At the top ranks of both organisations, however, staff insist the collaboration is working well and achieving meaningful results. And this week, BHP will announce the renewal of the multimillion-dollar funding arrangement for a further five years.
“We work in a lot of the same places as mining companies and oil and gas companies,” says Jennifer Morris, the president of Conservation International. She describes her organisation as “practical about these issues”, and says staff from the boardroom down to site offices have been able to put their differences aside.
“We have to all be in this together,” she says.
BHP’s commitment, although welcomed by many, has not been universally applauded. Some observers point to many of BHP’s other funding affiliations and memberships which they say “devalue” its contributions to groups like Conservation International.
This week, BHP has come under renewed pressure to abandon its membership of lobby groups the Minerals Council of Australia and Coal 21, groups that environmentalists accuse of showing no interest in the transition to a low-carbon economy. The calls came amid revelations about Coal21’s multimillion-dollar pro-coal advertising blitz.
According to Wild, BHP vice-president of sustainability and climate change, the decision to continue funding Conservation International is a reflection of a growing focus on environmental and climate concerns. The company’s chief executive Andrew Mackenzie has become known as vocal advocate for reform among the Australian business world.
“[The partnership] is about recognising the impacts that we have, and working with those who understand the impacts well,” says Wild.
“With the scale of the challenges we are dealing with in terms of biodiversity and climate change, increasingly all stakeholders are realising the importance of collaborations… working together to address these very significant global issues.”
One of the conservation programs to benefit from BHP’s funding is the Alto Mayo Protected Forest in northern Peru. Spanning 182,000 hectares – twice the size of New York City – the tropical forest is home to more than 400 bird species and 300 orchid species.
The yellow-tailed woolly monkey, Peru’s biggest primate, is native to the forest and is critically endangered. It also protects streams that supply water to more than 250,000 people in the Alto Mayo basin.
Despite its protected status, deforestation due to agricultural encroachment and illegal land and timber trafficking threaten the Alton Mayo Protected Forest, and in turn, families who live within and next to this area and depend its resources.
Under a two-year, $5 million investment from BHP in the project, a team led by Claudio Schneider, a technical director with Conservation International based in Peru, has sought to improve forest governance and promote alternative livelihoods for farmers in the region, including assisting in the transition from poor agricultural practices to sustainable coffee growing.
“That funding is very important for us to take the project to the next level,” says Schneider. “It allowed us to expand our activities to reach more beneficiaries on the ground – turning destructive practices into good [practices] for coffee farmers, who are now exporting better quantities of coffee … at much higher prices.”
South America, of course, is also the site of one of BHP’s worst environmental incidents with the Samarco dam burst that killed 19 people and saw millions of tonnes of mine waste pour into the Doce River.
When BHP entered into the partnership with Conservation International, back in 2011, there some were raised eyebrows around the offices of the US-based non-profit, recalls Morris. “Are they really going to invest?” some asked. “Fifty million-plus?”
She said several years ago there were few corporate giants willing to make investments of the scale as BHP and, moreover, for it to not simply be a “hollow commitment” but one that would be backed by a concerted effort as BHP had done.
As the risks posed by global warming become better-understood, including the risks to business, more and more multinational corporations have since “jumped on”, says Morris.
“A lot of other companies now recognise they may have been part of the problem but they certainly want to be part of the solution,” she says.
You can’t be doing both things and not expect to get a whack.
Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility’s Daniel Gocher
Still, some critics are not convinced.
“While any commitment to conservation is welcome, this latest announcement from BHP reeks of ‘greenwashing’, as the company attempts to counter its ongoing production of fossil fuels and its support for industry associations that lobby to protect the status quo,” says Daniel Gocher of the Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, an ethical investment group.
“BHP’s supposed commitment to conservation and climate change are devalued by its ongoing association with these groups,” he adds.
“You can’t be doing both things and not expect to get a whack.”
Business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.