MAC: Mines and Communities

Green Corporate Partnerships? An exchange from the Ecologist

Published by MAC on 2004-08-15

Green Corporate Partnerships?

From: The Ecologist July/August 2004 (published with kind permission)

The Ecologist magazine invited Marcus Colchester of the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme and Mark Rose of Fauna and Flora International to debate "green corporate partenrships" in its pages. The result was a classic stand-off, during which Freeport-Rio Tnto's operations in West Papua became a key point of controversy.

Letter no.1

Dear Marcus,

Perhaps the single most influential group that possess the power and resources to determine the future of our planet is the corporate sector. The land area under corporate management is vast. Livelihood and income dependence by people on successful businesses is overwhelming. Single companies are wealthier than entire groups of governments. The activities and attitudes of business are of fundamental importance in determining the viability and sustainability of the environment in which we all live and on which we all depend.

There is a wide array of ways in which civil society and NGOs can engage with and influence the private sector and each of these approaches has its own role and value. Exposés can reveal malpractice and lobbying can change behaviour. Relationships built by companies in response to such actions are important, from a business perspective, in terms of managing risk and improving reputation ­ whilst also achieving the public good sought by the NGOs.

Accepting corporate funding and sponsorship is also a perfectly legitimate activity and ensures the viability of hundreds of thousands of valuable projects around the world. However, care must be taken to ensure that mutual branding is not used as implied endorsement beyond that project.

But none of these approaches should be confused with partnership.

Partnership involves two groups who may have very different views and resources, agreeing on common aims, which, if achieved, will deliver benefits to each of them.

An effective partnership sets clear objectives and ground rules. An honest partnership recognises the right to disagree. An efficient partnership uses the strengths of each to build the capacity of the other. A strategic partnership focuses on the long term.

It seems to me that if we genuinely want to find lasting solutions to some of the most urgent and overwhelming issues facing our global environment, then translating conservation priorities into value-adding and sustainable business practices is crucial. Smart partnerships with corporations are an essential tool in achieving our mission. Indeed, we could be regarded as negligent if we fail to engage.


Letter no. 2

Dear Mark,

Everyone has the right and the responsibility to be concerned about the environment. If, as we seem to agree, corporations now constitute the main threat to global ecosystems, we certainly cannot afford to ignore them. A first step must be to understand the role of corporations in environmental destruction and then expose these problems to the general public. Combined pressure from impacted peoples and communities, citizens, non-governmental organisations and then, hopefully, even governments, can make for change. We need to demand better regulation of runaway industries and encourage the companies themselves to reform their ways. Yes, this may mean talking to these companies directly, across the picket line and in the board room. But engaging in dialogues and partnerships with the companies that are currently trashing the planet has to be done carefully, if it is not to be counterproductive.

* In the first place, such dialogues and partnerships must be carried out in ways that don’t exclude those whose rights and livelihoods are directly impacted by the companies’ operations: no snug deals while outraged indigenous peoples are left out, again.
* Secondly, we mustn’t let companies use such dialogues and partnerships to ‘greenwash’ their overall operations. The planet won’t survive if we trade off getting funds for a few nice projects and national parks, in exchange for condoning sacrifice zones and unsustainable development outside them.
* Third, any such dialogues should be preconditioned on the companies agreeing to certain standards and norms as a base line for discussion: international human rights and environmental laws would be a good place to start. Agreeing to no destructive projects in protected areas would be another.

You say there should be ‘no mutual branding’ but FFI’s centenary publication in ‘FIRST – the Forum for Decision-makers’ does just that. There you lavishly offer glossy, green profile to corporate juggernauts like BP, Vodafone, British American Tobacco, ExxonMobil and Rio Tinto. Giving such companies positive spin without at the same time exposing their tragic records of environmental ruin is giving ‘conservation’ the bad name that, sadly, it increasingly deserves.


Letter No. 3.

Dear Marcus,

Although much of the focus of conservation organizations during the 20th century was on 'protection', we know that the real challenge for the future lies in developing a sustainable relationship between people and the environment. The range of stakeholders encompasses the entire, global, social spectrum including indigenous peoples. Conservation must become fully integrated into social, political and economic processes, not kept in an isolated 'box'. Failure will result in the continued erosion of the natural resources on which we are all dependent.

You refer to protected areas though, somewhat contradictorily, you downgrade their importance whilst also prioritising their integrity. Let me re-emphasise the value of different approaches here. While pressure groups may focus on keeping companies out of protected areas, partnership NGOs work with companies to address their operational impact across their geographic footprint, not just within the small percentage of the earth's surface designated as protected. We need both.

