Deconstructing Conservation International, Part I

Conservation International.  We know it as that shadowy “NGO” that has been rather overtly lurking in the Selva Lacandona – and other places – for the last number of years.  We know that it has been “mapping” the countryside, setting up trendy eco-tourism roosts and “advising” the Lacandón on how to expel the pesky autonomous communities by filing criminal charges against them.

We know that they have deep pockets, that they represent dark interests, that they have hidden agenda.  But what else do we know?  And why would it be useful to know it?

Everyone has always sensed that CI is not your father’s non-profit.  No, it most definitely is not.  It is, in fact, ours.  Ours in the sense that it is our reality, it is of our times, and it is ours to deal with.  The question might arise, though, as to why bother.  Enough, perhaps, to know that they are the bad guys, the deeply dangerous ones, and let it go at that.  The danger in NOT deconstructing, in not learning what lies beneath, is that then, one way or another, we become rather witting pawns.  While it is most essential to have one’s own convictions, program, history, playing field and dreams, it is always imperative to understand the enemy.  And make no mistake, they are the enemy, writ large.

CI at first glance appears to be a fancy-dress version of a well-known entity:  an internationally respected non-profit that functions as a cover for covert interests.  An NGO that can move easily throughout the world, co-opting, prospecting, infiltrating, claiming.  An unobtrusive stalking horse for governments and capital.

But I would assert that it is much more than that.  It is not just a front.  It is, in fact, THE front.  The interests it represents are its own, and those interests are extraordinary.  Extraordinary in their depth and breadth and reach.

Of almost greater importance, though, is the fact that their structure does indeed reflect, and entail, what seems to be the new organizational framework for the new omnipotent actor on the global stage.  It is a fluid collection of persons and interests who fancy themselves to be massively entitled and whose experience has done little to belie that.  They do not defer to anyone, whether governments or financial institutions.  They have, of course, already absorbed those governments and institutions, given them tasks, made them feel useful. 

I would venture that it is organizations like CI which will eventually be the ones most engaged in administering – if not directly designing – the projects of global capital.  They will do the scouting, the team organizing, the back-room deals, the demolition work, the profit-reaping.  They will do it in different guises and under varying banners, but they will get the job done. 

In CI’s case, the players bring to the table an absolutely mind-shattering array of skills in making billions of dollars and living to do it again.  They are the adepts, the self-chosen ones, the Masters of the Universe.

Conservation International has a Chairman of the Executive Committee, four mostly decorative Vice-Chairs and a Board which is comprised of 27 members and sundry Emeritus Directors.  There are, in addition, a number of adjunct organizations, including the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CELB), the Global Conservation Fund, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the Conservation Enterprise Fund (CEF) and the Resource Economics Program.  The proliferation of these structures seems to have much to do with channeling largesse from various donor agencies.

It is the 27 Board members who make one take pause, serious pause, gawking mouth-agape pause.  There are Energy Masters, Money Masters, Telecom Masters, Agribusiness Masters, Secretive Scary Deal-Maker Masters, Masters of Miscellany and two lone Philanthropy Mistresses.  And there they sit, controlling almost immeasurable amounts of capital and millions of lives.

Let us say hi to some of them:

There is Stewart A. Resnick, the Co-Chairman and President of The Roll Corporation.  Duh what?  Like in Tootsie rolls, perhaps?  Um, not.  Like in a privately held company worth billions and with annual revenue of $700 million.  He and his wife oversee a conglomerate which includes The Franklin Mint [which Ms. Resnick handles in lieu of, say, hitting the yard sales], Teleflora and a $200 million agribusiness, including Paramount Farms and Paramount Citrus, the latter being the largest US grower, packer and marketer of fresh citrus.

Then there is Judson Green, the President and CEO of Navigations Technologies Corporation.  That’s NavTech, you know, the maker of the little mapping gizmo you get if you luck out when you rent a car.  They are the world’s leading developer of digital map information for navigation systems.  Their clients include all the world’s major auto manufacturers, as well as Magellan, Mitsubishi, Panasonic and any one else who might require “route guidance solutions.”  Prior to NAVTECH, Green was Chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, where he presided over bundles of expansion.  He also sits on the board of the World Bank Institute.

Continuing to look skyward, we have Craig O. McCaw, the Chairman and CEO of Eagle River, Inc.  NOT what you are thinking.  Having inherited a handy fortune, he parlayed it into a much handier one in his role as “telecom visionary”, with a cable television and mobile phone empire which he wisely sold to ATT&T.  His current claim to fame is his relationship with Teledesic.  He is a primary investor, lending “strategic direction” to this budding company – along with [hold your breath] Bill Gates, Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Tajal, the ever-popular Abu Dhabi Investment Company and Boeing.  They plan to put lots and lots of satellites into space in order to provide high-bandwidth data communications via their network.  Their target client base will be “multinational corporations, governments and other large enterprises…to support mission-critical data applications…”.  Exactly.

