Green Veneer | WWF Helps Industry More than Environment


By Jens Glüsing and Nils Klawitter


“Some people consider it outrageous that Spanish King Juan Carlos, who enjoys hunting big game, is the honorary president of WWF Spain. Here, a 2006 photo of Juan Carlos (right) during a hunting trip in Botswana.”


The WWF is the most powerful environmental organization in the world and campaigns internationally on issues such as saving tigers and rain forests. But a closer look at its work leads to a sobering conclusion: Many of its activities benefit industry more than the environment or endangered species.

Want to protect the rainforest? All it takes is €5 ($6.30) to get started. Save the gorillas? Three euros and you’re in. You can even do your part for nature with only 50 cents — as long as you entrust it to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which is still known by its original name of the World Wildlife Fund in the United States and Canada.

Last year, the WWF, together with German retail group Rewe, sold almost 2 million collectors’ albums. In only six weeks, the program raised €875,088 ($1.1 million), which Rewe turned over to the WWF.

The WWF has promised to do a lot of good things with the money, like spending it on forests, gorillas, water, the climate — and, of course, the animal the environmental protection group uses as its emblem, the giant panda.

Governments also entrust a lot of money to the organization. Over the years, the WWF has received a total of $120 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). For a long time, German government ministries were so generous to the organization that the WWF even decided, in the 1990s, to limit the amount of government funding it could receive. The organization was anxious not to be seen as merely an extension of government environmental protection agencies.

Illusion of Aid

But can the WWF truly protect nature against human beings? Or do the organization’s attractive posters merely offer the illusion of help? Fifty years after the organization was founded, there are growing doubts as to the independence of the WWF and its business model, which involves partnering with industry to protect nature.

The WWF, whose international headquarters are located in Gland, Switzerland, is seen as the world’s most powerful conservation organization. It is active in more than 100 countries, where it enjoys close connections to the rich and the powerful. Its trademark panda emblem appears on Danone yoghurt cups and the clothing of jetsetters like Princess Charlene of Monaco. Companies pay seven-figure fees for the privilege of using the logo. The WWF counts 430,000 members in Germany alone, and millions of people give their savings to the organization. The question is how sustainably this money is actually being invested.

SPIEGEL traveled around South America and the Indonesian island of Sumatra to address this question. In Brazil, an agricultural industry executive talked about the first shipload of sustainable soybeans, certified in accordance with WWF standards, to reach Rotterdam last year, amid a flurry of PR hype. The executive had to admit, however, that he wasn’t entirely sure where the shipment had come from. In Sumatra, members of a tribal group reported how troops hired by WWF partner Wilmar had destroyed their houses, because they had stood in the way of unfettered palm oil production.

Inconvenient for Some

Representatives of independent German non-governmental organizations like Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue) and Robin Wood also no longer see the aid organization as merely a custodian of animals. Instead, many view the WWF as an accomplice of corporations. In their opinion, it grants those corporations a license to destroy nature, in return for large donations and small concessions.

The organization, which now takes in about €500 million a year, has certainly notched up some important achievements. The Dutch section of WWF helped pay for Greenpeace’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior. To prevent dam projects on the Danube and Loire Rivers, activists occupied large construction sites, sometimes for years. In the 1980s, the Swiss section fought so vehemently against nuclear energy that the federal police classified its managing director as an enemy of the state.

While the WWF can be very inconvenient for some, it can also be quick to cozy up to others. The organization’s managers typically react with irritation to criticism of its cooperative efforts. Last year, a film made by Germany’s WDR television network, “The Pact with the Panda,” reached devastating conclusions about the WWF’s work. German author Wilfried Huismann held the conservationists partly responsible for increasing the threat to the rainforest — a charge the WWF vehemently denies.

The film was “inaccurately researched” or even “deliberately false,” says Martina Fleckenstein, who has been a biologist with the WWF for the last 20 years. She works in Berlin, where she heads the WWF’s Agriculture Policy section. Hardly any meetings with industry take place without her, and she is a queen of compromise. Nevertheless, after the film was released, the WWF was flooded with protest emails, and more than 3,000 supporters cancelled their memberships. The conservation organization had never experienced such a bloodletting before.

