The Sarawak Post printed an article recently about a new programme for the Malaysian State of Sarawak. The occasion was held to launch the ‘Forest Landscape Restoration Programme’ (FLRP) underwritten by Royal Dutch Shell (henceforward: Shell) and a Japanese-Malaysian association. The piece begins, however, by describing the group of state government officials,
Looking for all the world like a gruesome bunch of mafia dons, the head honchos of Sarawak dressed casual this weekend and waddled out to some turf to grin for their favourite PR organ, the Borneo Post (owned by the timber barons of KTS) in order to proclaim their belated attempt to get onto the tree planting band-waggon.
The ’tree planting band-waggon’ should be understood as a movement engaged in by certain corporations to ‘greenwash’ reputations. According to The Conversation, ‘Today the idea is growing strong, and an array of private companies from adult website Pornhub (yes, Pornhub) to clothing brand Ten Tree are using trees as a marketing tool’. So, are state government officials, Shell, and the Japanese-Malaysian Association engaged in a practice that environmental NGOs (ENGOs) label as greenwashing?
If they are, then what is greenwashing? According to Carlyann Edwards, on the staff of Business News Daily explains,
You’ve probably heard of whitewashing, defined as the glossing over or covering up of scandalous information through a biased presentation of facts. But greenwashing isn’t as well known. It occurs when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.
The practice in question, tree planting, is not in itself is not what some would consider a ‘green’ practice. Some claim the practice is a win-win policy that counteracts a corporation’s environmental impact, but it is just another form of greenwashing. So, in repairing habitats, simply planting trees is not enough. Plantation monoculture for agricultural production or industrial use via replacing natural forests is not a practice that is considered environmentally sound by the Sarawak Report or ENGOs or conservationists. Evidently, to be considered ‘green’, forests should be restored, and not merely re-planted with fast-growing trees and harvested for pulp and paper products.:
… [W]hat everyone in Sarawak also knows is that the vast majority of those areas officially designated as ‘forested’ have been plundered and looted over and over for years in an unregulated timber rush that has destroyed one of the most valuable places on the planet and left few trees of any marketable worth left standing.
The laughable quote from the Sarawak forest department that the state has “planted 634 million trees throughout Sarawak, spanning an area of 528,238 hectares covering hills, swamps and coastal area, in collaboration with various stakeholders” [in the Borneo Post] fails to mention that the trees in question are plantation trees (foreign imports like the fastgrowing but highly damaging acacia).
Interestingly, the Sarawak Report fails to report Shell’s plans for implementing the FLRP in the state and notes that: ‘No details were offered as to the nature of this outside support for one of the world’s most notoriously corrupted state governments or what the progamme [sic] consists of’. Furthermore, the website states:
… [I]nternational bodies and corporations should think carefully about stepping in and propping up a criminal regime that has for decades treated the jungle solely in terms of extracting cash.
Such programmes should be conducted transparently at the very least, yet virtually no details have yet emerged about Shell and Japan’s projected plans to invest in regenerating Sarawak’s forests as the worst bunch of eco-crooks on the planet get set to polish up their ‘eco-credentials’ for the coming state elections.
Nevertheless, the Sarawak Report also failed to mention that Shell did announce that, ‘In Malaysia, Shell and the Sarawak state government are jointly studying the potential for nature conservation, restoration and enhancement venture for Sarawak’s natural landscape’. To sum up the Report’s allegations thus far, it concludes that:
The concerns are clear. For a start this gesture sits very uncomfortably with an announcement earlier this year by primary industries minister, Teresa Kok, revealing that the present Sarawak State Government has insisted it will be continuing to implement dodgy crony concessions … in order to convert a whopping 600 thousand further hectares of forest land to oil palm plantations ….
What this means is that on the one hand Johari’s regime is taking in charity money from Shell for regrowing forest, whilst on the other hand it is continuing to tear up massive areas of existing forest elsewhere, releasing hugely harmful greenhouse gases in the process.
Shell’s sustainability bosses will be well aware that much as regeneration of forests is to be supported and encouraged, it is the damage done by the further conversion of existing forests that has to be avoided to combat global warming. Regeneration needs to be matched by pledges against further encroachment.
These concerns raise questions about why Shell, which is seeking to burnish its eco-credentials, is propping up a notoriously destructive and corrupted timber mafia regime in this oil rich state under such a secretive deal that appears to have no such strings attached?
