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The Troubled Marriage of Environmentalists and Oil Companies

by Carmelo Ruiz-MarreroSpecial to CorpWatch
December 22nd, 2003

The American environmental group Conservation International (CI) and other environmental organizations are actively collaborating with oil corporations in hopes of ameliorating the impact of their activities on local ecosystems. But observers fear that the cozy relationship that these groups have with the US government and oil companies raises serious questions regarding their independence and warn that it can undermine the grassroots work of popular movements and native peoples that aim to stop new oil drilling altogether. They also hold that it raises some serious issues regarding national sovereignty in the Global South.

Puerto Rican biologist Jorge Fernández-Porto, who has worked in Guatemala's Petén rainforest where CI manages the biosphere reserve, says that the marriage between environmental groups and oil companies "will only give birth to mutant offspring. In the meantime, diversity and natural systems will be devastated, with the latter enriching themselves and the former picking up crumbs."

But groups like CI dispute these claims, stating that such alliances allow for leverage that environmentalist groups would otherwise not have. "We believe it is crucial to engage oil and gas companies and work with them to avoid, mitigate and compensate impacts on biodiversity in these areas," CI media relations director Jim Wyss told CorpWatch. "If left to operate in a vacuum, there is little hope to encourage these companies to take the necessary steps to fundamentally change how they operate."

An Oily Alliance

CI, the Nature Conservancy, the Smithsonian Institution and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are partners with oil companies Shell, BP and Chevron Texaco in the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative. The EBI bills itself as: "a partnership designed to produce practical guidelines, tools and models to improve the environmental performance of energy operations, minimize harm to biodiversity, and maximize opportunities for conservation wherever oil and gas resources are developed."

EBI works closely with the Biodiversity Working Group, an entity established by the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers. It was selected by the International Chamber of Commerce and the United Nations Environment Program as one of the winners of the 2002 World Summit Business Awards for Sustainable Development Partnerships in the Johannesburg Earth Summit.

To some environmentalists, this collaboration is simply outrageous and unacceptable, especially when considering that one of the companies involved is Chevron Texaco, currently on trial in Ecuador for its environmental crimes. The EBI "will result in enormous impacts regarding biodiversity conservation, paving the way to environmental impunity and weakening the efforts carried out by local and national organizations to make these companies take full responsibility over the impacts they have already caused", said Oilwatch, an international environmental network, in an open letter in October 2003.

In the letter, addressed to the environmental groups in the EBI, Oilwatch states that the measures proposed by the Initiative have already been tried unsuccessfully, have weakened conservation legislation and have also resulted in abuses to the sovereignty of the countries involved. Every time they are proposed they "are then not applied, are not mandatory and have no relation whatsoever with the real environmental behavior of companies. No commitment is made in relation to protected areas or biodiversity."

When asked by CorpWatch to comment on Oilwatch's open letter, CI stated: "Since its inception, Conservation International has held the belief that engaging industry is an effective way to make progress towards addressing the rapid decline of the world's biodiversity. Conservation International takes a pragmatic view in this respect. The real world fact is that companies will continue be granted concessions by governments to operate in high biodiversity areas."

Conservation International in Trouble in Mexico

EBI partner Conservation International's activities in Mexico's Lacandon jungle have come under increasing criticism in that country. The jungle, in the southern state of Chiapas, is sensitive, both environmentally and politically. Logging, ranching and other activities have reduced its area from two million hectares two centuries ago to 500,000 today. As part of the ambitious Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP), Mexican president Vicente Fox and corporate interests seek to exploit the jungle's resources, which include minerals, oil, lumber, biodiversity and fresh water, and open the area for hydroelectric dams, agroexport plantations, tourist resorts and bio-prospecting.

Remote Sensing and Resource Extraction

CI's air surveillance and remote sensing activities raise suspicion in Latin America because there is a long history of US corporations relying on high-tech surveillance in order to know more about Latin America's natural riches than the Latin Americans do themselves. According to Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's seminal book The Open Veins of Latin America, a US-Brazil agreement in 1964 permitted US Air Force planes to fly over and photograph the Amazon jungle:

"They had used cintilometers to detect radioactive mineral deposits by the emission of light wavelengths of variable intensity, electromagnetometers to radiograph the topsoil rich in non-ferrous minerals, and magnetometers to discover and measure the iron. The reports and photographs acquired in the reconnaissance of the extension and depth of the secret riches of Amazonia were put in the hands of private firms interested in the matter, thanks to the good services of the United States Geological Survey.

In the immense region was proven the existence of gold, silver, diamonds, gipsite, hematite, magnetite, tantalium, titanium, thorium, uranium, quartz, copper, manganese, lead, sulfates, potassium, bauxite, zinc, zirconium, chrome and mercury."

This airborne search for mineral resources in the Amazon was also documented in Gerard Colby's and Charlotte Dennett's 1995 book Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon:

"A Carvelle jet owned by Texas's Litton Industries began flights 4,000 feet over the Amazon at 500 miles per hour. Using spectral cameras, infrared scanners and side-winding radar, snapping side-angle radar images, it revealed topographical contours beneath the jungle canopy, including geological anomalies that suggested mineral deposits. Project RADAM (for Radar Amazon) was off and running. When the mapping was through six years later, the Amazon had lost many of its last secrets. For $7 million, Litton had provided a cartographic detail of minerals, density, and kinds of vegetation of an area covering over 4 to 5 million square kilometers, right down to the soil of the jungle floor and even to the minerals beneath it." (p. 671)

The sophistication of remote sensing technologies available today can be ascertained by taking a look at the new field of precision agriculture, a merger of sorts between agribusiness and information technology. Precision agriculture uses satellite images, as well as the global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS).

