MacGregor throws the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society & others out of the lettuce patch
WASHINGTON D.C.––Deputy Interior Secretary Katharine MacGregor on September 18, 2020 quietly ordered major reforms of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] programs which have for decades routed millions of dollars in funding for anti-poaching and wildlife trafficking programs to mercenaries via the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and other major nonprofit organizations operating in Africa and Asia.
Blowing the horn against “fortress conservation”
The 16-page MacGregor order, not previously disclosed, was obtained and released on October 2, 2020 by Survival International, a British-based charity representing indigenous people who have long objected to “fortress conservation” projects that force them out of land they have traditionally occupied and shared with wildlife.
MacGregor, best known as an oil, gas, and mining industry lobbyist before her appointment to her present post on October 1, 2019, may have benefitted mineral extraction projects in Africa and Asia by substantially weakening the habitat protection clout of the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and other charities funding para-military operations.
But MacGregor probably did not reinforce her sometimes publicized friendships within the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and the other pro-hunting elements within the Donald Trump administration by cutting off funding to the World Wildlife Fund and several other “hunter/conservationist” nonprofit organizations.
“Murder, rape, torture, abuse”
The World Wildlife Fund, founded by trophy hunters in 1961, has for sixty years been the leading voice within Africa and Asia for the notion that wildlife conservation should be directed by hunters, in exchange for revenues derived from trophy hunting, which actually cover just a fraction of the cost of protecting wildlife and habitat.
Opened MacGregor, “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management & Budget and the Office of the Solicitor, has been conducting a programmatic review of the Fish & Wildlife Service international conservation grant program, with particular focus on the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment,” funded by USAID appropriations.
“During this programmatic review,” MacGregor wrote, “the Fish & Wildlife Service has obtained information from grantees and human rights organizations that appears to substantiate” allegations amplified by Survival International that para-military conservation programs have included “murder, rape, torture, and abuse” of indigenous people.
Grant recipients hid info from Fish & Wildlife Service
“The extent of direct allocation of taxpayer resources to these specific activities and bad actors,” MacGregor said, “remains unclear. It is apparent that some of the grant recipients have been aware of such allegations and have conducted internal investigations within their own organizations which, in some cases, have substantiated such accounts.
“Several of the recipients have taken some degree of action to remedy them,” MacGregor acknowledged, but added, “It is not clear whether grant recipients shared these internal investigations with Fish & Wildlife Service officials, or, at the very least, made them aware of the initial allegations.”
This, MacGregor wrote, “has called into question the oversight and accountability procedures currently in place within the FWS Division of International Affairs in providing taxpayer dollars to such awardees.”
MacGregor found that “A more thorough investigation is recommended,” beyond the preliminary findings she reviewed at length, and that “Significant controls will be required before any further funds are awarded.”
Currently on hold are both unspent but allocated funds transferred to the Fish & Wildlife Service from USAID in July 2019 and funds “provided to USAID in the Fiscal Year 2020 omnibus Appropriations Act,” MacGregor noted.
Meanwhile, MacGregor recounted, “In March 2019, the [Interior] Department became aware of allegations through media accounts that a long standing and repeat grant recipient of wildlife conservation funds through the Fish & Wildlife Service and USAID,” specifically the World Wildlife Fund, “had funded organizations and some sub-elements whose employees or agents, at various times over the last decade, were reported to have committed rape, murder, torture, and abuse.”
MacGregor also referenced “findings in at least a half dozen other reports investigating similar allegations spanning several countries dating back over a decade.”
“Upon review,” said MacGregor, “in fall 2019, the [Interior] Department suspended the issuance of new and continuing awards under the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, totaling about $12.3 million,” along with 27 other awards [grants] totaling about $5.3 million to other international conservation programs managed by nonprofit organizations.
Investigating the allegations of human rights abuses by entities receiving funding through conservation groups, the Fish & Wildlife Service in November 2019 “sent an information request,” MacGregor said, “to a limited number of existing grantees who had applied for or received Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment funds.
“While all grantees replied,” MacGregor acknowledged, “the responses were not uniformly thorough or responsive.”
Among those responses, MacGregor recalled, the Wildlife Conservation Society objected that the “request was overly burdensome and that they would only be able to produce a limited amount of information based on their internal document retention policy”; the Virunga Foundation, whose web site indicates it is still very much in business, said it was “closing down its operations at the end of 2019,” and therefore sent no information; and African Parks “announced that three investigations into allegations of human rights violations were conducted in 2019 managed by the organization,” but provided no particulars.
GAO blames COVID-19 for not getting answers
Meanwhile, continued MacGregor, “The Government Accountability Office also initiated an inquiry,” which came to nothing when the office in late August 2020 reported that “due to COVID-19 travel restrictions” it could not properly research the issues.
