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The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International: Putting profits before planet

“Why did America’s leading environmental groups jet to Copenhagen and lobby for policies that will lead to the faster death of the rainforests – and runaway global warming?” Good question. It comes from a new article by journalist Johann Hari in The Nation. In the article, “The Wrong Kind of Green”, Hari slams the corruption of US NGOs that receive corporate funding.

As Hari points out it is no coincidence that these NGOs are the ones driving the push for trading forest carbon. Hari is not afraid to name names:

“[O]ther organizations–like Conservation International and [The Nature Conservancy] TNC – seem incapable of internal reform and simply need to be shunned. They are not part of the environmental movement: they are polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted.”

Hari traces the impact of funding from polluters to environmental organisations. “Companies like Shell and British Petroleum (BP) were delighted,” writes Hari. And no wonder. For comparatively small amounts of money, polluting corporations can buy “reputation insurance”, or defence against criticism. Every time they are criticised, the polluters can show their green awards, provided by the same environmental organisations that they funded.

Meanwhile, the environmental organisations stop criticising their funders. Hari quotes Christine MacDonald, who left her job as a journalist in 2006, to start work at Conservation International:

“About a week or two after I started, I went to the big planning meeting of all the organization’s media teams, and they started talking about this supposedly great new project they were running with BP. But I had read in the newspaper the day before that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] had condemned BP for running the most polluting plant in the whole country…. But nobody in that meeting, or anywhere else in the organization, wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo. You weren’t supposed to ask if BP was really green. They were ‘helping’ us, and that was it.”

Being in the pocket of polluting corporations helps explain why some environmental organisations support REDD and forest carbon trading. It provides “solutions” for polluters (who don’t need to reduce their pollution, they can “trawl across the world to find the cheapest place to cut emissions, and pay for it to happen there,” as Hari puts it). REDD also provides profits for the environmental organisations (through trading forest carbon).

Hari writes that “At Copenhagen, some of the US conservation groups demanded a course of action that will lead to environmental disaster – and financial benefits for themselves.” REDD “sounds fine”, writes Hari. “A ton of carbon in Brazil enters the atmosphere just as surely as a ton in Texas.” But the reality is that “In practice, the REDD program is filled with holes large enough to toss a planet through.” Hari takes the example of the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project to illustrate the problems. The project was set up by The Nature Conservancy, BP, Pacificorp and American Electric Power (AEP). As Greenpeace research revealed the project hugely overestimated the amount of “avoided emissions” from the project. And the loggers who were kicked out of the project area simply moved their logging operations to other forests.

One way of addressing this sort of “leakage”, is to use national targets rather than project (or sub-national) targets, thus preventing loggers from moving to another area of the same country. (National targets do nothing to address the problem of a country’s logging industry moving to a neighbouring country, as Vietnam’s has done in Laos and Cambodia.)

Yet the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International have lobbied for sub-national targets to be included in international REDD negotiations and US climate bills. Last year, these organisations and others signed an agreement with polluters which, “offered some of the biggest, filthiest planetary polluters an ‘easy out’, by lobbying the US Congress jointly with them, that US carbon emissions should be offset against oversees credits for ‘avoided deforestation’,” as an anonymous contribution on REDD-Monitor noted.

“Do the math, and it’s not hard to see why the BINGOs have finally sold their souls to the devil. Around 150 million hectares of tropical forests is in protected areas worldwide, much of it under the control or management of international conservation groups. Each hectare of forest contains around 100-200 tons of carbon, and each ton of carbon could be worth around $10 at the moment (and potentially much more in the future). The BINGOs know that they have a big stake in an asset potentially worth $150 billion and upwards.

“But there would have to be a buyer for this asset to actually be worth anything. Step in the big fossil fuel-burning power utilities, which, like most US businesses, have been cosseted and protected from global environmental realities by eight years of the Bush administration. If there is an easy way to avoid changing their business model, of avoiding the installation of more efficient technology, or of losing market segment to renewable energy producers, they will surely take it. Avoided deforestation offsets on a grand scale – brokered by their chums in the conservation groups – would be just the ticket.”

