Al Jazeera: Gulf conservation and corporate ‘greenwash’

Ford Motors has given away $1.1 million in environmental grants since 2000, and they offer $100,000 each year for projects in the Middle East [GALLO/GETTY]
Environmentalists say that polluting corporations only fund Middle East conservation projects as a “greenwash” policy.

The US conservation movement is regularly derided for its willingness to take “dirty money” from Big Oil. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, those same companies are funding significant conservation projects with no such scrutiny.

Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical and Ford Motors fund conservation projects such as the Emirates Diving Associationwhich protects marine life, IFAW Middle East , which fights the illegal trade in animals – as well as Al Yaal that works to protect Kuwait’s marine ecosystems. And all without strong criticism from either environmentalists or conservationists.

Those involved in these projects state that they do not see any problem taking funding from companies which are believed to cause environmental damage – if they are working together to protect nature.

Wahab Al Ghanim, the managing partner of en.v, which is behind the Al Yaal initiative to protect Kuwait’s marine environment remarked: “The way I see it, all these companies are not going anywhere, so we may as well try and do something positive together and reverse some of the [environmental] damage that has been done, whether by individuals, companies or governments.”

The small environmental movement in the region also means that few activists are raising any questions about the motives of companies behind such projects and whether they are simply being used for “greenwash”, where companies feign environmental concern to make themselves look better without doing anything substantive.

Wael Hmaidan, the director of IndyACT– an independent organisation of activists based in Lebanon which campaigns on environmental issues – spoke to Al Jazeera from Bonn, where he is currently taking part in the latest UNFCCC climate negotiations.

“I do think that there are some corporations taking advantage of the fact that the Middle East has a weak environmental and civil society and are bringing projects here that wouldn’t be accepted in more aware countries.”

“I can’t think of any other region that is doing worse than the Middle East in terms of environmental awareness. So, when we talk of recognising greenwash I would say that there are very few of us who would spot it and criticise it in the region.”

Exxon Mobil, oil and marine life

Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company which relies on the Middle East and the surrounding region for approximately 25 per cent of its gas and oil output, has been funding various conservation initiatives in the region.

Working with en.v,  it has financed several projects with the stated aim of protecting Kuwait’s marine and bird lifethrough educational programmes and cleanup activities. The Al Yaal [“coastline”] marine conservation project was established by en.v in June 2011, with funds from Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemicals.

Three months earlier, Exxon Mobil awarded Qatar University’s Environmental Studies Center a grant of QR750,000 and funding of QR1,000,000 to support research into the coastal and marine ecology of northern Qatar.

Despite this marine conservation-focused funding, the activities of oil companies are widely understood to disturb or destroy marine wildlife, with offshore drilling posing risks to coral reefs and fish habitats – while oil tankers pose huge threats to the marine environment when there are accidents or spills.

Exxon Mobil was heavily criticised following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 when more than one million  barrels of crude oil were spilt into the sea after an oil tanker struck Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef. As well as poisoning the water and damaging more than 1,250 miles of Alaskan coastline – around 250,000 sea birds,300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales died as a result of the spill.

Records also show that Exxon Mobil faced a lawsuit in 2009 from eight oil communities in Nigeria due to the practice of gas flaring which is thought to release toxic substances causing environmental problems. The company has also received criticism from nature groups for threatening wildlife habitats in the Caspian Sea.

Win-win situation for conservation and corporations?

Despite patchy environmental records, it seems that conservation organisations in the Middle East are happy to be receiving funding from corporations. Wahab Al Ghanim, who helped establish the Al Yaal initiative, said he didn’t think Exxon Mobil funding a conservation project was at all problematic.

“They were really receptive about getting involved – they want to be a part of the community and this work shows that … I know there’s an image factor that comes into it but I think image affects everybody and if there were more companies getting involved in [conservation] projects, then we would be living in a much better place,” he said.

Mindy Baha El Din, an Egyptian conservationist who has worked with conservation groups receiving funding from the carbon-intensive cement industry, also argues that such funding constitutes a “win-win relationship”.

“In comparison to other industries, multinational oil and gas companies have some of the best environmental monitoring and management programs as well as track records for providing funding for biodiversity,” she told Al Jazeera.

She continued:

Companies who fund conservation have come to the realisation that they have an impact on the environment and want to offset that impact. They cause some degree of damage and are seeking to benefit nature equal to or greater than the harm caused … You could argue that businesses who fund conservation are more conscious and less destructive than those who don’t.

Who really profits – money, nature and greenwash

However, environmental activists allege that polluting corporations only fund conservation projects as “greenwash”, in an attempt to hide their negative environmental impact – and to capitalise on those projects as marketing material. The level of funding awarded to environmental concerns by corporations is a tiny fraction of annual turnover, and activists say a better solution would be to focus on reducing corporate environmental impact in the first place.

For example, Ford Motors has given away $1.1 million in environmental grants to more than 130 projects since 2000 – and offer $100,000 each year to new projects in the Middle East. However, Sue Nigoghossian, Ford’s Middle East Public Affairs Manager, informed Al Jazeera that Ford sold around 65,000 units in the Middle East in 2010 alone.

Hmaidan of IndyACT explains:

The fossil fuel industry in general has profits that go into the tens of billions and so the funding they give for green projects such as conservation as well as looking into renewable energy is tiny. Whatever they pay to support environmental work in the country is never going to be as big as the environmental impact that they cause.

The environmental impact of the motor industry may not be as apparent as the oil industry, but it does significantly contribute to air pollution and disrupt wildlife habitats due to road construction. The emissions that cars release also add to the greenhouse gasses propelling climate change, further threatening biodiversity across the world.

Ford has also been criticised in the past for inaccurately promoting a green image to sell more cars. In 2004, anadvertising campaign promoting the Ford Escape Hybrid was branded as “greenwash” by the LA Times, as the “eco” model contained the most fuel efficient system, a hybrid-electric engine, in the least efficient class of vehicle – an SUV. Also that year, the US Environmental Protection Agency rated Ford as having the worst fleet-wide fuel economy in the industry – for the fifth year running.

Dealing with limited funding opportunities

However, the Ford grant programme has received support from local environmental groups, conservation experts as well as environmental government ministers in the Middle East who serve on its funding panel. The programme appears to be popular and receives an average of 40-70 applications each and every year from Middle East organisations hoping to secure funding for their conservation work.

Ibrahim Al Zu’bi from the Emirates Diving Association, which has received funding from Ford on three occasions for its marine conservation work, insists that they investigate every company’s ethical record before accepting any funding. “I don’t want to defend Ford, I am not here to defend anybody, but the conservation work of Ford has been there for a long time and they’ve been very transparent about the money allocated,’ he said.

“The jurors [of the panel] which decide where the money goes are all environmentalists, all of them, and I leave it to them to judge whether [Ford is] ethical or not as an organisation. At the end of the day, I need money and support.”

When asked if it was hypocritical for a company which is contributing to climate change and environmental problems to be funding green projects, Sue Nigoghossian, a Ford representative replies:

It’s always been one of the guiding principles of Ford Motor Company to work on their sustainability and give back to the communities … We use a lot of recycled material in our own vehicles today and we’re also working on developing technologies to help engines contribute to less and less fuel consumption and less emissions.

Kuwait’s ExxonMobil representative Aseel al-Turkait also insisted that oil companies are “trying their best” and that they are “working on different ways to reduce pollution and find renewable resources”.

“In fact Exxon is working on a huge project right now on using algae as a future energy resource, so we are trying to be good corporate citizens,” said al-Turkait.

Originally published at Al Jazeera English. 

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