Swans Commentary » swans.com June 29, 2009  



Buying The Environment To Save Capitalism


by Michael Barker





(Swans - June 29, 2009 )   Neoliberal environmentalists see two ways to save the planet. The first involves purchasing tracts of land to remove it from the marketplace (temporarily anyway), and the second requires the attachment of a monetary value to environmental goods and services to ensure that they are profitably and efficiently utilized. Both non-solutions locate the answer to environmental destruction in the most unlikely place; that is, in hands of an ideology that is committed to sustained growth on a planet with finite resources. This should not be the case; capitalism is not a sustainable world order, it must be replaced with a system that rejects the individuality of the marketplace and embraces communities and collective humanity. Consequently, seriously approaching the issue of environmental protection requires a consideration of solutions that lie outside the capitalist box and offer ideologically-inspired alternatives that can address the root causes of unwarranted environmental destruction. This line of pragmatic thinking has been evolving within socialist and anarchist circles for decades. (1) The capitalist system, however, has, naturally, worked to privilege the solutions provided by elite environmental movements, and the resulting marginalisation of alternative voices has meant that most members of the public remain unaware that such alternatives exist. This has caused concerned citizens to mistakenly equate corporate environmentalists as solution-providers rather than earnest greenwashers. This article demonstrates this domination of neoliberal ideology within the environmental movement by examining the background of just one group whose founder has attempted to set it apart from and above other elite conservation outfits. This group is called the World Land Trust.

Founded in 1989 and based in the UK, the World Land Trust is an international conservation charity that works "to preserve the world's most biologically important and threatened lands" by helping groups purchase and protect habitats rich in wildlife. However, the World Land Trust's founder, John Burton, is adamant that they are not like other elite environmental groups, and earlier this year he wrote on his blog that "stopping it becoming another 'corporate conservation organisation' is the challenge ahead." Alex Carey has described such an unwitting "disposition to develop theories and conclusions congenial to power and orthodoxy" as the Lysenko syndrome.

The World Land Trust's mission statement demonstrates that it is a corporate conservation organisation, and a further examination of its governance structure confirms it. Using information made public on the World Land Trust Web site it can be ascertained that their board of trustees is headed by Albertino Abela, an "international businessman, working mostly in airline catering"; while other trustees include Sir Kenneth Carlisle (who used to be a Member of Parliament and a council member of the Royal Horticultural Society -- which is currently headed by a former managing director of the now-defunct American investment bank, Lehman Brothers), Gil Child (who formerly held senior positions within the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation), Simon Lyster (who is the chief executive of LEAD International, an elite group whose advisory board includes Maurice Strong), and Mark Leaney (who is finance director and co-owner of Discover the World tour operator).

Notably the board chair, Albertino Abela, "helped fund the purchase of" the World Land Trust's Ranch of Hopes (Estancia la Esperanza) site in Patagonia (Argentina). This is significant because the Ranch of Hopes site, which is composed of 15,000 acres of coastal steppe habitat, provides a prime example of the elite conservation projects supported by the World Land Trust. Thus the Trust's local partner organisation that manages the Ranch of Hopes site is Fundación Patagonia Natural, a group whose work is supported by the most powerful elite conservation bodies (e.g., the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility), and works closely with the equally elitist Wildlife Conservation Society. (2)

Similarly, numerous council members of the World Land Trust maintain close connections to other elite conservation groups. These include:

•   Mark Stanley Price, who was the former director of African operations for the democracy-manipulating African Wildlife Foundation in Kenya for 12 years, and is presently a member of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, which was founded and headed by WWF UK trustee, David Macdonald. (3)

•   Alan Martin, who is the honorary treasurer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and is secretary of Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust.

•   Elaine Shaughnessy, who "was Head of Publishing for IUCN, The World Conservation Union publishing on biodiversity, conservation and sustainable development."

