The WWF and the industry-What role for environmental organisations in the age of multinationals and biofuels?

On Wednesday the German public broadcaster ARD showed the  documentary 'The pact with the Panda-What the WWF is not telling us' on the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and its close links to international companies, especially in the areas of biofuels (soy beans and palm oil). The documentary focused on Indonesia and Argentina, but there was also a critical case study from India about tiger conservation efforts and eco-tourism. The documentary is in German, of course, and there are no subtitles. There have been heated discussions on both the German and Swiss WWF websites - again, in German. More than 600 comments are quite unusual for the German Internet-sphere and it really shows that the documentary hit a nerve. This has the potential of a German/European version of the 'Three Cups for Tea' story.
I can't really provide a detailed summary here, but there are a couple of interesting points with reference to the WWF, but more importantly the rather depressing documentary raised very important points about environmental efforts, the helplessness of NGOs and the power of multinational companies and markets. The WWF worldwide is a $500 million annual operation, mainly funded through individual donations. Traditionally, they have been arguing for a 'constructive dialogue' with the industries and the documentary is a powerful visualisation of how little this approach has achieved. The limitations of eco-tourism in India with ever shrinking numbers of tigers and emotional text-message fundraising clips on YouTube should come as no surprise for anybody who works in development. It's not the WWF's 'fault' if tigers get hunted illegally for whatever reason, but if its aim was to stabilise or even increase their numbers they have been failing. The stories from Indonesia and Argentina were even more depressing. Large parts of the rainforest keep disappearing for biofuels such as palm oil and soy beans and WWF's involvement hardly seems to make a difference (one of the few recent critical articles I could find was one on GMWatch from 2010 on 'WWF-Loyal ally to agribusiness and globalisation'). One of the lowlights of the documentary is when the author (not exactly a Michael Moore, but also an award-winning journalist) asked a WWF staff member at a conference about successful projects between the biofuel industry and the WWF and she couldn't mention any one. When the author explained that in one area 99.5% of the rainforest were gone and a tiny patch was left to fulfill 'conservation' demands her only comments was 'Without the WWF 100% of the forest would have gone'. The WWF's head in Argentina who explained that his prior involvement in the genetic crop research business was a perfect preparation for his job 'to understand both sides' was an unpleasant example of patronising modernity when he explained that soy beans, Monsanto and its herbicide RoundUp were part of 'scientific progress'. These are only a few vignettes I remember.

The documentary obviously wanted to make the statement that WWF's relationship with the industry is too close to comfort, but I think WWF-bashing is only part of the story. What made me angry and sad was the notion that multinationals like Cargill and Wilmar from Singapore or Monsanto aided with financial backing from HSBC for example (who runs a partnership program with WWF and other organisations) basically get away with everything, probably aided by weak governance structures (to put it diplomatically) in countries like Indonesia and strong elite buy-in in places like Argentina. This is not exactly breaking news, but it made me think long and hard about the 'development industry's' involvement and role in the future. Round-tables, voluntary agreements, conferences, Public Private Partnerships or Corporate Social Responsibility once again look extremely weak not to say useless in the face of the destructive power of such industries that simply go about their business when the WWF puts out statements explaining the in and outs of their certification/endorsement/discussion culture with the industry. Who cares?!
The story of the WWF is not just the usual tale of a large NGO that has difficulties facing the realities of its environment (pun not really intended...), although tough questions about transparency, use of donations and governance are likely to be asked, but really about the environmental movement of the future. In an age of land-grabbing, biofuels and food price volatility with real impact on poor people how can traditional organisations make a difference, especially in the agriculture and natural resource business?


P.S.: I'll update the blog should more information in English become available-but you are also most welcome to leave a comment below if you find additional resources. 

Update I (24 June):
On his website, the author announced that an English version of the documentary will be available, but probably not for free on the Internet...


Addendum 25 July:
In today's GUARDIAN, John Vidal has two interesting pieces on the WWF and its Global Forest Trade Network: '
WWF accused of failing to regulate sustainable timber scheme' describes how 

WWF let timber companies use its panda brand logo while they were razing some of the world's most biologically rich rainforests or trading in potentially illegally sourced timber, according to the investigative group Global Witness.

In his second piece, Vidal recalls 'How WWF works with the logging companies' in Africa, based on his visit in 2007, but his conclusion seems still very valid:

I have seen WWF working in the forests of Gabon, Cameroon, Indonesia and Congo, and the fact is it is mostly outwitted by the companies who use it cynically, buying the use of using the panda to promote a green image, or in Safbois's case, even going into partnership.

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