FLASHBACK: WWF’s Eco Imperialism

Corporate Power and Mining in Mongolia

By Michael Barker
November 03, 2008

Some of parts of the environmental movement have long presented a serious obstacle to the destruction wrought on life by the corporate powers that be and their imperial overseers. On the contrary, other influential and well publicized parts of the movement have also played a critical role in undermining the emancipatory potential of environmentalism in order to satisfy imperial interests. Environmental groups that fit comfortably within this latter category of “environmentalists” include those collectively referred to as the Big Green, or the Group of Ten, although only the work of one member of this elite group, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), will be examined in this article. (For a comprehensive overview of WWF’s capitalist-friendly agenda, see my recent article “The Philanthropic Roots of Corporate Environmentalism,” Swans, November 3, 2008.)

Recognition of the imperialist nature of many so-called green nongovernmental organizations has, paradoxically, been widely promoted by conservative commentators. Thus resident scholar at the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Paul Driessen, recently published a controversial book titled Eco-Imperialism: Green Power Black Death (Merril Press, 2003). The introduction to Driessen’s book was penned by Niger Innis, the national spokesperson of the once progressive civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality – an organization which has now warped into a “fraudulent” corporate front group. In his introduction, Innis noted how:

“The ideological environmental movement is a powerful $4 billion-a-year US industry, an $8 billion-a-year international gorilla. Many of its members are intensely eco-centric, and place much higher value on wildlife and ecological values than on human progress or even human life. They have a deep fear and loathing of big business, technology, chemicals, plastics, fossil fuels and biotechnology – and they insist that the rest of world should acknowledge and live according to their fears and ideologies. They are masters at using junk science, scare tactics, intimidation, and bogus economic and health claims to gain even greater power.” (pdf)

Innis is correct in observing that the environmental movement is a multi-billion dollar industry, but like Driessen, he deliberately fails to highlight how the most powerful and well-funded environmental groups driving this industry work hand-in-hand with big business and imperial governments. On the other hand, those environmental organizations that seriously challenge corporate prerogatives receive little funding from the public or even for that matter from ostensibly progressive liberal foundations. Consequently I agree with Innis and Driessen that the best-funded parts of the environmental movement that are regularly talked-up in the mass media promote eco-imperialism, but this is not because they challenge powerful elite interests, but rather because they serve them so effectively. For instance, in 2007 WWF’s Global Networks income was US$0.8 billion; therefore, it should be no surprise that such groups that were founded by powerful corporate and political elites, and are presently funded by those same elites, should first and foremost promote capitalist interests under the cloak of environmentalism. For more on this see Elaine Dewar’s groundbreaking book Cloak of Green: The Links between Key Environmental Groups, Government and Big Business (Lorimer, 1995).

WWF presently has offices in over 90 countries around the world, so to briefly illustrate the imperialistic nature of their “conservation” efforts this article simply focuses on the contentious nature of their presence in mineral rich Mongolia.

For those who don’t know, Mongolia is a haven for predatory mining companies’ intent on pillaging natural resources at minimal cost, which generally equates to maximum environmental and socioeconomic costs. The potential risks posed by mining in Mongolia is particularly clear given the presence of the infamous Robert “Toxic Bob” Friedland on the board of directors of the North America-Mongolia Business Council – a group that in 1992 coincidentally received a grant from the misnamed National Endowment for Democracy, the year that WWF first started working in Mongolia.

WWF’s website observes that the “key threats” to their stated conservation priorities in Mongolia include:

Indeed, unsustainable harvesting of water resources, the application of toxic chemicals, and land degradation are all activities that are intimately associated with mining, so it is fitting that “WWF strongly advocates responsible mining practices for balanced growth in Mongolia.” In this regard, WWF’s website notes that their most recent project to promote responsible mining was their “Public Monitoring of Corruption in Mongolian Mining Sector” (pdf) project, which was carried out between December 2006 and December 2007 (see final report, pdf). WWF’s project outline notes how this project was funded by two groups, the Asian Development Bank, and the lesser known Partnership for Transparency Fund. So to get an idea of the type of groups that WWF presently works with to advocate “sustainable” mining outcomes in Mongolia the following section will briefly introduce the Partnership for Transparency Fund.

Based in the US, the Partnership for Transparency Fund was formed in 2000 with financial support from an anonymous British-based philanthropic foundation; with subsequent funders of their work including the United Nations Development Programme, the Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation, and the World Bank. As one might expect from these funding relationships, the Fund is tighted enmeshed within the democracy manipulating establishment. The President and Chief Executive of the Fund, Pierre Landell-Mills, formerly served in the World Bank for 26 years; while the chairman of the Fund’s board of directors is Kumi Naidoo, an individual who presently serves as the Secretary-General of CIVICUS. Furthermore, the Fund’s Vice Chair, Anabel Cruz, also serves as a board member of CIVICUS; the board’s treasurer, Randolph Andersen, most recently acted as the Director of the World Bank’s loan department; while Gerry van der Linden, the former Vice-President of the Asian Development Bank is counted as a Fund board member.