•   Nancy Weiss, who has "been involved with both The Nature Conservancy (Massachusetts, USA chapter) and the Massachusetts Audubon Society," and is a board member of the American Bird Conservancy.

•   Merloyd Ludington, who is a former trustee of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and board member of Island Press, where she sits alongside environmental elites like the president of The Wilderness Society.

•   Byron Swift, who has worked for the Environmental Law Institute, "previously directed the United States office of IUCN," served on the advisory committee for the US Agency for International Development, has "previously worked for WWF, [and] served in the legal office for parks and wildlife of the U.S. Dept of the Interior," presently sits on the advisory council of the American Bird Conservancy, (4) and is executive director of World Land Trust-US.

The final council member examined here, Byron Swift, heads up the World Land Trust-US, which is the US-based partner of the World Land Trust. Here, an inspection of the people and funders associated with the US group's work reveals an even closer relationship between the World Land Trust and some of the world's largest corporate environmental outfits. One example is Paul Salaman, the World Land Trust-US's director of conservation, who previously coordinated biodiversity science for Conservation International (see "When Environmentalists Legitimize Plunder"), and then served as the director of international programs for the American Bird Conservancy (see footnote #4) before joining the Land Trust in 2008. Likewise, the deputy director of World Land Trust-US, Robert Ridgely, formerly served as the director of international conservation at the National Audubon Society, and is a founder (and chair) of the Ecuador-based bird-conservation organization, Fundación Jocotoco. (5) Finally, the vice chair of World Land Trust-US, Gerard Bertrand, the honorary president of the World Land Trust (UK), is a former executive president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and former chairman of BirdLife International, and is presently a trustee of the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust. (6)

Last but not least, notable funders of World Land Trust-US include the American Bird Conservancy, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (which is a major benefactor of Conservation International, and whose president is the former CEO of The Nature Conservancy), and the blue moon fund. In 2007 the blue moon fund supported other elite conservation projects run by the likes of Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Forest Trends. Such connections are not entirely coincidental as Adrian Forsyth, the vice president for programs for the blue moon fund, "previously served on the blue moon fund board while working as Director of Biodiversity Science for the Andes/Amazon at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation." Likewise, the links between the aforementioned financiers of the World Land Trust's work are even tighter still as Forsyth is a former vice president of Conservation International, and presently sits on the advisory council of the American Bird Conservancy. (7)

Given that the World Land Trust maintains intimate connections to the world's leading capitalist environmentalists it is unsurprising that its founder, John Burton, is heavily influenced by elitist Malthusianism. Indeed, Burton describes himself as a "pessimist, and a palaeo-Malthusian," and in response to my recent criticism of his elite conservation ethics he published his neoliberal ideological position on his blog:

Biology tells us that the human species has always lived at the limits of technology, has always over-exploited its environment and has been subject to regular population crashes. I can see no evidence, that as a species this can or will change. Living in balance with nature is a dream that will always remain unfulfilled, and has not occurred since before the Stone Age. That doesn't mean that we should give up trying to lead more environmentally-friendly lives, but I believe we have to be realistic about what changes can be achieved.

By "realistic" Burton maintains that the main way to save the environment is to limit population growth and to buy land (to safeguard it from "human nature," but not from capitalism). That Burton currently adopts such a capitalist-friendly ideological position, facilitating ecological imperialism, is consistent with his historical involvement in conservation issues, as he formerly served as the chief executive of Fauna and Flora International, a group that was previously known as the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire. Moreover, Burton's ongoing accommodation to corporate power is reiterated by his long service on the advisory panel to the Scottish Widows Environmental Investment Fund, which is part of the Lloyds Banking Group, and his enthusiastic support of Dambisa Moyo's free-market solutions to foreign aid. Moreover, Burton's close relationship with World Land Trust patron Sir David Attenborough, who serves as a representative of various neoliberal conservation outfits like WWF and Fauna and Flora International, illustrates Burton's misplaced focus on population control. This is because Attenborough recently became the patron of Optimum Population Trust, a group that "campaigns for stabilisation and gradual population decrease globally and in the UK." The illegitimacy of such Malthusian-inspired campaigning has been documented by Eric Ross in his book The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty and Politics in Capitalist Development (Zed Books, 1998), and more recently by Matthew Connelly in a book titled Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard University Press, 2008). To cite Connelly's conclusions on this matter:

