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A watchdog report says unethical logging companies are piggy-backing on WWF's famous panda logo to greenwash their operations. Deutsche Welle talked to the report's authors and the WWF's long-running forestry scheme.
Global Witness says big business is abusing the WWF
Several logging companies across the world are abusing a partnership program with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to appear more environmentally friendly to consumers, according to a report released on Monday.
The WWF's long-standing Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) encourages private logging companies to operate more responsibly in return for guidance, support, and some association with a respected conservation organization.
A report by the London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness, called "Pandering to the Loggers," says the scheme is being abused and ignored by some of its partners who are more interested in an association with the WWF and its famous panda logo than in improving their practices.
Global Witness has called for an independent audit into the GFTN's rules, transparency procedures and the scheme's impact on forests, conducted by the governments and aid agencies that are the biggest single set of contributors to the annual $7 million operating expenditure.
"It's very early stages [but] that's not an unreasonable demand, and it's certainly something we'll be looking at," GFTN head George White told Deutsche Welle. "But I think we first need to look into what is quite a lengthy and detailed report."
Borneo orangutans, protected by the WWF, are said to be displaced by one GFTN member
The Global Witness report looked into the operations of three of the biggest players cooperating with the GFTN, and cited several examples of trade in illegal timber, and of illegally clearing forests, some of which are home to endangered species like orangutans and clouded leopards.
Shady timber trading
Malaysian logging giant Ta Ann Holdings Berhad, the report said, is clear-cutting rainforest at the equivalent rate of 20 soccer fields per day, even in an orangutan habitat protected under the WWF's "Heart of Borneo" project.
"That particular company's membership fee to the [GFTN] scheme is less than $5,000 a year, its market capitalization is around half a billion US dollars a year," said the campaign leader for forests at Global Witness, Tom Picken. "So it's rather good value if you're a company not necessarily committed to sustainable operation. You get to associate with one of the world's leading conservation brands."
Picken acknowledged that the GFTN is helping many logging companies clean up their acts, but says there's also scope for a less well-meaning firm to join up, not meet its targets, get kicked out five or ten years later and yet never be publicly named or shamed.
WWF will work with companies trading in illegal timber - though the GFTN's George White cautioned that that term remains loosely defined by law to this day - on the understanding that they commit to reduce or stop this activity over time.
The world needs wood - and it needs forests
"We could be very risk-averse, we could work only with good companies and then, probably, we'd never achieve anything," White said. "So it's always a balance."
The GFTN head also said that they only enter into an agreement after conducting background checks.
"We try to know the beast before we tackle it," he said. "And secondly, the annual monitoring that we have allows us to see that the progress is being made - or not, in which case we talk to them about why not."
Company problem child
Another company featured in Global Witness' report is the Swiss-German firm Danzer Group - or more specifically, its SIFORCO subsidiary's operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Reiner Tegtmeyer was one of Global Witness's investigators on the ground in DRC, where he said SIFORCO has a history of calling for government assistance if locals try to stop them from logging.
Businesses in the DROC must compensate communities for logging
Companies obtain a government permit to cut down trees, but are legally obliged to provide certain infrastructure and assistance - like roads, schools and hospitals - to local communities in return. Tegtmeyer said this process is often either sluggish or stagnant, which sometimes leads to communities trying to block the logging operations in the hope that this will spark a positive response.
"After SIFORCO called the authorities, in May this year, the security forces attacked a village by night and raped three women and three girls - this was confirmed - they beat up and arrested 16 men, burnt one house and destroyed the interior of other houses," Tegtmeyer said.
"The problem is Danzer said they were very sorry about the incident - they published a statement on the website - and said that was not the intention. But Danzer should know that by calling in the security force - or by calling the administration, which then sent the security forces - that they risked this kind of incident, because this happened before in 2006."
WWF 'offers ideas and guidance'
The GFTN says working only with good companies would accomplish nothing
WWF's George White said he couldn't comment on the case, because SIFORCO was not a member of GFTN, having had its recent application suspended on the basis of these allegations until investigations have concluded.
"But [SIFORCO] is a subsidiary of the Danzer Group," Tegtmeyer said, "and WWF confirmed that they are keeping up the relationship with the other companies of Danzer Group. And on the company website, they say 'we are working with WWF' without specifying which companies are doing so."
White said that the critical report marginalizes two issues he wishes were better highlighted. Firstly, the fact that even GFTN members cannot necessarily tout WWF endorsement or approval for their activities - but rather cooperation towards better working practices. Also, he said, the 20 years of progress the deal has helped achieve is underplayed.
"WWF doesn't buy any wood. All we have to offer is ideas and guidance and, here, a framework to work within," he said. "And I think it's been a tremendously successful framework over the years. The market is a tremendous mechanism, if you can harness it correctly, to get results and to get them quickly outside of government processes."
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Andrew Bowen