Conservation, Divided: How big donors and corporations shape conservation goals (Part 2 of 4)


Jeremy Hance, Mongabay 

Date Published


See link for photos & citation.
ANALYSIS: Is big money from foundations, governments, and corporations making conservation groups more timid and less effective defenders of wildlife? Part 2 of Conservation, Divided: Mongabay’s four-part series investigating how the field of conservation has changed over the last 30 years.

When I was eleven, I started donating my allowance to big wildlife organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). My dad, who grew up on a dairy farm that barely survived after his father died of a brain tumor, thought I was crazy to send my money to help save wildlife in some far off country. But I was stubborn — and terrified by the fate of the world’s rainforests and wildlife. So month after month, I defied him and put money in an envelope and mailed it away. As a kid, giving money to conservation groups made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. And that I was helping, in whatever tiny way, to protect species that filled my world with wonder.

This is how many wildlife organizations used to raise much of their money, but that has largely changed. For better or worse.

Big fish

In 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a grant of $10 million to Conservation International (CI), one of the world’s biggest conservation groups. The grant proved emblematic of a sea change in conservation over the last thirty years or so. The Gates Foundation is the world’s wealthiest foundation, with an endowment of over $40 billion, but it supports humanitarian efforts almost exclusively. Yet here it was giving a good-sized chunk of money to an environmental group that began with a mission devoted solely to conserving biodiversity.

“We spent time thinking — what are the organizations that we have to engage with?” Peter Seligmann, the CEO of CI, told the New York Times in 2012. “One was the Gates Foundation. The biggest foundation in the world, completely devoted to the well-being of people yet reluctant to engage on issues related to the environment.”

The grant was awarded to develop a system, dubbed Vital Signs, to monitor environmental and social data in four African countries in order to improve agricultural production — not something directly related to wildlife but arguably indirectly. To win over the Gates Foundation, CI did a test project showing how small-scale agriculture in Tanzania depended on faraway natural resources, such as water from the forested mountains and pollinators.

Some conservationists outside of CI, however, contend that it wasn’t that the Gates Foundation changed how it viewed the world, suddenly seeing environmental protection as underlying human well-being. Instead, they say that CI — and other big environmental NGOs — have changed both their missions and how they operate, at least in part to catch really, really big fish like the Gates Foundation.

Philosophical changes inside conservation groups have also driven this shift from a wildlife-centric approach to a human-centric one, including a focus on programs like certification schemes for eco-friendlier products and so-called “payment for ecosystem services” projects that attempt to leverage the market to pay to preserve natural processes like carbon sequestration and water filtration.

This shift in conservation — and conservation thinking — has been called “new conservation.” Of course, like so many “new” ideas, it’s not exactly new. Environmentalists have long fought to make a healthier world for people through environmental protections. But over the last thirty years or so, influenced by the rise of neo-liberal capitalism in the 1980s, there has been a novel and aggressive drive to find out just how much nature is worth to humans in economic terms.

Perhaps most importantly, new conservation hasn’t just shown up within general environmental NGOs or governmental programs, but it has increasingly become the focus at the world’s biggest groups that once concentrated purely on wildlife conservation, such as CI, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and WWF. While these groups still employ images of charismatic and cute animals to win public support, their work is actually less-and-less focused directly on endangered species and biodiversity, according to sources interviewed for this series, including former employees and outside conservationists. Of course, none of these large groups have wholly abandoned traditional conservation, but more and more their aims, methods, and even missions have shifted, sometimes subtly, sometimes not.

It’s not just philosophy; it’s also money. A number of experienced conservationists insisted to me that such shifts are considerably influenced by a desire to attract more corporate donors and big foundations.

“I do see that that’s absolutely what’s driving some of the changes there,” said Paul Salaman, the head of the Rainforest Trust, a small Virginia-based NGO devoted to traditional conservation in the form of setting aside protected areas where endangered species live. “Unfortunately the interest and support from foundations like that has not come through in any big or meaningful way for biodiversity conservation,” he told me.

CI, which began with a rogue group of ecologists dropping out of TNC in 1987, used to be wholly focused on biodiversity conservation. But today the organization is almost unrecognizable from its small, scientific, and biodiversity-centric origins. For one thing, CI had a total annual revenue of $164 million in 2014, nearly half of which came from foundations, a far cry from its beginnings as a ragtag band of scientists. For another, the group now focuses not on biodiversity for its own sake, but on how nature serves humanity.

