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Tarzan, Indiana Jones & A Global Greenwash Machine

Tarzan, Indiana Jones and Conservation International's Global Greenwash Machine

By Aziz Choudry
October 10, 2003

Colin Powell says that its work is “amazing”. In 2001, it received what the media dubbed the biggest ever grant to an environmental organization – US $261 million spread over 10 years. Its website proclaims: “A passionate few can make the difference in the world.”

In interviews, its president, Russell Mittermeier, confesses to a lifelong Tarzan fixation. Its vice-chair is the actor who played Indiana Jones.

The organization is Conservation International (CI). Founded in 1987, headquartered in Washington, DC, its stated mission is “to conserve the Earth’s living natural heritage, our global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature.” It operates in over thirty countries, in the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

But like Harrison Ford, it does a lot of acting, applying copious layers of green make-up.

Perhaps CI draws inspiration from its Hollywood heroes. Remember how the white actors got all the best lines, how the “natives” were not quite human, frequently savage and dangerous, sometimes simply incidental and irrelevant? Unfortunately, for many Indigenous Peoples affected by CI’s brand of “conservation”, this is no movie set.

CI’s interest in protecting “hotspots” of endangered biodiversity has particular implications for many Indigenous Peoples who have endured and resisted waves of colonial dispossession, genocide and ecocide, including the appropriation of traditional knowledge and the flora and fauna which they have protected for many generations.

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It is no coincidence that Indigenous Peoples continue to live in the world’s remaining biodiverse regions. They are inextricably connected to these ecosystems. However, CI frequently depicts them as threats to the environment, accusing them of illegal logging, overpopulation and slash-and-burn agriculture. Leave it to the experts to save these places, says CI, through “applying innovations in science, economics, policy and community participation to protect the Earth's richest regions of plant and animal diversity in the hotspots, major tropical wilderness areas and key marine ecosystems”.

CI claims to work with local communities on conservation-based alternatives to logging and other environmentally-destructive activities – ecotourism and small enterprises to grow and market coffee, exotic foods, chemicals and medicines from the rainforest. Playing the role of an environmental NGO, CI participates in the plunder of the global South.

Meanwhile, it willingly collaborates with, and fails to condemn, some of the world’s most ecologically destructive corporations and institutions devastating the planet.

After all, CI’s major supporters include Cemex, Citigroup, Chiquita, Exxon Mobil Foundation, Ford, Gap, J P Morgan Chase and Co., McDonalds, Sony, Starbucks, United Airlines and Walt Disney. Gordon Moore, the chair of CI’s executive committee – and donor of the $261 million grant – founded Intel Corporation. CI claims that its corporate supporters “know that their customers, shareholders and employees share a common concern about protecting the environment.” The boards and committees of its various divisions read like a who’s who of big business.

CI uses its considerable financial resources, political influence and environmental sweettalk to quietly access, administer and buy biodiverse areas throughout the world and put them at the disposal of transnational corporations.

Bioprospecting is a central plank of CI’s operations. "Bioprospecting by itself will not save the rainforest, but combined with other activities, it will," said Marianne Guerin-McManus, CI’s conservation finance director. Really?

CI’s track record suggests a motivation to conserve biodiversity as a resource for bioprospecting for its private sector partners rather than any concern for the rights of the peoples who have lived with, and protected these ecosystems for so long.

Pharmaceutical companies want to access indigenous communities’ knowledge to find plants and traditional ways of using them because this gives them a far higher chance to find potential pharmaceutical products than random screening.

In 1997 CI signed a comprehensive bioprospecting agreement with California-based company Hyseq, which specializes in genomic sequencing. CI agreed to pre-screen drug candidates derived from flora and fauna samples, and provide regular reports on its research findings to Hyseq. As well as an initial contribution, Hyseq would pay CI on a country basis, and an annual fee. Hyseq is free to pursue intellectual property claims over any results.

In Panama, CI worked with Novartis, Monsanto, and others, in “ecologically guided bioprospecting” – seeking pharmaceutical and agricultural products from plants, fungi and insects. In Surinam it cooperated with Bristol Myers Squibb, with its ethnobotanists collecting plant samples. CI worked to win the trust of Indigenous communities and healers and negotiate a very dubious “benefit-sharing” agreement. Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – now the ETC Group) criticized the deal for the paltry percentage (believed to be around 2-3% of any royalties) offered to Indigenous communities, and said that it is unlikely that the communities fully understood the implications before they consented. The Surinam and Panama missions were part of the US-government backed International Cooperative Biodioversity Group program.

Half a world away, in Makira province in the Solomon Islands, CI runs a project which sees local people harvesting the ngali nut, which belongs to the canarium family. CI claims that this provides a viable economic alternative to logging the country’s tropical forests. This project supplies the operations of an Australian entrepreneur, Peter Hull. While owning a pharmacy in the Solomons’ capital, Honiara in the 1980s, he became interested in the health benefits of the widely-consumed nut, noting the low incidence of arthritis among Solomon Islanders.

On May 28 2002, Hull was granted a patent by the US Patent Office for use of the nut oil in the “treatment of arthritis and other similar conditions”. He is applying for patents in 127 countries. He markets a product, derived from the nut oil, called Arthrileaf. On his website, Hull says that he and CI work together to convince village elders “that it is in their best interests to preserve and protect their rain forest, in order to harvest the Ngali nuts from it.”

