Conservation International: privatizing nature, plundering biodiversity

by Aziz Choudry | 1 Oct 2003

Aziz Choudry

Conservation International's corporate sponsor list reads like a list of the US' top fifty transnational corporations. Biodiversity conservation is at the top of Conservation International's list of goals. But as the list of Conservation International's dubious ventures and questionable partners around the world grows, Aziz Choudry is starting to wonder if it is time to ‘out' this ‘multinational conservation corporation' and show its true colours.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C, with operations in over 30 countries on four continents, Conservation International claims to be an environmental NGO. Its mission is “to conserve the Earth's living natural heritage, our global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature.” [1] This all sounds very laudable and Conservation International has some very high profile fans. This year Colin Powell shared the podium with Conservation International President Russell Mittermeier at the launch of the Bush Administration's “Initiative Against Illegal Logging” at the US State Department. In December 2001, Gordon Moore, who founded Intel Corporation, donated US $261 million to Conservation International, supposedly the largest grant ever to an environmental organisation. Moore is chairman of Conservation International's executive committee. Conservation International has repaid Moore's largesse by nam-ing an endangered Brazilian pygmy owl after him. [2]
But a growing number of people are questioning Conservation International's credentials as an environmental organisation. The complex global web of partnerships, collaborations, initiatives and projects which Conservation International weaves is as expansive as it is mind boggling. Its major corporate supporters include Cemex, Citigroup, Chiquita, Exxon Mobil Foundation, Ford, Gap, J P Morgan Chase and Co., McDonalds, Sony, Starbucks, United Airlines and Walt Disney. Conservation International claims that its corporate supporters “know that their customers, shareholders and employees share a common concern about protecting the environment.” [3]

A more plausible explanation might be that a time when transnational corporations are confronted with global resistance and opposition to their activities, they are seeking to project a green image of themselves. For example, Conservation International's website boasts of its partnership for conservation with Citigroup in Brazil, Peru, and South Africa. Rainforest Action Network has dubbed Citigroup “the most destructive bank in the world” precisely for its role in financing the destruction of old growth forests. [4] A June 2003 report by the Chiapas, Mexico-based Centre for Political Analysis and Social Investigation dubbed Conservation International a Trojan horse of the US government and transnational corporations. [5] A Papua New Guinean critique on international conservation NGOs has also accused Conservation International of neocolonialism, green imperialism, and being a “multinational conservation company.” [6]

Lubricating the gears of biopiracy
Bioprospecting is a central plank of Conservation International's work. Its interest in hotspots of endangered biodiversity has particular implications for many indigenous peoples who have endured and resisted waves of colonial dispossession, genocide and ecocide, including the appropriation of traditional knowledge and the flora and fauna which they have protected for many generations. For years pharmaceutical companies have been seeking to access indigenous communities' knowledge to find plants and traditional ways of using them because they have a far higher chance to find potential pharmaceutical products than from random screening. University of Illinois at Chicago scientist Norman Farnsworth says “there are 121 prescription drugs in use today, which come from only 90 plant species. About 74 percent came from following up folklore claims. There are 250,000 species of plants in the world, so a logical person would say there are many more jackpots to be found.” [7]

Indigenous farmers in the Monte Azules Biosphere Reserve are accused of destroying the rainforest, yet they practice organic agriculture and stopped slash-and-burn practices 10 years ago

In the genetic gold rush ‘researchers' and companies, now backed by local and global patent regimes which grant the ‘inventor' exclusive monopoly rights over new ‘inventions' can deny the very communities which have developed natural cures or technologies the right to use them. Conservation International's role is to provide relatively cheap scientific expertise for corporations well aware of the labour-intensive nature of searching out new potential products based on natural remedies or applications. A seemingly well-intentioned ‘non-profit' organisation like Conservation International can act as an intermediary to gather knowledge and agreement from local communities, and do much of the legwork in collecting and testing samples.

This friendly face of biocolonialism offers the modern-day equivalent of beads and trinkets to these communities. Exploitative and unethical ‘benefit-sharing' agreements are drawn up, with a few market-based community economic development programmes for the locals on the side: some ecotourism here, some fair trade coffee production there. Conservation International's track record suggests a motivation to conserve biodiversity for bioprospecting for its private sector partners rather than any concern for the rights of the peoples who have lived with, and protected these ecosystems for so long.

