Category Archives: Environment

Will Congress bargain away the last of old growth forests?

Tongass National Forest by amanderson2. Creative Commons license

My latest story for Alternet examines how some of the country’s last remaining ancient forestland may be bargained away this year as a political favor to the campaign benefactors of one U.S. Senator.

READ THIS STORY

WWF faces new charges of corporate greenwashing

The story also discusses "The Pact with the Panda," another WWF exposé aired on Germany's WDR TV network.

from “The Pact with the Panda,” a German TV exposé on WWF

German magazine, DER SPIEGEL, has a new article examining whether one of the world’s largest and best known environmental groups, WWF, protects nature or “merely offer[s] the illusion of help?”

In a nutshell: The story concludes that WWF’s “business model,” which relies on funding from big companies, is better at corporate greenwashing than preserving nature and endangered species.

The magazine sent reporters to South America and Indonesia to investigate WWF’s agribusiness roundtable initiatives on how to reduce habitat destruction caused by large-scale soybean and palm oil plantations and other commodity crops. In the last dozen years or so, WWF has received accolades in some circles (and criticism in others) for bringing together agribusiness companies, international grain traders, and corporate-friendly nonprofit groups. The resulting “sustainable” soybeans and palm oil are finally starting to enter international commodities markets. But SPIEGEL found some troubling discrepancies between hype and reality:

In Brazil, an agricultural industry executive talked about the first shipload of sustainable soybeans, certified in accordance with WWF standards, to reach Rotterdam last year, amid a flurry of PR hype. The executive had to admit, however, that he wasn’t entirely sure where the shipment had come from. In Sumatra, members of a tribal group reported how troops hired by WWF partner Wilmar had destroyed their houses, because they had stood in the way of unfettered palm oil production.

For anyone interested in the growing backlash against corporate-sponsored environmental groups, the story is worth a read.

UPDATE: Another WWF corporate partner, Ikea, is accused of logging old growth forests. The 40-member Global Forestry Coalition has just issued a report charging the company’s Swedwood subsidiary with clearcutting a biodiverse Russian forest. The coalition maintains that  trees as old as 600 years are being felled to keep up with sales of Ikea’s popular home furnishings. The company has strongly denied the charges pointing to its lengthy environmental credentials. Besides its forest campaign with WWF,  it holds several Forest Stewardship Council certifications. In this article, Ikea defends its sustainability record and denies harvesting ancient trees. In fact, it says, the trees being cut down in Karelia, Russian, average 160-years-old.

Hmmmm … how long does the average Ikea dinner table last?

More coverage here and here.

Geo-medicine: Mapping our pollution exposures

My latest post on The Atlantic’s Cities website explores geo-medicine, a new field that uses GIS mapping to correlate environmental conditions to health risks like heart attacks and cancer. There’s even a free app that allows you to map the types of toxic exposures in everyplace you’ve ever lived and correlate them to the likelihood of developing cancer or dying of a heart attack.

Beyond charting the potential for your own personal doomsday, however, geo-medicine has many other applications: It can allow doctors to zoom in on a patient’s life to create a geographically enhanced medical history. Or it can zoom out to give public health officials, city planners and activists detail-rich insights on how to improve the well-being of entire communities.

Check out my story and let me know what you think!

The Potomac: America’s most beleaguered river, new report

The Potomac is the nation’s most imperiled river, according to a report issued today by the nonprofit group, American Rivers.

Pescados by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo)
Creative Commons license

The river, which supplies drinking water to five million people in the Greater Washington region, suffers from a bad case of  runoff from laws and factory farms, alike. those woes have turned the Potomac into a spawning ground for so-called “intersex fish” – male fish born with ovaries. Yikes! Scientists have linked the chemicals in lawn fertilizer and “chicken litter” (manure produced in large quantities at the region’s poultry farms) that get washed into the waterways where they wreak havoc of fish reproduction and create habitat-crippling dead zones bereft of oxygen, among other things.

The Washington Post today notes that U.S. Congress has failed to act despite growing evidence that what’s happening to the fish may be a disturbing sign of the human health implications. In fact, sentiment on Capitol Hill is moving in the other direction with Republicans periodically launching attempts to roll back the Clean Air Act, reporter Darryl Fears notes, quoting environmentalists.

The landmark federal law, which turns 40-years-old this year, has led to major improvements in the health of the nation’s waterways, experts say. At the time of its passage in 1972, some U.S. rivers were such reeking open sewers that they sometimes caught fire. Nevertheless, the Potomac is one of ten that continue face the most serious ongoing problems.

