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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.

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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.

Copenhagen/Holiday Fundraiser Tonight

In case you didn’t already hear, there’s been a slight programing change for tonight’s fundraiser sponsored by  DC Green Connection and CarbonfreeDC. Monika wrote in earlier to say, World Wildlife Fund climate change policy expert Will Gartshore has joined the ranks of District wonks called away to Copenhagen. But never fear! The hosts have found a substitute: Nick Sundt, the Director of Communications for WWF’s Climate Change Program. He, apparently, is “one of  the few climate experts left in DC to hold the fort and tell the story!!” Thanks for the update, Monika!

There is still time to RSVP. You can find all the details here.

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.

Green Search Engine or Greenwashing?

Amazonas Photo via panda.org

“Internet users will from today be able to help protect the rainforest while they search,” proclaimed the UK newspaper, The Guardian, in a story today about a new search engine company called Ecosia that plans to donate 80 percent of its profits to the environmental group WWF.  Cash, the company’s founder says, that will reach into the billions of dollars each year.

That could mean a lot of forest conservation. According to a spokesman for the environmental group quoted in the story, the average user could protect 2,000 square meters of rainforest yearly. That’s the paltry size of a hockey field. But for every 1 percent of global internet users who migrate to Ecosia, an entire Switzerland-size chunk of Brazilian paradise could be saved, according to WWF. You can even activate a widget on your screen that tallies up how many acres of rainforest you are personally responsible for rescuing.

As someone who spends lots of time every day searching the Internet for work – as well as for movie show times and other such R&R reasons – I was horrified when I first learned how much energy search engines consume. According to one estimate, two Google searches produces as much carbon dioxide as it takes to boil a kettle of water. True, those figures are controversial; Google protested, asserting that most simple searches involve many fewer climate warming emissions. Whatever the true figures, the upshot is searching the web – like everything else in life – comes with carbon consequences.

Given the explosion of “green” search engines in the last few years, I’m apparently not the only one cringing over her tangled web footprint. The story lists several other so-called eco-friendly search platforms. They include EcoSearch, GoodSearch, GoodTree, Green Maven, EcoSeek, Treehoo and Ecocho.

Ecosia, the engine that debuted today,  says it’s the greenest of them all. But are any of them truly green?

While Ecosia claims to work as well as Bingo or Yahoo, the press release news story makes no mention of how its energy consumption stacks up next to estimates for Bingo, Yahoo … or Google. And, the other engines that claim to be green appear to be engaging in similar public relationality. EcoSearch, GoodSearch and GoodTree give part of their proceeds from advertising to environmental groups, while users of Treehoo and Ecoho can pay for carbon offsets, according to the story.

Worthy causes?  Probably.  Questions have been raised, however, about whether such carbon payoff schemes really cut the amount of pollution spewed into the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet. I devote an entire chapter in my book to the controversy over what some critics have equated with the Roman Catholic Church‘s medieval system of indulgences. Even the dandy Ecosia widget that tallies up the amount of rainforest saved could potentially work against reducing emissions; The notion that you can save trees with every click could conceivably encourage people to query more. At the least, it would ease our guilt without requiring us to actually consume less energy. Saving forests is an excellent idea for a variety of reasons – their ability to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and sequester them, being but one.  Business models like Ecosia’s, on the other hand, seem more gray than green.

Kickoff to Copenhagen Holiday Mixer

Alas, the Polar Bear Won't Be Attending

Next Monday night, the DC Green Connection and CarbonfreeDC are sponsoring a holiday mixer and fundraiser timed to coincide with start of international climate talks. The District is teeming with policy wonks and/or professional activists who scored passage to Copenhagen. Not one of them? No matter. If you pony up the $15 cover charge ($12 for members of the DC Green Connection,) you can debate the virtues of carbon credits verses carbon taxes with like-minded neighbors.

Monday, December 7, 2009, 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Restaurant 1905 at 1905 9th St., NW

World Wildlife Fund climate change policy expert Will Gartshore and thirsty bicyclists pedaling from New York City to DC to show their climate commitment have already RSVPed. If you’d like to RSVP too, click here.