Corporate 'Partners'? From Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Accountability. Presentation by Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, to the 3rd IUCN World Conservation Congress, Bangkok 17-25 November 2004

Corporate 'Partners'? From Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Accountability. Presentation by Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, to the 3rd IUCN World Conservation Congress, Bangkok 17-25 November 2004

1.       The question I am addressing is:

How do conservation organisations best engage with the Private Sector to promote sustainable development and conservation?

And more particularly:

How de we ensure that the social aspects of conservation are not left out of this engagement?

2.       Like it or not, the private sector – especially transnational corporations – are now a dominant force in the world’s economy and in our political systems. Corporations control directly and indirectly much of the planet’s land and resources, they dominate trade and investment, they provide jobs, they have unparalleled access to power and the means to communicate with civil society.

They lack only two things: public trust and social and environmental credentials.

If they want those too, then we need to make sure that they earn them.

3.       All forms of engagement with the private sector carry risk. A strong current of civil society action has focused on denouncing the social and environmental abuses of corporations, mobilising movements of protest and demanding reform.

These social movements of environmentalists, communities and affected peoples have been critical in making corporates aware of the impacts of their activities, concerned about the damage this causes to their image and consequently their profits.

However, a cost of this adversarial approach is the lack of direct leverage to create change from the inside.

4.       A second line of engagement is through public dialogue with the companies. What conservationists may want from this is to persuade companies to change the way they deal with nature and people. But what companies want above all else is to recover the public trust and attract green credentials. They seek ‘mutual branding’, so the corporations can carry the name and logo of conservation bodies next to their own. So we see Panda on motor cars, the IUCN logo next to the world’s major mining companies, Fauna and Flora International on the BP website and so on.

The huge risk in this is ‘Greenwash’ – whereby companies clean up their image but hardly change their practice. Conservation organisations risk paying too high a price for petty gains if it means them losing the trust of the general public and their members.

5.       These risks are compounded when conservation bodies go further and actually contract formal partnerships with companies – and take their money in exchange for green profile.

Is it legitimate for conservation organizations to take money for protected areas in exchange for condoning, through their silence, continuing destruction outside these areas? Is it OK to accept minor mitigations of impact when what we want is real sustainability?

Don’t these conservationists inevitably get caught up in compromises to the extent they lose their independence? We all know that ‘he who pays the piper plays the tune’.

6.       No. If conservationists are to engage in dialogue, it must be in exchange for real changes in corporate behaviour. Any such dialogues must be open, transparent and participatory. They must involve those whose rights and livelihoods are most directly at stake, they must require impartial social and environmental audits and not allow conservation bodies to be party to cover-ups. They must require the corporations to respect international human rights laws, environmental agreements and protected areas. Above all they must be carried out in solidarity with and not with scorn for those voices of protest demanding reform and social justice.

7.       For those of us working with indigenous peoples, a key demand must be respect for their right to free, prior and informed consent to projects planned on their territories. Indeed there used to be a time when the Chartered Companies of early colonialism referred to these peoples as nations and were legally required to negotiate treaties with them before gaining access to their lands. Yet, in Durban, the main body representing the extractive industries in their ‘dialogue’ with the IUCN – the International Commission on Mining and Metals – actually rejected a proposed Resolution urging them just to consider the principle of free, prior and informed consent in their standard setting. In my view they should not earn mutual branding so cheap. If they can’t agree to adhere to international human rights law we should give them no profile.

8.       Many conservation organisations have made it their main goal to persuade private sector companies to adopt voluntary codes of conduct and submit themselves to independent 3rd party certification, like the FSC. They do this in line with a ‘liberal’ dogma that insists that only market-led reforms will lead to lasting change. But is there real accountability in such an approach? Codes of Conduct have proven unenforceable by impacted communities. NGOs are increasingly concerned that certification process have been captured by the companies they are designed to regulate – after all, who pays the certification bodies if not the companies themselves? These tools do not offer communities legally enforceable solutions. They are not ‘justiciable.’

9.       What indeed is the role of the State in this model of self-regulation? The western world claims to wage wars in the name of democracy – meaning the separation of the powers of the State into an electorate, legislature, executive and judiciary. But when it comes to the private sector, conservationists appear to spurn these ideals.

I think we need to give a role to democratic processes – to the State as a process of countervailing powers – if we are to control and regulate the private sector. Give a role to the legislatures to regulate what is just and what is sustainable. Give a role to the executive to enforce these norms, give a role to the judiciary so people have access to the courts to gain redress for their grievances and suffering. This is the kind of real accountability that people seek.

10.   After all, what did Adam Smith, the founder of the liberal agenda actually say about such matters. He noted clearly that it is the role of the State – the sovereign in his terms to ‘protect, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice and oppression of every other member of it, the duty of establishment of an exact administration of justice…

11.   I think there is a major problem with the current model of self-regulation, which gives no role to the State, to the rule of law, or even to leverage for reformed governance by government itself. Instead, almost without realising it, conservationists have replaced the organs of democracy:

·        we now have consumers instead of enfranchised citizens

·        we have NGOs in watchdog roles to replace the executive

·        we only have recourse to the media - the 4th Estate – as a court of appeal

12.   So am I saying conservationists should abandon market-based reforms? No. I think there is a role for self-regulation to promote standards of ‘best practice’ – but this is only leading to market leaders establishing themselves in ‘niche’ markets. These processes do not lead to wider sectoral reforms or provide real accountability: only look at Indonesia the world’s number producer of plywood, which still only has one certified logging company out of some 450 licensed operations. To enforce standards on the laggards – to transform sectors – requires mandatory standards – regulatory laws and enforcement. We need belt and braces.

13.   Let me leave you with one provocative thought. Does conservation have a problem with democracy – with the idea that the common people should have voice? We see that the old, colonial model of conservation imposed Protected Areas on people without giving them a say – arrogating land to the State and forcing people out. We still have the legacy of that to deal with. Now we see that conservationists’ preferred way of dealing with the private sector again gives no role to the people – except as consumers.

In Durban, we, the conservation community, adopted a new paradigm for protected areas – recognising the rights of indigenous peoples.

Can this Congress now embrace a new paradigm for dealing with the private sector, using the organs of democracy, giving people a voice and a chance of justice, creating real accountability, strengthening countervailing powers? I hope so.

Thank you.