Besides the Potomac, today’s top ten list, of sorts, includes the following:

  • Green River (which runs through Wyoming, Utah and Colorado)
  • Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
  • Missouri River (nine states in the central United States)
  • Hoback River (Wyoming)
  •  Grand River (Ohio)
  • Skykomish River (Washington)
  • Crystal River (Colorado)
  •  Coal River (West Virginia)
  •  Kansas River (Kansas)

NGO “dissolves” after questions raised over corporate funding

prescription drugs in bottle

By Somegeekintn. Creative Commons license

The Washington Post reports today on the demise of the nonprofit group, the American Pain Foundation, that used its funding from big pharmaceutical and medical device companies to play down “the risks associated with opioid painkillers while exaggerating the benefits from the drugs.”

Today’s story follows up on an exposé published last December that used the foundation’s annual report to explain how more than 90 percent of its $5 million budget came from the makers of such drugs as Oxycontin and Vicodin. Those revelations led to a Senate Finance Committee investigation launched yesterday. Also yesterday, the foundation reportedly announced it could no longer remain “operational” and would “dissolve.”

Had its corporate funders fled from the scandal? The post report says the foundation was not taking questions yesterday. But it would not be the first time a corporation has ditched a nonprofit partner after issues of propriety arose.

The example that comes to mind is The Nature Conservancy’s Land Legacy program with Centex, the homebuilder. For every home the company product, it kicked back $35 as a donation to TNC. Eyebrow-raising considering that other environmental groups had criticized Centex as a purveyor of suburban sprawl, a scourge to nature preservation. The deal created internal tension and discord among Conservancy staffers, according to a 2003 Washington Post expose on the nature group. What did Centex do? It took the program over to the Conservation Fund, and after Centex and Pulte Homes merged in 2009, forming PulteGroup, the fund was renamed the PulteGroup Land Legacy Fund. Besides renaming the arrangement, the company and the NGO have gotten savvier in how they discuss it. Today, they tout it as a $2.5 million “revolving fund” paying for “the protection of more than 73,000 acres, achieving dramatic results for wetlands, forests and waterways coast to coast.”

Questionable corporate funding of nonprofit groups is so often in the news these days (THINK: ALEC, Heartland Institute, the American Diabetes AssociationEnvironmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club, among others.) new revelations seem to have lost much of their shock value. For instance, you’d think CF’s dealings with the PulteGroup could tinge its reputation just as it sullied TNC’s, but apparently that’s not a good enough reason to turn down the cash.

Questionable corporate largess isn’t just limited to nonprofit groups. Tom Philpott has a post on Mother Jones today questioning the independence of universities that take research grants from Big Ag companies such as Monsanto.

Nonprofit groups are embedded in nearly every aspect of life these days (even ProPublica, the investigative newsroom that produced today’s exposé, is an NGO). But  the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t require nonprofits to tell the public much about their funding sources, which  leaves reporters and other watchdogs reliant on the information the groups choose to share. Many groups voluntarily publish at least a partial roster of donors, which ironically, exactly what ProPublica did; reporters used a donor list in its annual report to connect the dots between its corporate relationships and its public advocacy.

But how often do organizations leave out donations that might lead to awkward questions about corporate cash? As last year’s $26 million Sierra Club-Chesapeake Gas scandal illustrates, it’s much too easy to hide these relationships and obscure their influence.

Misleading coverage of Wal-Mart

In a story last week examining the relationship between the Environmental Defense Fund and Wal-Mart, a reporter for The New York Times uncritically passed on EDF’s claim that it doesn’t receive funding from Wal-Mart.

The prominent environmental group has built a reputation as an “honest broker” that works with corporations but isn’t their pockets, so to speak.

But that claim glosses over the millions of dollars EDF takes from corporate foundations, including the Wal-Mart Family Foundation. Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, quickly brought the issue to the attention of Times Public Editor Joseph Burgess along with this chart detailing donations:

Grantmaker Name

Recipient Name Year Authorized Grant Amount Types(s) of Support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2003 110,000

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2004

541,170 Continuing support
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2005

1,050,000

Continuing support
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2006

3,547,863
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2007

3,723,498

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2008

7,369,989

Continuing support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc. Environmental Defense 2009

16,010,775

Continuing support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc. Environmental Defense

2010

7,086,054 Continuing support

Read the rest of this entry

DC’s smart meters going heywire?

Chris Turner's smart meter at work. Click to watch video.