Working with leadership companies that can influence their sectors is strategically wise - they are key players in developing the very standards and norms that you say you want to see in place. And remember that companies which are committed to social and environmental reporting, which endeavour to build partnerships with NGOs and civil society, and which develop and implement improved practices, are actually just the tip of the corporate iceberg. They are the recognisable names above the waterline - publicly traded and branded. If, due to public pressure, the 'BPs and Rio Tintos' pull out rather than working through issues and setting new standards, they may be swiftly replaced by companies which are far less accountable and have no public reputation to risk.

Just a few years ago, conservation issues never reached the boardroom agenda unless a short-term, emergency response was needed. Environmental policies were about retrospective crisis management, only undertaken when matters came to a head and damage had been done. We recognised the need for an alternative.

Today, as you note with reference to 'First', FFI and other partnership-focussed organisations have secured the commitment of influential companies to recognise conservation not just as a risk-limitation response but rather as a core business issue to be mainstreamed into strategy and operations.

Through partnership, we can move from remedy to prevention.


Letter No. 4.

Dear Mark,

You are dodging the question: are conservationists’ partnerships with large corporations ‘greenwash’? In my view, your glossy, centenary fundraiser, published by ‘First’, is exactly that. The magazine says nothing about the environmental crimes of corporations but makes them out to be green leaders, linked to FFI alongside cosy endorsements by the Queen and Tony Blair. Your other publications are no more explicit. We looked in vain at your website and magazine, ‘Oryx’, for details about these companies’ operations.

* What have you done to expose Rio Tinto for their part in the destruction of the lands and culture of the Amungme people in West Papua? Have you told Rio Tinto not to profile you as ‘partner’ on its website until it stops pouring tailings from the Grasberg mine into the rivers and forests that sustain the Kamoro people downstream?
* Where have you highlighted the role of ExxonMobil in the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, which has smashed through the forests of the Bagyeli ‘Pygmies’ in SW Cameroon? Have you noted that the company dismisses the problem of global warming and openly campaigns against emissions reduction targets at the negotiations of the Climate Change Convention?
* How come I can’t find anything on your website about the pressure from BP to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration and the threats this poses to the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd? What have you done to stop BP tooting its association with FFI on its own website, while the same company has been pushing through the Baku-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline across the Caucasus?
* Where are your studies of the deforestation caused by the fuelwood consumption of the tobacco curers that supply British American Tobacco, a company that contributes to the 750,000 tobacco-related deaths that the world suffers every year?
* Are you working with the Ogoni people to stop your ‘partner’, Shell, making yet more mess in the Niger Delta, where the Ogoni people continue to complain about social exclusion, immiseration, repression and environmental ruin?

Profiling these companies’ environmental credentials without exposing the problems, is what I call greenwash.


Letter No 5.

Dear Marcus,

You are missing the point. It's time for a reality check.

The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route was partly chosen to stop the environmental risk of a major increase in tankers through the Bosphorus. Multiple governments are planning their national economies around this venture - and public demand is driving it. Don't kid yourself. Neither FPP nor any other pressure groups can stop it. Neither can we. What we can do, however, is work with BP (who, thanks to NGO partnerships, have a corporate biodiversity strategy which will be implemented across the project) to minimise the negative impact. Force BP out, and you won't stop the pipeline, you'll just get someone else, less accountable.

You don't believe me? To bring you up to date on Grasberg, Rio Tinto have just sold their equity share in Freeport - partly due to constant pressure from environmental groups. But the mine hasn't been closed and won't be. Do you consider this a success? Even if you've now lost the one point of leverage that was making a difference? Who does it help more - the Kamoro people or the lobbyists' public profile?

Where are our studies of deforestation due to fuelwood consumption for tobacco curing? Well, they're taking place with Makerere University, Uganda. As part of our partnership with BAT, blocks of forest degraded under government 'stewardship' are being given stronger protection, retaining both the forests and their social value for traditional harvesting of honey, etc, at sustainable levels. We're also stimulating the use of targeted fuelwood grown specifically for that purpose and, by diversifying plantations, are growing native tree species with better social and ecological value. Greenwash? Not by my definition.

It is because companies have major environmental impact we have a dialogue with them. Recognising those problems and trying to address them is the point of partnership.


Letter No. 6.

Dear Mark,

Condoning BP’s strategy in exchange for token mitigations seems like a bad deal to me. Nor have I seen good evidence that Rio Tinto was improving things in West Papua – besides ‘though they sold their 12% share of Freeport McRoRan, they retain their 40% interest in the Grasberg mine expansion. A reality check is certainly needed.

