WWF, the world’s biggest environmental organisation, is under fire. On 23 June 2011, the German TV station ARD broadcast a documentary highlighting WWF’s cozy relationship with distinctly unsustainable companies like the genetically modified giant Monsanto and the rainforest destroying palm oil company Wilmar.
This week Global Witness published a report criticising WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network.
The only surprising thing is that it has taken so long for the WWF scandal to become public. The title of this post, “Bears feeding on toxic corporate waste,” is borrowed from an email that was circulated anonymously back in April 2003 (posted in full, for a little light relief, below). Sooner or later, the WWF scandal had to go public.
Today’s post is part 1 of the WWF scandal. It looks at the ARD documentary. Part 2 (coming soon) will look at the Global Witness report investigating WWF’s abysmal failure to rein in the logging industry.
The ARD documentary, “Der Pakt mit dem Panda”, was produced by Wilfried Huismann, a prize winning investigative journalist. It is posted below and can be viewed on ARD’s website (in German).
The film produced shock waves in Germany. But rather than facing up to the fact that these are serious criticisms, WWF Germany responded defensively, producing a “fact check” page on its website and a series of interviews with staff of WWF Germany who, surprise, surprise, tell us that they are doing everything they can to save the planet.
The film focusses in on WWF’s cozy relationships with corporate eco-nasties. Here are two particularly egregious examples, from the palm oil sector in Indonesia and the soy industry in Argentina.
In Indonesia, WWF has a partnership with Wilmar, a company that has converted vast areas of rainforest to monoculture oil palm plantations. WWF is quick to point out that its Memorandum of Understanding with Wilmar is to protect high conservation value forest and that it receives no money from Wilmar under this MoU. But as Nordin, who works with WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), points out in the film, WWF is in effect helping to greenwash an environmental disgrace:
“WWF says that you can produce palm oil in a sustainable way. Look around. How can that be sustainable? Nothing regrows here. The partnership with Wilmar improves the image of the firm, not their practices. I have no evidence that WWF is corrupt but it helps the industry to expand further.”
Predictably, Wilmar mentions the MoU in its 2007 Corporate Social Responsibility report as an example of how it implements its policies:
Wilmar upholds a policy of enhancing and maintaining flora and fauna species, and uses a flexible menu of conservation practices to protect natural habitats that are found to be rich in biodiversity.
There are two toe-curlingly embarrassing interviews in the documentary with WWF staff. In the first, a WWF Indonesia employee explains that she doesn’t really know what’s happening on the ground in the Wilmar plantation where Huismann filmed. In the second, Dörte Bieler, WWF Germany’s manager for “sustainable biomass”, is interviewed at an industry conference. No other NGOs took part in the conference. She tells Huismann that
“Our work is science-based. We always conduct a study before we have an opinion… And with this science-based evidence we have been able to achieve some things.”
But she is unable to point to a single thing that WWF has achieved through its cooperation with corporations. What’s important for WWF, according to Bieler, is that the NGO is “not just ridiculed, but accepted as a competent discussion partner.”
In Argentina, Huismann looks at WWF’s relationship with soy companies. The film includes an interview with Dr Hector Laurence,[*] the personification of the WWF scandal. In a World Business Council for Sustainable Development brochure he is quoted as saying,
“I am surprised to find that some people consider that if NGOs work with business they risk loosing [sic] objectivity. Efficient and transparent collaboration between these sectors is precisely the way to overcome this prejudice.”
We shouldn’t be surprised by this, since Laurence’s career included being head of a conservation organisation called Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina (WWF’s associate in Argentina), President of the Argentinean Asociation of Agrobusiness; and Vice-president of Pioneer Overseas Corporation, part of Dupont.
Laurence’s position on pesticides and GM soy is identical to that of the agribusinesses who have planted millions of hectares of GM soy in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
WWF’s response to the interview with Hector Laurence is particularly odious:
Hector Laurence was never with WWF, instead he worked with the associated partner organisation Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina (FVSA) until 2008.
In fact, the panda is very cuddly with FVSA. WWF’s website, under the headline “WWF-Argentina: Our solutions”, states that
Together, [WWF and FVSA] held joint campaigns, arrange global actions and receive financial backup for executing programs and projects.
The layout of FVSA’s website design is very similar to a previous WWF layout (WWF’s website has since been re-designed). FVSA’s url even includes the magic letters wwf and panda.org:
WWF was one of the founders of the Round Table on Responsible Soy. But the issue of genetically modified soy is not part of RTRS discussions. Members of the RTRS can use as much GM soy as they wish. WWF denies that it promotes GM crops, arguing that it remains in the Round Table on Responsible Soy in order to reduce the amount of GM soy planted. But the reality, whether WWF likes it or not, is that its presence in the RTRS is lending legitimacy to RTRS and thus to GM soy, monocultures and agribusiness. WWF knows this – it’s been pointed out to them many times.
Jason Clay of WWF-US [*] declined Huisman’s request for an interview. Instead the documentary included a 2010 presentation that Clay gave to the Global Harvest Initiative, an agribusiness lobbying initiative set up by Archer Daniels Midland, DuPont, John Deere and Monsanto. Among GHI’s consultative partners are Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and WWF. “We need to freeze the footprint of agriculture,” Clay says in his presentation. He explains that WWF is suggesting seven or eight things we need to work on to achieve this. “One is genetics, we have got to produce more with less,” he says, sounding just like an GM agribusiness lobbyist.
“It takes 15 years, at least and maybe longer as we go along, to bring a genetically engineered product to market. If we don’t start today, we’re already at 2025. The clock is ticking. We need to get moving. There is a sense of urgency.”
