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What’s the fallout when green groups “partner” with arms makers?

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

About a year ago Conservation International was pilloried by a couple of British videographers posing as executives of the arms maker Lockheed Martin. They bamboozled a C.I. official in London into a meeting where she outlined several ways the nonprofit could “partner” with the arms maker under terms that looked a lot like greenwashing. You can watch the video here and judge for yourself if C.I. did anything wrong.

I had a few issues with the “exposé;” chiefly that C.I. already had dealings with B2 bomber maker Northrop Grumman, whose chairman and CEO Wes Bush is a member of its board of directors. And another big group, The Nature Conservancy, was already in the pay of Lockheed. These existing relationships undermined the shock value the scamsters were going for.

Still, you’d think the critique, or at least the bad press coverage it generated, would inspire reflection about the reputational damage some corporate deals can bring down on a nonprofit organization. More specifically, is a company that makes weapons of war an appropriate partner for a group whose mission is saving the Earth’s biodiversity? Well, if those questions were raised, they didn’t lead to change.

C.I. has just cranked up its P.R. machine in service of a new partnership with Northrop, “a unique and innovative professional development program for public middle and high school science teachers.”

In a nutshell: The Northrop Grumman Foundation will pay for 16 teachers from four U.S. public school systems to visit CI’s Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network’s Volcan Barva site inside La Selva Biological Station and Braulio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica.

“We believe that supporting professional development opportunities for teachers will have the greatest impact on engaging students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. We expect this program will help cultivate the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Sandy Andelman, vice president at Conservation International in a press release the two partners issued April 19.

Whoa! That statement requires a reality check. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 3.6 million K to 12 grade teachers in the United States spread across 14,000 public school districts. The group selected for this program doesn’t even come close to representing 1 percent of the teachers in the country.

While they will surely have a rewarding time and may even return home to inspire their students, the scale of the program is too small to have the impact Andelman claims. Like so many of these corporate-conservationist joint ventures they are more symbolic than substantive.

They deliver real public relations boons for Northrop, however, which might explain why the Falls Church, Vir. -based company features the “ECO classroom” as a top story on its homepage.

Hat tip to Wiki Scraper for writing the search tool that brought this story to my attention.

While we’re on the subject of corporate-environmentalist ties, here’s another couple of recent stories that deserve mentions:

This upbeat Q & A featuring Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton and C.I.’s CEO Peter Seligmann comes out as Wal-Mart as struggles to overcome awkward questions about its greening policies and a recent bribery scandal.

Many environmental groups, including C.I., don’t count donations from corporate-tied foundations as “corporate” cash. Instead, they report money from the likes of the Walton Family Foundation and the Northrop foundation as foundation grants, which helps them claim that only a fraction of their funding comes from corporate sources.  For that matter, C.I. doesn’t tally the money it receives from scions like Rob Walton in the corporate column either. But Walton, in this article, doesn’t talk like someone whose relationship to C.I. is detached from the workings of the family firm, even if he does say he leaves the day-to-day greening to “middle managers.”

Environmental Defense Fund was caught in a similar controversy last week. The group claims to take zero corporate dollars but the Walton Family Foundation granted EDF $16 million in 2009 and continuing support equal to more than $7 million in 2010, among other support.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports this morning that an obscure private foundation threatened to pull funding from the Potomac Riverkeeper group unless it dropped its opposition to a trading scheme proposed as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

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.

Earth Day Weekend Wrap Up

Now that Earth Day has turned 40, it apparently takes an entire weekend for all the celebrating. Anybody go to the concert on The Mall? We were planning on it but the weather was so lousy we headed to AFI Silver to see “Greenburg” instead. Sure, it’s not a terribly verdant way to wrap up such a big anniversary but this ain’t no banner year for the environment either.  Here are a few links to stories I’ve read over the birthday weekend:

The new Gallup poll released late last week provides fresh insight into just how much public concern has slipped over global warming and other environmental woes.  But no amount of denial can change the growing avalanche of scientific data pointing toward a warming world. For a comprehensive explanation, you can’t beat this piece in The Economist magazine. Sure, it gets a big bogged down and wonky in spots, but it will give you all the information you need next time you find yourself in cocktail party conversation with a skeptic.

Wine Lovers beware: Here’s a story on the new Climate Desk site explaining how global warming is wrecking havoc in vineyards.

Here’s a story on how the world’s remaining old-growth rainforests are being flushed down the toilet.

Rebecca Solnit reviews Bill McKibben’s new book “Eaarth” and mixes in a few climate change extras on TomDispatch.com.

“The party’s over” according to the Washington Post, reporting on the latest International Monetary Fund’s assessment of the state of the world economy. Funny, both the IMF and McKibben are essentially calling for the same thing: a downsizing and rethinking of what’s considered “the good life.”

The Coal industry is on the ropes as even the nation’s power plants vow to “go green,” says the Wall Street Journal. Plant operators are now turning to natural gas, the paper reports. But what about the growing controversy over fracking?