So, is Shell engaged in greenwashing? The answer to this question appears to be ‘yes’. However, in appearing to engage in greenwashing, Shell is also implicitly intending to appease ENGOs with programmes such as the FLRP in Sarawak. Shell’s press release titled “Shell invests in nature as part of a broad drive to tackle CO2 emissions’, includes an impressive array of ‘green’ programs of which the FLRP is only a part. In the press release, the corporation responds directly to Mark Tercek, the head of The Nature Conservancy who said,
Last year’s IPCC report was a wake-up call on climate: reducing emissions starts with fossil fuels. Shell’s announcement signals that one of the world’s biggest energy companies is pursuing a decarbonisation strategy with a broad set of solutions, including by investing in nature. By doing so, it is helping to curb global deforestation, restore vital ecosystems, and help communities develop sustainably. Shell is the first in the industry to set near-term targets for the emissions of both its operations and its products; this is clear progress, but it also illustrates how much work remains to achieve Paris climate targets. We look forward to seeing further investment from Shell in these areas.
Moreover, as history shows, appeasement is not likely to produce the results the mammoth fossil fuel producer desires or expects. Appeasement not only fails to produce the expected results but encourages the ENGOs to pursue counter campaigns designed to ‘name and shame’ as well as direct action strategies against the appeaser. By targeting Shell, environmentalists hope to ‘flip’ similar corporations so that they are compelled to accommodate ‘sustainable’ development goals, or to at the least to appear to be on the ‘tree planting band waggon’, as the Sarawak Report puts it.
Unfortunately for Shell, and any other fossil fuel producer attempting to appease the climate change movement, this strategy will fail. The most radical nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion (XR), 350.org, and even The Nature Conservancy, are all explicitly or implicitly dedicated to ending the production and use of fossil fuels entirely as well as to end capitalism itself.
The facts, as discussed in the preceding, suggest that Shell’s FLRP in Sarawak is an attempt to greenwash the fossil fuel producer’s reputation and that the effort is bound to fail in appeasing radical environmental organisations who are already campaigning against the company in Europe and elsewhere.
The Sarawak Report is allied with radical green groups such as the Bruno Manser Fond, which advocates, ‘… fairness in the tropical forest. We are committed to campaigning for the conservation of the threatened tropical rainforests with their biodiversity and strive for the respect of the rights of the rainforest dwellers’. Indeed, indigenous peoples (forest dwellers, for the most part) have become the focus of intense promotion by environmental groups, NGOs, and the United Nations. According to Friday Phiri, a correspondent for the Inter Press Service,
The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) was held in Bonn, Germany to rally behind a new approach to achieving a future that is more inclusive and sustainable than the present. …On Jun. 22 and 23, experts, political leaders, NGOs and indigenous peoples and communities gathered to deliberate on a methodology that emphasises rights for indigenous peoples and local communities in the management and perseveration of landscapes. The forum took place alongside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Bonn Climate Change Conference.
The forum focused [on] giving land rights the visibility needed to showcase that a rights approach is a solution to the climate change crisis. …Indigenous peoples, local communities, women and youth, are believed to be the world’s most important environmental stewards but they are also among the most threatened and criminalised groups with little access to rights. …But industries such as fossil fuels, large-scale agriculture, mining and others are not only endangering landscapes but also the lives of the people therein.
Indeed, the survival of indigenous populations (and, by implication, indigenous modes of existence) are becoming the ‘golden standard’ for the protection of rainforests around the world. Be this as it may, there are serious questions concerning whether or not an indigenous environmental management style is the best way to protect rainforest flora and fauna or, indeed to make use of forest resources. For example, the ‘slash and burn’ method of preparing the soil for planting by indigenous groups in the Americas has often resulted in significant harm to the environment.
Furthermore, many indigenous groups approve of or actively promote what is now referred to as ecosocialism as a necessary replacement for capitalism and neoliberalism in particular. In an article titled ‘Red and Green: The Ecosocialist Perspective’, Michael Löwy writes
On a planet characterized by finite resources, the economy is predicated upon an absurd and irrational logic of infinite expansion and accumulation. With its fossil fuel based operations continually spewing carbon into the earth’s atmosphere, the capitalist system’s productivist obsession with profit has brought humanity to the brink of an abyss. …How should we respond to this enormously frightening scenario? We have seen that partial reforms are completely inadequate. …What is needed is the replacement of the micro-rationality of profit by a social and ecological macro-rationality, which demands a veritable change of civilization. It is, however, impossible to work towards that change without a profound reorientation aimed at replacing contemporary energy sources by clean and renewable ones, such as wind or solar energy. The first question, therefore, concerns the issue of control over the means of production, especially decisions on investment and technological change, which must be taken away from the banks and capitalist enterprises in order to serve the society’s common good.