Despite that, MacGregor mentioned, the Government Accountability Office discovered that even the U.S. State Department had relied on the very organizations receiving funding to police themselves.
“The notion of an agency relying on an awardee to investigate itself to determine wrongdoing was highlighted during an [Interior] Department briefing to House Natural Resources Committee staff in July 2019,” MacGregor said. Both Democrats and Republicans, MacGregor noted, “expressed concern with this practice.”
Continued MacGregor, “Widespread allegations that have been shared with the Fish & Wildlife Service about several grantees spanning years, and potentially decades, find support in investigative documents,” produced by organizations including the United Nations Development Program, the German Development Bank, and Survival International.
World Wildlife Fund knew
Even more damning are allegations collected in “confidential reports commissioned and paid for by the World Wildlife Fund,” some of them summarized in previous ANIMALS 24-7 coverage.
MacGregor cited four alleged instances of abuse by eco-guards at Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including the beatings and rapes of four women, three days of beatings endured by three men who were hung by their penises with fishing line, a case in which “Eco-guards were falsely informed that a farmer’s family was in possession of a weapon, so in the middle of the night the eco-guards burst into the farmer’s home, beat all the members of the household, raped his wife in the bushes, and imprisoned the farmer and his father,” and another case in which “A woman was detained by guards, forced to cook for and serve the guards, and was tortured for four days after guards were falsely informed that her husband was in possession of a weapon of war. She was only released when her husband found her and took her place. He was imprisoned without a trial.”
“Taken to prison in WWF-marked vehicle”
Stipulated MacGregor, “Law enforcement officers directly employed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service” are neither mentioned nor connected “to the many allegations or documented cases of abuse of indigenous peoples.”
Unfortunately, MacGregor continued, “Reports of abuse of indigenous populations were ignored for several years by the World Wildlife Fund, and initially by United Nations Program for Development staff, until being investigated following a formal complaint submitted by Survival International in July 2018.”
Beatings of Baka [pygmy] people by eco-guards in Cameroon, Survival International charged and MacGregor summarized, “when the Baka are in their camps along the road as well as when they are in the forest. They affect men, women, and children. There are reports of Baka men having been taken to prison and of torture and rape inside prison. The widow of one Baka man spoke about her husband being so ill-treated in prison that he died shortly after his release. He had been transported to prison in a World Wildlife Fund-marked vehicle.”
U.S. taxpayers sent $333 million to WWF
The World Wildlife Fund, MacGregor found, “received an average of $21 million annually in [U.S.] taxpayer dollars, from 2004-2019, totaling $333 million. Nearly half––$156 million––went to fund grants supporting activities related to anti-poaching or park management, including paying for armed rangers and law enforcement officers” in Africa and Asia.
The Wildlife Conservation Society “has received at least $28 million since 2010,” MacGregor wrote, “with at least $9 million going to grants tied to law enforcement activities,” which were “spread across several countries, including the Republic of Congo and Cameroon.”
$1.3 million of the sum granted to the Wildlife Conservation Society was spent “just for law enforcement activities in Cameroon since 2010,” MacGregor reported.
Abuses in the Republic of Congo
Meanwhile, MacGregor summarized, “Rainforest Foundation U.K. and Survival International have detailed human rights abuses in parks managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Republic of Congo,” specifically Conkouta-Douli National Park and Naouble-Ndoki National Park.
Rainforest Foundation U.K. described the “beating of a young villager and the shooting of villagers, which resulted in three deaths and two injuries.”
Another account, from Survival International, cited by MacGregor, “alleges a decades-long history of eco guards abusing indigenous people in at least one of the parks supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society,” including “beatings, shootings, imprisonment, theft, and destruction of homes,” and a mention that “WCS eco-guards are accused of regularly beating Mbendjele [pygmy forest-dwellers], for ‘simply being Mbendjele.'”
World Wildlife Fund employee ran Salonga
Both at Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and at national parks in Cameroon, MacGregor noted indications of the World Wildlife Fund operating as a quasi-government agency.
At Salonga, MacGregor wrote, “a World Wildlife Fund employee was the park’s top official in charge of hundreds of eco-guards. The World Wildlife Fund even posted a photograph on its website of Congolese officials handing him an assault rifle, in what would appear to be a blatant acknowledgement of the organization’s involvement in prohibited activity.
“Eco-guards at national parks in Cameroon managed by the government nonetheless still relied on WWF support,” MacGregor continued, “including financial, logistical, and technical support. This included joint missions, use of office space, and community education efforts.”
“Not the first time that concerns were brought forward”
This continued despite a World Wildlife Fund internal report that the organization was “contributing to human rights violations, in contravention of its own policies and of international law.”