Selling(out) the environmental movement - Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman posts on Washington Post and New York Times stories examining corporate influence inside Big Green groups. Calling it “the 800-pound gorilla in the environmental movement,” Goetzman notes that it’s about time the mainstream press examined questionable deals the nation’s leading environmental groups have cut with corporate polluters, not to mention the very corporate style in which many of these nonprofit groups operate today.

Ever since Johann Hari’s piece, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” ran in The Nation last month, a glaring spotlight is on environmental groups that shill for their corporate donors. Sadly, these unlikely alliances have turned our corporate watchdogs into corporate lapdogs.

I was quoted in Hari’s piece and my book provided some background in that story, which made me quite happy and proud to help get this conversation started; I’m not so happy about the way the climate change denial camp has discovered my research, however. An outfit calling itself Freedom Action has been running a full page ad in the Washington Examiner detailing the astronomical salaries of some of the country’s environmental leaders. WWF-US chief Carter Roberts makes about $510,000 a year; EDF’s Fred Krupp takes home $474,000, and so on. You can find the same info. on page 21 of my book or just pick up the Examiner! The only problem with Freedom Action is it’s trying to derail any attempt at climate action but mixing things up with kooky ideas about birth control meds that end up in the nation’s water supplies.

The Nation Exposes Greenwashing by Big Green Groups

Check out this passionate piece in The Nation by British journalist Johann Hari. Perhaps I’m biased since I wrote an entire book on this subject and Hari quotes me in his story, but I think he argues persuasively that the large mainstream environmental groups in this country have sold out to their corporate sponsors and, when it comes to climate change, are selling us down the river (…or the seas as they rise!)

He certainly doesn’t mince words! He calls Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy “polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted.”

But it’s not all bleak and depressing. Hari concludes that:

Already, shining alternatives are starting to rise up across America. In just a year, the brilliant 350.org has formed a huge network of enthusiastic activists who are demanding our politicians heed the real scientific advice–not the parody of it offered by the impostors. They have to displace the corrupt conservationists as the voice of American environmentalism, fast.

Climate Deniers: I Do Not Agree

Every now and then, I notice climate deniers using my book, Green, Inc., to justify their views that climate change is “a hoax.”

Just because I question the lavish modus operandi of some of the world’s largest conservation groups and call them out for helping polluting corporations greenwash their image that hardly makes me a member of the deniers’ club. Finding passages from my book quoted on Internet sites devoted to attacking Al Gore and deriding efforts to address climate change is more than a little dismaying.

As a writer, of course, it’s always nice to known people are reading your book. But these bloggers willfully misrepresent my findings. Far from suggesting we don’t have environmental problems, my conclusion, among other things, is that we need our environmental groups today more than ever. If groups such as The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International continue acting like enablers to the world’s largest polluters – industries such as oil & gas, mining and agribusiness – they risk losing all credibility.

It’s particularly peeving to be used by a bunch of climate deniers at a time when environmentalists are losing the PR battle over global warming. A new Harris Interactive poll, reports that Americans increasingly have doubts about global warming, despite mounting evidence – not only that climate change exists – but that our chances are slipping away to head off the worst of it. According to Harris, only 51 percent of Americans agree climate change is real today, compared to 71 percent in 2007, and 75 percent in 2001.

Why do you think people are growing skeptical about climate change?  Somehow, I don’t think it’s the Al Gore-hating sites that have the biggest impact on public views.

Saving Forests by Evicting the Poor: The Best Way to Solve Global Warming?

Mother Jones reports on the controversy surrounding purportedly forest-saving carbon-trading schemes by profiling the fate of General Motors’ “$1” guaricica tree.

In the late 1990s, GM was one of the corporations that signed up for a pioneering program sold as a way companies could reduce their responsibility for global warming without actually reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, they would pay to preserve Brazil’s Atlantic Forest that would presumably absorb all or some of those emissions that cause global warming. Supporters of these types of vehicles refer to them as “carbon offset” programs, but detractors have called them payoff systems. My personal analogy is to the indulgences that the Catholic Church used to sell in medieval times. Like indulgences, carbon offsets may be purchased by any person, corporation or government with enough cash on hand. It does not, however, require any reduction in climate changing emissions whatsoever.

This particular program spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy has already seen its share of controversy.  It was examined in detail as part a congressional investigation a few years back into the operations of the Conservancy, the largest wildlife conservation organization in the world, headquartered just over the DC line in Arlington. That investigation came after a scathing Washington Post exposé of the cozy relationships between the Conservancy and its wealthy and corporate donors and the huge salaries it pays it top executives. The series also detailed allegations of gross mismanagement at the organization that also prompted a broad review of nonprofit groups by the Internal Revenue Service. You can find more details about this episode in my book, “Green, Inc.

But, I digress …  the Mojo story hones in on another controversial aspect of carbon offset programs: they tend to displace people who live in and near forests, particularly those in poor developing countries.  The article’s author, Mark Schapiro, traveled to Brazil and spoke with impoverished farmers who have lost their rights to hunt and forage in the forests saved with GM dollars. The irony: people with some of the lowest carbon footprints in the world are being displaced so some of the biggest culprits of global warming can win PR points by claiming to have “greened” themselves. And, Shapiro points out: We’re complicit since U.S. taxpayers acquired a stake in GM in last year’s auto industry bailout.

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