Revealed: Big conservation NGOs are majority governed by finance figures
Conservationists express alarm that finance execs dominate the boards of four powerful NGOs, especially as controversial carbon markets skyrocket.
New analysis has revealed that the majority of trustees at arguably the four biggest conservation NGOs in the world are closely linked to the finance industry. The revelation into who governs these influential and wealthy Western-based organisations has alarmed conservation specialists.
African Arguments looked into the backgrounds of the 111 individuals that sit on the boards of Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF-US), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). It found that just over half are associated with finance.
They range from the CEOs of investment banks, to the directors of venture capital firms, to – in three instances – the wives of millionaire or billionaire private equity execs. Many of these figures are affiliated with global behemoths such as JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and the Blackstone Group. Dozens more are from lesser-known finance companies that nonetheless manage up to hundreds of billions of dollars.
Trustees of non-profits are legally responsible for governing NGOs and setting their strategic direction, vision, and goals.
African Arguments spoke to several conservation specialists who raised concerns over the unaccountability of the big conservation organisations and the potentially divergent interests of conservation and finance. They also warned of the spiralling dangers of market-based approaches to conservation challenges.
“The big shots”
Several conservationists emphasised that scrutinising the governance of CI, TNC, WWF-US and WCS is important given their huge power and influence.
These four NGOs set the global conservation agenda in many ways. They work in over 100 countries and territories across six continents, running multi-million-dollar projects that cover hundreds of millions of hectares. They actively aim to influence national and global policy, and are a leading voice at multilateral forums like the UN.
Moreover, their teams of researchers develop tools and metrics – around biodiversity, water insecurity, land quality, deforestation, and more – that often end up defining the terms of conversations about conservation. As the WWF-US and CI put it themselves, their science “sets conservation priorities”. The Living Planet Index, established and managed by the WWF, for instance, is used to monitor progress on globally agreed biodiversity targets. CI boasts that its 1,300 scientific papers have been cited more frequently than those by academics at universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
It was also a former WWF Chief Scientist of nearly 25 years that lead-authored the widely referenced report that called for 30% of the world’s land to be turned into protected areas by 2030. This so-called “30×30” ambition – advanced by WCS, TNC, and CI – was eventually adopted by 190 countries at COP15 in December 2022.
The NGOs also boast huge financial power. Collectively, the four organisations have an annual revenue of $2 billion, dwarfing the modest budgets of local, national, and even regional conservation groups. They have combined total assets worth over $11.6 billion, a figure higher than the annual GDP of 20 African countries.
According to Aby Sène, an assistant professor in parks and conservation area management at Clemson University, this political and financial weight makes the four NGOs “extremely powerful”.
“They even define what’s a crisis and design the measurements that are then used in policy discussions,” she says. “They effectively control the global discourse around conservation.”
Sène suggests that the influence of these few NGOs has led to a “monopoly” of ideas – and not just globally. In most of countries in which they work, these big organisations’ financial and political power is of a different magnitude to that of their local counterparts. According to some conservationists working in Africa, the big NGOs can end up dominating the national conservation space.
“They are the big shots, and they know it,” said the leader of a marine conservation organisation in South Africa, who asked to remain anonymous for fears that public criticism could jeopardise their future activities. “If I wanted to get funding from WWF-South Africa, I would need to align with their vision and mission. It’s very cut and dry.”
“They are used to working with weak organisations who they can walk over,” added a Massai leader who runs a rights and justice-based conservation organisation in Kenya and who asked to remain anonymous for the same reason. “Very few can resist because of funding. Even government agencies that are meant to regulate those NGOs are dependent on them.”
This power imbalance is especially significant given that many local organisations vehemently disagree with the approach of the four NGOs. In particular, many accuse these big organisations of engaging in “Fortress Conservation”. Critics say that this top-down, neocolonial model works by dispossessing the indigenous people that have stewarded the land for centuries and replacing them with high fences, militarised guards, and luxury tourist resorts.
They say that this approach doesn’t work and often leads to human rights violations. In the Republic of Congo, for instance, WWF and WCS have been accused of funding the abuse and evictions of the Bayaka and other rainforest tribes. In Kenya, investigations found that the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) – funded by TNC, CI, and WWF among others – has excluded pastoralist communities from their ancestral homes through alleged corruption, co-optation, and violence.
The Massai leader accuses the big NGOs of using a variety of tactics to exclude indigenous people from their ancestral lands in Kenya and Tanzania. One of his organisation’s key activities is to educate and empower local communities to ensure they get a fair deal. “By helping those communities organise and develop tools to negotiate, we are disrupting [the big NGOs’] business,” he says. “They don’t like us at all.”
Some conservationists fear that the 30×30 initiative – estimated to require about $140 billion funding per year – will see the widespread expansion of the Fortress Conservation model, affecting 300 million people and paving the way for “a colossal land grab as big as Europe’s colonial era”.