“We’re not a run-of-the-mill environmental organization. We’re more like a human organization,” the group states on its website. It has even drafted something it calls a “Humanifesto.”

Salaman added that while it’s “great” that humanitarian foundations like Bill and Melinda Gates’s are beginning to see the benefit of environmental work, it has meant that big conservation groups are increasingly less focused on directly saving wildlife or setting aside wilderness. Instead, they are pursuing projects that, according to Salaman and other sources, may only obliquely help endangered species or threatened wildernesses, if they help at all —projects such as anti-poverty, sustainable development, or payment for ecosystems services programs.

Big foundations “want to see us lean more towards humanitarian actions,” said Salaman.

Conservation groups — big and small — can’t survive without money. Whether it is a major grant from a sympathetic foundation, or funding from a government, or big money from one of the world’s largest corporations — or money in an envelope from a supporter, like myself all those years ago. But how far should they go for donations? How much should they bend? And how much influence do donations buy — especially the really big ones?

The donor game

With an endowment of over $6 billion, the Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation is known as a major supporter of biodiversity conservation. In 2001, it gave CI a ten-year grant for $261 million to identify and protect the world’s biodiversity hotspots. This was one of the largest grants to an environmental group in history — and the foundation eventually gave a total of $395 million. The grant had the bold mission “to transform biodiversity conservation, to spur nothing less than a revolution, and to lead a quantum leap in conservation.”

Fifteen years later the Moore Foundation is still putting a lot of money into traditional conservation, but it’s also gotten into new conservation in a big way. For example, in March, the group announced that it would be spending $100 million over five years to set up new protected areas and manage existing ones in the Amazon and Andes region of South America. At the same time, it announced $90 million to improve sustainability of food production, a program that falls decidedly under the new conservation banner.

Guillermo Castilleja, the Moore Foundation’s Chief Program Officer of Environmental Conservation, told me that the foundation believes in encouraging “many different approaches to conservation, working together,” including “biodiversity and critical ecosystems” as well as the “communities who depend on them.”

But this attempt to fund both sides has also left some conservationists frustrated. In 2014, Salaman, the head of Rainforest Trust, visited the Moore Foundation to see if the two could work together since they had areas of overlap in Latin America.

“[Moore] said, ‘well, if you’re involved in making cattle ranching more efficient,’ they would consider funding [us]. But I said to them, flat out, ‘well, there’s no chance of that,’” Salaman told me.

He added: “It seems ludicrous to me to think that you can take the pressure off rainforests by making cattle ranching more lucrative and efficient. I mean, if I was in that position and I was making more money as a rancher I’d be clearing more lands to put more cattle on.”

Raising funds for the environment has always been an uphill battle in the non-profit world. Among U.S. non-profits monitored by Charity Navigator, groups devoted to the environment or animals (including wildlife conservation, animal rights groups, and zoos and aquariums of a certain size) brought in $10.5 billion in 2014 from all sources, including foundations, government grants, corporations, and public giving. This represented just 3 percent of the total charity pie that year and the smallest of the major categories. For example, religious institutions brought in more than 10 times as much, with $114 billion.

Notably, the biggest subcategory in the Charity Navigator database’s environment and animals category was animal rights, with 298 organizations. Only 84 organizations are devoted strictly to wildlife. This means money going to all of the world’s wildlife from the U.S. — among the world’s biggest donors — could amount to a pretty tiny piece of the already small slice.

“The donor base for a purely moral conservation agenda is not adequate to solve the environmental problems we face, many of which, like climate change, are enormous in scale,” Byron Swift, president of Nature and Culture International, a group that works in Central and South America to safeguard endangered places, told me. Nature and Culture International, like the Rainforest Trust, is a middleweight in conservation circles; in 2013 it brought in $4.5 million.

“We will need to access new donor sources, especially governments, to address these problems,” Swift said.