The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people's interests better than they knew it themselves. But if the idea of planning other people's families is now discredited, this very human tendency is still with us. The essence of population control, whether it targeted migrants, the "unfit," or families that seemed either too big or too small, was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them. It appealed to the rich and powerful because, with the spread of emancipatory movements and the integration of markets, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory. That is why opponents were correct in viewing it as another chapter in the unfinished history of imperialism. (p. 378)

Given Burton and Attenborough's commitment to green imperialism, or environmentally driven population control, it makes sense that another former trustee of the World Land Trust was David Bellamy (1992-2002), the famed British television botanist and Order of the Golden Ark recipient. Like Attenborough, Bellamy is a vice president of Fauna and Flora International, and among his high profile environmental appointments he served as the president of Population Concern from 1988 until 2003, a group now known as Interact Worldwide. (8)

Elite manipulation of progressive movements is nothing new, and the neo-Malthusian World Land Trust presents just one example of the type of environmental organization that fails to challenge the inherent unsustainability of capitalism. In her landmark book Reproductive Rights or Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control (South End Press, 1995) feminist author Betsy Hartmann observes, "Malthusian undercurrents in the environmental movement rose to the surface with the first big wave of population paranoia" in the late 1960s. Then, she suggests, the second wave of population paranoia arrived with the end of the Cold War, because as "fear of nuclear annihilation waned... (white) public anxiety was free to focus on other threats to security." Indeed:

The end of the Cold War... created space for policymakers to address other pressing but neglected problems facing humanity, with environmental destruction high on the list. On the positive side this could bring greater international cooperation in the environmental field. On the negative side elites are defining and appropriating environmental concerns in such a way as to leave their power intact.

The old military-industrial complex is giving way to a new environmental-industrial one. It is composed of Northern leaders, the scientific establishment (many previously employed by the military), the World Bank through its management of the Global Environment Facility, and transnational corporations with various NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] included to lend legitimacy. (p. 141)

As this article has illustrated, the World Land Trust -- in spite of the apparent good intentions of its founders -- fulfils an important function in the ever expanding and increasingly powerful environmental-industrial complex. In this respect, for those individuals wedded to the green capitalist future promised by neoliberal environmentalists, there is perhaps no better place to donate one's money than the World Land Trust. For others who can envisage an alternative future where environmental and human needs are placed before economic greed, their time and money are certainly better spent elsewhere. Sadly, however, owing to the dominance of the environmental-industrial complex, in many instances there are few democratic environmental groups that recognize the necessity of eradicating capitalism. Thus it will be necessary for concerned individuals to join with other like-minded citizens to create and reinvigorate groups that are able to present the radical solutions to our world's environment crisis that confront the power of those driving the crisis not those bearing the brunt of it.




1.  Murray Bookchin, Our Synthetic Environment (Knopf, 1962); Murray Bookchin, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Black Rose Books, 1997); Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (Knopf, 1971); John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (Monthly Review Press, 2009).  (back)

2.  The president of Patagonia Natural, Graham Harris, has recently worked in conjunction with Doug Tompkins's Conservation Land Trust and Conservacion Patagonica on developing "the design of a master plan" for a new park in Patagonia made of 50 km of coastal line enclosing 66,000 hectares called the Monte Leon National Park.  (back)

3.  World Land Trust trustee Gil Child helped establish the College of African Wildlife Management (based in Tanzania) in 1963 along with the African Wildlife Foundation and the WWF.