In Panama, Conservation International has collaborated with a whole host of partners – including US-based International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG) [8], Monsanto and Novartis – on what was claimed to be “ecologically guided bioprospecting”, seeking pharmaceutical and agricultural products from plants, fungi and insects. [9] The ICBG was also tied in with Conservation International's involvement in bioprospecting in Surinam, along with US pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and BGVS (the Surinam Drug Company), and Dow AgroSciences. Conservation International and the Missouri Botanical Garden collected plant samples. Conservation International worked to win the trust of indigenous communities and healers and negotiate a ‘benefit-sharing' agreement. The indigenous communities were offered paltry percentage (believed to be around 2-3% of any royalties), and it is unlikely that the communities fully understood the implications before they consented. [10] Without adequate and appropriate protection for the traditional knowledge of the communities, Conservation International has helped to clear the way for private companies to slap industrial patents on anything which looks promising. By 2000, ICBG reported that more than 50 active compounds had been isolated from the Surinam samples. [11]

In 1997, Conservation International signed a comprehensive bioprospecting agreement with the California-based company Hyseq, which specialises in genomic sequencing. Conservation International pre-screens drug candidates derived from flora and fauna samples, and in return, Hyseq pays Conservation International on a country basis, and an annual fee. Hyseq is free to pursue intellectual property claims over any results. [12]

Dubious political connections
Conservation International's involvement in the Selva Lacandona, Chiapas, is deeply disturbing. Through a 1991 debt-for-nature swap, Conservation International bought the right to set up a genetic research station in the Monte Azules Integral Biosphere reserve in the Selva (rainforest). With Conservation International, the Mexican government has been engaged in a repressive military campaign against indigenous peoples in Chiapas, especially those which support the Zapatistas. They have been forcibly evicting indigenous communities in Montes Azules, accusing them of destroying the rainforest. [13] The Selva is home to many Zapatista bases, as well as being an area rich in timber, biodiversity, oil, petroleum and mineral resources. The presence of the Zapatistas and autonomous indigenous communities in the region presents an obstacle to those like the Mexican government and transnational – especially US – corporations which want to exploit these resources.

The Mexico-based Centre for Political Analysis and Social Investigation CAPISE has revealed that Conservation International's program of flyovers – part of their USAID-supported “environmental monitoring” program – flew over areas occupied by Zapatista communities in planes which bore USAID markings. In Chiapas, Conservation International uses state-of-the art geographical information systems technology, including high resolution satellite imaging. CAPISE charges that the images from this operation are made available to USAID, and could be used to identify the location of natural resources of interest to commercial interests. Conservation International has also given images to communities supported by the Mexican government as part of its campaign against the pro-Zapatista communities, which they claim are destroying the forest. In the name of environmental protection, Conservation International is pitting indigenous communities against each other, raising fears of conflict in an area which is already heavily militarised by Mexico's army. In March 2003, Global Exchange convened an emergency delegation to the area and, contrary to Conservation International's claims, found the destruction most pronounced around military encampments, while the indigenous villagers accused of destroying the forest had outlawed slash-and-burn techniques and were practicing sustainable organic agriculture. [14]

The giant Mexican agribusiness/biotechnology corporation, Grupo Pulsar, works closely with Conservation International in Mexico. Between 1996 and 2000 it donated US $10 million to Conservation International-Mexico. Pulsar's claimed concern for ecology and biodiversity does not extend to its main activities which include the promotion of monoculture in Chiapas, including the planned planting of 300,000 hectares of eucalypt trees. The Chiapas-based Centro de Investigationes Economicas y Politicas de Accion Comunitaria (CIEPAC) believes that “the Pulsar Group's ‘donation' could more likely be a remuneration (but free of taxes, since it's a donation) for services lent by Conservation International in bio-prospecting within the Selva Lacandona. Pulsar has the technology, the resources and the business knowledge to know that there are large rewards awaiting the ‘discovery' of some medicinal property extracted from samples from the Lacandona. Conservation International ‘facilitates' the Pulsar Group's entrance, it helps orient its technicians in the prospecting, while at the same time pacifying local populations with programs that promote the expansion of monocrops around the Selva, while projecting a conservation façade to the world.” [15]


Local people in Monte Azules reject the idea that the forced relocation of local people has anything to do with protecting the ecosystem, and everything to do with the Plan Puebla Panama


Welcome to the ‘friendship' zone
In Costa Rica, Conservation International's interests are the 1.1 million hectare La Amistad (“friendship”) Biosphere reserve, which borders Panama and Costa Rica, and the AMISCONDE buffer area around the reserve. Conservation International's partners in the AMISCONDE project included Monsanto, McDonalds, Keystone Foods, Nestlé and Coca-Cola. [16] Monsanto was involved in a conservation tillage project aimed at stopping neighbouring hillside farmers from encroaching on La Amistad. Erika Harms, Monsanto's marketing manager in Costa Rica described the company's involvement in the following way, “Helping people understand how to relate differently to their environment is the answer to protecting the park. Part of this answer is more effective use of conservation tillage in which Roundup plays a role.” [17]

