Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Environmental NGOs sign lousy forest agreement – But why?

Camping in Canada's boreal forest. Photo A Little Mo'.

On May 18, leading environmental NGOs and logging companies announced the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. This agreement may appear as a genuine attempt by environmentalists and loggers to cooperate over the future of boreal forests. Sadly, a closer inspection reveals an agreement which is very detrimental to the forest. But why would ENGOs want to get involved in such a bad deal?


On May 18, some of Canada’s most prominent environmental NGOs and leading logging companies announced the signature of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. On the surface, this agreement is a genuine attempt to move beyond the decades-long warfare which has opposed environmentalists and loggers over the fate of Canada's northern forests.

The shared challenge”, according to a joint statement released by the signatory ENGOs and logging companies, “is to address sometimes conflicting social, economic, and environmental imperatives” by having “both parties committed to working together in the marketplace and on the ground to support governments in the realization of a stronger, more competitive forestry industry and a better protected, more sustainably managed Boreal Forest.

I had to read that statement several times before I was able to reach its meaning, but once I did, it struck me as being rather contradictory. A more competitive forestry industry and a better protected forest? What does it mean, and how is it done? Unfortunately the details of the signed agreement were kept secret, and the official information released to the public was too vague and sanitized to provide much assistance.

Leaked agreement

But thankfully, on the same day that the agreement was announced, Vancouver Media Co-op published a leaked draft of the actual agreement. The document, dated May 12, is a 39-page Memorandum of Understanding marked Confidential and co-signed by pretty much every environmental household name in Canada, such as the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace, ForestEthics, CPAWS, the Nature Conservancy, Pew Environment Group, etc., as well as most logging companies which are still left standing in this lousy economy.

The leaked agreement's preamble confirms that the parties are seeking to reconcile two contradictory goals – the protection of the boreal forest, and its commercial logging. In its Whereas section, the agreement states that Canada's boreal forests are “ecologically significant” in a “local, regional, national, and global context”, as well as “economically significant” in a “local, regional, national, and international context”. The symmetry of the two statements is clearly meant to convey the notion that a complete equality of rights exists between those two colliding worldviews. Such balanced language is used throughout the rest of the agreement, reinforcing the subtext that ENGOs and logging companies are equal partners here, working cooperatively in the best interest of the parties involved as well as the forest itself.

The form of the agreement is definitely egalitarian, but sadly the same cannot be said about its substance. In particular, section 28 reveals the true nature of the deal. In it, we learn that whenever a signatory logging company sells its logging rights over a section of the forest – a tenure – to a third party, “such tenure will no longer fall within the scope of the [agreement]”. In other words, any restrictions to logging-as-usual that this agreement may manage to secure over a given tenure are automatically voided as soon as that tenure is being transferred from Company A to Company B. This is a devastating loophole for at least three reasons:

Unequal terms
  • 1. This section establishes that private property has absolute precedence over the protection of the forest’s biodiversity. The underlying contradiction between the rights of the forest and that of the market, the decades-long conflict between environmentalists and loggers are indeed brought to a resolution here, but under the following unequal terms: markets have rights, forests do not. Indeed, all it takes to cancel the hard-fought conservation measures obtained by environmentalists over time is the effectuation of the most basic and mundane transaction in a market economy, the sale of a land title.
  • 2. The entire biodiversity protection scheme envisioned by the environmental groups is thrown into irrelevance by this section 28. Indeed, according to the agreement, one of the strategic goals championed by the signatory ENGOs is “the completion of a network of protected areas”, in other terms the constitution of a coherent regional biodiversity management plan involving key areas such as species migration corridors, etc. But as soon as Company A decides to sell one of its tenures to Company B, the entire coherence of the management plan falls apart. What is the value, for example, of a migration corridor if one of its central sections has been sold to a third party and subsequently clearcut to the ground?
  • 3. Thanks to this fateful clause 28, logging companies have secured the bulk of bargaining power for future negotiations over the joint management of the boreal forest. Said bluntly, they can bully and blackmail their ENGO partners as they see fit. Oh, you don’t like the amendments to the agreement that I am introducing today? says Company A to its enviro friends. Well okay then, I want out of this deal and so I’m selling my tenure to Company B, and oh – that company does not give a damn about our little forest management pet project here, so good luck with them. Faced with such power-play tactics, ENGOs will have little choice but to accept the demands emanating from logging companies.
Toothless dragon

