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Forest fighters

Celebrated partnerships like the Boreal Forest Agreement are crumbling. Can corporations and NGOs really work together to save the environment?
Forest fighters
Tobin Grimshaw

Rachel Plotkin is well-acquainted with the Valhalla Inn in Thunder Bay, Ont. A science-project manager for the David Suzuki Foundation, Plotkin has spent more days than she cares to count holed up in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms with representatives from local logging companies and fellow environmental groups. They are trying to hammer out a conservation plan for a four-million-hectare section of boreal forest in northwestern Ontario, and the thousands of woodland caribou that call it home.

Their work represents a sliver of the sweeping Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement signed in 2010 by 21 forestry companies and nine non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. In a bid to put decades of pitched battles behind them, the two sides pledged to jointly develop conservation and sustainable land-use plans for 76 million hectares of mostly untouched forest that stretches from Quebec to British Columbia. But progress has been painfully slow. With the agreement’s three-year anniversary barely a week away on May 18, the two sides have yet to offer much in the way of concrete results.

Angry with the glacial pace, two of the original signatories, Greenpeace Canada and Canopy, have dropped out of the pact, blaming the forestry companies for dragging their feet. The industry, on the other hand, accuses Greenpeace and others for being impatient and unrealistic with their demands. “We understand that this is very complex,” says Plotkin, who remains hopeful a breakthrough will be reached. “But our patience is wearing thin.”

Among the biggest such partnerships in the world, the Boreal Forest Agreement was touted as a brand-new paradigm for the resource sector, promising a “win-win” solution for everyone involved. Industry would no longer be tarred as an environmental villain. NGOs received a seat at the decision-making table. And local communities were rewarded with badly needed jobs and the promise of pristine wilderness for generations to come.

But while there’s evidence that such partnerships can work when focused on a single company—Greenpeace has helped Kleenex-maker Kimberly Clark build a sustainable paper-products supply chain, while Canopy convinced publishers of the Harry Potter books to use environmentally friendly paper—there are questions about whether the tactic can be applied on a much broader scale. Indeed, similar controversies have erupted over joint industry-NGO efforts to clean up the image of the shale oil and gas industry in the United States. And there’s sparse evidence to suggest any number of partnership programs aimed at reducing global CO2 emissions have had any meaningful impact. “The solutions the world needs to these major [environmental and climate] problems are difficult and expensive,” says Aneel Karnani, a professor of strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “And if win-win solutions truly existed, we wouldn’t have these problems in the first place.”

Cracks in the Boreal Forest Agreement first emerged in December when Greenpeace announced it was withdrawing because of a lack of progress. “It’s like a bad relationship,” says Richard Brooks, the group’s forests campaign director. “At some point, you need to cut your losses if it’s not going to deliver with what you expected it to.” He says three years of negotiations have led to two agreements on methodological frameworks and a single proposed plan for three million hectares of boreal forest in northeastern Ontario that still must be approved by governments. At this rate, Brooks says, it will take another 75 years for the signatories to finish their work. “The forests of Canada don’t have time to wait for the slow turtle to win the race.”

It’s not just complexity that’s holding things up, but animosity, too. When it pulled out, Greenpeace levelled harsh accusations at Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products, another signatory. It said Resolute had moved into ecologically sensitive areas in Quebec’s Montagnes Blanches region that were designated as off-limits in the agreement. Resolute ultimately won a rare apology from Greenpeace, which acknowledged it had based its claims on inaccurate maps. “They launched a series of misleading, deceptive and inaccurate allegations,” says Resolute spokesman Seth Kursman. “And only when the threat of legal proceedings was abundantly clear did they admit what they were doing was fundamentally incorrect.” He added that, despite being a key player in setting up the Boreal Forest Agreement, Greenpeace has been largely unwilling to compromise on its views of how much boreal forest should be off-limits to industry. “There’s not a balance between the environment, social and economic needs,” Kursman says. “What they really want is a wholesale land withdrawal, which would devastate an entire sector of the Canadian economy.”

Brooks doesn’t have much nice to say about Resolute, either. While he admits Greenpeace made a mistake in its claim, he remains intensely critical of Resolute’s forestry operations in Quebec and Ontario. “They’re currently logging in endangered-species habitats for woodland caribou,” he says.

The war of words underscores the immense challenges such partnerships face—and not just in Canada. South of the border, the Sierra Club has criticized a similar industry-NGO partnership called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which would create standards for “fracking”—the controversial process of fracturing shale rock by injecting high-pressure fluids to release trapped hydrocarbons. “We know that our continued reliance on dirty, dangerous fossil fuels like natural gas will not solve the climate crisis, even with the best controls in place,” Deb Nardone, a Sierra Club campaign director, told the Associated Press, adding that environmentalists giving the industry their blessing is akin to “slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.” It’s similarly difficult to imagine a similar partnership involving Alberta’s oil-sands producers, despite the industry’s desperate need to boost its green credentials.

Nor is there much evidence the approach can be applied to truly global problems like climate change. A recent report by the International Energy Agency found that two decades’ worth of efforts to reduce the carbon content of the world’s energy supply have essentially had zero impact. This is despite trillions spent on renewable energy products and a constant parade of (well-intentioned) carbon-offset schemes and partnerships such as the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Savers, which asks companies like Coca-Cola to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprints in exchange for the WWF’s seal of approval.

Critics say the problem stems from the fact that for-profit corporations and special interest groups each have their own agenda—neither of which necessarily aligns with the broader public’s. Karnani says it’s the job of government to protect the environment. “The NGOs can declare victory because they got the companies to do something, but it’s not clear whether it’s binding or what happens if it fails,” he says. “And companies see it as an easy way to seem like good guys, and to appease these NGOs that have been bugging them.” Corporations have also used the tactic as a way to head off the possibility of government regulation of their industry.

Another hurdle stems from the fact that NGOs and industry benefit at different points in the partnership process. “Industry gets a lot of kudos when these sorts of agreements are publicly launched,” says Nicole Rycroft, the executive director of ?Canopy. “And being able to bask in the green limelight does create the potential for a little bit of greenwashing.” It may also contribute to a reduced sense of urgency among corporations to get deals negotiated quickly—one of the reasons Rycroft says Canopy decided to leave the pact. “I think our departure may have incentivized industry to work harder,” she says.

But almost everyone who was involved in signing the Boreal Forest Agreement still thinks it was a good idea. “The public is looking for products that are coming from sustainably managed resources,” says Mark Hubert, the vice-president of environmental leadership for the Forest Products Association of Canada. “It just makes good business sense for us.” At the same time, Greenpeace’s Brooks argues that environmental groups need to bring industry on board in order to get lawmakers to take their campaigns seriously, while Plotkin defends the slow pace of change by pointing out that much of what is being attempted has never been tried before.

Rycroft, too, is unapologetic. She compares the “big, bold and complex” agreement to learning how to become a top-flight skier: “If you’re not falling down once in awhile, you’re not trying hard enough.”