Most notably, the website of the Partnership for Transparency Fund’s points out that it “maintains close operational links” with Transparency International, although they suggest that the Fund “is a separate organization with a distinct mission, operating procedures and staff.” How separate these two organizations are is of course open to debate as the Fund counts among its board of directors, Peter Eigen, the cofounder and former chairman of Transparency International (he now chairs their advisory board). Before founding Transparency International, Eigen spent most of his career working for the World Bank, but he has also worked for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Ford Foundation (a foundation whose chair is presently former WWF-US President, Kathryn Fuller), and Eigen is presently considered to be a creative member of the Club of Budapest. On top of this, another cofounder of Transparency International, Frank Vogl, happens to serve on the Partnership for Transparency Fund’s board. To date no writers have critiqued the work of the Partnership for Transparency Fund, but the same is not true for the better-known Transparency International.

According to Kevin Pina, Transparency International “has been described by several British organizations on the left as ‘a tool to destabilize Governments for corporate interests under the guise of exposing corruption.’” However, like many democracy-manipulating groups, Transparency International has a fundamentally different conception of their own role, and so they note on their website that they are a “global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption”. Transparency International’s cofounder Michael Hershman is a counterrorism expert (thus he is president of the Fairfax Group and helps lead Civitas Group), and he formerly served as deputy auditor general for the Foreign Assistance Program at US Agency for International Development (AID) – where he was “responsible for worldwide security at all foreign AID missions”. Transparency International board members with notable democracy-manipulating ties include chairwomen Huguette Labelle (who is a former president at the Canadian International Development Agency, and is a regional councilor of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), Nancy Zucker Boswell (who is a member of USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid), and Laura Puertas Meyer (who is an economist and journalist who founded the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad – a group that has received aid from the notorious democracy-manipulator, the National Endowment for Democracy).

According to Transparency International’s 2005 Annual Report (pdf) they receive funding from numerous government development agencies (including USAID), from the Ford Foundation and the Open Soros Development Foundation, and a multitude of corporations (e.g. BP, Exxon, Rio Tinto, and Shell – whose former head, John Loudon, served as the president of WWF International from 1976 until 1981), the Center for International Private Enterprise, and Partners of the Americas. Finally, Jermyn Brooks, the former Executive Director of Transparency International (2000-03), presently serves alongside the President of the National Endowment for Democracy on the editorial advisory board of a magazine called Democracy at large. For a detailed critique of Transparency International, see Julie Bajolle’s excellent report “The Origins and Motivations of the Current Emphasis on Corruption” (pdf).

Given the ties between the work of Transparency International and the National Endowment for Democracy, it is fitting that the Partnership for Transparency Fund cofunds a number of projects with the National Endowment for [Neoliberal] Democracy. Thus both finance two groups based in Argentina, the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth (which is a member of the Center for International Private Enterprise Reform Network), and the Civil Association for Equality and Justice. However, returning to Mongolia, in 2007 the Partnership for Transparency Fund provided funding to the Zorig Foundation, to monitor the implementation of the Mongolian Government’s National Anti-Corruption Action Plan. This connection is particularly significant because the Zorig Foundation – which was formed in 1998 to “advance formation of democratic society and support political reforms in Mongolia” – not only received a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (in 2004), but also formerly counted Jack Buechner (the former president of the International Republican Institute – a core grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy) amongst its board members.

While this brief investigation has not critiqued the outputs of WWF’s work in Mongolia, it provides further food for thought with regard to the compatibility of their “conservation” activities with imperialist democracy-manipulators.

“Buy A Goat, Save A Leopard”!

As this and former studies have shown, WWF takes large quantities of corporate money and foundation funding, and much smaller amounts from the concerned public, to sponsor its own unique form of environmental imperialism or eco-imperialism. This situation is problematic on a number of levels, as not only have such corporate environmentalists effectively hijacked the discourse of environmentalism (latching it on to imperial agendas), but they simulatenously divert much need public funding away from smaller grass roots groups. The mass media facilitates this farcical debacle by waxing lyrical about powerful corporate nongovernmental organizations like WWF, and ignoring, or disparaging those democratic alternatives attempting to promote environmental justice, that is, promoting a threat to the destructive imperial-driven status quo.

The mainstream media can be relied upon to repeat the market-compatible messages of Big Green environmentalists. For only for US$66, WWF notes, you can “Buy A Goat, Save A Leopard” to “help people and snow leopards in Mongolia live in harmony”; or alternatively, for just US$9 more, you can “neutralise the carbon emissions” generated from driving a “large car” 15,000 km. The nonsense is never-ending courtesy of the largesse of elite donors. Alternative voices and/or solutions to the ongoing liquidation of our planet are silenced in the name of the corporate catchall of “sustainable development.”

So what can we do? Well for a start we can amplify those quiet radical voices which present a daily (if underfunded) challenge to the environmental injustices perpetrated by imperial plunderers. Ideally one might actively participate in the work of such groups, but donations are of course always welcome. Furthermore, if you happen to give any of your hard earned money to corporate environmentalists, or have any friends who do, then help ensure that this money is redirected to causes that sustain environmental justice not eco-imperialism.


[Michael Barker’s other work can be found here]


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