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Saturday, May 5th 2012, 5:59 PM EDT
WWF has travelled too far from its original aim, to protect endangered species.
What a strange body the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund, now the Worldwide Fund for Nature) has become these days. It is the largest, richest and most influential environmental lobbying organisation in the world. Originally set up in 1961 by Julian Huxley, Prince Philip, Prince Bernhard and others, for the admirable purpose of campaigning to save species endangered by human activity, it has morphed in the last 20 years into something very different, more akin to a multinational corporation.
The WWF empire now derives a very hefty chunk of its income from partnerships with governments, or the EU, or actual multinationals, such as Coca-Cola and Sky, which like to use its iconic panda logo (originally designed by the naturalist Peter Scott) to give an “eco-caring” gloss to their commercial activities. The chief reason why it has so greatly increased its wealth and influence is that it has joined other lobby groups, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, in pushing to the top of its agenda that most fashionable and lucrative of environmental causes, the “battle to halt climate change”.
But this has led WWF into some rather odd little tangles, such as those which have recently emerged over its activities in Tanzania. Much of its work there is carried out under a UN climate change policy known as REDD+ (“reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation”), which is part of the UN’s £17 billion Fast Start programme. Britain, giving £1.5 billion, is that programme’s second largest contributor after Japan.
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Last November, Prince Charles, as president of WWF UK, flew to Tanzania to hand out “Living Planet” awards to five “community leaders” involved in WWF projects around the delta of the Rufiji River, which holds the world’s largest mangrove forest. Part of their intention has been to halt further damage to the forest by local farmers, who have been clearing it to grow rice and coconuts. This is because the mangroves store unusual amounts of “carbon” (CO2), viewed as the major contributor to global warming. (Another WWF project in the delta is to find a way of measuring just how great a threat release of that CO2 might be.)
Shortly before the Prince’s arrival, it was revealed that thousands of villagers had been evicted from the forest, their huts in the paddy fields torched and their coconut palms felled. This was carried out by the Tanzanian government’s Forestry and Beekeeping Division, with which WWF has been working. But Stephen Makiri, the head of WWF Tanzania, was quick to insist that WWF had never advocated expelling communities from the delta, and that “the evictions were carried out by government agencies”.
At this point, however, two American professors intervened. They had just published a study of the delta in an environmental journal, entitled “The REDD menace: resurgent protectionism in mangrove forests”. It was highly critical of the so-called “fortress conservation” policy advocated by WWF under REDD+, claiming that it was seriously damaging the traditional life of those local communities which had been sustainably farming and fishing in the area for centuries.
Although this provoked a vehement riposte from Mr Makiri, who claimed in turn that the paper had seriously damaged the reputation of his staff who had been working on the WWF REDD project, a new furore had already erupted over claims that some of those staff had been falsely claiming expenses on a massive scale, amounting to more than £1 million.
In December, WWF responded by commissioning the international auditors Ernst & Young to investigate. In February, it was announced that Makiri had resigned as head of WWF Tanzania. The local office of Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) leapt in to say that, while it “eagerly awaited” Ernst & Young’s report, it wished to emphasise that, although it has a general funding programme with WWF in the area, it had not been responsible for funding any of its projects directly. In March, a statement from WWF US, which raises half a billion dollars a year, confirmed that “so far 13 employees have left the organisation, along with two managers who had oversight responsibility”.
When I recently asked DfID what had happened to the report it was “eagerly awaiting” in February, I was told to ask WWF. They told me they had commissioned “a series of reports” on “four projects in Tanzania and the behaviour of a number of staff members there”, not all of which “have yet been completed”. But a summary of their findings will be published “in due course”.
It is hardly surprising that WWF is so anxious to defend its good name, since so much of its income (£55 million a year in Britain alone) depends not just on the five million members it claims worldwide but on the support it gets from governments. Nowhere is this web of top-level influence more striking than in the role WWF now plays in the workings of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the body whose reports, supposedly based only on “gold standard” science, have been the chief driver behind worldwide concern over global warming for 20 years.
When a series of scandals blew up two years ago over the more alarmist claims made by the IPCC in its 2007 assessment report, the two which attracted most headlines were shown to have been based, not on peer-reviewed science, but on campaigning material put out by WWF. One of these, a prediction that the Himalayan glaciers might all have melted within 30 years, was sourced from a WWF paper based only on a magazine interview with an obscure Indian scientist (who was subsequently employed by the research institute run by the IPCC’s chairman, Dr Rajendra Pachauri). The other, a claim that drought caused by global warming could lead to the destruction of 40 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, was revealed – by my colleague Dr Richard North and this column – to have originated in a WWF propaganda leaflet based on research that had not been concerned with climate change at all, but with the damage being done to the forest by logging and fires.
Exhaustive analysis, led by the Canadian author Donna Laframboise, then revealed that nearly a third of the 18,531 sources cited by the report had no more scientific provenance than press clippings, student theses and claims by activist groups – among which none was more prominent than WWF. But worse was to come. In her recent book on the IPCC, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert, Laframboise shows how, from 2004 on, WWF deliberately set out to recruit contributors to the IPCC’s next report to its Climate Witness Scientific Advisory Panel.
The result was that WWF “climate witnesses” contributed to two thirds of the 2007 report’s 44 chapters, including every one of the 20 chapters in the section on the impacts of climate change. A third of all the chapters in the report had WWF witnesses as co-ordinating lead authors, ultimately responsible for their contents. As Laframboise summed up, her analysis confirmed that, far from the report being the work of dispassionate scientists, “the IPCC has been infiltrated… wholly and entirely compromised”.
Many of these WWF panel members are now at work on the IPCC’s new report, due out next year. WWF has been so successful in getting its allies into key official positions that, in 2007, the chief executive of WWF UK, Robert Napier, was able to slip seamlessly into a new job as chairman of Britain’s Met Office. This is another body which, through its Hadley Centre on climate change, has been a central player in promoting alarm over global warming ever since 1990, when the centre was set up by Sir John Houghton, one of the IPCC’s founding fathers.
WWF has had only one real setback in its ascent to such influence. In March 2010, I reported here on its part in a hugely ambitious scheme, backed by $250 million from the World Bank under an earlier version of REDD, to turn the CO2 locked in the Amazon rainforest into “carbon credits” worth an estimated $60 billion. The idea was that these would be saleable on the world carbon market, to enable firms in the developed world to stay in business by buying the right to continue emitting CO2. WWF and others were granted selling rights by the Brazilian government over an area of forest twice the size of Switzerland. But, following the twin failures of the UN’s 2009 Copenhagen World Climate Conference, and the bid to give the US a compulsory “cap and trade” scheme, the project came to nothing.
Just how far WWF has travelled from the noble purposes for which it was set up was perfectly symbolised by the way it chose as its chief marketing tool the slogan “Adopt a polar bear”. If this organisation still had concern for endangered species closest to its heart, it would know that the idea that polar bears are dying out due to global warming is no more than sentimental propaganda. But then that is the main business that WWF now seems to be in – very much at the expense of the rest of us and, of course, those communities in the Rufiji delta.
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