Based at Oxford University, the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit was founded by David Macdonald in 1986 "to achieve practical solutions to conservation problems." One long term member of the unit who serves as one of their three research fellows is Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, who in 1998 won the Whitley Award for Animal Conservation from the Royal Geographical Society, and is also currently head of conservation for the elite-friendly Born Free Foundation. Most importantly, the unit's founder, David Macdonald, is well connected to all manner of corporate conservation groups; he is a trustee of WWF UK, is vice president of the Zoological Society of London, and is a former council member (1995-2002) of John Burton's former employer, Fauna and Flora International.

It is notable that in the 1980s David Macdonald supervised Andrew Taber's doctorate in zoology, which involved his working in Argentina to undertake the first field study of the Patagonian cavy. Some time thereafter Taber then served as the director of Wildlife Conservation Society's Amazonian Conservation Network, and he presently acts as the Wildlife Trust's executive vice president for programs. The Wildlife Trust is yet another elite conservation group that was founded in the US in 1973 by the late Gerald Durrell, who in 1981 was rewarded with the Order of the Golden Ark from WWF founder Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, and whose widow Lee Durrell, is a vice president of Fauna and Flora International. (In May 1989, Gerald and Lee were involved with the "official launch" of the World Land Trust.) Like so many of today's so-called conservation organizations, the Wildlife Trust's board of directors is full of leading corporate elites and includes the influential pioneer of neoliberal conservation biology, Thomas Lovejoy. Taber's role at this group is related to the World Land Trust's own conservation efforts as he is "charged with advancing the work" of the Wildlife Trust's "Wildlife Trust Alliance": the tie here comes via the Alliance's Venezuelan member, Jon Paul Rodríguez, who serves on Venezuela's Ministry of Environment's National Wildlife Council, and is the founder and current president of Provita -- a conservation group that acts as the World Land Trust's " Venezuelan partner."

Here it is useful to briefly examine some of the other "local" groups that the World Land Trust works with across the world:

•   In Malaysia the World Land Trust works with Malaysian LEAP Conservancy (or LEAP Malaysia) "to create corridors to protect vital pieces of rainforest and to ensure continuous habitat for orang-utans and other wildlife." Here it is notable that LEAP Malaysia's blog lists among their four "friend in conservation" a controversial group called Wildlife Direct (an organization that happens to include the former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Walter Kansteiner III, on their board of directors). One of LEAP Malaysia's four board members is Caroline Gabel, an individual who also serves as the president of the Shared Earth Foundation, a philanthropic body that provides grants to numerous neoliberal environmental groups (e.g., African Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy).

•   In Paraguay the World Land Trust works with GUYRA Paraguay, a conservation group that according to their 2007 Annual Report also received aid from other elite conservation groups (like WWF and Conservation International) and international development agencies (like the US Agency for International Development and the World Bank). GUYRA Paraguay's executive director, Alberto Yanosky, is also a member of the global council of BirdLife International (see footnote #6).

•   In India the World Land Trust is "working with the Wildlife Trust of India to create a network of forest corridors to enable the Indian elephants to move safely between protected areas to avoid human-elephant conflict and protect critical elephant habitat." The Indian group's executive director, Vivek Menon, is regional director South Asia for the International Fund for Animal Welfare -- a group whose president is the former program director for the elite think tank, the Aspen Institute. Another notable member of the Wildlife Trust of India's board of trustees is Raman Sukumar, who additionally serves as a board member of the Wildlife Trust Alliance (see footnote #3). Financial supporters of the Wildlife Trust of India's work include amongst many others the British High Commission, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the IUCN and the World Bank.

•   In Ecuador the World Land Trust works with Fundacion Pro-Bosque, which is also supported by the IUCN and corporate bodies like the cement and "conservation" giant the Holcim Group, and Fundacion Jocotoco. The chairman of Fundacion Jocotoco, coincidentally, is the deputy director of the World Land Trust-US, Robert Ridgely. Another board member of Fundacion Jocotoco, David Agro, is the conservation coordinator of World Land Trust-US; while yet another is Nigel Simpson, who is a trustee of the World Land Trust.