But this is where it becomes interesting. In exchange for the logging companies’ benevolence for joining the agreement, the signatory ENGOs have contractually agreed to lay down their arms forever. As stated in the agreement’s strategic goal number 6, “ENGOs will suspend all activities” that seek to discourage customers from purchasing the products of the signatory logging companies “effective immediately”. Even though the conservation efforts under the agreement have not even been planned in much detail let alone implemented on the ground, NGOs have already taken a solemn pledge: from this day on, no more boycotting campaigns, no more direct action to alert consumers over “partner” logging companies’ unsustainable practices.

This part of the agreement is particularly targeted at Greenpeace, which has made consumer product boycotting campaigns an effective and feared instrument to force logging companies to the negotiation table. Well, no more. The Greenpeace dragon has lost its teeth. I was personally disheartened to learn that Richard Brooks, a Greenpeace forest campaigner who had managed the anti-Kleenex campaign in Vancouver a few years ago and with whom I had done some volunteer work on that campaign, is now one of the official spokespeople publicly championing the new agreement. Times have changed.

Adding insult to injury, strategic goal number 6 further states that “ENGOs will not, in any of their communications, cite forestry operations of [partner logging companies] as negative examples of certified practices”. In other terms, signatory environmental groups forego not only their freedom of action, but also their freedom of speech. They are contractually agreeing to refrain from criticizing their corporate partners even if their logging practices in the boreal forest do not actually meet the environmental standards envisioned in the agreement. If, for example, the logging companies use their position of force to subsequently water down the plan’s implementation, well tough luck. NGOs are still not going to bad mouth them.

Not only that, but whenever third party environmental groups who are not signatories to the agreement will do (what is after all) their job of denouncing bad logging practices in the boreal forest, the agreement expressly states that the signatory ENGOs are to publicly oppose those bad-ass groups by using any appropriate method, such as “responding publicly” to their attacks through campaigns “in the marketplace” or lobbying efforts “in political circles”.

Signatory ENGOs are also contractually committing themselves to – get this – “securing market place recognition” for the products sold by partner companies by using their “advocacy work and other communications” to “expressly acknowledge forestry operations of [partner logging companies] as positive examples of boreal forest management”. Since when has it become the mandate of environmental organizations to commit their limited resources to advertizing forestry products to the individual consumers shopping at Rona and Home Depot? Well, it appears, since May 19.

Let’s recap the type of agreement that we are dealing with here:

  • Domination of market logic over environmental concerns;
  • A vulnerable biodiversity management plan susceptible to being sabotaged by individual logging companies;
  • Corporations ideally positioned to force ENGOs into accepting their future demands;
  • ENGOs contractually renouncing their highly effective consumer boycotting tactics and, which is even more troubling, giving up their freedom of speech;
  • ENGOs committing themselves to actively fighting non-signatory third party NGOs which may object to bad forestry practices;
  • ENGOs actively promoting and advertizing partner company products to consumers.
Why do it?