Not surprisingly, Conservation International denies that greed explains their position on REDD. “Our only interest is to keep forests standing,” Becky Chacko, director of climate policy at Conservation International, told Hari. “We don’t [take this position] because it generates revenue for us. We don’t think it’s an evil position to say money has to flow in order to keep forests standing, and these market mechanisms can contribute the money for that.”

Hari asked how Conservation International justifies the conceptual holes in the entire system of offsetting. “Her answers become halting,” Hari writes.

“She says the ‘issues of leakage and permanence’ have been ‘resolved.’ But she will not say how. How can you guarantee a forest will stand for millenniums, to offset carbon emissions that warm the planet for millenniums? ‘We factor that risk into our calculations,’ she says mysteriously. She will concede that national accounting is ‘more rigorous’ and says Conservation International supports achieving it ‘eventually.’”

Eventually, of course, is likely to be irrelevant. By then the forests will have gone up in smoke.

“So it has come to this,” writes Hari. “After decades of slowly creeping corporate corruption, some of the biggest environmental groups have remade themselves in the image of their corporate backers: they are putting profit before planet.”

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  1. The problem is bigger. REDD should be about how communities of less developed countries address social empowerment, land and water rights recognition, forest and environmental governance, carbon transparency, education and sustainable development. But in reality is only about how billions of US dollars are being spent -and will continue- to maintain a western lifestyle of “trendy” Caucasian Americans or Europeans who work for REDD or climate change programs in the US or EU and fly occasionally as tourists to poor countries where REDD policy is being “cooked” to finish their report. These REDD programs are mostly reports written in plain English. They are being finance by important donors including the WB and ADB.

    The work is being monopolized by few NGOs that are unable to address/solve drivers of deforestation or complex issues such as indigenous people land rights, illegal logging, poverty, corruption or forest governance. These NGO are not based in the areas of forests conflict, poverty, or where corruption is being taken place. On the contrary, these NGOs are based in fancy streets in the most expensive cities of the world (Washington DC, London, San Francisco, and New York) where Caucasian European and North American from those NGO’s are “preparing the grown” to help US corporation to offset their emission by means of cheap forest carbon credits.
    Take a minute and check where their staff and board of directors live and work. 80% are Caucasian running REDD or climate projects with very limited real experience in forest governance, illegal logging, environmental justice, and community engagement in developing countries.
    90% of them “push papers” but get a monthly salary that can be equal to the income of a forest-dependant community of 300 families in Paraguay, Laos, Indonesia or PNG. Additionally, 90% of those complex REDD reports -written in English- give local communities around the globe zero access to information and participation. REDD and climate change are a new hot topic that helps Caucasian people in the US and UK an opportunity to keep a good job that give forest-dependant communities zero concrete support and few outcomes (such as Copenhagen) with a huge carbon footprint in exchange (as COPS 15). Many of these US staff are frequent fliers with mo remorse about their own carbon footprint travelling a couple of years to Indonesia, Ecuador, Brazil or Laos. Few of them will work overtime for free or donate 10% of their own salary to give away to a local community in Cambodia where people have no food. But I am sure all of them will fly this year to Mexico COP16 meanwhile local communities will have to keep trying to understand why they need to negotiate with their corrupt governments to get some revenue for survival.
    Few of these Caucasian “consultant” would have the courage to tackle in situ complex issues that underline deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Few of them speak the local language of the traditional communities affected by REDD market-based mechanisms. They prefer to write a report sitting with their Mac at Starbucks in New York or San Francisco. All these people will meet in Mexico trying to convince the public and the media that US corporations are truly committed to reduce emissions at home but need to offset now. Then they will claimed that COP 16 was successful and they will write in English another report to satisfy donors ahd keep their job for another year. Please just check the names of the people working in REDD and you will find that most of them are Caucasian American and Brit (TNC, WWF, FFI, WRI, RAN, Sierra Club, WCS, Conservation International, Wildlife Society) with very limited experience in truly key issues that matters when dealing with REDD: forest, communities, rights, governance, anti-corruption, social development. Of more concern is the path of some of the. In particularly NGO’s, such as Rainforest Alliance, are getting recognition directly by the US government for promoting “inclusive prosperity” (of course for US corporations). Be careful with their staff. They want to make us believe they are committed with local communities but they are just a for-profit organization that represents or work with developers and carbon brokers. Please review their certification of Ulu Masen in Aceh and you will find that project offers a lot of leakages such as land rights issues and a lot of gaps to offer concrete solutions.