NASA, which happens to be involved in a Central American mapping project, is a partner in Ag 20/20, a research project that incorporates remote sensing into agriculture. As part of this endeavor, a satellite or airplane-mounted sensor looks down on farm fields, distinguishing as many as 256 light wavelengths. With the right hardware, software and know-how, the precision farmer can use this spectral information to find out a crop's health status. It is not difficult to imagine this sophisticated technology being used to identify areas high in biodiversity and other valuable resources, information that biotechnology and resource extraction corporations would pay dearly for.

But unfortunately for the PPP's promoters, the Lacandon jungle also happens to be the stronghold of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). The Zapatistas and their network of organized communities are resolutely opposed to the PPP, to the neoliberal policies pushed by the US and Mexican governments, and to the proposed establishment of a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

It is in this explosive political context that CI's presence in Chiapas has ruffled some feathers in Mexico. According to La Jornada, a leading Mexico City daily, CI asked the Mexican government to send troops into the Lacandon jungle to eliminate the EZLN. Critics also accuse the organization of trying to evict the peasant and indigenous inhabitants under the pretext of environmental conservation but with the real purpose of facilitating the corporate appropriation of the jungle's resources. CI strongly denies the charges.

Last June, the Mexican Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE) released a report titled "Conservation International: The Trojan Horse", which states that CI sends airplane photos of the Lacandon jungle to the US Agency for International Development, and accuses the organization of working hand in glove with corporate interests that plan to plunder the Mexican rainforest. The report is based on CI's own public documents and experiences that Mexican activists have had with the organization.

"We don't know what's the use of the information gathered by CI, but in recent history we have witnessed how private economic interests are transformed into military 'national security' interests," said CAPISE in its report.

Based in Washington DC and with operations in 25 countries, CI is one of the best-funded environmental organizations in the world. It administers natural protected areas and bio-prospecting and eco-tourism ventures in several continents, and receives funding from corporate sources like McDonald's, Exxon, Citigroup, Ford and Sony. Its board of directors includes executives from corporations such as Starbucks, Gap, Hyatt and United Airlines.

CI makes no secret of its close working relationship with major corporations. In 2001 it joined with the Ford Motor Company in launching the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), which "provides a new forum for collaboration between the private sector and the environmental community", according to its web site. "The Center promotes business practices that reduce industry's ecological footprint, contribute to conservation, and create value for the companies that adopt them. The result is a net benefit for the global environment and for participating companies."

CELB's advisory committee includes executives and representatives of organizations like the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Resources Institute, the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and corporations like International Paper, Starbucks, BP, and mining giant Rio Tinto. Its executive board has representatives of CI, the Ford Motor Company, BP and the coal-burning AES energy corporation.

Mexican business tycoon Alfonso Romo, reputed to be the most influential private citizen in Fox's government, sat in CI's board of directors until recently. Romo heads Grupo Pulsar (GP), a corporate behemoth with interests in agribusiness, biotechnology and bio-prospecting, which also happens to be one of CI's major corporate funders.

Conservation International is "the Trojan horse of major transnational corporations and the US government", denounced CAPISE. "CI's strategy is to gather information and buy large tracts of land with high bio-prospecting potential, which allows it to administer natural and/or strategic resources and place them at the disposal of major transnationals."

CI's Jim Wyss told CorpWatch that his organization was never given the opportunity to respond to any of the allegations in the CAPISE report." As far as we know, no one from CAPISE ever made an effort to contact CI staff in Mexico or Washington. The sole CI 'input' in the CAPISE report consists of pulling quotes - sometimes out of context - from articles that appeared in the Mexican media."

CAPISE is far from being the only critic of CI's actions. New Zealand-based researcher and writer Aziz Choudry has been tracking the organization's activities in several countries. "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", according to Choudry. "Playing the role of an environmental NGO, CI participates in the plunder of the Global South."

"CI's track record suggests a motivation to conserve biodiversity as a resource for bio-prospecting 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", said Choudry.

Remote sensing

Just across the border from Chiapas is Guatemala's Petn rainforest where CI is also active managing the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Puerto Rican biologist Fernández-Porto visited Petén in 1997 as a consultant for the International Wetlands Convention to examine the Laguna del Tigre ecosystem, which forms part of the Maya Biosphere. He was surprised to find in CI's local field office a group of Americans funded by oil companies, using state of the art computer equipment and downloading satellite pictures of the Petn. Not a single Guatemalan worked there, he said.

The CI officers explained to him that they were using the images in order to find out if oil deposits can be located by observing the densities of certain types of vegetation and by analyzing the plants' infrared profile. Were this method to work, exploratory drilling would become unnecessary. But Fernndez-Porto was troubled by the fact that oil prospecting or drilling are prohibited at Laguna del Tigre, since it is a protected wetland.

"This was happening in the largest portion of jungle left in Central America and possibly also the most biodiverse area in Guatemala, perhaps all of Central America. Using nature conservation as a justification, the interests of oil companies are served by so-called environmentalists," the biologist said.

When asked about this particular operation, CI stated that the satellite imaging's purpose was to monitor deforestation and had nothing to do with helping Basic Resources, the oil company in question. The environmental organization, working along with NASA and Guatemalan governmental institutions, used Landsat pictures of the Maya Biosphere from 1986 to 1995.

As for Basic Resources' presence in Laguna del Tigre, CI stated that the company was there before the ecosystem was declared a biosphere reserve. According to Wyss, CI unsuccessfully argued for prohibiting oil companies from the area and later tried, also without success, to engage with the company so as to reduce the environmental impact of its drilling. In the 1990's Basic Resources changed owners five times in as many years, making engagement with the company's management even more difficult, said Wyss.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. He is a Research Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology, a Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program and a Senior Fellow of the Society of Environmental Journalists.