For those of us following the climate change debate, we’ve heard for years that before we can build a clean energy economy we need a “smart grid” capable of plugging into an array of big and small power sources — from residential rooftop solar panels to massive wind farms.

But, it turns out even here in Washington, D.C., there are those who see something more sinister in the smart technology.  For some,  the “smart meters” represent a  massive new assault on the airwaves and public health.

It’s not exactly the kind of rabble rousing underway in Tea Party strongholds, where the meters are considered part of a United Nations’ plot to outlaw America’s beloved suburban sprawl  and herd everyone into “smart growth” shoebox apartments and “walkable” neighborhoods. D.C. activists, however, are using some of the same arguments and links to rail against the technology update. That might be part of the reason they aren’t getting much traction with city officials or their own neighbors.

Read more about DC’s meter battle in my story in today’s Washington City Paper.

WWF ally named in “massive” illegal logging scandal

Orangutan photo by Barefoot in Florida. Creative commons license.

UPDATE: I messaged WWF asking for comment + will post a response when I hear back.

A longtime ally of WWF has been implicated in a “massive illegal logging kickback scandal” inside one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. What’s more, the official, Musa Aman, Chief Minister of Malaysia’s Sabah region, is accused of making a fortune off of the same endangered orangutan habitat that he promised to protect.

Over the last several years, WWF has broadcast its partnerships with Aman’s Sabah government to protect the Borneo forest (home to the orangutans) and expand region’s marine protected areas. Aman even gave a keynote speech at WWF’s Asian green business conference last November. And Datuk Dr Dionysius S.K. Sharma, WWF Malaysia chief executive officer, has praised Aman’s “visionary leadership” for “walking the talk” of nature conservation.

“Sustainable development will determine if we get to keep this planet, and Sabah, with the leadership that it has, will be able to keep this part of the world intact,” Dionysius told a Malaysia newspaper last December.

WWF, however, has remained mum on the scandal that erupted this spring after a Malaysian activist group published documents allegedly leaked from two police investigations. The evidence compiled by anti-corruption units in Malaysia and Hong Kong included copies of bank records allegedly showing how an accomplice moved money from timber companies into a secret Swiss bank account held in trust for Aman.

The story is yet another dredged up by the daily news search created by the folks at Wiki Scraper. (Click on the link to check it out!)

WWF and other nature groups often court power brokers like Aman — relationships that have helped expand national parks and forests worldwide in recent decades. But corruption, weak rule of law, lack of funding, and other problems often leave these new wildlife preserves “protected” on paper only. The nonprofit groups, meanwhile, have lost credibility and local support by partnering with corrupt politicians, autocratic regimes and polluting corporations.

Previous Wiki Scraper finds include this piece alleging that staffers at my former employer, Conservation International, were directly involved in illegally felling trees inside a Vietnam nature preserve. (CI has denied the allegation and reportedly plans its own investigation.)

The recent scandals are just the latest reminder of the growing “reputational” travails facing international conservation groups, also known as BINGOs (big international nonprofit organizations). As controversies in remote rainforests start to reach their Western supporters, WWF, C.I., The Nature Conservancy and other groups are writing more people-friendly mission statements and policies. However, not everyone under the “environmentalists” umbrella buys the re-branding efforts; in fact, they’ve sparked a new round of debate over the direction of the movement.

Keeping tabs on corporate-funded environmentalism

When I wrote a book a few years ago examining how corporate donations influence the environmental movement, the research was a slog.

Hundreds of press releases, annual reports, tax returns, brochures, special reports, websites and subsidiary websites for both the companies and the nonprofit groups had to be perused. And keeping up with continuing developments? Daunting!

It occurred to me that there had to be a better way to keep tabs on the new deals and the scandals. So I brought the question with me to a hacker-meets-hack style event organized by the Washington Post and other news outlets a few weeks ago. The Post invited the UK-based ScraperWiki outfit to run the two day “data derby” — part competitive scrape, part skills building exercise.

Read the rest of this entry

End of Landfills?

Calgary's Spy Hill landfill. Photo by D'Arcy Norman. Creative commons license.

After reading one too many reports about corporations going “zero waste,” I began to wonder what this means for landfills. Could we really be headed toward a world without trash dumps and Superfund sites?

Considering that there’s possibly as much as 30 tons of industrial trash for every ton of municipal solid waste, we are talking a lot of trash; though corporations have even trashed the word and now consider their castoffs the fodder of new “profit centers.” But what happens to these newly branded “resources” after they’ve been “reduced, reused or recycled”?  I learned it’s far from a straightforward question. Read the story on Alternet.org.

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