Further, MacGregor observed, funding applications “submitted to the [Interior] Department by the World Wildlife Fund even appear to imply that the organization used funds to support potentially prohibited activity, including paying for firearms and ammunition,” with “statements that implied future Fish & Wildlife Service funds would continue to be leveraged for the effort’s biggest perceived need: firearms and ammunition.”
MacGregor admitted that “This is not the first time that concerns were brought forward regarding grant and cooperative agreements issued by the FWS Division of International Affairs,” citing examples from 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2018.
ANIMALS 24-7 has detailed examples going back all the way into the Ronald Reagan administration.
“Additional controls are necessary”
MacGregor found considerable gaps in the ability of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to monitor the use of overseas grant funding, suggesting that USAID personnel should have a much larger role in ensuring accountability.
“Upon review of the internal practices of Fish & Wildlife Service to oversee and monitor these awards,” MacGregor wrote, “it was discovered that the average amount of funding dedicated to conducting such oversight was around 3%. This is well below the level that would be appropriate for monitoring high-risk activities performed by non-governmental entities in countries not subject to U.S. law and known to have issues of corruption, human rights violations, and several other types of misconduct.”
Concluded MacGregor, “As a result of this initial programmatic review, it is my determination that additional controls are necessary in order to ensure taxpayer funds are spent responsibly and consistently with all laws, rules, and regulations, and no further funding may be awarded until such deficiencies are corrected.”
No more grants for “high-risk” activities
Specifically, MacGregor enumerated, “Free, informed, and prior consent by the indigenous population must be obtained before a program is established or expanded,” the Fish & Wildlife Service “will no longer provide funding for sub-grantees,” nor will it “award grants to conduct high-risk activities such as eco-guards, law enforcement activities and supplies, community patrols, and other similar or related activities,” including for “activities related to relocating communities, voluntarily or involuntarily, either through direct engagement or support to local government entities seeking to do the same.”
Further, “Grant awardees will certify that no activities will be conducted in violation of U.S. law, rules or regulations, and that they are taking steps to protect human rights during the implementation of the grant.”
“Minimum bonding and/or insurance requirements”
MacGregor also recommended “minimum bonding and/or insurance requirements for the purposes of addressing harm or liability resulting from actual or potential human rights violations and other risks related to activities or operations in which such violations are possible,” said grantees must henceforth “provide for a whistleblower capability to both alert the FWS of potential human rights abuses and ensure thorough investigation of such allegations,” and added a reporting requirement “mandating immediate notification of any internal investigations conducted on human rights abuses in which federal dollars may have been involved.”
MacGregor acted four months after the European Union on May 13, 2020 suspended funding for a World Wildlife Fund attempt to create a wildlife reserve in the Messok Dja forest of the Congo Basin, in the Republic of Congo.
“Persistent pattern of abuses against the Baka”
This came, said a Survival International media release, after “Several investigations confirmed a persistent pattern of abuses against the Baka [pygmies] who live there. The Baka have been subjected to beatings, torture, sexual abuse, wrongful arrests and killings by rangers funded and supported by the World Wildlife Fund,” which “has been working in the Congo Basin for over 20 years––supporting squads who have committed violent abuse against tribal people.”
Survival International “met with the European Commission team in charge of the Messok Dja project in February 2020, and stressed that it had never had the consent of local people – and it was therefore against EC commitments for the project to go ahead,” the media release added.
“None as duplicitous as these these big conservation charities”
Said Survival International founder/director Stephen Corry of the MacGregor directive, “WWF and other big conservation NGOs have been well aware of their responsibility for gross human rights violations for decades. Survival International first pointed them out over 30 years ago. Over the last half century,” Corry said, “I have personally confronted dozens of corporations and governments about their abuse of tribal peoples’ rights. None have been as duplicitous as these big conservation charities.”
Corry noted that MacGregor acted “days after the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, where numerous heads of government supported World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society calls to declare 30% of the Earth as Protected Areas by 2030. The revelations in the leaked report demonstrate how dangerous this would be.”
Funding ends for WWF-India project
Meanwhile, Corry said, the MacGregor directive means that “The U.S. government can no longer fund the Wildlife Conservation Society-India’s project supporting the so-called ‘voluntary relocation’ of indigenous communities” from Jenu Kuruba villages in the Nilgiris hills of Karnataka state.
Reported The Hindu on June 17, 2017, “Nearly two decades after the first few Jenu Kuruba families were shifted from Nagarahole National Park to [resettlement in] Nagapura, their rehabilitation continues to be a ‘work in progress’ with problems galore plaguing the tribal community.
“Be it the allotment of land as promised under the rehabilitation package, or basic facilities in schools established for tribal children, or from a delay in crop compensation to private financiers spreading their net to trap them in a web of debt through deceit, the tribal communities grapple with issues alien to them, even as efforts to bring them into the mainstream continue.”
More recent reports indicate little progress has been made since then.