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Nature is Being Renamed ‘Natural Capital’ – But is it Really the Planet that Will Profit?

The Conversation

September 13, 2016

by Sian Sullivan

 

China’s Jiangxi mountains: now just an asset? Shutterstock

The four-yearly World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has just taken place in Hawai’i. The congress is the largest global meeting on nature’s conservation. This year a controversial motion was debated regarding incorporating the language and mechanisms of “natural capital” into IUCN policy.

But what is “natural capital”? And why use it to refer to “nature”?

Motion 63 on “Natural Capital”, adopted at the congress, proposes the development of a “natural capital charter” as a framework “for the application of natural capital approaches and mechanisms”. In “noting that concepts and language of natural capital are becoming widespread within conservation circles and IUCN”, the motion reflects IUCN’s adoption of “a substantial policy position” on natural capital. Eleven programmed sessions scheduled for the congress included “natural capital” in the title. Many are associated with the recent launch of the global Natural Capital Protocol, which brings together business leaders to create a world where business both enhances and conserves nature.

At least one congress session discussed possible “unforeseen impacts of natural capital on broader issues of equitability, ethics, values, rights and social justice”. This draws on widespreadconcerns around the metaphor that nature-is-as-capital-is. Critics worry about the emphasis on economic, as opposed to ecological, language and models, and a corresponding marginalisation of non-economic values that elicit care for the natural world.

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Naming nature … but at what cost? Shutterstock

Naturalising ‘natural capital’

The use of “natural capital” as a noun is becoming increasingly normalised in environmental governance. Recent natural capital initiatives include the World Forum on Natural Capital, described as “the world’s leading natural capital event”, the Natural Capital Declaration, which commits the financial sector to mainstreaming “natural capital considerations” into all financial products and services, and the Natural Capital Financing Facility, a financial instrument of the European Investment Bank and the European Commission that aims “to prove to the market and to potential investors the attractiveness of biodiversity and climate adaptation operations in order to promote sustainable investments from the private sector”.

All these initiatives share the UK Natural Capital Committee’s view that “natural capital” consists of “our natural assets including forests, rivers, land, minerals and oceans”. People used to talk about “nature” or “the natural environment” – now they speak of “natural capital”.

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Growing profits. Shutterstock

So what does the word “capital” do to “nature” when they are linked? And should nature be seen in terms of capital at all? One controversial aspect, backed by IUCN’s Business and Biodiversity Programme, is receiving particular attention. This is the possibility of securing debt-based conservation finance from major institutions and the super-super-rich based on the value of income generated from so-called natural capital assets conserved in situ.

Capitalising natures

At the IUCN’s conservation congress a Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation was launched. Led by financial services company Credit Suisse, and backed by the IUCN and the World Wide Fund for Nature, the coalition builds on a series of recent reports proposing capitalising conservation in exactly this way.

In 2016, and following a 2014 report, Credit Suisse and collaborators published two documents outlining proposals for debt-based, return-seeking conservation finance. The most recent is called Levering Ecosystems: A Business-focused Perspective on how Debt Supports Investment in Ecosystem Services. In this, the CEO of Credit Suisse states that not only is saving ecosystems affordable, but it is also profitable, if turned “into an asset treasured by the mainstream investment market”.

The report proposes a number of mechanisms whereby “businesses can utilise debt as a tool to restore, rehabilitate, and conserve the environment while creating financial value”. The idea is that as “environmental footprints move closer to being recognised as assets and liabilities by companies, debt can be used to fund specific investments in ecosystems that lead to net-positive financial outcomes”. Debt-based financing – for example, through tradeable securities such as bonds – is framed as attractive in part because interest received by investors is “usually tax-deductible”.

The Levering Ecosystems report followed quickly from Conservation Finance: From Niche to Mainstream, steered by a small group including the director of IUCN’s Global Business and Biodiversity Programme. This report estimated the investment potential for conservation finance to be roughly US$200-400 billion by 2020.

Of course, investors loaning finance to projects associated with conservation also expect market-rate returns to compensate for investments considered to conserve, restore or rehabilitate ecosystems.

In the documents above, financial returns are projected as coming in part from new markets in payments for ecosystem services and sales of carbon credits. These new markets will supply the potentially monetisable “dividends” of conserved and restored habitats as “standing natural capitals”. Investor risk is proposed to be reduced through mobilising these assets, as well as the “land or usage rights” from which they derive, as underlying collateral.

