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WWF Scandal | Part 1 | Bears Feeding on Toxic Corporate Waste

By Chris Lang, 27th July 2011

REDD Monitor

WWF's Panda feeding on toxic corporate waste

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-Argentina: wwfar.panda.org
WWF-International: wwf.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:

Global Harvest Initiative Symposium – Clay from Global Harvest Initiative on Vimeo.

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