News & Media Opinion Pieces Environmentalists Spar Over Corporate Ties

Environmentalists Spar Over Corporate Ties

This article by Ben Block in Worldwatch on November 11, 2008 is of interest to all doctors because of our own interactions with the pharmaceutical industry. However, there are more fundamental concerns in relationships with organisations which fuel a form of economic growth that is the cause of the ecological crisis.

For permission to publish the updated version of this article we are grateful to the Worldwatch Institute, Eye on Earth,

At a time when more than a third of the planet’s species are threatened with extinction, the resources that are needed for effective conservation far exceed the money available for the cause.

As a result, large conservation groups have turned to corporate donors for more of their funding over the past decade. The financial support often compensates the groups for their help in lessening the environmental impact of a corporation and its supply chain.

The strengthening of corporate ties, however, has fueled a debate within the environmental movement about the role of industry in conservation work.

The groups accept the funding according to internal guidelines that they say prevent corporate donors from directly influencing the integrity of specific programs.

Yet at a time when more companies are trying to be “green,” several grassroots leaders say the relationships allow companies to “greenwash” their public images. Their concern is that the true benefactors of the partnerships are not imperiled species or ecosystems, but the corporations themselves.

Conservation Budgets Grow

In recent years, conservation funding has increased considerably. Among the three largest conservation organizations worldwide – The Nature Conservancy (TNC) [PDF], the WWF Network [PDF], and Conservation International (CI) – combined revenues in 2007 exceeded $2 billion, more than double the revenues in 2000.

The three groups received at least $35 million more from their corporate partnerships last year than in 2003, although their annual reports do not clarify all sources of corporate funding.

At the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [PDF], a network of more than 1,000 environmental, scientific, and governmental institutions, funding reached nearly $100 million last year – an 11.5 percent increase from three years prior. A greater percentage of the group’s funding will come from the private sector in the years ahead – jumping from 7.7 percent in 2009 to 11.9 percent in 2012 – according to IUCN’s projections.

The conservation groups point to a variety of partnerships that have been critical in spurring corporations to lessen the environmental impacts of their operations and products. Examples include efforts to source sustainably harvested wood, use carbon offsets, boost resource efficiency, and make other supply-chain improvements.

A partnership between The Coca-Cola Company and WWF, for instance, led the company to announce last month that it would improve water efficiency 20 percent by 2012 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 5 percent in its facilities in developed nations.

“We’re seeing many more examples of different kinds of collaborations with groups, from a cross-spectrum of the environmental movement, with companies in different industries,” said Justin Ward, vice president of business practices at CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. “But we want to be careful not to blend our name and affiliation with a company if there’s not real action to back that up.”

Grassroots leaders say that while the collaborations focus on a corporation’s global environmental footprint, impacts at the local level often continue to be ignored.

Antonio Claparols, president of the Ecological Society of the Philippines, said that in his country, several international conservation groups are working alongside large mining companies that have degraded the land and allegedly violated local villagers’ rights.

Since the partnerships began, he said, several of his Filipino colleagues have lost their respect for the large NGOs. “They have no credibility on the ground,” Claparols said.

IUCN and Shell

The debate came to a head in October at the World Conservation Congress, the world’s largest gathering of conservationists, held this year in Barcelona. The host, IUCN, was accused of risking its reputation over a five-year collaboration it launched with the energy company Shell International in 2007.
Through the deal, IUCN will attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of several Shell operations. Potential projects include the decommissioning of an oil field northeast of Scotland, natural gas production in Sweden, and oil exploration in the Arctic. Shell would compensate IUCN for the cost of the group’s involvement. Shell was also a sponsor for the Barcelona Congress.

Many in the wider environmental community argue that Shell, despite its recent support of renewable energy, carries a significant legacy of environmental degradation and human rights abuse. In Nigeria, oil spills and gas flaring have polluted many parts of the country. Shell is also defending accusations that it was complicit in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian activist who campaigned against the company until the government executed him for alleged murder. The case will be heard by a U.S. District Court in February.

The public connection between Shell and IUCN – a respected, 60-year-old conservation organization – has frustrated several of the environmental groups that are part of IUCN’s global network. “People are very upset about how companies use IUCN’s name on their promotional material” said Barbara Bramble, a senior international affairs advisor at the U.S-based National Wildlife Federation. “It drags IUCN into the dirt.”

Led by Friends of the Earth International and other international environmental groups, members of the World Congress called for IUCN to terminate its Shell agreement. “A long-term partnership agreement with Shell is not the right way to influence Shell,” a Friends of the Earth statement said. “There are strong reputational risks.”

Claparols used harsher language to describe the partnership. “The Union is being held hostage by extractive industries,” he said. “I don’t mind dialoging with industry…. But when you put the name of IUCN with Shell, it’s like you’re endorsing everything Shell does.”

Not all grassroots conservationists agreed with ending the contract. Shahid Sayeed Khan, director of Pakistan-based Indus Earth, said dialogue between environmental groups and corporations is essential to prevent widespread industrial degradation. “No question that the Shell experience in the past is not comparable to anything IUCN supports. But people change, institutions change, attitudes change,” he told the Congress.

IUCN warned its members that ending the Shell relationship could threaten conservation programs. Moreover, breaking such a contract prematurely may be illegal. “In case this agreement is terminated, other businesses will hesitate to engage with IUCN,” a statement to the Congress said. “This will greatly compromise the abilities for IUCN to raise money and for businesses to be engaged with conservation activities.”

NGOs Vote Against Shell Deal

For the Congress to terminate the Shell contract, IUCN’s governmental and NGO members would have both had to agree to the action. The measure received a 60 percent vote from NGOs, but fewer than 20 percent of governments were in favor.

The controversy was recognized by IUCN’s leaders during the Congress’s closing ceremony. President Ashok Khosla encouraged IUCN members to act as watchdogs, in addition to scientific experts, to ensure corporate partners do not take advantage of their collaborations.

“We have considerable consensus that the Union must engage with corporations, large, medium and small,” he said. “However, the terms of such engagement must be such as to lead to positive conservation outcomes, and ensure that at no time is IUCN’s integrity or capacity to fulfill its mission compromised in any way.”

The clash at the Congress was atypical in a community that generally seeks to avoid public criticism. Despite persistent concerns that corporate partnerships create conflicts of interest for environmentalists, many current and former employees of the large conservation groups cannot speak freely about these relationships, according to Christine MacDonald, author of Green, Inc: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad. “These big conservation groups control so much of the funding…so people are reluctant to speak out,” she said.

The IUCN-Shell dispute also suggests a divide between the large international conservation groups and smaller groups at the grassroots level and in developing countries.

“There is always a little tension in the NGO community because everyone is focused on what their priority is, advancing their mission,” said Suzanne Apple, vice president of business and industry at WWF-US. “The best thing we can do as an NGO is to be…open about our work with businesses…and what impact that has on others.”

Full disclosure: The Worldwatch Institute is a member of the IUCN network.

Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly reported that an IUCN World Congress motion to terminate an IUCN contract with Shell International was sponsored by Paris-based Pro-Natura International. In fact, Switzerland-based Pro Natura, a member of Friends of the Earth International and founder of IUCN, sponsored the motion.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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