Want to protect the rainforest? All it takes is 5 ($6.30) to get started. Save the gorillas? Three euros and you're in. You can even do your part for nature with only 50 cents -- as long as you entrust it to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which is still known by its original name of the World Wildlife Fund in the United States and Canada.
Last year, the WWF, together with German retail group Rewe, sold almost 2 million collectors' albums. In only six weeks, the program raised 875,088 ($1.1 million), which Rewe turned over to the WWF.
The WWF has promised to do a lot of good things with the money, like spending it on forests, gorillas, water, the climate -- and, of course, the animal the environmental protection group uses as its emblem, the giant panda.
Governments also entrust a lot of money to the organization. Over the years, the WWF has received a total of $120 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). For a long time, German government ministries were so generous to the organization that the WWF even decided, in the 1990s, to limit the amount of government funding it could receive. The organization was anxious not to be seen as merely an extension of government environmental protection agencies.
Illusion of Aid
But can the WWF truly protect nature against human beings? Or do the organization's attractive posters merely offer the illusion of help? Fifty years after the organization was founded, there are growing doubts as to the independence of the WWF and its business model, which involves partnering with industry to protect nature.
The WWF, whose international headquarters are located in Gland, Switzerland, is seen as the world's most powerful conservation organization. It is active in more than 100 countries, where it enjoys close connections to the rich and the powerful. Its trademark panda emblem appears on Danone yoghurt cups and the clothing of jetsetters like Princess Charlene of Monaco. Companies pay seven-figure fees for the privilege of using the logo. The WWF counts 430,000 members in Germany alone, and millions of people give their savings to the organization. The question is how sustainably this money is actually being invested.
SPIEGEL traveled around South America and the Indonesian island of Sumatra to address this question. In Brazil, an agricultural industry executive talked about the first shipload of sustainable soybeans, certified in accordance with WWF standards, to reach Rotterdam last year, amid a flurry of PR hype. The executive had to admit, however, that he wasn't entirely sure where the shipment had come from. In Sumatra, members of a tribal group reported how troops hired by WWF partner Wilmar had destroyed their houses, because they had stood in the way of unfettered palm oil production.
Inconvenient for Some
Representatives of independent German non-governmental organizations like Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue) and Robin Wood also no longer see the aid organization as merely a custodian of animals. Instead, many view the WWF as an accomplice of corporations. In their opinion, it grants those corporations a license to destroy nature, in return for large donations and small concessions.
The organization, which now takes in about 500 million a year, has certainly notched up some important achievements. The Dutch section of WWF helped pay for Greenpeace's flagship, the Rainbow Warrior. To prevent dam projects on the Danube and Loire Rivers, activists occupied large construction sites, sometimes for years. In the 1980s, the Swiss section fought so vehemently against nuclear energy that the federal police classified its managing director as an enemy of the state.
While the WWF can be very inconvenient for some, it can also be quick to cozy up to others. The organization's managers typically react with irritation to criticism of its cooperative efforts. Last year, a film made by Germany's WDR television network, "The Pact with the Panda," reached devastating conclusions about the WWF's work. German author Wilfried Huismann held the conservationists partly responsible for increasing the threat to the rainforest -- a charge the WWF vehemently denies.
The film was "inaccurately researched" or even "deliberately false," says Martina Fleckenstein, who has been a biologist with the WWF for the last 20 years. She works in Berlin, where she heads the WWF's Agriculture Policy section. Hardly any meetings with industry take place without her, and she is a queen of compromise. Nevertheless, after the film was released, the WWF was flooded with protest emails, and more than 3,000 supporters cancelled their memberships. The conservation organization had never experienced such a bloodletting before.
Of Tigers and People
The animal used in the WWF's logo is a cute and cuddly-looking creature, threatened with extinction because of its very low birthrate. But the panda does not elicit our emotions as much as great apes or big cats, which are more effective at drumming up donations. In 2010, the WWF took its cue from the Chinese calendar and proclaimed the "Year of the Tiger."