Of Tigers and People

A sedated black rhino is transported away from a poaching area in South Africa as part of an operation organized by WWF. The organization has been criticized over some of its conservation activities in Africa.

The animal used in the WWF’s logo is a cute and cuddly-looking creature, threatened with extinction because of its very low birthrate. But the panda does not elicit our emotions as much as great apes or big cats, which are more effective at drumming up donations. In 2010, the WWF took its cue from the Chinese calendar and proclaimed the “Year of the Tiger.”

The WWF has pursued its tiger mission for a long time. In the early 1970s, with the help of a large donation, it convinced the Indian government under then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to identify protected areas for the threatened big cats. According to Indian estimates, there were more than 4,000 tigers living in the country at the time. Today that number has dwindled to 1,700. Nevertheless, the WWF sees the Indian tiger program as a success. Without its efforts, says a spokesman, India’s tigers could “quite possibly be extinct by now.”

Less widely publicized is the fact that people were displaced to achieve this success. Villages were “resettled, but not against their will,” says Claude Martin, a Swiss national who was general director of WWF International from 1993 to 2005. “We were always convinced that this issue was handled properly.” But there are even doubts about that.

About 300,000 families had to leave their homes to create a conservation zone for wild animals, writes Mark Dowie in his book “Conservation Refugees.” According to Dowie, the displacement was the result of a concept called “fortress conservation,” which the WWF has always proclaimed as one of its policies. There is no room for human beings in these conservation zones, writes Dowie. The WWF says that it is opposed to forced relocation. But Bernhard Grzimek, a German TV zoologist and long-standing member of the WWF board of directors, also advocated the concept of national parks with no human presence in them. The WWF was established in 1961, following his successful film “Serengeti Shall Not Die.

Conservation Refugees

The Swiss founders and the German zoologist were united by a mixture of conservation and neo-colonialism. This legacy also includes the forced displacement of the Massai nomads from the Serengeti.

Experts estimate that in Africa alone, conservation efforts have created 14 million “conservation refugees” since the colonial era. In this model, some of the indigenous people, if they were lucky enough, could work as park wardens, preventing their relatives from entering the protected zones.

The Tesso Nilo National Park is one of those typical conservation zones promoted by the WWF. Martina Fleckenstein describes it as “a successful project for protecting tigers and elephants.” The area is in the heart of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The WWF office in the city of Pekanbaru manages the project.

“Save His Habitat,” reads a German tiger poster in the Pekanbaru office, which is funded with German WWF money. German TV talk show host Sandra Maischberger conducted a campaign to raise money for the last 500 Sumatra tigers. Many of them supposedly live in the Tesso Nilo, only a few hours from the WWF office.

Sunarto is a biologist who has long worked as a tiger researcher in the Tesso Nilo. But he has never seen a tiger there. “Tiger density is very low here, because of human economic activity,” says Sunarto, who like some Indonesians goes by only one name. He also points out that there are still some woodland clearing concessions within the conservation area.

To enable them to track down tigers, the WWF has provided the scientists with high-tech measuring equipment, including GPS devices, DNA analysis methods for tiger dung and 20 photo traps. During the last photography shoot, which lasted several weeks, the traps only photographed five tigers.

Off-Limits for Locals

The WWF sees its work in Sumatra as an important achievement, arguing that the rainforest in the Tesso Nilo was successfully saved as a result of a “fire department approach.” In reality, the conservation zone has grown while the forest inside has become smaller. Companies like Asia Pacific Resources International, with which the WWF previously had a cooperative arrangement, cut down the virgin forest, says Sunarto.

His colleague Ruswantu takes affluent eco-tourists on tours of the park on the backs of tamed elephants. The area is off-limits for the locals, and anti-poaching units funded by the Germans make sure that they stay out. “The WWF is in charge here, and that’s a problem,” says Bahri, who owns a tiny shop and lives in a village near the entrance to the park. No one knows where the borders are, he says. “We used to have small fields of rubber trees, and suddenly we were no longer allowed to go there.”

Feri, an environmental activist, calls this form of conservation “racist and neocolonial,” and notes: “There has never been forest without people here.” According to Feri, thousands of small farms were driven out of the Tesso Nilo, and yet the number of wild animals has actually declined since the conservationists arrived. “Tesso Nilo is not an isolated case,” he says.

