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Conservation International’s star-studded advertising campaign remembers to save the rainforests, but forgets Indigenous Peoples

Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Edward Norton, Penélope Cruz, Robert Redford, Ian Somerhalder. These are the big names that Conservation International has recruited for its new advertising campaign.

It’s called Nature is Speaking, and the celebrities play the role of nature: Harrison Ford is the Ocean; Edward Norton is the Soil; Penélope Cruz is Water.

“The environmental movement has missed the mark with our impenetrable language,” Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of Conservation International, told Fortune magazine.

So Seligman got marketing guru Lee Clow to work on Conservation International’s advertising campaign. Clow was one of the people behind Apple’s 1984 commercial and the “Think Different” slogan.

The fact that Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, is on the board of Conservation International no doubt helped persuade Clow to get involved.

Here’s Kevin Spacey playing The Rainforest:

I am the rainforest. I watched them grow up here. They’ve left. But they always come back. Yes they always come back. For my trees. Their wood. My plants. Their medicines. For my beauty. Their escape.
I’ve always been there for them and I have been more than generous. Sometimes I gave it all to them. Now gone, forever.
But humans, they’re so smart, so smart. Such big brains. And opposable thumbs. They know how to make things. Amazing things.
Now why would they need an old forest like me any more? Jungles? Trees?
Well, they do breathe air. And I make air. Have they thought about that?
Humans. So smart. They’ll figure it out.
Humans making air. That’ll be fun to watch.

The campaign is aimed at convincing us that humans depend on nature. The photography is beautiful. The voices are great. And every time someone uses the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking on Twitter and other social media, Hewlett-Packard donates US$1 to Conservation International (up to US$1 million).

But there’s a serious problem.

The rainforests in Conservation International’s advertising campaign are beautiful, but they are empty. Conservation International forgot to mention the people who live in the rainforest.

A recent report by World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative found that recognising and protecting Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ rights to their land and forests are crucial for protecting forests.

The deforestation rate in community-managed forests in the Brazilian Amazon is 11 times lower than in forests outside those areas. More carbon is stored in community forests.

As Rights and Resources Initiative points out,

By arguing that nature doesn’t need people, Conservation International unwittingly discredits the millions of Indigenous Peoples who have acted as effective and responsible stewards of their land for centuries. This kind of thinking has had devastating real-world ramifications, with untold millions of local communities suffering from forced relocation over the past century of “conservation” – a pattern that continues all too often today.


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  1. Not only does CI forget to mention indigenous people, they also do not mention their rather poor track record relative to money spent. In twenty years in Papua New Guinea (where I even once worked for CI) they have virtually nothing tangible to show despite spending millions of dollars. Quite simply, if you care about rainforests, CI is not a cost effective to recipient for your donation.

  2. Conservation International are a bloody disgrace. Their support for the destruction of the bushmen in Botswana requires that the public withdraw their support for this BINGO (big Int. NGO) – a corporate plunderer. In October 2013 Survival International began a campaign for tourists to boycott Botswana. I and some 8,000 potential tourists signed a petition never to enter the country again until the bushmen are allowed to return to the Kalahari Reserve. To their shame, and his, President Khama remains a board member of Conservation International and colleague of its imperious CEO, Peter Seligman; an organisation which proudly declares:

    We’re working to ensure a healthy, productive planet for everyone… because people need nature to thrive. But nature’s ability to provide for us is being stretched to its limit…and… Africa’s resources are being depleted far too quickly. And if we don’t protect them, we’re putting the continent, and the more than 2 billion people who will call it home by 2050, at grave risk.

    What cant, humbug and hypocrisy. We must shut them down.

  3. Nature is Speaking…And saying ‘Give us your Money’..

    CI’s ‘depopulation’ of the rainforests is an integral and important part of their fundraising (i.e self-preservation) effort. In order to convince people to part with their cash, you have to convince them that a/ there is some objective thing called ‘nature’, and you NEED it b/ CI are the only people who can provide it for you.

    To admit that there are people living in forests (or indeed on the oceans, or anywhere else for that matter) and actually protecting if not creating the ecosystem, undoes the narrative separating ‘nature’ from people, so the first part of the proposition falls apart. Acknowledging the role of indigenous and local people in protecting forests would create a ‘competitor’ for CI’s product, so they are expunged from the story.

    It’s classic advertising – create an apparent lifestyle need, then show that you are the only company that can provide that product. Just like selling a VW or an Apple Mac, in fact.

    But as the article rightly points out, it’s based on profound dishonesty. As long as the public and decision-makers believe in the kind of nature/people opposition that CI promotes, we will never find sustainable solutions to the problems of conservation. We will carry on mistaking managed landscapes for ‘wilderness’ that somehow needs to exist in the absence of humans.

    Shame on you (again), CI.

  4. Julia Roberts is Mother Nature, Kevin Spacey is the rainforest, Harrison Ford is the ocean, Conservation International is…..

    … the worst.