COP 25 is taking place right now in Madrid, and we can observe big corporations sponsoring all types of events. Among them is Endesa, an energy company responsible for 10% of the emissions in Spain1. Big corporations sponsoring environmental events is common, and more and more they are present in the environmental debates and the decision-making platforms. Another context where we can see this controversial involvement is in the donation-based partnership between conservation and NGOs. This article discusses the pros and cons of the partnership between conservation NGOs and big corporations. The main argument in favor is that this is a source to finance conservation; while the main argument against is that this creates a conflict of interest that compromises conservation actions.

A clear example of how corporation partnerships create controversy occurred in the IUCN World Conservation Congress 20082. In this congress, a resolution was tabled calling for the termination of the partnership between IUCN and Shell. The resolution was not adopted creating a strong debate, which resulted in some IUCN members abandoning the organization. At that time, Shell was in the middle of a massive environmental disaster. In September of 2008 and February 2009, the company spilt 280.000 barrels of oil in the Niger Delta. Shell did not allocate the necessary resources to stop the spills and minimize their consequences3. But this is not the only case, as a long history of environmental crimes has accompanied Shell in the Delta Niger. The District Court of The Hague is currently examining the involvement of Shell in the arrest, detention and execution by the Nigerian government of environmental activists4.

The list of NGOs and big corporation partnerships is extensive. Conservation International (CI) has made corporate partnership its major source of funding, collaborates with more than 150 companies and 40% of its income (60M USD) depends on foundations and corporation donations5. Some other examples are IUCN partnering with Toyota and Nespresso; Birdlife International with Toyota; WWF with Coca-Cola, IKEA, Volvo and Walmart. The names of the corporations and the terms of agreement can be found in their respective websites.

It is clear that conservation organizations cannot survive without money. Sources of money can include only small particular donations (model adopted by Greenpeace), as well as institutional and governmental funds (Friends of the Earth) and corporative capital. This type of funding has allowed the success of major conservation projects. An emblematic case is the funding of the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation to implement agricultural and conservation programs in Africa. Other examples include Shell financing the restoration of Wetlands and Toyota equipping patrol teams in protected areas. Interestingly, oil companies have funded the most extensive biodiversity inventories of Colombia, which are carried out by the Humboldt Institute. The head of this institute, Brigitte Baptiste, argues that working with oil companies allows conducting projects that demand a great amount of resources and could not be developed without it6.

Some argue that corporations can move towards more sustainable practices thanks to their partnership with NGOs. Birdlife International has been working for the last 20 years with fishing companies to create more sustainable fisheries and to avoid bycatching. The partnership between WWF and IKEA resulted in IKEA signing a responsible forestry policy agreement, although this has not avoided the logging of the intact forest in the Russian Karelia. NGOs campaigns could modify pollutant and destructive practices by corporations, but a partnership is not required to achieve these goals.

On the other hand, these collaborations can benefit corporative marketing strategies, such as greenwashing. Some environmental activists have described these partnerships as hypocritical, unhelpful, unethical, and dangerous7. Moreover, they argue that NGO’s have tainted their priorities and modified their agendas to avoid interfering with the donor’s interests.

Partnerships involving extractive companies such as palm oil, timber, soy, beef, minerals, and fossil fuels are especially dangerous. Some of these corporations have been involved in the most catastrophic environmental disasters and we can find thousands of examples of negligence and malpractices. One of them is the already mentioned case of Shell in the Delta Niger. We can also mention the BP oil spill in the Mexican golf, and the Chevron-Texaco oil and waste spill in the Yasuni Amazon rainforest. In this last case, Chevron-Texaco is still fighting in court to not compensate the 30000 indigenous peoples affected.

Corporations may have ulterior motives when it comes to environmental protection. These double agendas have been observed in the stance of fossil fuel corporations towards climate change. Companies promote sustainability throughout their websites and public interventions, but they also invest millions in lobbying to stop and weaken legislation that affects their interests. BP, Chevron-Texaco, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total have spent a quarter billion euros buying influence in the European Union between 2010 and 20189.

At this point, we can raise some fundamental questions: what would it happen if conservation directly conflict with corporative extractivism? Will NGOs be able to scrutiny corporation activities if their survival depends on their money? Will they be able to act as an independent source of information and point out public criticism? NGOs transparency and trustfulness are under debate. While conservation NGOs aim for the conservation of nature, corporations are embedded in an economic system that consumes forest, land, oil, and water resources in exorbitant rates, which at the same time drives biodiversity destruction. These conflicts of interests can clearly undermine the fundamental role of NGOs as actors to protect nature, put voice to the destruction of biodiversity and advocate for a fair and sustainable world.

  1. Observatorio sostenibilidad, Emergenicia climatica en España COP25, Diciembre 2019
  2. UICN and Shell International BV, Review of the collaborative partnership agreement between Shell International and IUCN, 22 June 2010.
  3. John Vidal, Shell oil spills in the Niger delta: ‘Nowhere and no one has escaped’, The Guardian 3 August 2011
  4. Amnesty International, Nigeria/Netherlands: Shell ruling “a vital step towards justice, May 2019
  5. Conservation International, What if…, annual report 2018
  6. Katherine Benítez Piñeros, “Es necesario entender la huella ecológica completa del sector petrolero”, Brigitte Baptiste La Republica, 20 Septiembre 2017
  7. Jeremy Hance, How big donors and corporations shape conservation goals, Mongabay, 3 May 2016
  9. CorporationEurop Observatory, food&water Europe, Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace, Big Oil and gas buying influence in BrusselsWith money and meetings, subsidies and sponsorships, the oil and gas lobby is fuelling the climate disaste, October 2019