Nowadays, multinational companies and conservationists work hand-in-hand. “The WWF is involved in the transformation of our world into plantations, monoculture and national parks,” says Feri, who supports the Indonesian environmental protection organization Walhi.

Part 2: The Palm Oil Business

The WWF has annual revenues of over 600 million Swiss francs.

According to a map hanging in the office of tiger conservationist Sunarto, which shows the extent of clear-cutting on Sumatra, the world’s sixth-largest island, enough wood to cover 88 soccer fields is cut down every hour — mostly to make way for palm oil plantations.

Indonesia is thriving as a result of a boom in palm oil. The Southeast Asian nation accounts for 48 percent of global production. The multifunctional oil is used in biodiesel, food products like Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread, shampoo and skin lotion. But the heavy use of pesticides on the monocultures is polluting rivers and ground water. Slash-and-burn agriculture has turned Indonesia into one of the world’s largest emitters of CO2.

Despite claims of sustainability, many companies continue to deforest the area. A concession costs about $30,000 in bribes or campaign contributions, reports a former WWF employee who worked in Indonesia for a long time. “Sustainable palm oil, as the WWF promises with its RSPO certificates, is really nonexistent,” he says.

RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The certificate makes it possible to crank up production while simultaneously placating the consciences of customers. Henkel, the Düsseldorf-based consumer products company, advertises its Terra range of household cleaning products with the claim that it supports “the sustainable production of palm and palm kernel oil, together with the WWF.”

Second-Class Rainforest

“Cleared forest on Sumatra. WWF has been criticized for allowing its partner companies to cut down rain forest.”

In doing so, the company claims, it is making “a contribution to protect the rainforest.” But how exactly is the forest being protected if it has to be cut down first?

The WWF argues that some areas are “degraded” terrain, that is, second-class forest and wasteland. It insists that plantation monocultures and conservation are not contradictory ideas. The WWF calls this approach “market transformation.” It embodies the belief that more can be achieved with cooperation than confrontation.

The organization launched the RSPO initiative in 2004, together with companies like Unilever, which processes 1.3 million tons of palm oil a year, making it one of the world’s largest palm oil processors. Another company involved is Wilmar, one of the world’s major palm oil producers.

Wilmar has completed “a transformation,” says the WWF’s Fleckenstein. She points out that the company has a clear schedule for certification, and that social criteria are taken into account.

‘Then They Started Shooting’

The indigenous people with the Batin Sembilan tribe haven’t seen much evidence of that. They live in the middle of Wilmar’s Asiatic Persada plantation, south of the city of Jambi. At 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres), it is about half the size of Berlin, and it is scheduled to be RSPO-certified by the German certification agency TÜV Rheinland. Someone has scrawled “bloodsuckers” at one of the plantation entrances.

Roni, the village elder, is standing in the midst of the oil palms with several dozen people. Many are barefoot, and one is carrying a spear that he uses to hunt wild boar. Crushed wooden slats litter the ground behind him, where the tribe’s village once stood.

On Aug. 10 of last year, the notorious Brimob police brigade destroyed the houses. Before the incident, a village resident had tried to sell palm fruits that Wilmar claims it owns.

“They arrested 18 people early in the morning, and some they beat up,” reports Roni. “Wilmar managers collaborated with Brimob. Then they started shooting, and we took the women and children and ran into the forest.” The villagers see the forest as their forest. “We have been living here since the days of our ancestors,” says Roni.

The loggers came in the 1970s, but there was enough forest into which Roni’s tribe could move. But now his people are surrounded by palm trees. The company that preceded Wilmar illegally planted 20,000 hectares, or about half the plantation. This doesn’t seem to bother Wilmar. Roni even has attested rights for his tribe, but it hasn’t helped them.

‘Wrongful Activities’

After the destruction of the village, organizations like Rettet den Regenwald and Robin Wood claimed that Rama margarine, which is made by Unilever, a customer of Wilmar, was tainted with the blood of indigenous people. Some of them even camped out in front of the German Unilever headquarters in December.