“Carbon is now an asset class”
For these conservationists then, the question of who sets the agenda of the four big NGOs is significant because of how much power they wield in setting the terms of conservation. For some, the finding that the majority of the individuals governing the NGOs are from the finance industry is especially alarming. They note that while those organisations have long been affiliated with large corporations – ExxonMobil, Walmart, General Motors, Gap, Apple, and many more multinationals are represented on their boards – the ascendancy of the finance world is newer and comes at a crucial juncture for action on the climate and biodiversity crises.
Interestingly, the domination of financiers on the boards of the big conservation NGOs seems to have coincided with a rising emphasis on market-based solutions to climate change and the exponential growth of carbon markets. The theme of carbon credits is set to be one of two “cross-cutting levers” at the upcoming Africa Climate Summit on 4-6 September in Kenya. All four NGOs are heavily involved in these markets through their creation and management of carbon offsetting schemes and their development of methodologies and rules for monitoring them.
These schemes work by allowing polluting companies to invest in projects – often on the other side of the world – that reduce or capture carbon emissions. Like many green capitalist solutions, they have been sold as a win-win. Conservation projects get access new lines of funding by monetising the carbon they keep out of the atmosphere in the form of tradeable carbon credits. Corporations, who buy the credits, get to offset their hard-to-reduce emissions.
Yet, also like many green capitalist solutions, the reality so far has not matched the theory. A recent Guardian investigation found that 94% of the forest carbon offset schemes approved by the world’s leading certifier were “largely worthless” and “could worsen global heating”. A Survival International report into NRT found that Kenya’s flagship carbon credit scheme could generate $300-500 million yet did not present a credible case for carbon “additionality”, a fundamental principle for generating credits.
Environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth have concluded that carbon offsets are “a dangerous distraction” and gone as far as to call them a “con”.
Nonetheless, the four big NGOs have defended the importance of offsetting schemes, and the voluntary carbon market has grown apace. Its value reached $2 billion in 2021, quadrupling in size from 2020, and is predicted to be worth up to $50 billion by 2030. The voluntary carbon market is not just here to stay but set to skyrocket.
“The question with carbon offsetting schemes is not whether they work but who they work for,” says Lauren Gifford, a critical geographer exploring intersections of global climate policy, conservation, markets, and justice at Colorado State University. She points out that the voluntary carbon market doesn’t necessarily reduce emissions but that it does benefit corporations and the NGOs who generate significant income from developing the projects. “These NGOs are closely involved in some of the largest financial mechanisms around nature,” she adds. “Just because you’re a non-profit doesn’t mean you’re not about capital accumulation.”
Critically, carbon offsets also work for the finance industry. In fact, most of the value of the voluntary carbon market actually derives from trading and speculation within the market. Recent investigations have found brokers selling carbon credits at huge markups, while a Carbon Market Watch report found that 90% of intermediaries do not disclose their fees or profit margins, making the inner workings of the market almost completely opaque.
“That $2 billion figure for the size of the market is very misleading,” says Gilles Dufrasne, the lead author of the report. “Nobody has any idea how much goes to offsetting projects, but it is a small fraction of that number.”
“Carbon is now an asset class,” adds Gifford. “And, of course, financial organisations want to get in on the ground floor of how to financialise and monetise conservation.”
An uneasy alliance
Highlighting the role of financiers in governing the big conservation NGOs and their mutual interests in the growth of financialised approaches to conservation does not imply conflicts of interest. African Arguments’ analysis does not make any allegations of impropriety by the trustees or NGOs examined, and the experts spoken to also did not make any such claims.
The finding does, however, illuminate an uneasy alliance at the very top of the conservation space. The NGOs’ purported mission is to halt biodiversity loss, protect endangered species, and safeguard nature. The finance industry’s mission is profit – including from the financialisation of conservation. African Arguments’ analysis shows how high-profile individuals from the latter now govern the former.
The revelation also highlights the stark power imbalance between a small group of billionaires and millionaires who oversee the strategic direction of these huge agenda-setting organisations in the Global North and the marginalised communities that are most affected by their activities in the Global South.
These huge organisations’ influence and wealth make them difficult to hold accountable, and Sène worries that the shift to finance will only make this harder.
“When the conservation NGOs work with luxury tourism or extractives, people can see it and see that there’s an injustice there,” she says. “But when it comes to venture capitalism and carbon offset markets and so on and so forth, it becomes much more elusive.”
In response to African Arguments’ report, a spokesperson from TNC said that their board is “made up of individuals with diverse personal and professional backgrounds, including within the financial sector” and that “they are committed to using all of their skills, including financial expertise, to support TNC”. They added that TNC does not endorse Fortress Conservation and takes a “rights-based approach” to working with Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
CI, WWF-US and WCS did not respond to an invitation to comment.