WWF’s response? “WWF Germany disagrees.” But the programme is not about WWF Germany. It is about WWF. And WWF admitted to the Süddeutsche newspaper that it has accepted money from Monsanto. Meanwhile, Jason Clay is not a paper pusher in some neglected outpost of the WWF empire. He is Senior Vice President for Market Transformation at WWF-US.
Not everything in Huismann documentary hits the target. A handful of WWF’s rebuttals appear plausible. But that does not make WWF’s response either acceptable or adequate. The documentary raises important issues about WWF’s cozy relationship with massive, destructive corporations. That WWF is not even interested in an intelligent and open discussion of these issues, let alone changing the way it works with destructive corporations, is a disgrace.
UPDATE and APOLOGY – 30 July 2011: I have deleted the descriptions of Hector Laurence and Jason Clay. Thanks to everyone who pointed out that the way these people look has nothing to do with the argument. I apologise for causing any offense to anyone and promise not to do that again.
Here, for the record, is Jason Clay’s presentation in full to the Global Harvest Initiative:
Date: Thu, 3 Apr 2003 06:04:32 -0800 (PST)
From: Panda Person
Subject: Bears feeding on toxic corporate waste
Leading ecologists call for an ‘Urgent Global Coalition to save the Panda’
Grass roots environmental groups around the world must unite to save the Giant Panda (Wufwuf martinensis) from imminent extinction, say some of the world’s top ecological experts. The Giant Panda’s habitat (most of which is found near Gland, Switzerland) is being invaded by rapacious multinational companies intent on gaining control of this crucial environmental area. Recent reports indicate that the Giant Panda’s territory is now completely surrounded and heavily infiltrated by mining, logging, chemical and drug corporations.
Some scientists believe that, because of the ecological impacts caused by these companies, only a few Giant Pandas are likely to remain within a few years. As their native habitat has been destroyed, the bears have increasingly become dependent on scraps of food found at the corporations’ waste dumps. This change of diet causes Pandas to become bloated and listless, and also impairs their sight and hearing.
The Giant Panda’s population has actually been increasing in recent years, and the beasts have been seen roaming in areas where they have never previously been encountered. This has caused problems in itself. One leading bear expert has said that “The Pandas seem disorientated, lost. They’ve been stumbling around and trampling all over the habitat of other species. They’re constantly hungry and have eaten all the food needed by other, smaller, bears. Giant Pandas are lovable creatures in the right place but, to be honest, they’ve become a real pest. Ideally, they should be rounded up and put back into National Parks, where they will be less of a danger to themselves and others. Some people now feel that, if the rogue bears can’t be got rid of in any other way, then we may have to start shooting them.”
Increasingly, the Pandas are finding themselves in mortal battles with other species of bear. One renowned ecologist has reported that “The Giant Panda’s favourite tactic is to use its horribly distended size simply to crush other smaller bears to death. In some cases, the Pandas rip out the brains of the other bears and eat them. Very few smaller bears have been able to defend themselves so far, and mostly they just have to run away and hide. However, these kinds of ‘bear against bear’ clashes are likely to become more frequent and more bloody.”
Many scientists now believe that the Giant Panda’s recent population explosion will inevitably be followed by an equally dramatic, and possibly terminal, population crash. One expert (who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals) has said that “The Pandas appear to have lost the ability to feed themselves with fresh food in their own natural habitat. If the corporations decide to stop leaving their waste around for the bears to eat, as they eventually will, then the Panda population will plummet. This is the kind of phenomenon observed in some small-brained creatures such as lemmings, but never before with species that are supposedly as intelligent as Giant Pandas.”
Other sub-species of the Panda around the world are equally threatened. The population of the South African Panda, for example, is being held in captivity by the country’s two largest plantation companies, one of which is a world leader in the development of genetically modified ‘Frankenstein trees’. Some observers believe that it is only a matter of time before the companies slay the South African Pandas for their precious skins, which corporate executives value highly for use as camouflage when hunting down local environmentalists. Others believe that sinister experiments are underway in which the captive bears are also being genetically modified such that, in future, they would become dependent on leaves from the company’s bio-engineered eucalyptus trees.
In Canada and Sweden, some of the most controversial logging companies have been seen feeding the local Pandas. There is widespread speculation that the food is either laced with poison or possibly with a strong tranquillising drug which will render the Pandas helpless and immobile. Canadian corporate executives regularly force captive Pandas to perform humiliating and degrading dances at international events, just for the sake of public entertainment.
In Australia, the huge Vino Tinto mining company has bought the entire local population of Pandas. It has been reported that Tinto has also been feeding the Australian Pandas with huge quantities of food spiked with a highly addictive drug, and has set the doped animals to work in guarding the company’s mines.
In the US, corporate executives have successfully disguised themselves as Pandas in order to infiltrate the local population of bears. Some local observers see this as part of a cunning long-term plan to ensure that future generations of Pandas never learn from their parents how to use either their teeth or claws.
Ecologists believe that these problems are part of a worldwide pattern. However, the fate of other Panda sub-species is not entirely known. A spokeswoman for the newly formed ‘Save the Panda Coalition’ said “We suspect that Pandas from Japan to Brazil, and Germany to Indonesia may have already been captured by multinational corporations, and are being forced-fed with contaminated food. We urgently need more research on this by local experts.”
Summing up the tragic situation, a bear expert has said that “Some Pandas seem to have escaped the clutches of the big industrialists but, really, there’s nowhere else for them to go. They will probably just die of starvation. We need a global effort to get the corporations out of the Giant Panda’s habitat, and to free all the sub-species now being held in captivity. This has to be a top priority for the world environment and conservation movement. Any genetically modified and mutant Pandas will probably have to be destroyed, along with those that have become totally dependent on corporate waste, but this is a price worth paying if it helps to protect the species as a whole.”