In Guyana, indigenous peoples have accused Conservation International of gross disrespect in signing a November 2002 memorandum of understanding with the Guyanese government to establish a protected area in the south of the country, impacting on the Wapishana and Wai Wai peoples. A statement from the Amerindian Peoples Association outlined a number of concerns, including the failure of Conservation International to consult with indigenous peoples, and the concern that unresolved claims to title to traditional lands that are now part of the new protected area were undermined by this new status imposed upon the communities. [18]

Conservation International is using its considerable financial resources, political influence and environmental sweet talk to quietly access, administer and buy biodiverse areas throughout the world and put them at the disposal of transnational corporations. Conservation International's Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) “brings together leading experts in science and technology to collect and interpret data about biodiversity, develop strategic plans for conservation, and forge partnerships in all sectors that promote conservation goals”. [19] CABS runs 3-4 week long Rapid Assessment Programs (RAPs) to “rapidly provide biological information needed to catalyse the conservation of critically endangered habitats worldwide.” Through these and other programs Conservation International has been assembling biodiversity databases for different regions. RAP's slogan is “So many species…so little time.” No doubt this sentiment is shared by the pharmaceutical and agrochemical corporations which enjoy Conservation International's support.

The hottest spots for biodiversity destruction
Meanwhile, given the significant involvement of mining, oil and gas corporations in Conservation International's program it is sobering to note that many of its “biodiversity hotspots” and project operations are on or adjacent to major sites of oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction – Chiapas, Palawan (Philippines), Colombia, West Papua, Aceh (Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea, for example.

In September 2002, Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto launched a partnership with Conservation International in south-eastern Guinea's Pic De Fon, giving support for a RAP of the rich biodiversity in a forest area which Rio Tinto was exploring (the company has diamond and iron ore operations in Guinea). Rio Tinto's environmental policy adviser Tom Burke sits on the advisory board for Conservation International's Centre for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), along with executives from International Paper, Starbucks, and BP. [20] According to Conservation International, the partnership in Guinea “addresses Rio Tinto's business needs while furthering Conservation International's conservation goals.” [21] The CELB is a partnership between Conservation International and the Ford Motor Company, and its executive board is chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley, the Group chief executive of BP.

Another Conservation International initiative is the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative (EBI). Convened by the CELB, participants include BP, ChevronTexaco, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International, Shell, Smithsonian Institution, Statoil, The Nature Conservancy, and The World Conservation Union (IUCN). In August 2003, The EBI released a collaborative report, entitled Energy and Biodiversity: Integrating Biodiversity Conservation into Oil and Gas Development. [22]

Conservation International also enjoys a close relationship with USAID – which actively promotes biotechnology and other US corporate interests around the world in the guise of development assistance.

Conservation International is uncritical about the impact of economic injustice on the environment and biodiversity. It proposes market solutions to address environmental destruction that has been caused or exacerbated by free market capitalism. It advances the view that the best way to conserve biodiversity is to privatise it. US journalist and writer Bill Weinberg sees this worldview leading to tropical forests becoming “corporate-administered genetic colonies.” [23] While frequently opining that slash-and-burn agriculture and over-population threaten biodiversity, Conservation International willingly collaborates with, and fails to condemn, some of the world's most ecologically destructive corporations and institutions devastating the planet.

Debt-for-nature hurts local people
Conservation International is a proponent – and beneficiary of – controversial debt-for-nature swaps whereby commitments to preserve and ‘sustainably manage' ecologically significant lands have been traded for writing off a small part of a government's debt. Conservation International's Guerin-McManus describes this as the “greening of international finance.” [24] But many see these deals as an ingenious way to facilitate easier access to bioprospectors for industry, and easier extraction of yet more resources from the South – in particular, from indigenous peoples. And they fail to challenge the social and environmental injustices created or worsened by a model of ‘development' that burdens the majority of the world's peoples with unsupportable debts.

In its first year, 1987, Conservation International bought a small portion of Bolivia's debt in exchange for the Bolivian government agreeing to support the expansion of the Beni Biological Reserve, which contains some of the world's largest reserves of mahogany and tropical cedar. Critics charged that logging actually increased in the “multiple use and conservation” buffer zone around the reserve. Conservation International offered training and technical assistance on ‘sustainable use' of the forest. The Chimane and Moxeno indigenous peoples were not consulted, and the lands were divided up by sustainable development ‘experts', and they were denied the chance to manage their lands communally. [25] Along with the World Wide Fund for Nature, Conservation International is currently involved in another debt-for-nature deal with the government of the biodiversity-rich Madagascar. [26]

Conservation International works with the World Bank in the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund set up in 2000. World Bank President James Wolfensohn chairs the donor council for this initiative [27], which adds an unconvincing dab of green to an institution which continues to finance environmentally destructive infrastructure projects and promotes a neoliberal model of economic development which views people and the environment as mere commodities.

