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Selling Modernity: How Global Greenwashing is Destroying Tribal People

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In Paraguay’s vast Chaco region, the familiar sounds of the forest are being drowned out by the rumble of heavy machinery. “Where jaguars once trod, now there are just the tracks of bulldozers”, protests Porai Picanerai, a member of the Ayoreo tribe.

His people are being chased from their ancestral lands by Brazilian corporation Yaguarete Pora. While some Ayoreo remain hiding in the forest, living in fear and isolation, those forced out are vulnerable to disease and illness.

The Chaco is experiencing rapid deforestation thanks to companies like Yaguarete Pora, who are illegally clearing vast swathes of land for cattle ranching. Ironically, having promised a small, protected nature reserve, they continue to oust the forest’s most accomplished conservationists, its tribal people.

In spite of this, the company proudly flaunt the logo of the largest corporate responsibility initiative on the planet, the United Nations Global Compact.

This voluntary agreement advocates ten fundamental corporate responsibility principles, including the provision that “businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights.”

Though Yaguarete clearly defy this responsibility, the Compact’s lax membership requirements allow corporations to engage in bad practices while sporting the UN seal of approval.

Such is the hypocrisy of 21st century greenwashing. With pressure mounting on companies to endorse high standards of corporate responsibility, many are failing to deliver. To mask the truth, companies frequently greenwash their activities by participating in seemingly eco-friendly ventures that disguise the true extent of the environmental and human damage they are causing.

With conservation and intergovernmental organisations cosying up to big business, the greenwash is increasingly sophisticated, posing an ever-greater threat to the lives of tribal peoples. Because their livelihoods depend on their unique local environments, this greenwashing poses a grave threat to their survival.

Corporate greenwashing is destroying tribal peoples

The Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport (APECO) in Casiguran, the Philippines, is a 12,923 hectare area currently being developed into a self-sufficient commercial hub and special economic zone.

The project promises to bring “modernity with a touch of green” to Casiguran, boasting plans for eco-friendly features including a Marine Sanctuary and Mangrove Development Zone. For all this talk, the situation on the ground tells a dramatically different story.

If completed, APECO will strip 3,000 small farms and indigenous Agta households of their land. The Agta have reported intimidation, interrogation and assassination attempts relating to the project, which are further jeopardising a population already plagued by malnutrition and homicide.

What’s more, APECO’s ‘green’ promises appear entirely forgotten, as mangrove destruction and illegal logging are destroying the local ecosystem. The Agta’s message is simple: “The most important thing here is our land. If we don’t have it, then we won’t survive.”

Conservation organizations – the ultimate greenwash

Regrettably, corporate greenwashing at the expense of tribal peoples is widespread and recurrent. As if this wasn’t bad enough, an even more worrying trend has emerged.

Increasingly, well-known conservation groups are collaborating with companies to establish ‘green’ projects like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

RSPO, an association of palm oil industry stakeholders, was established with the objective of making sustainable palm oil the international norm. It is backed by prominent conservation organizations including Conservation International, the World Resources Institute, and founding member WWF.

Despite these reputable credentials, there’s a catch. Among RSPO’s members is Wilmar International, whose former subsidiary PT Asiatic Persada is responsible for the forced eviction of the Batin Sembilan from their homes in Jambi province of Sumatra, Indonesia.

The tribe have been arrested, attacked and murdered as their ancestral lands give way to palm oil plantations. Accusations of Wilmar’s bribery blighted negotiations to settle the dispute and culminated in the sale of PT Asiatic Persada, leaving the Batin Sembilan without recourse for their suffering.

Wilmar’s participation in RSPO shows that companies who feign social responsibility are still welcome in ‘green’ initiatives. Indeed, by cosying up to big businesses, which push for lenient responsibility standards, conservation groups enable companies to mask exploitative practices whilst gaining credibility for participating in sustainable projects.

This brand of greenwashing spells danger, not only for tribal peoples but also for conservation groups, who run the risk of guilt by association. So long as these organizations remain indifferent to corporate deception, their loyalty and integrity is called into question.

Hypocrisy at the highest level

Greenwashing can even implicate the institutions and funding bodies responsible for global development. Though these international organizations advocate sustainability, they frequently support projects that undermine this ethos.

As a case in point, in the early 1990s the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), a newly-established World Bank program, struck an agreement with the Cameroon government to conserve a 6 million acre area of rainforest. Yet as one indigenous Baka man observed, “those who now claim they are conserving the forest are the same people pillaging our forests.”

This agreement masked a hefty World Bank loan to fund the logging of a further 3.5 million acres of forest. For the Baka hunter-gatherers and their neighbours, this proved disastrous. Unable to claim their land rights, and prohibited from entering the protected forest to gather resources, they have struggled to survive. In Republic of the Congo, the Baka and Mbenjele suffered a similar fate at the hands of another GEF project.

Such institutional double-dealing delivers a damaging twin blow to tribal peoples – first, their environment is destroyed by commercial activity, and then conservation projects deny them access to their surviving lands and resources.

The World Bank’s conflicted sponsorship doesn’t end there. Today, the Bank is set to profit from its investment in the controversial UN REDD+ scheme, which encourages carbon offsetting to maintain a global equilibrium. Simultaneously, billions of dollars are lent to companies in the extractive industries, the most highly polluting sector.

This has led some to dub the World Bank a ‘climate change profiteer‘.

What next for tribal peoples?

It’s evident that greenwashing is evolving, and with it the challenges that tribal people face. As conservation and development organizations collaborate with irresponsible corporations, the distinction between protector and perpetrator becomes blurred.

This results in indigenous rights violations going unpunished, while organizations that should be working with tribal peoples to protect the environment are discredited. If green initiatives are to live up to their word, they must respect the land ownership rights of tribal peoples and legally obtain free, prior and informed consent.

Environmental groups must also insist on greater transparency among corporate participants. Until then, greenwashing will continue to mask the destruction of the world’s last refuges for tribal peoples.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

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