Civil Society, Environment, Europe, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Because Oil Is Not Green

Julio Godoy* - IPS/Terraviva

BARCELONA, Oct 10 2008 (IPS) - Several environmental organisations have asked the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to stop accepting funding from Shell, the giant international oil company.

IUCN signed an agreement with Shell in October last year to support the private corporation’s activity in protecting the environment. The agreement also brought the IUCN at least 1.2 million dollars, according to IUCN sources.

The IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental coalition, of more than 1,000 government and civil society member organisations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries.

In a motion presented at the IUCN congress, member groups such as Friends of the Earth International, Pro Natura, the Argentine-based Latin American Centre for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) and the Netherlands Society for Nature and Environment have called on the network “to terminate the agreement…with Shell.”

The groups argue that “Shell’s past, present and future operations have huge negative social and environmental impacts.” In addition, they say, the Dutch oil company “has a highly controversial reputation in dealing with…communities (affected by oil exploitation).”

Despite recent efforts to ‘greenwash’ its corporate identity, environmentalists say Shell continues damaging activities such as flaring gas in Nigeria, especially in the Niger delta, despite promises to phase out the practice.

Gas flares release poisonous chemicals that harm the health and livelihood of communities in their vicinity. Some of the by-products are nitrogen dioxides, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds like benzene, toluene, xylene and hydrogen sulphide, as well as carcinogens like benzapyrene and dioxin.

These chemicals can aggravate asthma, and lead to chronic bronchitis. Benzene can cause leukaemia and other blood-related diseases, environmentalists say.

The IUCN secretariat has pointed to the cost of cancelling the contract with Shell. “The core funding would be lost,” an internal IUCN paper says. If Shell were to take legal action for termination of the contract, “the financial consequences (for IUCN) are unforeseeable.”

Dennis Hosack, IUCN programme officer for business and biodiversity, admits that Shell “has a large environmental footprint, and is operating in places very hard to manage, such as the Niger delta.

“We do not defend Shell,” Hosack told IPS. “But IUCN believes that we can help it to reduce its environmental footprint, and so raise the environmental standards for the whole oil industry.”

“If you black-label all major companies, you are not going to have any chances to inducing changes in their ecological behaviour,” Anna Kalinowska, member of the Polish National Foundation for Environmental Protection, told IPS.

“Of course the IUCN risks losing its reputation because of its cooperation with Shell,” she added. “But it is a risk worth taking.”

The IUCN contract with Shell is symbolic of the larger debate on how civil society coalitions can dialogue with corporations, including receiving funding from them, without alienating their constituencies.

IUCN has a similar partnership with Holcim, the leading global supplier of cement and with Total, the French oil giant. The green coalition is now preparing a contract with Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining and exploration companies.

A member of the IUCN secretariat who requested not to be named told IPS that “the trade-off is extremely dangerous for all environmental activists.”

“It is very naïve to believe that environmental groups can really influence the corporate behaviour of enterprises as powerful as Shell,” Christiane Ehringhaus, a German researcher with the Centre for International Forestry Research told IPS. “Most likely, we environmental activists would lose our soul in the process.”

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