Conservation groups used to run mainly on individuals’ small donations — like mine — the so-called annual membership fees. And while many groups still rely on this model, the biggest have lessened their use of it or even abandoned it altogether. For example, 45 percent of CI’s revenue in 2014 came from foundations and another 25 percent came from governments and other NGOs. Only 6 percent came from individuals. CI was one of the builders of this new funding model for conservation groups, but some observers note that with it comes the price of increasing influence from big donors, governments, and even bigger corporations.

It’s a two way street, however. Foundations aren’t just moving NGOS; NGOs are also actively convincing many foundations that new conservation is the best way forward.

Will Turner, senior vice president and chief scientist with CI, said the transition is really both sides coming together. He told me this is partially a product of donors looking for ways to get the most out of their grants.

“Foundations and other donors are often very savvy and looking to maximize the return on their investment in conservation, just as they would in any kind of business enterprise,” he said. In other words, why focus exclusively on endangered species and places when you could combine that with helping people through poverty reduction or sustainable development programs?

Castilleja with the Moore Foundation noted that focusing on traditional conservation “would risk doing too little, too slowly — so we’re supporting both kinds of approaches.”

But Andrew Terry, head of conservation programs at Jersey Island-based Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, said that these changes have meant a smaller and smaller slice for groups like his that focus strictly on saving endangered species from extinction. In the case of Durrell, this includes many species that have almost nonexistent public profiles and would likely be abandoned if not for the group’s work.

“It remains a challenge to retain that clear mission and focus, while knowing that your donor base is shifting,” said Terry. “This has driven many organizations to change their focus completely; which has led to some disruptive changes for staff.”

This shift isn’t just occurring at private foundations, but also in governments. Like foundations, governments around the world want more from conservation groups, even when those groups’ expertise has little or nothing to do with improving the lives of the rural poor or educating kids. In part, new conservation was a response to complaints by third world countries that conservationists didn’t care about people, just animals.

Today, government grants from wealthier countries — most of them small money — still play a large role in funding activities for many conservation groups.

As an example, Terry pointed to the Darwin Initiative, a source of biodiversity grants from the UK government. Begun in 1992 at the Rio Summit, Terry said the Darwin Initiative has been “one of the world’s most successful species conservation funding initiatives.” In its 24 years, the grant program spent around $170 million (just over $7 million a year on average) on nearly a thousand projects.

“They have been incredible supporters of conservation worldwide, showing how relatively modest funds could be widely and effectively applied,” Terry said.

But beginning in 2011, the UK government signaled the fund would be shifting, at least partly, from endangered species toward “ecosystem services and poverty alleviation,” said Terry. Funding for Darwin was moved partially to the UK’s Department for International Development, “which requires projects to explicitly demonstrate benefits to local communities, as well as biodiversity,” according to Issy Antenen, a spokesperson for Darwin.

But such a move potentially waters down the conservation focus and could leave many species — those living far from human habitations, for example — out in the cold. How do you work in a human benefit component to conserving penguins living in the Antarctic, or deep-sea fish threatened by dredging, or a single-site amphibian decimated by disease in a remote rainforest?

Certainly, alleviating poverty in some parts of the world can hugely benefit biodiversity, for example if it slows deforestation due to fewer people cutting down trees for firewood or if it leads to less bushmeat hunting and snaring. Yet some conservationists say the focus has gone too far and become too broad to help most species — and that humanitarian groups are better at helping people, anyway.

Indeed, the biggest drivers of environmental destruction today are not landless peasants, but large companies and industries pursuing commodities like palm oil, timber, soy, beef, minerals, and fossil fuels.

Deon Nel, Global Conservation Director with WWF-International, contends that new conservation is important precisely because it focuses on these very drivers of environmental destruction, including both industry and the financial world that backs it up. He told me that donors are simply going through a “process of evolution” like conservation groups, in which they realize that traditional conservation was unable to stem mass extinction, let alone solve the world’s increasingly pressing environmental problems.

“You know, it feels like you’re moving forward because you’ve dictated another protected area…because you’ve protected another wetland, but in fact, the tide is moving away with you,” he said. “And donors need to, I think, come with us on this journey of understanding, [where we] work on these deep systemic issues.”

New conservationists say they are doing something essential that traditional conservationists never did: they are facing the drivers of environmental destruction head on.

