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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.

Who gains when Enviros + Corps do Business?

While researching this post on how corporations and political parties “shape” public opinion, I stumbled upon this ringing endorsement of the communications strategy company Maslansky Luntz + Partners:

“It’s one thing to have a vendor, it’s another to have a partner. And from the executive staff to the whole team, they’re really committed to us and what we’re trying to do,” Laura Bowling, SVP, Strategic Marketing + Global Communications, Conservation International

Beyond the slightly smarmy logrolling, anybody else catch what’s so stunning about a veep at one of the world’s largest environmental groups heaping praise this particular marketing firm?

Climate change is driving many amphibians toward extinction. Click on photo to learn more.

That would be Maslansky LUNTZ, as in Republican strategist Frank Luntz, author of the infamous 2002 memo outlining how Republicans could obstruct the enactment of climate legislation without appearing unsympathetic to environmental issues. He counseled them to raise doubts about climate science. Looking back nearly a decade later, that advice has proven its effectiveness.

It has, however, forever linked Luntz + company to climate change denial, which in turn raises certain questions about whether a firm he founded could really be committed to Conservation International’s mission. By now, you may also be asking yourself why an environmental organization would hire the firm owned by a chief architect of climate change denial?

This may seem counterintuitive but environmentalists work with corporations (and their marketing firms) all the time these days. Corporations don’t just bankroll many of the largest environmental groups, Fortune 500 executives sit on their boards and run these organizations. And there’s loads of cross over between the business and nonprofit worlds. Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy is a former Goldman Sachs executive. He’s the latest in a long line of corporate bigwigs to helm that organization.

Bowling also had a 20-year corporate career before joining CI. Might that be why she either didn’t know she was – or didn’t mind – teaming up with marketers of climate change denial? According to her bio, she worked for both agencies and corporations including Procter & Gamble, Ogilvy & Mather, The Walt Disney Company, and Vivendi/Universal.

One thing does surprise me though: It’s been a couple of years since Bowling left CI and returned to the private sector. You’d think a crack communications firm like Maslansky Luntz + Partners would be on top of that stuff and keep their site updated.

Democracy Now Show Today on Big Greens Standing in the Way of Climate Progress

The buzz created by Johann Hari’s hard-hitting article, The Wrong Kind of Green,  in The Nation magazine is finally generating some much needed attention for the outrageous behavior of some of our leading environmental groups. This morning, Amy Goodman of Democracy now interviewed Johann and me about Big Green groups such as Conservation International, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, and The Nature Conservancy – that are endorsing the climate policies sponsored by their corporate donors and allies in Washington. There is just no getting around the fact that the proposals backed by these groups will do little to head off runaway climate change. As Hari pointed out this morning, some of these policies will actually encourage more logging in tropical rainforests, despite ample evidence that we need those trees standing to sop up climate changing greenhouse gases.

Hari was very effective exposing these false solutions but left things on an optimistic note by mentioning the creative nonviolence campaigns climate activists have unfurled in the UK. I wish there had been more time so that I could have mentioned that the real grassroots of US enviornmentalism – not the big national groups that have been coopted by Washington’s deal making mentality and corporate donations – are also experiencing an encouraging growth spirt.

In doing some research for a magazine article and possibly a new book, I’ve been talking to activists all over the country in the last few weeks.  Julia “Judy” Bonds, who has been fighting mountaintop removal coal mining in her Appalachian community for a dozen years, says “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” In the last five years, she says a movement has begun to take shape and it’s just a matter of time before it sparks change. She likened the tense standoff between coal miners and mountaintop removal foes like herself to the bloody civil rights struggle started in Selma, Alabama in 1963 that  was widely credited with helping pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Author Bill McKibbon is calling for people to take to the streets and join the 350.org civil disobedience campaign he launched. Tim DeChristopher, the guy who threw a wrench in the Dec. 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases on public lands, says we have to throw ourselves into the machine that’s threatening our existence.  McKibbon, DeChristopher, Julia “Butterfly” Hill, Mike Rosselle and many other activists have set up small radical groups that are all advocating that people – the average citizens like you and me – take to the streets to demand that President Obama and other lawmakers address global warming.

Considering how little we protest today, it’s hard to image the country will rise up and demand environmental sustainability. But they are doing it in the United Kingdom, so why not here? And if we don’t, who will? Bonds says her activism has shown her that politicians don’t lead, they merely follow the will of the people. It’s time for the people to take their fate into their own hands, she says.

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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