A July 2003 Edmonds Institute bulletin warns that the patent is so broad that it could apply to other varieties of canarium grown in other parts of the Pacific and Asia. While Arthrileaf can earn Hull an estimated US $10,000 for each kilogram of nut oil, last year the World Bank put per capita income in the Solomons at $570. It seems to be another example of a CI collaboration which supports the rights of private companies to cash in on traditional knowledge and patent lifeforms. The locals – pardon the pun – get peanuts.

Conservation International’s involvement in the Selva Lacandona, Chiapas, is deeply disturbing. Through a 1991 debt-for-nature swap, CI bought the right to set up a genetic research station in the Monte Azules Biosphere reserve in the Selva. CI is urging Mexico’s government to evict indigenous communities in Montes Azules, accusing them of destroying the rainforest.

A June 2003 report by Chiapas-based Center for Political Analysis and Social Investigation (CAPISE) dubbed CI a Trojan Horse of the US government and transnational corporations. It revealed that CI’s program of flyovers – part of their USAID-supported “environmental monitoring” program - flew over areas occupied by Zapatista communities in planes which bore USAID markings. In Chiapas, CI uses state-of-the art geographical information systems (GIS) technology, including high resolution satellite imaging. In the name of environmental protection, it is pitting Indigenous communities against each other, raising fears of conflict in an area which is already heavily militarized by Mexico’s army. In March 2003, Global Exchange convened an emergency delegation to the area and found the destruction most pronounced around military encampments, while Indigenous villagers had outlawed slash-and-burn techniques and were practicing sustainable organic agriculture.

The giant Mexican agribusiness/biotechnology corporation, Grupo Pulsar works closely with CI in Mexico. Between 1996 and 2000 it donated US $10 million to CI-Mexico. Pulsar’s claimed concern for ecology and biodiversity does not extend to its main activities which include the promotion of monoculture in Chiapas, including the planned planting of 300,000 hectares of eucalypt trees. The Chiapas-based Centro de Investigationes Economicas y Politicas de Accion Comunitaria (CIEPAC - Center of Economic and Political Research for Community Action) believes that “the Pulsar Group's "donation" could more likely be a remuneration (but free of taxes, since it's a donation) for services lent by CI in bio-prospecting within the Selva Lacandona. Pulsar has the technology, the resources and the business knowledge to know that there are large rewards awaiting the "discovery" of some medicinal property extracted from samples from the Lacandona. CI "facilitates" the Pulsar Group's entrance, it helps orient its technicians in the prospecting, while at the same time pacifying local populations with programs that promote the expansion of mono-crops around the Selva, while projecting a conservation façade to the world.”

In many countries, the establishment of CI-initiated protected areas have trampled on Indigenous Peoples’ land, social, spiritual, cultural, political and economic rights, without consultation, in deals cut with governments and corporations in the name of “conservation”. The Wai Wai and Wapishana in southern Guyana recently accused CI of “gross disrespect” towards Indigenous Peoples in moves to set up a protected area on their territories.

Given the significant involvement of mining, oil and gas corporations in CI’s program it is sobering to note that many of its “biodiversity hotspots” and project operations are on or adjacent to sites of oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction – Chiapas, Palawan (Philippines), Colombia, West Papua, Aceh (Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea, for example. Indigenous Peoples continue to resist the corporate assaults on their territories, while CI actively champions the causes of these companies to be seen as environmentally and socially responsible.

In September 2002, mining giant Rio Tinto launched a partnership with CI in southeastern Guinea’s Pic De Fon, giving support for a rapid assessment program of the rich biodiversity in a forest area in which Rio Tinto was exploring (it has diamond and iron ore operations in Guinea). Rio Tinto’s environmental policy adviser Tom Burke sits on the advisory board for CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), along with executives from International Paper, Starbucks, and BP.

According to CI, the partnership in Guinea “addresses Rio Tinto's business needs while furthering CI's conservation goals.” The CELB is a partnership between CI and the Ford Motor Company, and its executive board is chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley, the Group chief executive of BP.

CI’s website boasts of its partnership for conservation with Citigroup in Brazil, Peru, and South Africa. Rainforest Action Network dubbed Citigroup “the Most Destructive Bank in the World” precisely for its role in financing the destruction of old growth forests.

Another CI project is the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative (EBI). Convened by the CELB, participants include BP, ChevronTexaco, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International, Shell, Smithsonian Institution, Statoil, The Nature Conservancy, and IUCN - The World Conservation Union. This August, he EBI released a collaborative report, “Energy and Biodiversity: Integrating Biodiversity Conservation into Oil and Gas Development”. The mind boggles. CI is also a member of the industry-driven “Responding to Climate Change” greenwash initiative (

Given its corporate nature, and its “partnerships”, it is easy to see why CI is so uncritical about the impact of economic injustice on the environment and biodiversity. Indeed it proposes market “solutions” to address environmental destruction that has been caused or exacerbated by freemarket capitalism. CI believes that the best way to conserve biodiversity is to privatize it. In a recent In These Times article, US journalist and writer Bill Weinberg sees this approach leading to tropical forests becoming “corporate-administered genetic colonies.”

CI supports the World Bank-backed MesoAmerican Biological Corridor project. Many indigenous communities, social movements and NGOs have condemned this as an attempt to greenwash the massive Plan Puebla Panama infrastructure scheme, and as a front for corporate biopiracy in the region.

CI is also a partner in the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, with the World Bank and the American Forest and Paper Association (US timber and paper industry lobby group), launched by Colin Powell at last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

In the struggles for social and ecological justice, and against corporate colonialism, it is very clear which side Conservation International is on. Not ours.

*** ENDS ***

This article is also published at See…

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