For their part, traditionalists contend they have yet to see proof that this model is actually working, even after decades in the case of programs like the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies sustainable wood products. They argue that the larger shift toward new conservation has undercut support for wildlife and ecosystems, leading to projects that try to do too much and either fail or are near-impossible to measure when it comes to their impact.

But it’s not just the shift towards new conservation that has more traditional conservationists concerned. Terry said he worries donors have become too focused on flashy innovations rather than “unsexy” on-the-ground methods that may not be quite as exciting but are needed to stem wildlife declines.

“It’s important to recognize that much of conservation requires the consistent and long-term application of well established approaches to be successful (not very sexy from a donor point of view),” he said via email. “While global donors rush to solve the poaching crisis through drones, databases, and high-tech surveillance, the guards risking their lives every day need salaries, boots, and food.”

Conservation groups have always found it difficult to secure the long-term, unsexy funding needed for rangers on the ground or other management issues, like training enforcement officers, removing thousands of snares from a forest, or studying a threatened species that no one has heard of. It’s much easier to get the funds to establish a new park or implement a new, allegedly innovative, program. And governments rarely dedicate enough cash to adequately manage their own protected areas or imperiled species. Indeed, a lack of adequate funding for decades in protected areas and law enforcement is arguably one of the biggest reasons behind the current out-of-control global illegal wildlife trade, which is decimating not only favorites like elephants, rhinos, and big cats, but lesser-known animals like pangolins, turtles, sharks, and thousands of others that rarely receive any targeted funding.

But Joe Walston, Vice President for Field Conservation Programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), cautioned NGOs not to get too obsessed with what donors want today. WCS, by most accounts, remains the only global conservation juggernaut that is still largely traditional in both its goals and its methods.

“I think it is very easy to get too concerned about current donor trends,” he told me. “And for any of us who’ve been around long enough in this, that they are trends. They do come and go…The best of the conservation groups out there are those that stick to their core values but recognize the shifting drivers out there and adapt accordingly.”

He added that he views environmental issues as becoming “more mainstream” especially due to climate change.

“One cannot talk about the global economy anymore without considering the environment,” he said.

Perhaps reflecting this, spending on the environment and animals in the U.S. saw a 7 percent increase from 2013 to 2014, according to Charity Navigator’s analysis of the groups it monitors. It was the biggest increase of all the charity categories, except for groups working on arts, culture, and humanities, which in 2014 brought in 60 percent more revenue than environmental and animal charities combined.

Environmental groups — even the biggest ones — remain much smaller and less well funded than other kinds of charities. In the U.S., the only environmental group to make it into Forbes’s Top 50 Largest Charities list for 2015 was TNC at number 21. WWF didn’t even crack the top 50.

Walston said that it’s important for conservation groups big and small to remember that donors are also “under extraordinary pressure” to achieve “simplistic, big, results,” especially in an era of climate change.

“We need to be able to help donors set … reasonable expectations whilst being challenged by those donors to be able to, again, think about how we have a greater impact,” he said.

There is also a flip side to the rise of new conservation, according to Salaman with the Rainforest Trust. For donors who still want to support wildlife directly, traditional conservation groups are “actually [picking] up some of the slack,” left by mission and operational changes at other groups. Salaman pointed to the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, which he said “moved away from CI because they kind of dropped the ball on the species. And so they’re coming to smaller groups like the Rainforest Trust.”

Still, said Salaman, “We’re talking peanuts here, right?“

Peanuts, yes. The Rainforest Trust brought in $4.6 million in 2014, which is less than half of 1 percent of TNC’s annual revenue that year. The big wildlife groups, probably correctly, see a much larger pool of revenue within the new conservation approach. And until that changes, new conservation projects will likely dominate.

Corporate money, corporate influence

Even as conservationists debate the arguably growing role of big donors and governments in conservation, the issue is not nearly as controversial as the way groups are partnering with global corporations — including taking money from some of the worst environmental offenders.

WWF has partnered with Coca-Cola, Domtar (a major paper company), and megabank HSBC. WCS has partnered with Chevron, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and Total. CI has partnered with BHP Billiton (the world’s largest mining company), Chevron, ExxonMobil, Monsanto, Nestle, Shell, United Airlines, and Wal-Mart. TNC has partnered with BP, Cargill, Delta Air Lines, Dow Chemical, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Newmont Mining, PepsiCo, Rio Tinto (a major mining company), Shell, and Target. And all four NGOs have partnered with Bank of America, historically one of the largest funders of coal projects.

