Feb 19 2003


Mines and Communities
London Calling!
February 19 2003


Birds have a habit of coming home to roost. None more so than the rare pink-footed geese, who winter in Britain and nest and feed at Karahnjukar in Iceland every year. Whether dodgy deals by conservationists also come home to roost is open to question.


However, the world’s biggest public-subscription conservation organisation now faces what might (just) be its biggest controversy yet. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, or”WOOF” as its fondly known) seems split down the middle over a new sponsorship deal.

At issue is the fate of 7,500 of those calamine-clogged geese, along with thousands of their barnacle and greylag friends who stop off annually in Iceland en route from Greenland to Britain. At loggerheads are Kathryn Fuller, president of WWF-USA and WWF-International (based in Geneva) backed by WWF-UK..

As reported on this web site, last year WWF International slammed ALCOA, the world’s biggest aluminium producer, over its plans to dam 22 square miles of Karahnjukar, in order to source hydro-power for a future smelter. The Geneva group undoubtedly has the interests of the geese at heart (as they damn well should); so do the Brits. (Not to mention Nostromo Research which is based just beneath the geese’s north London flight-path.)


Corporate Clubbing

But Ms Fuller sits on the board of ALCOA, following the company’s ascendancy to so-called “corporate club” status at WWF-USA. Entry-price for these business high flyers is a donation of a million dollars or more.

So now the greenbacks are ranged against the pink legs. Ms Fuller has refused to resign from ALCOA, claiming: “You have an opportunity to steer the ship if you’re on the bridge”. What’s for sure is that, not even the most consummate of pilots can guide two vessels at once, especially if they’re on collision course. Can WWF International oust its yankee dissident? Even if it wanted to, it seems the peculiar structure of the woof-woof confederacy won’t allow it.


Of course this isn’t the first time by any means that such deals have aroused the ire of environmentalists, though hardly ever within the WWF “family” itself.

Last year, Friends of the Earth (England Wales and Northern Ireland) hammered WWF-UK, the Earthwatch Foundation and Kew Gardens Conservation International (both these two incidentally well-tucked up in bed with Rio Tinto) for accepting 35 million pounds (US$59 million) from London-based Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC). This is the bank that’s already invested in foresty in Indonesia, the controversial Lesotho dam, and the appalling Three Gorges dam in China (a project the World Bank itself refused to fund).

The HSBC/ WWF/Earthwatch/Kew intention is to link with five hundred botanic gardens in 111 countries in order to create “reservoirs” for threatened plant species; and to fund training of 200 scientists, as well as involving 2,000 HSBC staff in various South-based projects.

Though FOE hasn’t made much of it, HSBC is no slouch when it comes to mining promotion. The bank’s Global Mining Index, according to the Mining Journal, ranks as “the most comprehensive set of widely-available indexes covering equities in the mining sector”, accounting for the vast majority of market capitalisation in that sector.

The Friedland factor

Last year, HSBC played a major role in promoting investment in several dubious companies, including Newmont (soon afterwards the world’s biggst gold producer began to slide), Newcrest and Ashanti Gold.

It’s worst boost was for Ivanhoe which, last March secured a “bought deal” of up to C$ 65 million (US$ 41 million) with a syndicate of Canadian financial underwriters. Although officially intended for “ongoing exploration and development of the company’s existing properties and for general corporate purposes”, there is little doubt Ivanhoe’s disreputable owner, Robert Friedland intends the funding mainly for his disreputable Monywa and Letpadaung copper ventures in Burma and the company’s significant new Mongolian ploys.

The loan to Ivanhoe was led by Griffiths McBurney & Partners – and HSBC Securities. So much for one of the world’s biggest investment banks which, laughably, has its own “ombudsman” on hand supposedly to prevent it making such appalling gaffes.

That Lafarge deal again

As HSBC was so generously greasing WWF’s palm, the world’s most famous conservation organisation bagged another cool million from Lafarge, the world’s biggest cement producer. This has also made Friends of the Earth (its Scottish branch) piping mad, primarily because of the French conglomerate’s intention to hew a quarry out of the Hebridean Island of Harris.

Claude Martin, the WWF International president, may be railing against ALCOA’s plans for Iceland. But he’s far from navigating against corporate deals as such. He told last Sunday’s “Independent on Sunday” newspaper:

“Waving your fist in the air doesn’t do anything. We have to engage with industry and try to establish standards with the front runners in the hope we can put the laggards under pressure. Our strategy is to divide and rule, as simple as that.”

Not quite so simple a strategy, Monsieur Martin; and one that’s certainly bogged down in uncertainly, if not illogic. Here’s part of what “London Calling” said last September:

“The [WWF-Lafarge deal], claims the company, is the first of its kind:’…a new, truly transparent way of working, in constant dialogue with the exterior (sic)’. Between them the parties have drawn up a list of environmental performance indicators, setting improvement targets against an agreed schedule. The indicators cover energy consumption, waste materials recycling, environmental audit s and above all, greenhouse gas emissions.

“What’s wrong with this? First, WWF seems to be taking over the regulatory role which, many would argue, governments should perform. It’s not necessarily a cover-up but it does at least confuse…Second, the agreement doesn’t cover major social and health impacts of cement production, as experienced and attested to, by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.

“… Third, even where the squeeze is applied by WWF, the pressure can be maladroit and irrelevant. WWF’s main target is the reduction of carbon dioxide pollution, to which the cement industry is a world-class contributor. Unfortunately, Lafarge itself is far from sanguine that any major carbon cuts can be made. Indeed, as cement demand increases globally, so overall emissions are likely to rise… Does WWF oppose increased incineration of which cement manufacture is the biggest single industrial utiliser? Is the issue even on their agenda? No doubt many communities would like to know.”

They’re still waiting.

Indian opposition

Meanwhile we can report from India that the WWF group there – after recent bad experience of LaFarge’s entry into their country – did oppose any collusion with the French company and wrote to tell their Northern counterparts so. You can guess the response (or lack of it).

Claude Martin may indeed be right. On current showing WWF can successfully ”divide and rule”. But the divisions are closer to home than he would wish.

[Sources: The Independent on Sunday, London, 16/2/2003; The Independent, London 22/2/2002; Financial Times, 21/8 -1-9/2002; Mining Journal 28/2/2000; Mineweb, 23/7/2002; Courier News Service: March 15, 2002 (BURMA COURIER No. 312); London Calling September 27 2002; personal communication, rep. of India WWF to Nostromo Research, December 2002]

NB: Due to pressures of news from other regions, Nostromo Research has delayed the promised posting of new China coverage. This will come on-line in March (promise!).

[“London Calling” is published by Nostromo Research, London. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of any other individual, organisation or editors of the MAC web site. Reproduction is encouraged with full acknowledgment.]