Last month, I had the opportunity to do something truly extraordinary: testify before a U.S. House subcommittee on behalf of legislation with genuine bipartisan support.
The hearing, held March 29 in the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife (WOW), drew little attention from the mainstream news media. But it is newsworthy nonetheless: The legislation would strengthen human rights protections for Indigenous peoples and local communities around national parks and other protected areas around the world, by conditioning U.S. funding for them on compliance with basic human rights protections.
It is especially remarkable in the current political environment that the bill resulted from a bipartisan investigation and that it has support from both Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.). As far as I know, it’s the first bill to be co-sponsored by these two influential lawmakers. Together with Jared Huffman (D-Cal.) and Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.), the chair and ranking member of the WOW subcommittee, Grijalva and Westerman introduced the legislation last month, a few weeks in advance of the subcommittee hearing.
The bill’s bipartisan support signals its potential to win broad-based support — which it fully deserves — in the full House and U.S. Senate.
The legislation would address a critical issue. International conservation still depends too often on a “fortress conservation” mentality, in which local people are seen as impediments rather than allies, and the ideal national park is one empty of people — even those for whom it is their ancestral home.
Many studies have shown that this approach to conservation not only violates human rights; it also fails to meet conservation goals. It should be unsurprising that the best way to achieve conservation is by listening to and acting together with the Indigenous peoples and local communities who seek to protect their own homes. However, many governments still violate their rights in the name of conservation.
Donors as well as conservation organizations need to do far more to prevent these abuses. I’m happy to see that this issue has attracted attention from both sides of that proverbially politicized aisle.
Murder, Rape, and Torture
Introduced last month, the Advancing Human Rights-Centered International Conservation Act comes in the wake of a 2019 news investigation that described many instances of alleged murder, rape, and torture by park rangers against Indigenous people and local communities. The alleged abuses were perpetrated at parks supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which received millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. government.
Such abuses have long been a part of creating and running protected areas, dating back to the expulsion of Native Americans from the areas that became the first U.S. national parks. But they aren’t just of historical concern. Reports of human rights violations in and around national parks arise regularly today. Just this week, another major report was published describing horrific abuses against the Batwa people in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In response to the 2019 reports, the Department of the Interior and the House Natural Resources Committee both conducted their own investigations. In October of last year, the WOW subcommittee held a hearing at which lawmakers from both parties strongly criticized WWF for failing to take effective steps to prevent and respond to these abuses, and called for stronger oversight by both the federal government and the conservation organizations.
The bill that resulted from that hearing would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that its international conservation funding would not support foreign forces credibly accused of gross human rights violations. It would also establish mechanisms to prevent such abuses — including by requiring conservation organizations to put effective safeguards in place before receiving funds — and provide for further federal investigation of credible allegations.
This legislation is especially timely because the United States and other countries are currently in negotiations to adopt a new “Global Biodiversity Framework,” which would urge countries to set aside 30 percent of their territory for conservation by 2030.
This “30×30” goal has been opposed by many Indigenous peoples and human rights organizations on the grounds that, without effective human rights protections, it is likely to further the continued exclusion and abuse of communities that have lived for centuries in the areas to be set aside.
This bill is an effort to address that concern by ensuring that conservation initiatives do not come at the expense of these marginalized communities. If enacted, it would immediately become a model for other donor countries and international organizations.
Because of its bipartisan nature, the prospects for the legislation are good in the House, but its fate is uncertain in the Senate, which has followed this issue much less closely. To move this important bill forward, more lawmakers must express support, and more advocates for human rights and environmental protection — in all contexts and in all places — must spread the word.
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