The world I live in is suffering: the highest rates of habitat loss and ecosystem degradation for 65 million years ago; a corresponding mass erosion of biodiversity; and destruction of more sustainable human societies. This is caused by exponential increases in consumption and the concentration of power in the hands of trans-national corporations. These are barely accountable to any but shareholders, whose interests the corporations are legally obliged to prioritise. The same corporations spend billions of dollars a year on advertising, to persuade people their happiness depends on buying more of their products. And, just in case any of these consumers get worried that their materialist lifestyles are contributing to global destruction, they also spend of few millions window-dressing their activities to show that they are greener than the other guys. Don’t kid yourself: they are more worried about promoting a better ‘investment climate’ than addressing climate change, more concerned to shape their ‘operating environment’ than caring for our environment.

Your approach reads to me as: ‘well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’. In assuming that we can’t beat ‘em, you assume we have already lost. You also argue ‘better the devil you know…’ The trouble with such Faustian pacts with the devil is that they tend to cost more than you bargained for. The political and environmental costs of legitimising corporate unsustainability are being paid now and far into the future in terms of trashed ecosystems, exploited peoples, disempowered voices of protest and entrenched corporate hegemony.

Voices of protest need your support, not dismissal for being unrealistic. A realistic response to corporate domination is to make businesses accountable for their impacts. The forces to demand that change can only come from a wider mobilisation of civil society. The longer conservation organisations choose to be part of the business-dominated establishment, rather than identified with the forces for social and political protest and reform, the less hope we have for an environmentally secure future.


Letter No. 7.

Dear Marcus,

I fundamentally disagree with your last sentence. We need to engage more, not less, with both corporates and consumers, for there to be any real change. Conservation needs to be integrated into corporate policy and business practice for us to achieve an environmentally secure future.

We don't decry your approach. As I keep saying, lobbying has a role, of course it does. But do you genuinely believe that the spectrum of effort across the environmental movement should be reduced to the single route of protest?

It is simply not the case that your way is exclusively, morally right and everyone else's is evil and wrong. Don't dismiss what you don't like or understand just because it reflects better on your more popularly accepted method to condemn ours. It is a great pity that that your perspective creates schisms rather than solidarity in the NGO sector.

Of course greenwash occurs, but ultimately it is in nobody's interests as it will damage an NGO's reputation, will alienate its supporters, will make other companies less likely to work with it and, most importantly, will undermine its mission and work.

We've chosen a hard route. Building genuine corporate partnerships is complex and time consuming. It involves a process of understanding perspectives and drivers, agreeing aims and ground rules, developing methods and management, measuring delivery and impact. We offer an extended hand to those willing to look hard at their own practices and who commit to change. If we can get these partnerships right, then they may be one of the most important means available to really deliver sustainable change.

I believe we have a shared motivation - a profound and grave concern for the future of our planet and a recognition of the power and influence of the private sector. Within this massive and urgent challenge we all have roles to play, so let's get on with it.


Letter No 8.

Dear Mark,

Your misrepresent my position to cover up the weaknesses of your own. The point is not should we dialogue with corporations, but how do we do so without giving them green cover behind which they can hide their ecological crimes and so cover up for a lack of real change. You admit that ‘of course, greenwash occurs’ – conceding the issue we were asked to debate.

What I have argued for is a more principled approach, which requires:

* the direct involvement of impacted communities and peoples; * transparent audits of the real impacts of corporate activities; * solidarity with, not scorn for, those who protest: * up-front commitments from corporations to adopt real, binding standards, especially to respect human rights and protected areas.

Other conservation organisations have already learned these lessons. For example, when the secretariat of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) announced its ‘partnership’ with the mining industry at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, many IUCN members were outraged. The mining companies were being offered green credentials without having to make any commitments to change.

Faced with uproar from the conservationists who make up the IUCN membership, the secretariat had to back-peddle. First, they renamed the process a ‘dialogue.’ Then, under sustained pressure, the IUCN Council ruled in March this year that further dialogues be conditional on there being commitments from the mining industry to deal with the damage caused by past and current mines, to involve indigenous peoples and to accept the principle of free, prior and informed consent for impacted groups. This is good news, but more needs to be done to stop ‘greenwash’.

It remains to be seen whether the large conservation organisations, many of them - like FFI - members of IUCN, will also now adopt a more principled approach to dialogues and partnerships. In my view, you cannot afford to do otherwise.


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