Why would ENGOs even want to be involved in such a rotten deal? The short answer is, for the money.  I have already referred here to a groundbreaking  PBS/Frontline documentary called “The Money Tree” which dissects how large transnational corporations are using carbon offsets to privatize large swaths of the Amazon rainforest through complex financial montages, with the active complicity of large ENGOs. The mechanics of such schemes are simple to understand. In the case reported by Frontline, three large corporations – GM, Chevron and American Electric Power – invest in 50,000 acres of rainforest as a way to offset their carbon emissions and improve their public image. To that effect, they make a $20 million donation to American NGO Nature Conservancy who works with a Brazilian environmental group to purchase the land and manage the project on behalf of the companies, and helps them obtain the required carbon certificates from the United Nations. In exchange, the corporations earn carbon offsets which they can trade on the carbon markets. In order to ensure that local villagers don’t enter the newly enclosed lands, the corporations demand that the Brazilian government provide a Green Police whose primary mission is to harass and brutalize the locals out of their traditional lands.

In the case of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, the main motivation of the logging companies is obviously logging rather than merely obtaining carbon offsets. The certificate that they need the most is not about carbon but the one provided by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – and having heavyweight ENGOs on board to vouch for their “good logging practices” is a virtual guarantee that they will indeed obtain it. However, the carbon market would represent a tremendous bonus for those companies, especially in this bad economy where they may not even be able to log their forest tenures for lack of a lumber market. If you believe that the logging companies don't care much about carbon offsets, then read carefully the leaked agreement's strategic goal number 4, called “Climate Friendly Practices”. Deep buried in there is a reference to carbon trading in the following terms: “if the federal or provincial governments proceed to include forest management and protection in carbon offset programs”, then the partners of the agreement are to work together on obtaining certification and determining the eligible projects.

This boreal forest agreement vividly illustrates the strategic role played by some of the largest environmental NGOs in the advent of “green” capitalism. The ENGOs whose names are on the agreement are altogether the brokers, guarantors, and underwriters of corporate environmental goodwill in the eyes of the public. In particular, they are the ones which will secure the required certifications. They will receive hefty compensation for their services in the form of corporate grants which will allow them to meet their payroll and continue to grow, which is no small feat in the current context of a rapidly shrinking charitable donation market. In that sense, they are inhabited by the same internal logic as the corporations which they serve – growth for growth's sake.

Those environmental NGOs are enablers of capitalism's nascent environmental-industrial complex, and as such they have become a liability to the environmental movement. Personal donation choices should be adjusted accordingly, which is why I am posting below the complete list of ENGOs which are signatories to this boreal agreement.

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
David Suzuki Foundation
The Nature Conservancy
Pew Environment Group International Boreal Conservation Campaign
Ivey Foundation
Canadian Boreal Initiative / Ducks Unlimited

UPDATE: Boreal forest agreement - It's even worse than it looked



  1. God have mercy on us all.

    I read about this 'landmark' agreement in the papers. And immediately I was suspicious. Could it be hat there was a genuine agreement ofthis sort, a first in the history of this nation? I thought. I smelled a rat though. And you have pointed it out.

    Thanks for this wonderfully and clearly written article. It reaffirms why I shifted my donations from Greenpeace towards the sea shepherd and wilderness committee few years back.

    I am deeply dissapointed and troubled by this. I wonder, for instance what happened to David Suzuki. He still gets really fired up about protection a d this government's awfull policies. I mean really fired up. And them he does this? I wonder how much of this he knows is going on? He seems to be out of the loop on quite a few issues. Sigh.

    You should write for the tyee though. Seriously. This is top notch reporting!


  2. Peter,

    Re your comment on David Suzuki "I wonder how much of this he knows is going on?" --

    Unfortunately, I think the following link will provide an answer to your question.

  3. Thank you! Keep asking "why?" and keep up the good work!

  4. Well, I have been waiting for someone to give a thorough analysis of this agreement and I might have known it would be you. This is just such good work, Ivan. You know those of us who are busy in other areas rely on those like you who have such careful,analytical minds. It's one thing to say as I did "I smell a rat" and another to pour over the agreement line by line, word by word, and then be able to tell us what the hell it means. You're on a roll, Ivan Betty Krawczyk

  5. Thanks Ivan you are a true environmental steward and hero in my eyes.! Thanks for your truth and unbiased opinions in your blog.!