“If we don’t change the behaviors of the businesses…that are having the most substantial impacts on nature, then we’re going to fail,” said CI’s Turner. “If you look at global spending on conservation, it’s in the tens of billions. The global economy is more than a thousand times that. So, if were trying to save the planet with less than one-thousandth of the global economy aligned with us, we are doomed to failure.”

These partnerships vary widely. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as the NGO taking a donation from the company. Other times, the NGO works with the company to reduce its environmental impact in exchange for donations or consultation fees. Increasingly, though, conservation groups work with corporations or whole industries to enact product-certification schemes or zero-deforestation commitments that may not involve donations of any kind.

According to U.S. law, private foundations, including corporate foundations, must disclose the grants they make. But donations from corporations can remain hidden. Sometimes, deals are disclosed if the conservation group or the company finds it useful, but just as often they are not. This means conservation groups can take money from corporations without even disclosing the partnership, let alone the amount given.

In the face of criticism, the big NGOs argue that close partnerships with environmental polluters and destroyers are the key to making really transformative change. Nel with WWF said his organization views the private sector as a partner and “not as a source of funding.”

“We’re looking more at companies that have influence as opposed to companies that necessarily would, you know, exclusively give us money to do projects,” he noted.

As part of its move toward new conservation, WWF also views the private sector — arguably even more than governments — as the linchpin of securing better protections for nature.

Former WWF employee Leo Bottrill, who now runs Moabi, a mapping platform to monitor deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said this shift in the conservation world is linked to a global ideological change in the late twentieth century toward neo-liberal economics and deregulation, which essentially gave more power to corporations at the expense of the government and public sector.

“Government was seen as the enemy and the private sector the way forward,” Bottrill said of the 1980 and 90s, when NGOs began making this market-oriented shift.

WWF and other large groups have focused on making the case to businesses that environmental protections and conservation can bring higher profits in the long run and cut financial risks. Such arguments have helped convince big companies, from Coca-Cola to Domtar, to change their operations, according to Suzanne Apple, WWF-US’s Senior Vice President of Private Sector Engagement. “Natural resource scarcity is a serious and growing risk to global supply chains and, ultimately, to the bottom line,” Apple told me.

For corporations, the idea of working with WWF is extremely appealing, according to Bottrill. “Obviously, I think partnering with WWF, in particular, is very attractive for companies…I think there is an interest in being associated with the WWF brand, as well as the expertise of the organization…and its experience in many of the countries where these companies operate,” he said.

WWF and other groups also use partnerships in a quid-pro-quo strategy called “cause marketing.” This involves NGOs taking a percentage from sales of certain products often linked to a specific cause. Apple called cause marketing a tool to “leverage the voice and reach of some of the world’s biggest brands” for conservation.

For example, both WWF and TNC have partnered with Avon to plant forests in Brazil and Indonesia with the proceeds from selling products like water bottles, bracelets, and T-shirts. Avon has also donated millions to both organizations. The big NGOs gain revenue while the big companies, like Avon, can look like good global citizens. However, critics contend that cause marketing sends the wrong message, glorifying consumerism and materialism at a time when most environmental thinkers believe global society needs a new creed.

Despite the fluid nature of these partnerships, Apple said that working with companies should not be seen as a blank check. “We work with companies to achieve our conservation mission. These collaborations do not imply an endorsement of any company or its products, and we pride ourselves on maintaining our independent voice,” she said.

She also noted that WWF does a lot of research before it decides to partner with any company. “We always ask ourselves one thing: how will this help us move the needle on conservation?” she said. Indeed, WWF appears to partner with fewer environmental pariahs than groups like TNC, CI, and WCS, which seem to have few qualms about working with mining, banking, and fossil fuel giants that have some of the worst records in the industry.

One of the reasons big conservation has eagerly worked so closely with corporations may be changes at the top. Today, the CEOs of TNC and WWF-US, at least, are not biologists, ecologists, or even scientists, but leaders in finance and business. The boards of these two organizations are also increasingly weighted with members of the private sector.