This, in turn, was not well received at Unilever, a Dutch-British company which ranks at the top of sustainability indices and has the stated goal of helping more than 1 billion people improve their health and quality of life.

Wilmar could not deny that huts were destroyed and shots were fired. But in a letter to customers and friends (including WWF partners like palm-oil financier HSBC), company executives downplayed the issue.

From Wilmar’s perspective, a socially oriented company had become the target of the dirty tricks of a few hooligans. In an internal email, Unilever at least admitted that there had been “wrongful activities” and suggested that there would be a “mediation process.” But the police campaign did not adversely affect Unilever’s business relationship with Wilmar. The palm oil giant has since erected temporary housing and agreed to pay compensation.

Many of the indigenous families fled from the Brimob thugs to nearby PT Reki, one of the last semi-intact forests in the region. But they were not allowed to stay there either, because the area is the site of a reforestation project funded by Germany’s KfW development bank and the German environmental organization Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).

Founders, Benefactors and Big Game Hunters

The WWF headquarters in Gland near Geneva seems solidly green and respectable. Silver plaques there commemorate the people to whom the organization owes a great debt: the “Members of The 1001.” This elite group of undisclosed financiers was created in 1971 to provide financial backing for the organization.

To this day, the WWF does not like to disclose the names of the donors, probably because some of those appearing on the club’s list would not exactly help their image — people like arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and former Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Then-WWF President Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was able to recruit oil multinational Shell as his first major sponsor. In 1967, thousands of birds died after a tanker accident off the coast of France, and yet the WWF forbade all criticism. That could “jeopardize” future efforts to secure donations from certain industrial sectors, WWF officials said during a board meeting.

In the late 1980s, alleged poachers turned up in certain African national parks, which had been set up by whites during the colonial period. The WWF decided to fight back. The organization paid for helicopters to be used by the national park administration of Zimbabwe to hunt down poachers. Dozens of people were killed during the missions.

Still Welcome

In a secret operation, big game hunter Prince Bernhard and John Hanks, the WWF’s Africa director, hired mercenaries to break up the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn. But members of the South African military, seen as the biggest horn dealers at the time, infiltrated the group.

All of this happened a long time ago, says WWF spokesman Phil Dickie, noting that the organization has changed and no longer accepts money from the oil, nuclear, tobacco or arms industry. Still, no one is excluded. Representatives of these industries, for example oil multinational BP, are still welcome on the WWF boards.

John Hanks, still a member of the board of trustees, is in charge of giant cross-border nature parks in Africa today. The projects are called Peace Parks, and yet they are responsible for a great deal of strife. The German government donated about €200,000 to the WWF for so-called Peace Park dialogues in South Africa. One of the outcomes was that corridors were necessary for the Peace Parks — as was the relocation of local residents, who are putting up a fight.

Germany’s KfW development agency is even prepared to contribute €20 million for new corridors at the Kaza national park, another major WWF project. “For each euro from the WWF, at least five more are provided by governments,” estimates WWF’s Martina Fleckenstein. The organization seems to have enormous political influence.

Hunting is now permitted in the massive new parks. Spanish King Juan Carlos, for example, was recently in the news after he broke his hip while hunting elephants in Botswana. Juan Carlos is the honorary president of WWF Spain, which many find outrageous. In Namibia alone, the WWF has permitted trophy hunting in 38 conservation areas.

Rich Europeans or Americans are allowed to behave as if the colonial period had never ended. They are allowed to shoot elephants, buffalo, leopards, lions, giraffes and zebras, and they can even smear the blood of the dead animals onto their faces, in accordance with an old custom. A WWF spokesman defends this practice, saying that quotas have been established, and that the proceeds from this “regulated hunting” can contribute to conservation.

Part 3: The Myth of Sustainability

Andrew Murphy, a young Harvard graduate with African experience in the US Peace Corps, works in the WWF’s “Market Transformation” team. He represents the new generation of conservationists. He sees the members of his team as “agents of change,” who can “turn” an entire market. Murphy has plenty of these slogans up his sleeve. He says he wants to make the largest producers of and dealers in commodities like soybeans, milk, palm oil, wood and meat more sustainable. And are there successes? Yes, he says, noting that companies now want to see where the commodities come from. “Bulletproof” monitoring systems have been set up, he adds. Murphy is referring to standards like the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS).

