In 1990 there were about 400 international environmental groups. Today, this number is more like 1.4 million.
So why is the world apparently in a worse state now? Have environmental groups paid too much attention to the wrong issues, countries and organisations?
The focus of the big international NGOs (BINGOs) has been frequently directed to economic development activities that are occurring in the newly industrialising countries, commonly in Asia.
But the well documented origin of many of the world’s major environmental problems is from the already developed countries in Europe and North America.
Witness last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – staggering in its ecological and social impact, yet hardly attracting any coordinated international protest from the three largest BINGOs – WWF, Nature Conservancy or Greenpeace.
There were only a few isolated petrol station protests in England by a small number of people from Greenpeace at the very last stages of the disaster.
Similarly, Goldman Sachs and other big investment banks have avoided BINGO attention amid the continuing global financial crisis – a calamity that caused millions of people to fall into poverty. Yet BINGOs have often attacked the financial history of firms in Asia.
Blockbusting consumerism in developed countries has not been pursued by any BINGO, but rather their attention has been on developing countries attempting to grow their economies out of poverty.
For example, BINGOs have relentlessly attacked the palm oil industry in Asia, an illustration of selective use of information and data to direct the market away from one of the world’s most challenged economies.
There is ample peer-reviewed research that is supportive of the palm oil industry in Indonesia. Greenpeace mounted a vigorous campaign against Nestle for using Indonesian palm oil, which resulted in Nestle dropping the use of the product and replacing it with alternative oil suppliers from developed nations.
The market benefit is shifted from Indonesia to a rich nation, and as palm oil-based products are tainted with a negative environmental narrative, there is a shift away from palm oil altogether.
After the Asian financial crisis a decade ago, the new Indonesian democratic government was encouraged by the World Bank and IMF to develop a palm oil industry because it is a large employer.
Rural employment was critical to Indonesia then, and remains so today. The population of Indonesia is approaching 240 million people with about 100 million of them living on less than US$2 per day.
By 2050, the population is expected to grow to 300 million. The country can expect to lose as much as 20% of its land mass with predicted rising sea levels in the coming decades.
Population issues are intense and will only become more critical over time. A key driver to uncontrolled population growth is poverty. Reducing poverty will reduce the rate of population growth.
Poverty is also a well-researched influence on environmental degradation. It would seem a ridiculous strategy for BINGOs to run campaigns that hold any nation in poverty and yet expect positive environmental and social outcomes.
The problem is that Indonesia is very good at growing palm oil, effectively shifting the economics of the world edible oil market. Palm oil is an incredibly productive crop, yielding substantially more oil per hectare than other oil-seed plants.
Palm oil also has the advantage of being a long-term plant – a palm oil tree will produce seeds for almost 70 years.
The long-term carbon sequestration opportunity of palm oil is well documented, compared to the negative carbon characteristics of other oil crops such as soya, corn or canola, which need to be stripped back to bare earth each harvest cycle.
These crops are grown mostly in Western or developed nations. Recent research describes these crops as environmenally unsustainable.
The demise of the palm oil industry in Asia is a human tragedy supported by Western-dominated BINGOs. Unless palm oil is being sourced from places like Indonesia, more land in Europe and North America will be cleared for soya, corn and or canola fields that are harvested using massive equipment employing very few people.
If BINGOs were serious about sustainability and communities they would be looking to help develop a sustainable palm oil industry, not maintain poverty.
The current mechanism is to invoke a free market, preventing poor countries from using tariffs to protect their infant industries.
This would mean developing countries become buyers of Western products, not producers and exporters of their own.
The activities of BINGOs will likely emerge as a new global trade protection mechanism by placing unbalanced environmental attention, and therefore barriers, on industrialising nations.
If companies like Goldman Sachs, BP or Union Carbide were Indonesian organisations, then BINGOs would have probably had a field day. But they are not.
Union Carbide is infamous for the chemical plant explosion in Bhopal, India where thousands Indian civilians were killed late on a the 3rd of December in 1984. The poisoned site is still closed today and there have been up to 300,000 people permanently maimed as a result of chemical poisoning.
Bhopal was the world’s largest civil court case and also without any doubts the worst environmental and continuing social catastrophe outside of any major war. The issue remains unresolved to the satisfaction of the victims.
The president emeritus of WWF in the US, the largest WWF branch, is Russel E Train. He was a board member of Union Carbide for more than 25 years.
Why haven’t Greenpeace or the Nature Conservancy ever pursued WWF on that? WWF is lucky it is not an Indonesian company.
Phillip Lawrence, PhD Scholar, University of Sydney. He consults to Asia Pulp and Paper in Jakarta. His current research at Sydney University is exploring the Barriers and Incentives to the Ecological Modernization of the Indonesian Economy.