Green Veneer WWF Helps Industry More than Environment


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Part 2: The Palm Oil Business

According to a map hanging in the office of tiger conservationist Sunarto, which shows the extent of clear-cutting on Sumatra, the world's sixth-largest island, enough wood to cover 88 soccer fields is cut down every hour -- mostly to make way for palm oil plantations.

Indonesia is thriving as a result of a boom in palm oil. The Southeast Asian nation accounts for 48 percent of global production. The multifunctional oil is used in biodiesel, food products like Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread, shampoo and skin lotion. But the heavy use of pesticides on the monocultures is polluting rivers and ground water. Slash-and-burn agriculture has turned Indonesia into one of the world's largest emitters of CO2.

Despite claims of sustainability, many companies continue to deforest the area. A concession costs about $30,000 in bribes or campaign contributions, reports a former WWF employee who worked in Indonesia for a long time. "Sustainable palm oil, as the WWF promises with its RSPO certificates, is really nonexistent," he says.

RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The certificate makes it possible to crank up production while simultaneously placating the consciences of customers. Henkel, the Düsseldorf-based consumer products company, advertises its Terra range of household cleaning products with the claim that it supports "the sustainable production of palm and palm kernel oil, together with the WWF."

Second-Class Rainforest

In doing so, the company claims, it is making "a contribution to protect the rainforest." But how exactly is the forest being protected if it has to be cut down first?

The WWF argues that some areas are "degraded" terrain, that is, second-class forest and wasteland. It insists that plantation monocultures and conservation are not contradictory ideas. The WWF calls this approach "market transformation." It embodies the belief that more can be achieved with cooperation than confrontation.

The organization launched the RSPO initiative in 2004, together with companies like Unilever, which processes 1.3 million tons of palm oil a year, making it one of the world's largest palm oil processors. Another company involved is Wilmar, one of the world's major palm oil producers.

Wilmar has completed "a transformation," says the WWF's Fleckenstein. She points out that the company has a clear schedule for certification, and that social criteria are taken into account.

'Then They Started Shooting'

The indigenous people with the Batin Sembilan tribe haven't seen much evidence of that. They live in the middle of Wilmar's Asiatic Persada plantation, south of the city of Jambi. At 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres), it is about half the size of Berlin, and it is scheduled to be RSPO-certified by the German certification agency TÜV Rheinland. Someone has scrawled "bloodsuckers" at one of the plantation entrances.

Roni, the village elder, is standing in the midst of the oil palms with several dozen people. Many are barefoot, and one is carrying a spear that he uses to hunt wild boar. Crushed wooden slats litter the ground behind him, where the tribe's village once stood.

On Aug. 10 of last year, the notorious Brimob police brigade destroyed the houses. Before the incident, a village resident had tried to sell palm fruits that Wilmar claims it owns.

"They arrested 18 people early in the morning, and some they beat up," reports Roni. "Wilmar managers collaborated with Brimob. Then they started shooting, and we took the women and children and ran into the forest." The villagers see the forest as their forest. "We have been living here since the days of our ancestors," says Roni.

The loggers came in the 1970s, but there was enough forest into which Roni's tribe could move. But now his people are surrounded by palm trees. The company that preceded Wilmar illegally planted 20,000 hectares, or about half the plantation. This doesn't seem to bother Wilmar. Roni even has attested rights for his tribe, but it hasn't helped them.

'Wrongful Activities'

After the destruction of the village, organizations like Rettet den Regenwald and Robin Wood claimed that Rama margarine, which is made by Unilever, a customer of Wilmar, was tainted with the blood of indigenous people. Some of them even camped out in front of the German Unilever headquarters in December.

This, in turn, was not well received at Unilever, a Dutch-British company which ranks at the top of sustainability indices and has the stated goal of helping more than 1 billion people improve their health and quality of life.

Wilmar could not deny that huts were destroyed and shots were fired. But in a letter to customers and friends (including WWF partners like palm-oil financier HSBC), company executives downplayed the issue.

From Wilmar's perspective, a socially oriented company had become the target of the dirty tricks of a few hooligans. In an internal email, Unilever at least admitted that there had been "wrongful activities" and suggested that there would be a "mediation process." But the police campaign did not adversely affect Unilever's business relationship with Wilmar. The palm oil giant has since erected temporary housing and agreed to pay compensation.

Many of the indigenous families fled from the Brimob thugs to nearby PT Reki, one of the last semi-intact forests in the region. But they were not allowed to stay there either, because the area is the site of a reforestation project funded by Germany's KfW development bank and the German environmental organization Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).

Founders, Benefactors and Big Game Hunters

The WWF headquarters in Gland near Geneva seems solidly green and respectable. Silver plaques there commemorate the people to whom the organization owes a great debt: the "Members of The 1001." This elite group of undisclosed financiers was created in 1971 to provide financial backing for the organization.

To this day, the WWF does not like to disclose the names of the donors, probably because some of those appearing on the club's list would not exactly help their image -- people like arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and former Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Then-WWF President Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was able to recruit oil multinational Shell as his first major sponsor. In 1967, thousands of birds died after a tanker accident off the coast of France, and yet the WWF forbade all criticism. That could "jeopardize" future efforts to secure donations from certain industrial sectors, WWF officials said during a board meeting.

In the late 1980s, alleged poachers turned up in certain African national parks, which had been set up by whites during the colonial period. The WWF decided to fight back. The organization paid for helicopters to be used by the national park administration of Zimbabwe to hunt down poachers. Dozens of people were killed during the missions.

Still Welcome

In a secret operation, big game hunter Prince Bernhard and John Hanks, the WWF's Africa director, hired mercenaries to break up the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn. But members of the South African military, seen as the biggest horn dealers at the time, infiltrated the group.

All of this happened a long time ago, says WWF spokesman Phil Dickie, noting that the organization has changed and no longer accepts money from the oil, nuclear, tobacco or arms industry. Still, no one is excluded. Representatives of these industries, for example oil multinational BP, are still welcome on the WWF boards.

John Hanks, still a member of the board of trustees, is in charge of giant cross-border nature parks in Africa today. The projects are called Peace Parks, and yet they are responsible for a great deal of strife. The German government donated about €200,000 to the WWF for so-called Peace Park dialogues in South Africa. One of the outcomes was that corridors were necessary for the Peace Parks -- as was the relocation of local residents, who are putting up a fight.

Germany's KfW development agency is even prepared to contribute €20 million for new corridors at the Kaza national park, another major WWF project. "For each euro from the WWF, at least five more are provided by governments," estimates WWF's Martina Fleckenstein. The organization seems to have enormous political influence.

Hunting is now permitted in the massive new parks. Spanish King Juan Carlos, for example, was recently in the news after he broke his hip while hunting elephants in Botswana. Juan Carlos is the honorary president of WWF Spain, which many find outrageous. In Namibia alone, the WWF has permitted trophy hunting in 38 conservation areas.

Rich Europeans or Americans are allowed to behave as if the colonial period had never ended. They are allowed to shoot elephants, buffalo, leopards, lions, giraffes and zebras, and they can even smear the blood of the dead animals onto their faces, in accordance with an old custom. A WWF spokesman defends this practice, saying that quotas have been established, and that the proceeds from this "regulated hunting" can contribute to conservation.


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