Wednesday 24 August 2011

WWF and Taib's empire: Sleeping with the enemy? By KERUAH USIT

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an NGO describing itself as the world's leading conservation organisation, has admitted it is "highly concerned" over allegations of corruption involving Sarawak-based logging conglomerate Ta Ann, a member of the WWF's Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN).

The WWF flagship GFTN scheme to encourage sustainable forestry has provided a veneer of credibility to Ta Ann's logging operations in Sarawak and in Tasmania, Australia.

Ta Ann is is headed by Abdul Hamed Sepawi, a member of Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud's inner business circle. He's also Taib's cousin.

NONEGlobal environmental NGOs have accused Taib (right) of hoarding a fortune by awarding contracts worth billions of ringgit to proxies, and in particular, to his own family members. Taib's response is simply that his relatives are astute business people.

Hamed founded Ta Ann in the mid-1980s, and is pictured hugging a tree on its website.

The logging group is now publicly listed, and boasted a market capitalisation of RM1.236 billion at the end of last year.

Ta Ann enjoys 362,439 hectares of timber concession rights, more than double the area of Malacca.

Some of these concessions overlap with its 313,078 hectares of forest plantation rights. Ta Ann also owns 66,681 hectares of oil palm.

Hamed also chairs construction giant Naim Cendera, a beneficiary of dam-building contracts and other government mega project largesse, and Sarawak Energy, the state's privatised electricity monopoly.

Both Taib and Hamed rank among the wealthiest men in Sarawak, one of the poorest states in the Malaysian federation.

Australian Greens hold balance of power

Ta Ann has been condemned by Australian Green Party leader Senator Bob Brown, and Tasmanian 'direct action' environmental protestors, for its record of deforestation and encroachment of native land rights in Sarawak.

NONE"Ta Ann...was given AUD10 million (RM3.1 million) by the federal government (under the previous John Howard administration) to establish (itself) in Tasmania, and now has the major claim under the proposed forestry deal for allocation of timber resources in Tasmania into the future," Brown announced at a joint press conference on August 5 with Baru Bian (right), Sarawak human rights lawyer and state assemblyperson.

The lavish Australian government subsidy came with a contract allowing Ta Ann access to Tasmania's rich forests until 2027.

Kim Booth, a member of the Tasmanian Parliament, said he was "horrified" that Ta Ann was allowed to log Tasmania's forests, accusing Ta Ann of a "shocking record with regard to the abuse of indigenous people in Sarawak, and also the damage they are causing to the environment over there."

Brown added that all of us have a great responsibility to know what's going on in Sarawak. The indigenous people of Sarawak have native titles (to the land), but that is being serially eroded."

He commended the "great work of Baru in the (Sarawak) courts, (with over) 100 cases at the moment, trying to defend people whose rights are being abused."

Baru remarked that Sarawak has "fine policies in writing" about sustainable forestry, but "the issue is really that in practice, (overlogging) is not prevented."

As leader of the Greens, and power broker in Australia's hung Parliament, Senator Brown wields substantial influence in premier Julia Gillard's government.

WWF promises GFTN review

It came as no surprise, therefore, when WWF director-general James Leape wrote to Brown, and the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), an NGO advocate for forest dwellers and a leading critic of Taib's human rights record.

"The WWF is highly concerned about the claims against Ta Ann and has taken up the issue directly with the company," Leape wrote.
Leape assured them the Malaysian timber group is currently developing a public document to respond to the latest corruption allegations.

The WWF has also announced a review of the GFTN, following a damaging report published last month by Global Witness, called 'Pandering to the Loggers'.

Global Witness, a campaigning group, concluded that the WWF's GFTN, embracing some 300 companies in 30 countries, is "allowing companies to reap the benefits of association with WWF and its iconic panda brand, while they continue to destroy forests and trade in illegally sourced timber".