Indeed, the adoption of political movements may benefit ENGOs such as the Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (WALHI) group in Indonesia an affiliate of the Friends of the Earth International (FOEI). This heady combination of ENGO and Islamic narratives may culminate in what we call a Green-Green (ENGO/Islamic) ideology. This worldview along with a revisionist view of Article 33 of the Indonesian Constitution (1945) promulgated by a socialist political party, the People’s Democratic Party (Partai Rakyat Demokratik – PRD) results in a potent blend of narratives that could gain traction throughout Southeast Asia. For example, in discussing the cause of flooding in Southeast Sulawesi, the Executive Director of WAHLI, Saharuddin Sultra, argues that among the causes of the flooding is the fact that area mining operations are in the hands of unprincipled ‘local and foreign capitalists’; the Director continues with:
The Islamic Khilafah system regulates the types of ownership both individual ownership, public ownership and state ownership. Then all natural resources must be managed directly by the state and the results are used for the benefit of the community. It is different in the current capitalist system where all natural wealth is controlled by the owners of capital (capital) rather than the state. The state only functions as a facilitator in implementing the economy of the capitalists. In the capitalist economic system we recognize the principle of freedom of ownership or economic freedom, and this principle is currently applied in the countries of the Muslims to extract natural power in the country. Freedom is given to the owners of capital.
… Muslims must realize that they are in the economic control of capitalism which really threatens their economic strength not only in the economic sphere but the negative impacts of the environment such as floods, landslides as a result of their economic greediness. It is time for Muslims to return to the Islamic system and abandon the current system of secular capitalism which only leads to real deterioration.
Coincident with the promotion of indigenous communities and ecosocialism in Europe as a means to prevent the destruction of rainforests, the issue of deforestation played a significant role in the recent European Parliamentary Elections:
In a letter of 25 April 2019, more than 600 European scientists asked the EU to reduce the impact of its consumption on Amazon deforestation. The same day, an Amazon Watch report found that several European companies finance or buy from groups that are driving agro-industrial expansion into tropical forests. Such initiatives come just weeks after a Fern-led international NGO coalition, including an organisation representing over 300 Brazilian indigenous groups, called for the EU to end its participation in the assault on indigenous rights in Brazil and the destruction of the Amazon. Deforestation remains rampant due to the production of beef, chocolate and palm oil, of which the EU is a large importer. …Against this backdrop, more than 50 NGOs are pushing to make deforestation a key issue of the upcoming EU elections, when citizens from all 28 Member States will elect the 751 members of the next European Parliament. The Forest Pledge, which invites candidates to pledge to protect and restore forests if elected, now has well over 100 signatories.
Not only did deforestation play a significant role in the election, green parties also made significant gains in the EU Parliamentary Elections: ‘The Greens made remarkable results in Germany (21,5%), Belgium (15%), Denmark (13%), Finland (16%), France (13,5%), Ireland (11%), and the Netherlands (11%)’.
In conclusion, the Sarawak Report’s attack on the FLRP funded by Shell and the Japanese-Malaysian Association may appear to be nothing more than an attempt by a journalist to link Shell with allegedly corrupt state politicians and to accuse Shell of greenwashing. However, we argue that the Sarawak Report, as well as its publisher Clare Rewcastle-Brown, are allied with radical environmental organisations who represent a Western, mostly Eurocentric worldview.
Royal Dutch Shell’s ‘green’ programmes and initiatives appear to ENGOs as transparent attempts to ‘greenwash’ its reputation, but it will also encourage ENGOs that are more radical than The Nature Conservancy to launch negative campaigns against the energy produces. Even worse, Shell’s attempts to appease the ENGOs who are determined to end fossil fuels and capitalism are mistaken and doomed to failure. Either the management of Shell are blind to the existential threats posed by the negative campaigns mounted by increasingly sophisticated and effective NGO strategies, or they naively believe that organisations like The Nature Conservancy truly do want to help them become ‘sustainable’. Either way, Shell and all fossil fuel producers should avail themselves of every legal means to confront and contain radical environmental organisations and ecosocialism.