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Two redrawn graphs representing the design of debt-based conservation finance, as per Credit Suisse reports in 2014 and 2016.

The graphs above present two schematic diagrams redrawn from the Credit Suisse texts to indicate how these flows of financial value may be leveraged from areas capitalised as investable natural capital. The models are based in part on expectations that recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change support for international carbon compensation mechanisms will release new long-term sources of public funding to “balance anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases”, thereby boosting possibilities for financial flows from forest carbon.

Such financialising moves, nascent and clunky as they are, may yet have significant implications if applied to countries in the global south with remaining high levels of “standing natural capital”. Caution is needed regarding the possibility that forest-rich but least developed countries may become indebted to ultra high-net-worth investors who access returns on their investments from new income streams arising from conserved tropical natures in these countries.

What’s in a name?

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Pandas: sending a powerful message. Shutterstock

In 1986, the central secretariat of the WWF decided to change the name of the organisation from the World Wildlife Fund to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The thinking was that an emphasis on “wildlife”, borne of a concern for endangered species, no longer reflected the organisation’s scope of work for the conservation of the diversity of life on earth. It was considered that overall the organisation would be better served by the term “nature”. In other words, it seems that naming and framing “nature” matters.

Given the conversations and debates at IUCN’s World Conservation Congress, it seems important to ask: how exactly does the conservation of natural capital equate with the conservation of nature? Do these terms in fact invoke different things? If they do, then it is worth clarifying whether the conservation of natural capital is always good for the conservation of nature. If they don’t, then it remains worth querying why exactly “nature” needs to be renamed as “natural capital”.

 

 

[Sian Sullivan is Professor of Environment and Culture, Bath Spa University.]

OECD Opens Investigation into WWF in World First

Survival International

WKOG: We rarely (if ever) share anything from an international NGO. In the case of Survival International, under the direction of Stephen Corry, we make an exception. “Some groups, such as Survival International, the London Mining Network and Intercontinental Cry, manage to keep involvement at arm’s length while trying their best to keep news channels open and information as objective as possible. Survival’s work as an advocacy group is most definitely via mainstream channels, and often using symbolic methods. In contrast to this, a glance at their website makes it horrifically clear where work is needed protecting some of the last remaining pure communities and also those that are seeking to re-assert their independence. That should be the motivation. Direct and relentless, if non-lethal, attacks on those parties carrying out such abominations seems perfectly justified; although in truth, unless the root causes, i.e. industrial civilization and its market forces, are undermined as well, then such point efforts will seem like pissing in the wind.” [Source: Underminers]

This Baka girl was tortured by a WWF-funded anti-poaching squad in Cameroon early 2016. She was 10 years old at the time.

This Baka girl was tortured by a WWF-funded anti-poaching squad in Cameroon early 2016. She was 10 years old at the time. © Survival International

In an unprecedented move, a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has agreed to investigate a complaint that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has funded human rights abuses in Cameroon, beginning a process which until now has only been used for multinational businesses.

Survival submitted the complaint in February 2016, citing numerous examples of violent abuse and harassment against Baka “Pygmies” in Cameroon by WWF-funded anti-poaching squads. Survival also alleges that WWF failed to seek communities’ free, prior and informed consent for conservation projects on their ancestral land.

This is the first time a non-profit organization has been scrutinized in this way. The acceptance of the complaint indicates that the OECD will hold WWF to the same human rights standards as profit-making corporations.

WWF funds anti-poaching squads in Cameroon and elsewhere in the Congo Basin. Baka and other rainforest tribes have reported systematic abuse at the hands of these squads, including arrest and beatings, torture and even death, for well over 20 years.

Baka have been forced from large areas of their ancestral land, and face violence from WWF-funded anti-poaching squads if they hunt, forage, or visit sacred sites.

Baka have been forced from large areas of their ancestral land, and face violence from WWF-funded anti-poaching squads if they hunt, forage, or visit sacred sites. © Survival International

Survival first urged WWF to change its approach in the region in 1991, but since then the situation has worsened.

Baka have repeatedly testified to Survival about the activities of these anti-poaching squads in the region. One Baka man told Survival in 2016: “[The anti-poaching squad] beat the children as well as an elderly woman with machetes. My daughter is still unwell. They made her crouch down and they beat her everywhere – on her back, on her bottom everywhere, with a machete.”