For example, more than half of WWF-US’s board has a background in business, including the board’s chairman, Neville Isdell, the former CEO of Coca-Cola (one of WWF’s biggest partners). Meanwhile on TNC’s 26-person board, professional scientists and conservationists are outnumbered nearly three-to-one by private sector CEOs, corporate lawyers, and other business people.

CI’s board is also weighted towards businesspeople, including the past chairman of Wal-Mart — one of the group’s partners — and top leaders from Gap, JPMorgan Chase, Mars, and Starbucks, among others.

This has led critics of conservation NGOs to label them as increasingly corporate and more devoted to the interests of big business — and the maintenance of capitalism as it is currently practiced — ­than to those of wildlife, local people, or indigenous groups.

But leaders of business may also bring real conservation benefits. A vivid recent example of this is the ARPA for Life financial model, which in 2014 raised $215 million to manage the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) program for the next quarter century. ARPA is a network of 90 protected areas covering 25 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, the world’s largest protected area network in tropical forests. It covers an area three times larger than all of the U.S.’s national parks combined, around 60 million hectares.

But managing an area this large takes financial commitment — and such an ambitious commitment couldn’t have been achieved without taking notes from Wall Street, according to Tom Dillon, WWF-US’s Senior Vice President of Forests and Freshwater.

“The centerpiece of the approach…is doing a one-time ‘closing’ that delivers pledged funds when all of the agreed upon conditions are met,” said Dillon. A former chairman of WWF-US’s board of directors adapted the approach from Wall Street, where he worked for many years.

ARPA for Life is notable for using a corporate idea to advance an impressive conservation initiative that is very traditional in nature.

Dillon, who called the deal one of WWF’s biggest successes in the last 20 years (many other groups were involved as well), said ARPA has become a new model for fundraising that is now being used in Bhutan to fund a 5-million-acre network of protected areas and in Peru to protect a 47-million-acre network.

Donors to ARPA for Life included large foundations, governments, conservation groups, and development banks. However there is only a single member of the private sector on the long list of donors: Redstone Strategy Group, which provides strategizing services for non-profits and governments. So while the approach may have been lifted from Wall Street, the funding for it comes from the usual non-private sector players. Wall Street didn’t pony up to protect the Amazon.

Corporate coziness drives criticism

Not surprisingly, corporate partnerships lead to fierce criticism of NGOs turning a blind eye to both environmental and human damage, especially when money changes hands. It’s one thing to work with a business on greening its supply chains or investing in renewable energy, but it’s arguably another thing entirely to take donations from corporations, especially those with disastrous environmental records. For decades, activists have decried these partnerships as hypocritical, unhelpful, unethical, and quite simply dangerous.

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based NGO Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), claimed that such relationships have tainted many big environmental groups.

“[They] have started taking many millions of dollars in donations from very big, polluting corporations and putting [the companies’ staff] on their boards of directors and advisory boards. Then they started promoting [these] companies’ agendas, often by hurting not only the environment, but ethnic and poor human communities,” he said.

Started in 1989, CBD is a mid-sized, U.S.-focused organization with annual revenue of around $10 million. The group has a policy of not taking any corporate donations. And they are not alone. Greenpeace, an environmental activist group with no on-the-ground conservation programs, also refuses all donations from corporations and governments, yet is very much willing to work with corporations to change supply-chain practices. Despite not taking money from companies and governments, Greenpeace remains a heavy hitter when it comes to fundraising: in 2014 the group took in around $360 million, making it larger than CI and WCS, and more than half the size of TNC.

Suckling said corporate-NGO partnerships lead to conservation groups participating in what he views as environmental and human crimes. He pointed to TNC’s partnership with Rio Tinto and its subsidiary, Resolution Copper Mining as an example. Currently Resolution Copper Mining is working to develop a mine on Oak Flats, an ecologically sensitive area in Arizona sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Chapters of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society have joined the tribe in its fight against the mine. But TNC said it would not take a stand either way.

“We are not involved in the deliberations regarding Oak Flats,” TNC spokesperson Geraldine Henrich-Koenis told me, noting that the group believes “the process here should continue to consider all points of view.”

Yet the fact that TNC has received money from both Resolution Copper Mining and Rio Tinto —a company with a long rapsheet of human-rights and environmental violations — makes it difficult for the conservation giant to disentangle itself from criticism of its corporate partners’ decisions. It may not be fair to paint TNC with the same brush, but it also makes it a really easy target for critics like Suckling.

