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Escalating row

July 22, 2012

Does the WWF cooperate with "the biggest environmental sinners on the planet"? Author Wilfried Huismann says yes, and his dispute with the WWF about its agenda and industry ties has escalated.

A panda - the WWF's Logo
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Miniature pandas on yogurt containers and bags of frozen fish - the logo of the environmental organization World Wildlife Fund (WWF) stands for environmental responsibility. It is considered one of the "most trustworthy brands in the world," writes documentary filmmaker Wilfied Huismann in his book "Schwarzbuch WWF - Dunkle Geschäfte im Zeichen des Panda" (Black Book WWF - Dark Dealings in the Name of the Panda).

That's why Huismann was upset to see the WWF emblem on a package of salmon produced by a Norwegian company that is responsible for what he calls a "major environmental fiasco." He began digging into the company's production methods while at work on a film about salmon breeding in Chile in 2009, Huismann told DW.

"There were huge amounts of antibiotics and chemicals being dumped into the sea, and fish populations were being completely fished out in order to produce food for the salmon in cages," he said, adding that the principles of environmental protection are being abandoned when the WWF places its logo on such companies' products.

Since then, the author and filmmaker has been at odds with the WWF.

On whose side?

Author and filmmaker Wilfried Huismann
Huismann believes the WWF isn't living up to its missionImage: Roderick Aichinger

Last year, Huismann's film "Pakt mit dem Panda" (Pact with the Panda) unleashed heated controversy. And this year, the filmmaker renewed his criticism in the form of a book. Summarizing the book, Huismann said he charges that the WWF cooperates with "major anti-environmentalists like Monsanto, the largest biotech company in the world, or with British Petroleum and Shell," lending them a "green image" along the way.

The WWF rejects the claims Huismann makes in his book and film.

WWF Germany spokesman Jörn Ehlers said the author has the right to express his opinion, but "when he goes beyond that and puts forth as facts things that are false, then we of course react strongly."

Trading words

The WWF sought an interim injunction against the book at Cologne's district court. The court said it could appreciate some of the WWF's concerns, but it also stressed that the organization must accept criticism. Beginning in June, 2012, Huismann and the WWF have tried to come to agreement outside of the court. But finding evidence capable of negating Huismann's criticisms is problematic, Ehlers said.

As an example, Ehlers cited the author's claims about the WWF's work in Indonesia. The organization aims to stop deforestation initiated by palm oil plantations there, but Huismann says the organization is content to protect just a small part of the land while letting clear cutters have their way elsewhere. Deforestation destroys the habitat of orangutans - animals which the WWF has used to wage successful donations compaigns, Huismann added.

In response, the WWF presented satellite images that the organization believes refute that criticism. However, Ehlers acknowledged that it is very difficult to provide evidence in enough detail to contravene what Huismann claims.

"It's his word against ours," Ehlers said.

A further point of contention for Huismann is the WWF's participation in talks with industry representatives, like at the Round Table Palm Oil. Discussions held at that event aimed to establish criteria and standards for certifying sustainable forms of palm oil.

"Purely false marketing," said Huismann, who argues that there can be no palm oil without deforestation.

Some environmental groups reject cooperation with industry representatives at roundtable discussions like these. But Ehlers does not accept Huismann's characterization of the talks as offering cooperation with anti-environmentalists. Instead, the WWF spokesman said, the process is about setting basic standards that limit negative effects on the environmental.


When environmental advocacy groups take part at industry roundtables, there is a danger their participation can lend undeserving companies a green image.

"We're aware of this risk, and we also have very careful internal discussions about whether that is helpful. We think that we can achieve more by going this route than if we don't participate," Ehlers said.

The enduring dispute between Huismann and the WFF has led to frayed nerves and harsh words from both camps.

"Ridiculous, typical Huismann," the experienced spokesman said when asked about Huismann's claim that the WWF's creation of a global land use plan represents "a service for industry."

Huismann always twists the facts "as though the WWF were responsible for all environmental destruction in the world," Ehlers said.

Differing approaches

The recent escalation in the dispute between the WWF and the author suggests the significance of the controversy for the "largest and most influential environmental protection organization in Germany," as WWF Germany writes in its mission statement. The credibility and image of the organization behind the panda logo are at stake - as are its funding streams.

A mother orangutan and her son
Deforestation deprives orangutans of their homeImage: picture alliance/dpa

But the back and forth with Huismann also suggests a fundamental split when it comes to ecology.While Greenpeace and other environmental organizations employ protests and oppositional tactics, the WWF is convinced that the environment can only be protected in dialogue with industry. But the organization has not done enough to justify that stance publically, Ehlers said, noting that as one lesson the group has drawn from Huismann's book.

"We decided to take this path because we believe that it lets us achieve the most. We perhaps have to go more on the offensive to say why we are doing these things, so that people understand them," he explained.

Huismann has said the goal of his book was to unleash a debate about the environmental protection movement. On that point, he seems to have succeeded - both within and beyond the WWF.

Despite the environmental group's protests, the book is still being sold without any changes, and it is now in its second edition.

Author: Irene Quaile / gsw
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg

A Greenpeace protest
Greenpeace favors more oppositional tactics than the WWFImage: picture-alliance/dpa