US authorities halt funding for large conservation organisations following investigation into human rights scandal

October 9, 2020

Last week it emerged that the US government had stopped more than $12 million of funding to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other conservation NGOs after an investigation by the Department of Interior found federal conservation funds were implicated in human rights abuses by anti-poaching guards in Africa and Asia.

In the latest indictment on the conservation industry in the Congo Basin following a series of exposes by RFUK and others into widespread abuse around the region’s protected areas, a leaked memo from the US Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Kate MacGregor, found that:

  • US government funding was used for conservation programmes that gave place to widespread abuse of local populations, including murder, severe torture and rape.
  • WWF and other organisations were aware of these abuses, which they confirmed in their own investigations, but failed to inform US authorities and remedy them.
  • Conservation organisations failed to cooperate with federal investigators by withholding reports that documented the abuses.

The findings confirm that these organisations have known about these abuses for many years but did little about it. WWF's own independent review into its handling of the issue is still yet to report, while WCS has never responded publicly to any of the allegations. To our knowledge, no one has issued an apology let alone reparations to the survivors.

In a sign of a policy shift by the US administration, the memo sets out new rules for biodiversity projects including that federal funds cannot be used for:

  • Projects that do not have the free, prior and informed consent of affected indigenous peoples.
  • Projects that do not address existing land and resource rights’ claims in project areas.
  • Eco-guards, law enforcement or “activities related to relocating communities, voluntarily or involuntarily.”
  • The memo also contains numerous other measures to strengthen government oversight of international biodiversity programmes.

The move in the US that follow similar developments with other major international donors to biodiversity conservation in Africa, with both Germany and the European Commission taking decisions to halt funding for certain biodiversity and climate programmes following their own investigations.

These are small but important steps away from a fortress conservation model that has failed people and biodiversity. Yet ongoing international policy processes show there is a still a long way to go. Last month, RFUK and other NGOs wrote to the European Commission about the potential negative impacts of its planned flagship NaturAfrica programme in Africa. This followed a letter from more than 179 indigenous organisations, NGOs and academics to the Secretariat of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) expressing concerns about proposals to designate 30 percent of the earth as protected areas within the next decade.

However, it is important the human rights scandal is not used by certain factions in their calls to halt foreign aid for biodiversity protection altogether. The transition to socially just and sustainable conservation is more important than ever to address the biodiversity and climate crises. Donors also have a duty to address the social harm that has been caused and to ensure redress for victims.

In the immediate future, it is crucial that any cuts to ‘eco-guard’ programmes in Africa and Asia are done in a proportionate and responsible manner. Having supported the creation of poorly vetted, trained and monitored armed paramilitary forces, government agencies and their international partners should embark on an organised de-mobilisation programme to ensure that armed and unpaid agents do not go on a spree of poaching, looting and extortion. National and sub-national justice systems must also be strengthened to tackle the culture of impunity around conservation enforcement and to bring perpetrators to justice.

Joe Eisen, of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said:

“The Department of the Interior’s findings are yet another wake-up call for the conservation industry and contains new protections for forest peoples that RFUK and our partners have long campaigned for. At what is a crucial moment in global efforts to address the biodiversity and climate crises, we cannot afford repeat failed approaches that serve neither people nor nature. RFUK stands ready to work with different stakeholders towards an era of conservation that empowers local and indigenous people to protect and thrive in the forests they depend on.”


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