“TNC’s invocation of helping ‘people’ is sickening cynical,” he contended. “‘People’ is TNC’s code word for ‘corporations.’ It has shown over and over again its willingness to take corporate money in return for stealing, destroying, or polluting indigenous and poor human communities.”

Suckling further pointed to TNC’s now notorious “Conservation Leadership Award” to Shell Oil in 1999, which came just four years after the Nigerian government executed nine people for nonviolent activism against Shell’s destructive record in the Nigerian Delta. Officially, they were hanged for murdering government officials, despite a lack of evidence. Shell was later sued for complicity in the mass execution and settled out of court. The company maintains its innocence, and TNC continues to partner with Shell today. TNC spokesperson Henrich-Koenis countered that “when we do work directly with indigenous peoples, our initiatives support the rights of these communities to participate fully in making the decisions that will shape their futures.”

Still TNC, perhaps more than any other large conservation group, has a history of acting like a business. As a major landowner in the U.S., TNC has appointed companies to log its forests for timber and paper, mine its lands, and even drill for oil in the past. For example, in 1999, TNC profited from allowing an oil company to drill on land in Texas supposedly protected for Attwater’s prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri) — though the birds subsequently vanished. Even after the group pledged to allow no more drilling on its properties, it let the drilling continue there until at least 2007.

But working directly with corporations gives conservation groups a little-discussed power, according to Turner with CI: back-door access to corporate decision-making. “That’s really the only way we’re going to get the results we need, is by being able to influence those powerful forces that are really driving the way the world works,” he said.

CI isn’t known for criticizing corporations publicly. For example, CI also partners with Shell Oil, but the group said nothing last year as the company attempted to drill for oil in the Arctic — despite warnings from the scientific community over increased greenhouse gas emissions, outcry from locals about the possibility of a major oil spill, and potentially devastating impacts on the Arctic’s already climate-impacted wildlife and ecosystem. After failing to find a big enough fossil-fuel deposit amid collapsing oil prices, Shell announced it was dropping the project, which cost it $7 billion over nine years. While CI remained mum over the furor, Greenpeace and other activist groups campaigned fiercely against Shell and claimed victory when the company withdrew from the Arctic.

Activists gathered to protest Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig as it docked in Seattle on its way to the Arctic in May 2015. Photo by Backbone Campaign/Flickr.

“It’s because we don’t actively engage in public dialogue about companies… that we are able to engage in much more direct and honest conversations with them in person in a way that [can] proactively change and guide their operations toward better outcomes,” Turner argued.

In other words, these relationships allow CI some unseen influence with their corporate partners. This could very well be true and may produce positive outcomes, but the difficulty is that the public never sees what CI achieves or does not achieve with its corporate partners behind closed doors.

Bottrill, the former WWF employee who now works for Moabi, agreed that whenever these big NGOs partner with environmentally destructive companies or repressive governments “it can be difficult to have an adversarial or critical approach, certainly publicly.” He added that privately there may be a more “robust conversation” but the public would never know.

“Working with corporations is needed but can be tricky, as they are legally constituted to respond only to a for-profit motive,” said Swift with Nature and Culture International. “While they have to be part of any solution, and many have made notable progress, others have lobbied against progress, and market forces mean that few can be bold enough in the environmental agendas they pursue.”

This brings up one of the key questions in the debate: can environmentalists and conservationists achieve more by partnering with big corporations or by being a thorn in their side? Should they use the carrot or the stick? Or maybe both: from time to time different conservation groups join together. One feeds the industry a carrot, while the other beats it over the head with a stick.

But critics of corporate-NGO partnerships say the benefits of these are still largely tilted towards companies. They contend that powerful corporations are able to use their partnerships with well-known environmental groups as a way to deflect criticism, while changing little if at all. After all, is it realistic to think that even the biggest NGOs could truly persuade multinational corporations worth hundreds of billions of dollars that seek profit above all else to suddenly turn over a new leaf?

In her book Green Inc., journalist Christine MacDonald argues in great detail that the benefits of partnerships with corporations have historically proved one-sided. Corporate polluters, miners, and deforesters get to look green and good while doing next to nothing beyond contributing a few million in donations and maybe a side project here or there.