    How we challenge business as usual of the partnership US NGO’s-donors?
    Is this business model good, transparent and fair for forest-dependant communities?
    Are NGOs disparate parts of an unplanned agglomeration to sit on the US corporate lap?

    Let us have the courage to talk about these issues now.


  2. Serious issues of leakage, definition, monitoring, etc. certainly must be addressed and resolved to make any REDD project more than a phantom contributor to the fight against global warming. However, if the world’s forests are not preserved, the battle is lost.

    No one has invented a better way of protecting forests than paying their owners to leave them standing. REDD opponents can’t deny this; they just avoid mentioning it, because behind their opposition is a puritanical aversion to letting people continue to emit CO2. Their moral outrage is the (often unsubtle) subtext of nearly everything they write, including Chris Lang’s article.

    Yes, actual emissions control must be an immediate, as well as the ultimate, objective, and we don’t have much time. But if we reduce the planet’s capacity to sequester CO2, we may as well give up the struggle, go home, and poach in the local swimming pool.

    Disclosure: I’m trying to make money in forest-based carbon offsets.

  3. @ Thomas N Wies

    Well at least you are honest enough to admit to having a vested interest in adopting the position that you do – which is more than can be said for TNC and CI.

    But how DARE you dismiss as having merely “a puritanical aversion to letting people continue to emit CO2” those who question the value of forest-based offsets and constantly remind us that he vast bulk of the problem (close to 90% of it) is due to excessive consumption of fossial fuels, mostly in rich countries! The entire basis of the climate science and all the proposed responses to it are that we have to reduce those sources of emissions.

    Of course “actual emissions controls” must be immediate – but when are they going to start? When are the big players even going to start demanding them? The great betrayal of the planet by the likes of TNC and CI is that, instead of forcefully using their potentially huge leverage in Washington to press for these controls, they have instead opted to go down the route of lobbying for offsets – much less effective or needed, but much more lucrative (for themselves).