The WWF has pursued its tiger mission for a long time. In the early 1970s, with the help of a large donation, it convinced the Indian government under then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to identify protected areas for the threatened big cats. According to Indian estimates, there were more than 4,000 tigers living in the country at the time. Today that number has dwindled to 1,700. Nevertheless, the WWF sees the Indian tiger program as a success. Without its efforts, says a spokesman, India's tigers could "quite possibly be extinct by now."
Less widely publicized is the fact that people were displaced to achieve this success. Villages were "resettled, but not against their will," says Claude Martin, a Swiss national who was general director of WWF International from 1993 to 2005. "We were always convinced that this issue was handled properly." But there are even doubts about that.
About 300,000 families had to leave their homes to create a conservation zone for wild animals, writes Mark Dowie in his book "Conservation Refugees." According to Dowie, the displacement was the result of a concept called "fortress conservation," which the WWF has always proclaimed as one of its policies. There is no room for human beings in these conservation zones, writes Dowie. The WWF says that it is opposed to forced relocation. But Bernhard Grzimek, a German TV zoologist and long-standing member of the WWF board of directors, also advocated the concept of national parks with no human presence in them. The WWF was established in 1961, following his successful film "Serengeti Shall Not Die.
The Swiss founders and the German zoologist were united by a mixture of conservation and neo-colonialism. This legacy also includes the forced displacement of the Massai nomads from the Serengeti.
Experts estimate that in Africa alone, conservation efforts have created 14 million "conservation refugees" since the colonial era. In this model, some of the indigenous people, if they were lucky enough, could work as park wardens, preventing their relatives from entering the protected zones.
The Tesso Nilo National Park is one of those typical conservation zones promoted by the WWF. Martina Fleckenstein describes it as "a successful project for protecting tigers and elephants." The area is in the heart of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The WWF office in the city of Pekanbaru manages the project.
"Save His Habitat," reads a German tiger poster in the Pekanbaru office, which is funded with German WWF money. German TV talk show host Sandra Maischberger conducted a campaign to raise money for the last 500 Sumatra tigers. Many of them supposedly live in the Tesso Nilo, only a few hours from the WWF office.
Sunarto is a biologist who has long worked as a tiger researcher in the Tesso Nilo. But he has never seen a tiger there. "Tiger density is very low here, because of human economic activity," says Sunarto, who like some Indonesians goes by only one name. He also points out that there are still some woodland clearing concessions within the conservation area.
To enable them to track down tigers, the WWF has provided the scientists with high-tech measuring equipment, including GPS devices, DNA analysis methods for tiger dung and 20 photo traps. During the last photography shoot, which lasted several weeks, the traps only photographed five tigers.
Off-Limits for Locals
The WWF sees its work in Sumatra as an important achievement, arguing that the rainforest in the Tesso Nilo was successfully saved as a result of a "fire department approach." In reality, the conservation zone has grown while the forest inside has become smaller. Companies like Asia Pacific Resources International, with which the WWF previously had a cooperative arrangement, cut down the virgin forest, says Sunarto.
His colleague Ruswantu takes affluent eco-tourists on tours of the park on the backs of tamed elephants. The area is off-limits for the locals, and anti-poaching units funded by the Germans make sure that they stay out. "The WWF is in charge here, and that's a problem," says Bahri, who owns a tiny shop and lives in a village near the entrance to the park. No one knows where the borders are, he says. "We used to have small fields of rubber trees, and suddenly we were no longer allowed to go there."
Feri, an environmental activist, calls this form of conservation "racist and neocolonial," and notes: "There has never been forest without people here." According to Feri, thousands of small farms were driven out of the Tesso Nilo, and yet the number of wild animals has actually declined since the conservationists arrived. "Tesso Nilo is not an isolated case," he says.
Nowadays, multinational companies and conservationists work hand-in-hand. "The WWF is involved in the transformation of our world into plantations, monoculture and national parks," says Feri, who supports the Indonesian environmental protection organization Walhi.