The organization invited industry to the RTRS in 2004. Wholesalers like Cargill and companies like Monsanto, which has donated $100,000 to the WWF over the years, had a strong presence at the meeting.

“It quickly became clear that this was greenwashing for the genetically modified soybean marketers,” says one attendee, referring to the practice of deceptively marketing a product as environmentally friendly. When a few Europeans wanted to talk about the dangers of the herbicide glyphosate, they were quickly silenced. “The Americans’ killer argument was that they were ‘technologically neutral.'”

The German branch of WWF, officially opposed to genetic engineering, ensured that those who support it were also welcome at the round table. The Germans even paid the travel expenses for representatives of the Argentine branch of the WWF, which was long run by a man with ties to the former military junta and an agricultural industrialist. No one at the round table was interested in the fact that the WWF, together with Swiss retailers, had already unveiled a stricter soybean standard a long time previously.

Undermining Itself

Undermining its own standards seems to be a specialty of the WWF. In fact, it is this flexibility that brings the organization millions in donations from industry. In the case of soybeans, the group attending the round table meeting negotiated and negotiated. It softened some standards and made some concessions, and then, finally, the first 85,000 tons of RTRS soybeans arrived in Rotterdam last June. “It was a success,” says biologist Fleckenstein, noting that the WWF had examined the soybeans carefully. “We were especially pleased that this product was genetically unmodified.” The soybeans had come from two giant farms owned by the Brazilian Maggi family.

The family conglomerate is considered the world’s largest soybean producer, with plantations covering large parts of the state of Mato Grosso in west central Brazil. The Maggis moved there from southern Brazil in the 1980s, bringing their workers with them. They cleared a large swath of the savannah rainforest and planted soybeans.

Blairo Maggi became the governor of the state, and in 2005 Greenpeace presented him with its “Golden Chainsaw” award. In no other Brazilian state was as much virgin forest cut down as in Maggi’s soybean republic. The areas now occupied by his RTRS model farms were cleared only a few years ago. According to RTRS, the two farms are the only suppliers of the 85,000 tons of certified soybeans that arrived in Rotterdam in June.

The only problem is that nothing on the Maggi farms is genetically unmodified.

Satisfying European Demand

Indonesia produces almost half of the world’s palm oil. But critics say that the “sustainable” palm oil that WWF promotes is nonexistent in reality. Here, a truck transports oil palm fruits to a factory in Indonesia’s central Sulawesi province.

A white tank, 10 meters tall and with a capacity of thousands of liters, stands in the shade of a warehouse at the Fazenda Tucunaré farm. The tank is labeled “Glifosato,” the Portuguese word for the herbicide glyphosate. The buildings housing the workers are only a few hundred meters away. Behind a fence, there are ditches full of foul-smelling water with a green, shimmering surface. Next to the ditches is a depot where signs with skulls on them warn: “Caution. Highly Toxic!”

Glyphosate is popular as an herbicide for genetically manipulated soybeans, because the plant is resistant to the agent, which kills weeds. Despite a growing number of critical studies showing, for example, that the agent causes reproductive problems in animals, the RTRS system permits its use.

Other pesticides are also not a problem for RTRS, which merely asks that they be “used sensibly,” says João Shimada, the sustainability manager at Grupo Maggi. It isn’t so easy to explain what happened with the 85,000 tons of soybeans, he says. “In truth, we provided those soybeans to satisfy demand coming from Europe.” Since then, companies like Unilever have boasted about using sustainable soybeans. In reality, no more than 8,000 tons came from the two farms.

“I don’t know where the other 77,000 tons came from, either,” says Shimada.

Cooperating with the Chinese

This magical proliferation of a supposedly sustainable commodity is known in the industry as “book and claim.” It is the result of the supposedly bulletproof monitoring system that the young WWF expert Andrew Murphy raves about. Some 300,000 tons of this allegedly sustainable commodity already exist.

In Gland, the sun is setting over Lake Geneva. Murphy is in a hurry. He is on his way to China to save nature there. Although the WWF still isn’t permitted to recruit members in China, cooperative agreements with party officials could certainly also be beneficial to the environment.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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