  4. Open letter to Mr. Thomas N. Wies,

    I am assuming you believe US polluters possess full right to emit unlimited emissions to assure prosperity in America. Maybe you think emissions targets enforced by a global governance system will undermine the American economy. Perhaps you expect the Chinese to make all emission reduction sacrifice first simply because they are threatening the American lifestyle -which is not negotiable- and due this Asian country is buying “too much” US fiscal debt.
    Maybe you are ready to make profits undertaking carbon trade transactions online from your home.
    Perhaps you are one of those who do not think you need to speak Spanish, Mandarin, Bahasa, or Vietnamese to deal with local communities and REDD.
    Let me tell you I do not think those days for you will arrive soon.
    We need to deal with communities, local and national governments and regulations, corrupt practices, forest management, drivers of deforestation, indigenous peoples demands, barriers of the market as transparency and access to information, carbon cowboys in Wall Street, global climate change regime, etc. I am from the Philippines and have 20 years working in forest governance. Market will not take off as many desires if you do not address these issues. Forests governance and community land rights issues have been stressed for decades by scholars but UNDP, The World Bank and now UN-REDD are not being capable to deal with them in the majority of the countries potentially participants of REDD with the only exception of Costa Rica. Indeed I acknowledge small progress such as methodological and technical issues have been met.
    But the market will not be operation even with US Climate legislation.
    Many of us who read REDD Monitor want to make a living with CO2 mitigation/REDD consultancy work. I have also seen some people including some westerns in Asia sincerely working on ground to promote environmental justice and forest governance and trying to improve the living conditions of forest-dependant communities across Asia, Africa and Central and South America. But those are the exception. We look forward to more people engaged in real work supporting communities with their expertise pro-people development under REDD but avoiding business as usual. I do not think communities are against profits or carbon market either. They simply dislike the classic cowboy business style that some US brokers and NGO’s based in DC intent to develop with resources of the World Bank, companies or Governments such as Norway. Working with them I understand they have aversion to the arrogance of western companies development in Asia extracting natural resources and moving somewhere else because they can bribe our corrupted governments through a “local contractor”. They understand REDD may follow the same track without safeguards.
    I personally find objectionable that 85% of the US NGO’s that claim to be “conservationist”, “pro-people” or “pro-environment” are unable to pressure US polluters towards a low carbon economy, their addition fossil fuels and cheap commodities, and unsustainable consumption patterns.
    Communities dislike US NGOs coming to a one day seminar to PNG, Vietnam, Brazil or Indonesia instead of working full-time in tropical forests and progressively target and dismantle corruption, lack of transparency, drivers of deforestation, social and environmental injustice including more technical issues such as perverse forest incentives, land use and land use exchange.
    Is true that protecting forest by means of incentives is a way to reduce emissions. Nevertheless, another additional effective effort to reduce emissions is force US polluters become more clean and efficient. Of course, all these NGOs staff -who live in San Francisco or NY- feel more comfortable flying business class to climate change events or twice to Brazil or Indonesia (each of them should disclose their carbon footprint) than dealing with lack of environmental governance in US territory requires both courage and hard work. Not many US consultants want to do that job or pressure their government to sign Kioto and have a binding global agreement. The reason is simple: the world largest polluters and governments are feeding NGO’s climate change or REDD programs. Of course NGO’s based in DC keep silence about all these issues including their secret arrangement working together to make us believe they are pro-environment and pro-poor. You are perhaps are one of those who think the “REDD market” will be operational after you get a regulation as Indonesia did. I think you will need to wait a big longer. After 3 years of the Bali Action Plan governance, drivers of deforestation, capacity building, democratization, transparency, forest inventories, have not arrived yet to places such as Aceh, Kalimantan or Papua. The report of Rainforest Alliance certifying Ulu Masen project does not mean huge problems and uncertainties (legal, social, and environmental) remain in Aceh. How you can address deforestation under REDD if you are not responding to land use and palm oil development in Indonesia? Since “we don’t have much time” lets be honest and help developing countries, their government and its people to resolve main barriers to carbon markets and then talk about how we profit from it. Disclosure: I have wife and 3 kids. I’m also trying to make money in forest-based carbon offsets. But I am not naive and I am very well informed. Carbon markets in developing countries have many risks and uncertainties, as well as unresolved issues. UN-REDD, the WB, the ADB and US NGO’s such as Rainforest Alliance have done little to effectively address these issues. Hope these can change the next years to come.

  5. Dear B Witness and Rupert,

    I’m going with Tom Nies on this one.
    You guys remind me of Republican’s stridency and righteous ADD+ stylistics…
    Try to remember that you’re kind of on the same side…I think…hope

    Interesting points though…all around

  6. Dear Richard,
    I do not “remember” to see reality black/white, democrats/republicans, “good” guys/”bad” guys. Perhaps is because I am not American. The republicans have a very simplified perspective of life, more like midwest vision of society. I have no roots with that part of the world but I knowwell America. I am well aware your company Terra Firma Carbon based in Chicago is expecting the REDD market to take off. Therefore you should address/challenge our comments with other arguments. Try harder next time and let us address problems and potential solutions for developing countries for forest governance, land rights, before we move into carbon sequestration and REDD.
    all the best,


  8. @ DL Roberts

    Try calling up the Washington Post – they have previously taken a keen interest in TNC’s dodgy land deals.