“It doesn’t take a very hard look at the operations of these so-called ‘green corporations’…to see that improvements made to their environmental footprints are tiny compared to their overall negative impacts,” she concluded in the 2008 book. “These relationships seldom lead to substantive changes.”

And conservation groups have arguably grown even closer to the private sector in the intervening years.

WWF’s Apple pointed to her group’s work with palm oil as one of its key successes when it comes to corporate partnerships. “We are particularly proud of our work on palm oil,” she said. “The work is ongoing, but I’m heartened by our progress to date. For example, we have been working with Cargill to define better management practices in the trade and production of commodities. The implications of this effort have the potential to make a real impact on deforestation and biodiversity.”

WWF’s work on palm oil will take time to pay off and it may be too early to fully judge its success. Even so, if last year’s fires in Indonesia are any indication — an area the size of New Jersey went up in flames due to the palm oil and pulp and paper industry burning lands — any progress on the ground remains elusive. And as the palm-oil industry marches into places like Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon, it brings with it the same problems that have made it an environmental pariah in Southeast Asia: destruction of rainforests, conflict with indigenous groups, and decimation of biodiversity.

In the end, it may be that in this case only the industry has enough clout to force the Indonesian government to finally crack down on palm oil. But big conservation groups — like WWF — consistently run into trouble by claiming progress before it appears and trying to spin a positive story when the on-the-ground reality is vastly different. As another example, the conservation giant recently claimed that tiger populations are rising for the first time in 100 years — but within hours there was blowback. And now a number of the world’s top tiger experts have said WWF’s claim was “scientifically unconvincing.”

Big conservation groups seem at times to have taken a leaf out of corporations’ book: happy self-promotion at the expense of reality. While this may help raise money, it also risks eroding trust as the public is slingshot from positive news back to more complicated, grimmer realities time and again. Such zigs and zags — We were successful! Oh wait, we weren’t — arguably fuel a deep despair over conservation’s ability to achieve anything anymore.

Just prove it

Is there a way to put to rest the debate over corporate partnerships? Probably not so long as some NGOs take money from corporations with bad environmental records.

But several sources said the best way forward would be for the big NGOs to present proof that these partnerships accrue real benefits for nature, instead of just good publicity for companies and big checks for big conservation.

“I can speak from experience that there [were] a lot of questions on how effective these partnerships were and how that was being measured,” said Bottrill, referring to his time as a WWF employee. The embracing of corporations without “looking at the facts” left some of WWF’s scientists “frustrated,” he added.

“There was a bit of a disconnect between, I think, the leadership conversation and the rank-and-file conversation on this topic. It was sensitive,” he told me. “There was lots of reputation at risk. There was a lot of funding on the table.”

But Nel said of WWF’s corporate partnerships that “[this] is not about making each other look good this is about real honest conversations about the challenges we face together.”

Still, hard facts and analysis may be what’s also missing from the debate over donor influence and the new-conservation movement as a whole. Critics say that what’s needed is data proving that corporate partnerships, certification schemes, payment for ecosystem services programs, and other new-conservation initiatives actually deliver on promises for wildlife and biodiversity — and not just businesses and people — and that they are worth the decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into them by wildlife groups. While engaging in such scrutiny and transparency may ultimately turn off the corporate donation faucet and even some big foundations, it could also re-instill trust and excitement in conservation today.

Perhaps we would be better off pursuing more protected areas, more targeted conservation programs for imperiled species, and more unsexy spending on necessities like rangers and trainings for law enforcement officers. Or perhaps we would be better off with a more balanced combination of the two philosophies — with wildlife groups doing wildlife projects and general environmental groups partnering with humanitarian groups on the new conservation work. What we know for sure is that conservation is messy, complicated, and difficult, and that in an age of mass extinction, empty forests, plastic seas, and a superheated climate there are no easy answers.

Of course, conservation groups — big and small — can’t survive without money. And the little money from one kid’s allowance wouldn’t pay for even a single day of work for one employee. Conservation groups need foundations and governments. They may even need corporations. But they also need real independence and space to take a stand. Money can solve a lot of things, but not if trust and independence is the price.