•   In Brazil the World Land Trust is "working with partner organisation, REGUA, to protect a reserve in one of the largest remaining areas of Brazil's Atlantic rainforest." REGUA's "operating costs are mostly covered by generous donations from the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust" (see footnote #6), although their website lists various other funders, including among their number British American Tobacco. The president of REGUA, Nicholas Locke, is directly connected to the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust through his father, Robert Locke, who sits on their board of trustees.  (back)

4.  Founded in 1994, the American Bird Conservancy works to "conserve native wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas" and major corporate partners that they have recently worked with are the Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas, Swarovski Optik, and ConocoPhillips. American Bird Conservancy board chair, James Brumm, is a board member of Mitsubishi, and the president of the Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas. Brumm is also a board member of Forest Trends -- a group that works closely with Conservation International to "promot[e] market-based approaches to forest conservation." The president and founder of the American Bird Conservancy, George Fenwick, formerly served as a vice president of The Nature Conservancy. Former chair of the American Bird Conservancy, Kenneth Berlin, heads the environmental group at the corporate law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, and he is a former chair of the Environmental Law Institute, and presently serves as a trustee of the elitist Center for International Environmental Law. Notable advisory board members of the American Bird Conservancy include free-market conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy, Magalen Bryant (who is a board member of the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Global Environment and Technology Foundation -- which works as a partner with Lockheed Martin -- and a board member of the similarly military-linked WILD Foundation).  (back)

5.  Another cofounder and executive committee member of Fundación Jocotoco is Nigel Simpson, who is also a trustee of the World Land Trust-UK. An additional board member and cofounder of Fundación Jocotoco is David Agro, who the conservation coordinator for World Land Trust-US.  (back)

6.  Since 1999 the president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society has been Laura Johnson, who, prior to this appointment, had been a division vice president of The Nature Conservancy. Writing in 1997, Jeffrey St. Clair and Bernardo Issel describe the National Audubon Society as: "One of the oldest and most high-brow of American conservation groups, the Audubon Society has long been a bastion of Rockefeller Republicans. It demonstrates a particular obsession with Third World birth rates, advocating harsh population control measures."

BirdLife International describes itself as a "global Partnership of conservation organisations that strives to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity." Her Majesty Queen Noor serves as BirdLife's president emeritus, and brings to her role excellent connections to other corporate environmental groups as she is a trustee of WWF International and a board member of Conservation International. BirdLife's treasurer, Stephen Rumsey, also exemplifies their corporate ties as most recently he served as the founder and joint CEO of European Credit Management and prior to that was managing director of Merrill Lynch.

One of the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust's (BART) largest funders is the World Land Trust. BART trustees include Lindsay Bury (who is the president of Fauna and Flora International), Robin Hanbury-Tenison, OBE, (who is a founder and president of Survival International), Anastasios Paul Leventis (who is an honorary vice president of BirdLife International), Ghillean Prance (who is the scientific director of the Eden Project, see "Greenwashing Eden"), and the aforementioned Stephen Rumsey.  (back)

7.  Adrian Forsyth currently acts as the president of the USAID-funded Amazon Conservation Association. The technical advisory team of this Association includes people like Russ Mittermeier (the president of Conservation International), Gonzalo Castro (who is a team leader of the Global Environment Facility), and John Terborgh (who is a board member of WWF USA, and honorary board member of Dave Foreman's Wildlands Project).  (back)

8.  Interact Worldwide (formerly Population Concern) counts Sir David Attenborough and controversial socio-biologist Richard Dawkins amongst its current roster of vice presidents. In 2005, it became evident that the former president of Population Concern, David Bellamy, held some rather controversial views on the causes of global warming as he became (and still is) one of the world's best known climate sceptics. Bellamy is also the president of the British-based Coral Cay Conservation, which is currently working with the World Land Trust to support the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation.  (back)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. His other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Published June 29, 2009