Then there is publicity-shy Nicholas J. Pritzker, the Chairman of the Board and CEO of Hyatt Development Corporation, who helps guard a $12 billion, again mostly privately held, family fortune.  A dinosaur-bone collecting vegan, he has been having rocky times of late getting a huge development project off the ground in Boston.  He is also chairman of EOS Biotechnology Inc., whose mission statement is “leveraging genome information.”  They have filed for 75 individual US patents.

Moving to even scarier ground, we have one Oscar M. Lopez, Chairman and CEO of First Philippine Holding Corporation.  This is a massive gas and electricity conglomerate, handling generation and distribution, construction, investment and financing holding throughout the Philippines.

Henry H. Arnhold, Co-chair of Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder oversees a natty little securities “boutique” in New York.  They pioneered the whole international investment gig, and, in elegant summation, this is where George Soros cut his baby teeth.

Barry Diller – yuck, yes – is Chairman and CEO of USA Networks, Inc., which now includes Ticketmaster and and did $4.7 billion in sales in 2000.  He touts himself as the “apostle of the coming age of convergence,” which in his case means flogging product in LOTS of different places, but which could also serve as a rallying cry for CI.

Kenneth F. Siebel, Chief Investment Officer for the U.S. Trust Company of California, N.A., manages $93 billion in assets, which most certainly explains why HE is always invited to the party. 

Peripatetic H. Fisk Johnson is Chairman and Chairman of the Board of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., the guys that make all those domestic household cleaners, of course.  In his spare time he runs Fisk Ventures, Inc., a private venture capital company which has just entered into a “groundbreaking” agreement with NASA to develop commercial medical products using NASA’s Bioreactor technology.

We have Joel Korn, currently the president of WKI Brasil Servivios Ltda. and the American Chamber of Commerce in Rio de Janeiro, and former President of Bank of America Brazil.  William H. Kent, Chairman of the Board of a massive consulting firm that specializes in international strategy development for Fortune 500 companies.  Seriously.  Not to slight Robert J. Fisher, who resigned as Director of Gap, Inc., in 1999.  That is Fisher as in $12 billion Fisher family fortune which recently did some major investing in the Mendocino redwoods and has found itself the subject of much bad press and feelings over their logging practices. 

And there are more, of course. 

As a special bonus, though, I would like to introduce to you someone who does not sit on the CI board, but rather on the Executive Board of CI’s CELB, which you may remember as being their Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.  An apt position for…

Roger W. Sant, Chairman of the AES Corporation (Applied Energy Services), which happens to be the largest independent power producer in the world, with assets of $11 billion.  Sant, no one’s literal fool, is also a co-founder of World Wildlife Fund.  Despite doing his best to clothe his company in the mantle of environmental correctness, AES has been involved in a morass of corporate misconduct, ranging from charges of corruption, opposition to unions, willful deception and even suing local communities who dare to balk at their plans.  Sant has brayed that AES is the biggest private user of World Bank money, through the IFC.  They own plants throughout Central and South America [including two hydro-electric plants in Panama], and, on January 23, 1997, they led a consortium which signed an agreement with Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) to build, own and operate Mexico’s first “independent” power project in Mérida.

This Board quite blatantly reflects its true nature.  The “conservation” cover is a bonus, “added value” as it were, to a structure which serves many other purposes. For the Masters, what CI lends them is obvious: intelligence, access, coordination and – ah! – synergy.  If AmCham [American Chamber of Commerce] might suffice for the luckless bottom feeders in Mexico City and Rio, the Masters require something much bigger, better and faster.

It also serves as a valuable means for moving money and technology around.  There is the expected institutional interchange here:  many of the Masters sit on World Bank and IMF boards, or act as advisors. “Donations” comes in from grantmaking organizations, financial institutions, corporate boards.  Or, on a good day, from all of them at the same time, such as the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which is a consortium of sorts of CI, the World Bank and the Global Environmental Facility and which received $25 million from the MacArthur Foundation last year [which seems to spread its largesse everywhere, no?]. Technology is also shared between government agencies and CI and, of course, the corporations.  All told, an elegant design. 

The symbiotic utility of CI thus provides the Masters with a source for intelligence and for the forging of shifting alignments or ad hoc “strategic partnerships” between and among corporate, capital, institutional and governmental actors.

In addition, its programs on the ground, or “forward positions”, allow these actors all the access they need for surveying, cataloguing, influencing and claiming, well, whatever it is they want and choose to survey, catalogue, influence and claim.  The manner in which these positions are chosen, and the amount of time and dollars dedicated to them, can provide a useful early warning system for those whose own interests might be involved.  Much to the chagrin of the Masters.

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