In two open letters Baka made impassioned pleas to conservationists to be allowed to stay on their land. “Conservation projects need to have mercy on how we can use the forest … because our lives depend on it.”

WWF has rejected Survival’s claims. It accepts that abuse has taken place but, in a statement in 2015, a spokesman stated that such incidents “appear to have tailed off” despite repeated testimonies from Baka themselves. In its response to the OECD, the organization cited political instability in the region and difficulties in the process of creating “protected areas” for wildlife conservation as the main reasons human rights abuses had taken place. It did not deny its involvement in funding, training and equipping guards.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said: “The OECD admitting our complaint is a giant step for vulnerable peoples. They can already use OECD Guidelines to try and stop corporations riding roughshod over them, but this is first time ever it’s agreed that the rules also apply to industrial-scale NGOs like WWF. WWF’s work has led to decades of pain for tribal peoples in the Congo Basin. It’s done nothing effective to address the concerns of the thousands of tribal people dispossessed and mistreated through its projects. That has to change. If WWF can’t ensure those schemes meet UN and OECD standards, it simply shouldn’t be funding them. Whatever good works it might be doing elsewhere, nothing excuses its financing of human rights abuses. The big conservation organizations must stop colluding in the theft of tribal land. Tribal peoples are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world. They should be at the forefront of the environmental movement.”

Many Baka are forced to live on roadsides. Rates of alcoholism and diseases like malaria have soared, and their diet has deteriorated.

Many Baka are forced to live on roadsides. Rates of alcoholism and diseases like malaria have soared, and their diet has deteriorated. © Survival International

Background briefing
– The OECD is an international body with 35 member countries. It has developed Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises which are monitored by national contact points in each country, and offer one of the very few opportunities to hold MNEs to account if they fail to respect the human rights of communities affected by their projects.
WWF International’s headquarters are in Switzerland, so Survival’s complaint was submitted to the Swiss contact point, as Cameroon is not a member of the OECD.
– In 2008, Survival International lodged a complaint against British-owned mining company Vedanta Resources when it was seeking to mine on the territory of the Dongria Kondh in India without the tribe’s consent. The OECD stated that Vedanta had broken its guidelines.
WWF is the largest conservation organization in the world. According to the organization itself, only 33% of its income comes from individual donors. The rest is derived from sources including government grants, foundations, and corporations

Pygmy’ tribes like the Baka have lived in the rainforests of the Congo Basin for millennia. They are being illegally evicted in the name of conservation, but logging, poaching and other threats to endangered species like gorillas, forest elephants and pangolins continue.

Pygmy’ tribes like the Baka have lived in the rainforests of the Congo Basin for millennia. They are being illegally evicted in the name of conservation, but logging, poaching and other threats to endangered species like gorillas, forest elephants and pangolins continue. © Selcen Kucukustel/Atlas

– “Pygmy” is an umbrella term commonly used to refer to the hunter-gatherer peoples of the Congo Basin and elsewhere in Central Africa. The word is considered pejorative and avoided by some tribespeople, but used by others as a convenient and easily recognized way of describing themselves.

FLASHBACK | Conservation International: Privatizing Nature, Plundering Biodiversity

conservation-international

Seedling | Grain

October 2003

by Aziz Choudry

Conservation International’s corporate sponsor list reads like a list of the US’ top fifty transnational corporations. Biodiversity conservation is at the top of Conservation International’s list of goals. But as the list of Conservation International’s dubious ventures and questionable partners around the world grows, Aziz Choudry is starting to wonder if it is time to ‘out’ this ‘multinational conservation corporation’ and show its true colours.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C, with operations in over 30 countries on four continents, Conservation International claims to be an environmental NGO. Its mission is “to conserve the Earth’s living natural heritage, our global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature.” [1] This all sounds very laudable and Conservation International has some very high profile fans. This year Colin Powell shared the podium with Conservation International President Russell Mittermeier at the launch of the Bush Administration’s “Initiative Against Illegal Logging” at the US State Department. In December 2001, Gordon Moore, who founded Intel Corporation, donated US $261 million to Conservation International, supposedly the largest grant ever to an environmental organisation. Moore is chairman of Conservation International’s executive committee. Conservation International has repaid Moore’s largesse by nam-ing an endangered Brazilian pygmy owl after him. [2]

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