Is it a conflict-of-interest for environmental NGOs — which, in principle, fight for the preservation of nature — to receive contributions from mining companies, which by their very nature, can cause negative impacts on the environment?
Between 2009 and 2014 Fundo Vale invested more than $30 million in environmental projects by 25 organizations in seven Amazonian states throughout Brazil.
Environmental NGOs in Brazil should now focus on helping prevent new disasters, since there’s a risk of other Samarco dams breaking, says one observer.
The tragedy that struck Minas Gerais in early November caused by the rupture of two dams controlled by the Samarco mining company brings us to an uncomfortable fact: Vale S.A., one of the owners of Samarco — along with BHP Billington — also funds various environmental NGOs in Brazil.
As the third largest mining company in the world, in 2009 it created Fundo Vale, a nonprofit association that “seeks to connect institutions and initiatives for sustainable development,” according to Fundo Vale’s website.
But this type of association also begs the question: is it a conflict-of-interest for environmental NGOs — which, in principle, fight for the preservation of nature — to receive contributions from mining companies, which by their very nature, can cause negative impacts on the environment?
According to the Fundo Vale Activity Report, between 2009 and 2014 the nonprofit invested more than $30 million in environmental projects by 25 organizations in seven Amazonian states throughout Brazil. Out of this total, 90% was donated by Vale S.A. and 10% by Companhia Portuária da Baía de Sepetiba (CPBS).
Throughout the last month of November, Mongabay contacted eleven Brazilian NGOs that receive grants from Fundo Vale, but only two spoke to us: Fundação Vitória Amazônica (FVA) and Equipe de Conservação da Amazônia (Ecam). The other NGOs contacted and taking money from Fundo Vale were Earth Institute, International Education Institute of Brazil (IEB), Tropical Forest Institute, Imaflora, Environmental Institute, Institute for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Amazonas, Life Center Institute, Institute for Ecological Research and GTA Network.
Earth Institute (known as Instituto Terra in Brazil), founded in 1998 by renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado and his wife Lelia Wanick, did speak with Brazil’s Época magazine about the relationship with Vale, a sponsor of Earth Institute since its very beginnings. Vale is responsible for the accident, but did not operate the mine directly, Salgado said. “In a project like this, we depend on donations,” he added.
Fundo Vale would not grant an interview to Mongabay. According to its press office, “the person responsible for Fundo Vale is traveling and with restricted phone access.”
Vasco van Roosmalen, the executive director of Equipe de Conservação da Amazônia (Ecam), said he views the NGO-corporate partnership as a necessary one. “We need the engagement of all sectors of civil society,” van Roosmalen said. “We need government and the private sector to come up with lasting solutions to the challenges facing our society.”
Ecam was established in 2002 to work with local communities in Amazonas, Rondônia, Roraima, Amapá and Pará. Van Roosmalen said the mining companies involved in the devastation of the Rio Doce basin “will have to bear the consequences. We’re following the events in the region and we strive to support the affected population, their communities and ecosystems.”
On the other hand, van Roosmalen strongly defends the financial support given by Fundo Vale to the Ecam projects. “Fundo Vale is an innovative and laudable initiative that supports environmental management in several Brazilian biomes and doesn’t have any relation to the operating areas of the company Vale,” he explained. “Its vision of a greater responsibility with civil society and the environment, which goes beyond mitigating Vale’s immediate impact, makes Fundo Vale a distinguished initiative and an example for other companies and actors in the world.”
But many observers view the relationship between environmental NGOs and fund companies as a huge contemporary challenge. “It’s very difficult for an NGO to exercise its combative side if it depends on corporate money,” argued Wilson Nobre, a founding member and researcher with the Innovation Forum of the School of Business Administration at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV/EAESP). “If you adopt an attitude that confronts the interests of the big capital, you will surely lose its financial support.”
Nobre suggests that the current debate over Fundo Vale’s support of NGOs should be seen as an opportunity for reform. “The situation of environmental destruction in which we are now should motivate NGOs to obtain most of their resources from individuals and not be limited to projects that help improve the image of companies.”
Nobre also said, however, that receiving money from a company which helps to destroy nature does not necessarily make an NGO unethical. If that was a valid enough reason, he argued, why should an NGO accept money from a person who owns a car, for instance, since he’s also adding to the levels of air pollution and greenhouse gases?
“Both companies and individuals engage in economic activities that generate externalities. What makes an NGO unethical is failing to act on their purposes for fear of losing sponsorship.”
Founded 25 years ago, the Fundação Vitória Amazônica (FVA) received most of its support from international foundations and the European Union during its earlier years. In the last decade, however, those funders reduced their contributions or withdrew from the partnerships. Since then, FVA has been looking for other fundraising alternatives.
“The funding pattern for environmental NGOs is changing in Brazil,” said Fabiano Lopez da Silva, FVA’s executive coordinator. “The international foundations are turning to projects in areas that suffer from deforestation, while ours are located in protected areas.”
An example of this trend is found in the U.S.-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. It has been sponsoring the Brazilian NGO since 2013 and accounts for over 50% of its revenue. But the Moore Foundation has announced that it will end the partnership with FVA sometime in the future.
“How will NGOs in Brazil survive if not through foundations and fund companies?” asked Silva. “The only environmental organization with full financial independence and a strategy directed solely to individuals is Greenpeace. Its actions and messages are always of big impact, so it is easier to reach individuals. Brazil doesn’t have a culture of philanthropy or a legal framework that encourages that type of donation.”
In October 2013, Fundação Vitória Amazônica signed a nearly $400,000 contract with Fundo Vale for environmental education and socio-economic organization projects, such as the expansion of a Brazilian nut producers cooperative in the Rio Negro area, near Manaus. Vale currently accounts for about 25% of the FVA revenue, but the original three-year contract was reduced by some 15% in the second year and will end eight months earlier than expected.
With the increasing loss of contributions, FVA is looking for new sources of income, such as courses taught in partnership with foreign universities and technical services aimed at companies, organizations and local governments.
“We can be hired to conduct technical studies to assess the viability of different kinds of projects, which we already do for free. Some people don’t like the idea, but given our difficulties we must resort to other options,” said Silva.
The FVA coordinator argued that funds coming from mining activities are not the only ones related to companies that degrade the environment. “The money from the Ford Foundation, for example, comes from the automobile company; Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was created by one of the owners of Intel, a semiconductor chip maker; and the largest NGO supporters in the Amazon are Norwegian foundations, whose source of income is oil.”
One of the reasons FVA decided to partner with Fundo Vale was that their projects were not in the operating areas of the Vale company, giving them independence to do their work. “It would be different if we were in Carajás or in Vale do Rio Doce,” said Silva, who studied the Latin American mining sector at Columbia University in the U.S.
“Mining companies worldwide are highly integrated with their players, like Samarco with Vale and BHP Billington,” added Silva. “Every company has its own standards and protocols, there isn’t a global control system in the industry. And the problem gets worse due to the failure of public authorities in monitoring these companies.”
Professor Wilson Noble of Fundação Getúlio Vargas, says that environmental NGOs in Brazil should now focus on helping prevent new disasters, since there’s a risk of other Samarco dams breaking. “NGOs could organize an audit, an independent technical study to verify what other dams offer risk of collapse.”
Correction 14:00 Pacific: This story originally translated Equipe de Conservação da Amazônia as the “Amazon Conservation Team”, however the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is a separate, unaffiliated environmental group that works primary in Colombia and Suriname. ACT does not receive funds from Fundo Vale.