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ENGOs vs. Corporate Fronts: Defining the difference

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

from "Offsetting Resistance: The effects of foundation funding from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Athabasca River", a special report by Dru Oja Jay and Macdonald Stainsby. Released September, 2009.

There are two distinct ways that large environmental organizations are structured. Traditional ENGOs usually begin with some sort of grassroots mandate. As time goes on, many ENGOs become bureaucratized, as their activities become increasingly centred around maintaining funding to pay for salaries and office space rather than whatever pressing issue led the group to form in the first place. To varying extents, established ENGOs still have mechanisms that keep them accountable to a grassroots membership or base of support.

Corporate front groups are distinguished by their lack of any such mechanisms. Corporate fronts are created to meet a political need, and are accountable only to those who provide the funding.

Petr Cizek is a respected independent environmental consultant who worked for many years with several different First Nations at the community level, most notably in the Northwest Territories. He is also a long-time critic of the influence of groups he calls corporate fronts.

“Basically the front groups have no formal organizational structure. They’re not registered as a non-profit or a charity. They have no boards of directors, they are not accountable to anyone except their funders.” The funders of front groups include, says Cizek, the Pew Charitable Trusts, “often in coordination with other very large American foundations, such as the Rockefeller, Ford, Hewlett, etc.”

“The basic issue isn’t whether or not compromises are made in these campaigns–the issue is to what extent any of these compromises are based on open and transparent negotiations that are based on some kind of democratic participation of members of these organizations. What we have is an extremely high-level, elite-based system which is designed and functions to spread green ideology, greenwashes with very little substance behind it,” states Cizek.

Valhalla Wilderness Society director Anne Sherrod says the art of closed negotiations have been pushed forward by the foundation-backed conservation group ForestEthics.

“To all appearances,” says Sherrod, “ForestEthics runs a real market campaign against logging old-growth forest, and may run a good public campaign on the issues such as protecting the endangered mountain caribou. But this market campaigning and public outreach all has one endpoint: FE engaged in private negotiations with the logging companies and government.”

“I lay the responsibility for this on governments. From the outside, these talks look very much like the multi-interest public planning processes that BC had in the 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, the public may get some façade of public process, while deals are being cut behind the scenes. But in the end, the public right of participation and free access to information are bulldozed.”

“In the mountain caribou issue, environmental groups had to sign confidentiality agreements to become privy to these secret talks. Everyone who cares for land use, democracy and protection of nature in BC should be scared that the BC government ever said, as it did at an Inland Rainforest conference here in New Denver, that ForestEthics and its ally Wildsight were the only environmental groups to which it would talk.”

“I ask again as I have asked before, since when did a government go around praising an environmental group that is waging a boycott against the BC forest industry, as ForestEthics claims to do?”

 


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Macdonald (Macdonald Stainsby)
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