The report detailed "serious systemic problems, including a lack of transparency and accountability, wholly inadequate rules for membership, instances of weak performance, monitoring and enforcement and an absence of adequate procedures to assess whether the scheme is actually making a positive contribution to forest sustainability."

The WWF has argued the Global Witness report "contains a number of errors and misleading statements", without providing examples.

The WWF said its commissioning of the GFTN review demonstrates, nonetheless, that it takes the allegations seriously.
The WWF expressed confidence the review will show its "current set of performance and monitoring procedures are fit for purpose", and reiterated its commitment to sustainable forestry.

'WWF was not being naïve'

A Sarawakian land rights activist, Muhim Urip, told Malaysiakini yesterday that "it is well known, within the limited NGO circle in Sarawak, that the WWF has been trying to curry favour with Taib for a long time, to enable the WWF to apply for conservation and research 'projects' in Sarawak."

He argued "the WWF is thus no different from many crony companies who have 'projects' here. Everyone knows that no-one gets any 'projects' without the personal approval of the chief minister. If you can't get to him personally, then you go to his family."

The WWF was not being naive when it worked with Ta Ann, as it knew full well who helms the company, he added.

"For the WWF's HQ (director-general) to now say they are 'highly concerned' is but a lousy attempt to save its grossly tarnished image. It is insincere and smacks of an attempt to salvage (the reputation of) a battered organisation that is willing to go to bed with a company that is purely profit oriented."

NONEMuhim also criticised the narrow focus on the "continually abused" concept of sustainable timber production, pointing out this ignores land rights, the lives of forest dwellers and political corruption.

"In the rush for all things 'sustainable', principles are put aside in place of convenience, as if the end justifies the means," he said.

The WWF's close links with Taib's family may have grown out of a simple-minded idea that the WWF could exert some mitigating influence over the destructive clear-felling employed by Sarawakian logging companies.

But Sarawak's notoriously profitable logging methods are exported by behemoths like Ta Ann, Samling and Rimbunan Hijau as far afield as Papua New Guinea, Cameroon and Guyana.

The idea that a conservationist NGO - even a cuddly panda - could somehow put the brakes on the money-making machine driven by these timber tycoons, backed up by their ruthless patron Taib, is hard to swallow.

International reputations at risk

These timber barons have enlisted sophisticated public relations consultants to fend off environmentalists' attacks.
These campaigns share many similarities with Malaysian oil palm planters' efforts to improve their shabby international reputation, using so-called 'sustainability' schemes like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The logging companies have also followed Taib's lead, in paying to burnish their unappealing images.

Taib attempted this Sisyphean task by hiring Fact Based Communications (FBC), a British public relations firm.

Unfortunately for Taib and his business partners, Taib's mercenary'propaganda-for-cash' journalism scandal was exposed by the investigative reporting website Sarawak Report.

NONEMedia giants like CNBC, BBC and CNN aired powder-puff, sycophantic interviews with Taib and Malaysian premier Najib Abdul Razak (left).

FBC was producing and pushing this propaganda for free to broadcasters on the one hand, while on the other, FBC was accepting RM75 million from Taib and Najib (left) for massaging their global images.

The public relations debacle led to CNBC binning its World Business show and the BBC rejecting further programming from FBC, pending an investigation.

The WWF may now be facing the same challenge to its credibility as the RSPO in the palm oil industry, and the FBC in public relations.

It would appear that the Taib family's money and clout has put the international reputations of well-known brands like the BBC, CNBC and the WWF at risk.

When asked about the WWF's escape route from this public relations disaster, Muhim expressed some doubt regarding the WWF's ability to reform its weaknesses.

"The WWF is masquerading as an NGO, when it thinks and acts like a multinational corporation. How else can you explain that WWF works only with the Sarawak government and loggers, spending resources to deal and work with the destructive industry - and not the civil society in Sarawak, especially the communities affected by logging?" he said.

"The WWF will need to have principled and democratic civil society partners in order for the WWF to have any legitimacy, at least in Sarawak."

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - 'anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at

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