Conservation International also supports the World Bank-backed Mesoamerican Biological Corridor project and the Mesoamerican Coral Corridor, which is dubbed by its opponents a greenwashed version of the proposed Plan Puebla Panama, a massive industrial development project. This is another dream scheme for corporate biopiracy. Investors in the Biological Corridor – which would stretch from Southern Mexico to Panama – plan to build gene banks and create an inventory of active chemical compositions of each naturally-occurring substance. [28] Conservation International is also a partner in the Congo Basin Forest partnership, with the World Bank and the American Forest and Paper Association (US timber and paper industry lobby group), launched by Colin Powell at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year. [29]

The terms “greenwash” and “corporate front group” seem inadequate to describe Conservation International. Perhaps, as the Papua New Guinean critique puts it, Conservation International is “no more and no less a ‘non government' organisation than is General Electric or Microsoft.” [30] Perhaps it is time to consider a global campaign to expose this ‘green' giant's true colours and put a stop to its operations.

Aziz Choudry is a New Zealand activist, researcher and writer. He is a member of GATT Watchdog, sits on the board of convenors of the Asia-Pacific Research Network, a regular commentator for ZNet ( and is active in a range of global justice and anti-colonial organisations and movements.





“Intel co-founder Gordon Moore honoured by conservation group”, Mercury News Wire Services, 14 June 2003




RAN website,


Hermann Bellinghausen, “Conservation International, Trojan Horse of US Government and Transnational Corporations: Capise”, La Jornada, Mexico City, 7 June 2003


Multinational Conservation Organisations in Papua New Guinea: Neocolonialism To Be Sure, But Not To Worry… The Donors Sure Don't!, unpublished document, date and author unknown


In Steven Benowitz, “Technology Motivating Indu-stry”, The Scientist, Vol. 10, No. 3, 5 February 1996


The ICBG is a US-government backed programme involving the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Foreign Agriculture Service of the US Department of Agriculture and the US Agency for International Development.


Thomas Kursar et al, “Ecologically Guided Biopro-specting in Panama”, Pharma-ceutical Biology, 1999, Vol 37, and International Cooperative Biodiversity Group website at


BBC News, “Tribal cures for modern ailments”, at, 28 August 1999, and RAFI Communique, September 30, 1997


David Kingston, “Biodiversity conservation and drug discovery in Suriname. Explorations in nature's combinatorial library”, Pure Applied Chemistry, Vol. 73, No.3, 200, at: pac/2001/pdf/7303x0595.pdf


RAFI, Biopiracy Update: The Inequitable Sharing of Benefits, September 1997


Hermann Bellinghausen, “US, World and Transnational Agencies Want to Clear Indigenous Out of Montes Azules”, La Jornada, 25 March, 2002


Orin Langelle, personal communication, 24 Septem-ber, 2003


CIEPAC, “Genetically Modified Organisms: Implic-ations for Mexico and Chiapas”, Chiapas al Dia, No. 175, 18 September, 1999, at


UN Division for Sustainable Development, 2000 at mgroups/success/SARD-9.htm


Monsanto website,


WRM, “Guyana: Conservation International accused of “gross disrespect” to Indigenous Peoples”, World Rainforest Movement Bulletin No 65, December 2002, at


CABS website,


CELB website,


CI, “Guinea RAP launches industry partnership”, Conser-vation Frontlines, Spring 2003, spring/features/partners/partners2.xml


EBI website,


Bill Weinberg, “Biodiversity Inc: Mexico Tries a New Tactic Against Chiapas Rebels—Conservation”, In These Times, 21 August, 2003.


Marianne Guerin-McManus, The Greening of International Finance: 10 Years of Debt-For-Nature Swaps, 2000, unpublished paper


see Chapter 8 in Brian Tokar, Earth For Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash, South End Press, Boston, 1997


Reuters, “Madagascar to swap debt for nature”, 15 September, 2003 at


CEPF website,


see Gian Carlo Delgado Ramos, The MesoAmerican Biological Corridor: Biodiv-ersity for Sale, in Plan Puebla Panama – Battle Over the Future of Southern Mexico and Central America, NoPPP, 2002


US State Department website,


Multinational Conservation Organisations in Papua New Guinea: Neocolonialism To Be Sure, But Not To Worry… The Donors Sure Don't!, unpublished document, date and author unknown

Author: Aziz Choudry
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