The Trump administration halted certain grant funding to select environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, which have used federal money to fund alleged human rights violations in Africa, according to an internal memo.
The Department of the Interior will not award further conservation grants under the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, according to the memo.
About $12.3 million in CARPE grants has been suspended while $5.3 million in other related grants is pending approval by the department.
“Our job in the federal government is to ensure taxpayer dollars are used responsibly and spent wisely,” Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor told the DCNF.
“I don’t think the American people want to see that their tax dollars have been awarded out to organizations that have in any way been apart of any atrocities.”
For years, the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within the Department of the Interior, has provided funds from the CARPE program to organizations and governments to help with the conservation of species and landscapes.
The decision to halt funding is the culmination of a Department of the Interior investigation launched in March 2019 after media reports alleged the World Wildlife Fund was aiding individuals who are committing atrocities in Africa.
The memo said the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has also received government funds, was implicated in similar atrocities.
“FWS has obtained information from grantees and human rights organizations that appears to substantiate the concerns of Department officials regarding allegations of murder, rape, torture, and abuse,” the memo said.
MacGregor sent the memo, which was obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation, to FWS director Aurelia Skipwith. The Department of the Interior said the House of Representatives was set to receive the memo on Tuesday.
A March 2019 BuzzFeed News investigation detailed a series of alleged incidents in which armed rangers, funded and equipped by the WWF to protect areas from poachers, tortured and killed locals in Cameroon.
A follow-up BuzzFeed report in September 2019 alleged that the U.S. government was indirectly funding such atrocities through grants it had awarded the WWF.
“Respect for human rights is at the core of our mission,” a WWF spokesperson said in a statement following Buzzfeed’s March report. “We take any allegations seriously and are commissioning an independent review to look into the cases raised in the story.”
The WWF received $333 million from U.S. taxpayers between 2004 and 2019, the memo said. The U.S. government awarded the WWF $14 million in 2019.
About half of the U.S. government money received by the WWF was used to fund grants supporting anti-poaching activities, including by funding armed rangers.
Further, the government has awarded the WCS at least $28 million since 2010, according to the memo. At least $19 million of those funds went to law enforcement activities.
The alleged abuses were uncovered by WWF internal investigations, the United Nations Development Programme, various human rights organizations and the German Development Bank.
“[The UNDP Social and Environmental Compliance Unit’s] investigation has obtained credible testimony during the fieldwork in February 2019 … that armed eco-guards engage in violence and threats of violence against the indigenous Baka people in the Messok Dja area,” a March UNDP report said.
In one alleged incident, four women, including two who were pregnant, were beaten and raped by rangers in the Republic of Congo’s Solanga National Park.
The UNDP focused on human rights abuse allegations from six indigenous communities in the Republic of Congo.
Investigations conducted by independent agencies into the activities of environmental groups in Cameroon and Solanga National Park in 2018 and 2019 confirm that such human rights atrocities occurred.
“My question, especially to some of our own employees was: How did we not know this was going on and how do we handle when allegations like these are made?” MacGregor said.
The WWF released a statement in February prior to the release of the UNDP report, saying, “At WWF, we know that people and nature go hand in hand and local and indigenous communities must be a cornerstone of conservation efforts.”
“Any breach of our social and human rights commitments is unacceptable to us.”
MacGregor told the FWS that no further grants would be doled out without strong parameters to ensure that U.S. taxpayer money isn’t contributing to human rights abuses.
However, such measures have been met with pushback from elected officials.
“Concern for human rights issues does not mandate stopping funds for international conservation grants to Africa,” House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva said in an October letter to Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Three Republican members of the committee wrote to the president of the WCS in December requesting information related to the organization’s “awareness of human rights abuses.”
“We recognize the important role international conservation grants play in protecting wildlife, but the United States cannot be party to violations of basic human rights,” the letter signed by Reps. Rob Bishop, Louie Gohmert and Tom McClintock said.
MacGregor told the DCNF that over the course of the Department of the Interior investigation, certain environmental organizations “closed their doors,” deciding not to respond to inquiries concerning how they use taxpayer money.
The WWF and the WCS didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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