groups receiving USFWS funding to solicit the free, prior, and informed consent of communities in case of any “new land-use restriction,” which would theoretically include the expansion of new protected areas.

But it would not cover grants disbursed by the U.S. State Department or USAID, which together provide the bulk of conservation and other overseas biodiversity-related aid. According to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) investigation of U.S. conservation grants conducted after the Buzzfeed News exposés, between 2014 and 2017, USAID provided nearly $90 million for “park ranger-related activities.” The agency also provided around half of the $117 million spent by USFWS between 2013 and 2018 under its “Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment.”

According to the GAO report, U.S. officials were caught flat-footed by the reports, which detailed years of gruesome violence by park rangers, most notably at Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While USAID and the State Department already have policies on the books that nominally require security forces receiving U.S. funding to be vetted for human rights abuses, the bill would require USFWS to carry out due diligence for its partners as well.

WWF, which had some of its funding frozen after the abuse reports surfaced, said it supported the legislation.

“Safeguarding the rights of communities is essential,” a spokesperson told Mongabay. “We share and support the overall goals of this bill to protect and promote the rights, wellbeing, and safety of local and Indigenous communities.”

Some Indigenous rights advocates described the bill as a sign of progress toward accountability in conservation projects.

“The bill, even if not perfect, is nevertheless a success for the campaign to decolonize conservation; it shows just how much impact pressure from public opinion can have,” said Fiore Longo, a research and advocacy officer at Survival International, which provided some of the source material for the Buzzfeed News reports.

Still, the bill would limit reporting and vetting requirements for USFWS to “gross” human rights abuses — defined in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 as the highest tier of abuses, including torture and forced disappearances. General law enforcement of protected areas — which often means preventing local populations from accessing the park to fish, collect forest products, or hunt — would not be covered.

“It doesn’t directly address the underlying problem in this area, which is often the denial of the communal property rights of the Indigenous people or local communities,” Knox said.

For the bill to become law, it first has to make it out of the House Natural Resources Committee and onto the floor for a full vote. If it passes, it would be sent to the U.S. Senate for consideration.

“I think this bill is a really critical first step in at least making clear that U.S. funding is not going to be provided in cases of these gross violations of human rights,” Knox said. “And beyond that it’s very strongly encouraging meaningful consultation and engagement with Indigenous people and local communities, and that’s the direction that conservation has to go to avoid human rights abuses.”

Banner image: Rangers from Garamba National Park, in the north eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ford the Dungu river on a barge at the start of their deployment into the park, 2015. Image courtesy of Jerome Starkey / Flickr.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Reporter Katie Baker details Buzzfeed’s explosive investigation of WWF’s human rights violations against Indigenous and local communities. Listen here:

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