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Funder-driven outcomes: The structures and methods of ForestEthics

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Funder-driven outcomes

The structures and methods of ForestEthics

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.

ForestEthics is registered as a non-profit and is similar in appearance to most ENGOs. However, both in origin and structure, many who have worked with ForestEthics suggest that there is something qualitatively different about the group.

According to ForestEthics’ web site, “Our roots go back to the founding in March 1994 of the Clayoquot Rainforest Coalition (CRC).” In 1999, the CRC became a registered charitable organization in the United States. In 2001, they became ForestEthics.

According to ForestEthics co-founder Tzeporah Berman, 80 per cent of ForestEthics’ funding comes from foundations, while around 20 per cent comes from “high donors”.

The organization does not have a “formal membership,” Berman said in an interview, but reports to its board of directors.

According to Berman, ForestEthics has also done consulting work for corporations, “as long as the company wasn’t a target or a potential target” of a campaign, ensuring that ForestEthics “wouldn’t compromise anything by doing business with them.”

According to Berman’s recollection, ForestEthics receives money from the the Toronto-based Ivey Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, and the Wallace Global Fund, among many others. Repeated requests for a full list of foundations from ForestEthics staff members who Berman suggested contacting went unreturned. ForestEthics is also funded by the Pew-backed Canadian Boreal Initiative, and frequently work closely with them, though the size of the grants are unknown.

Publicly available tax forms say that ForestEthics had revenues of  US$2.8 million in 2007, of which $400,000 came from consulting fees. The organization does not provide annual reports past 2005 on its web site.

Long time BC environmental activist Ingmar Lee believes there are issues of transparency in FE’s structures.

“None of these groups have any kind of democratic structure.This is an American organization with its Canadian branch. Everything that ForestEthics has ever done has involved secret backstabbing negotiations behind closed doors with these horrible governments. Whether it’s the Great Bear Rainforest, or the Mountain Caribou or the boreal forest or now the [Enbridge Gateway] Pipeline, you can be sure ForestEthics is in there, they are profiting from it.”

FE employees in Canada do not work for the Canadian branch, but are in fact contractors from the US working within Canada. Legally, ForestEthics does not exist outside of the United States.

Independent environmentalist and former Parks Canada employee Michael Major explains what FE is by law, and how they circumvent democratic process.

“FE is a US 501C3 so it must publicly report all of its revenue and expenditures and it must offer tax receipts for donations.” However, he says they campaign in ways that make it nearly imposible for outsiders to access information about on-going negotiations.

“They put together consortiums of foundations to fund coalitions of environmental groups because the consortium / coalition structure and strategy obscures accountability. Consortiums and coalitions are not even legal entities that can be held accountable,” says Major.

Major explains that once the structure is in place, “The coalition will have formally added smaller organizations, other ENGO’s and First Nations onto press releases, viral information and petitions–but de facto, the decisions and direction are already determined.”

“When they create a coalition it... distances the ‘member’ ENGO organizations which solely lend their name and credibility to the coalition initiative in return for some funding.”

Major sees ForestEthics as funder-driven. “The foundations used to collect, show and race ENGOs like thoroughbred racehorses but they quickly got into breeding their own to achieve more refined objectives. Funding brings the initiative and the staffers to life and keeps the coalition member ENGOs quiet.”

To date, ForestEthics is relatively secretive about their work in the Tar Sands. With funding from the Pew-backed Canadian Boreal Initiative, ForestEthics took out a full-page advertisement in USA Today. ForestEthics climate campaigner Merran Smith–the staffer most directly responsible for tar sands campaigning–initially agreed to an interview, but subsequently did not return phone calls or emails.

The campaign coordinator of the North American Tar Sands Coalition is Michael Marx, formerly of ForestEthics and currently with Corporate Ethics and Business Ethics.

Qwatsinas of the Nuxalk Nation offers a warning: “I wouldn’t advise anyone to work with [ForestEthics] because of what happened with the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. If you leave the onus on some group then there’s nothing you can do about it later. And the type of impact that an oil spill would do, it’s just insurmountable looking at the after-effects of an oil spill in Alaska. The impact is still there today. They’re still cleaning up.”

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to work with ForestEthics because of what happened with the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. If you leave the onus on some group then there’s nothing you can do about it later.”

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