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Greenpeace’s Failing Credibility

June 16, 2013 - Greenpeace’s credibility has waned and waxed over the years, depending on the campaigns they run and who they let run them. As a media observer of both the renewable energy and forestry sectors, I’ve watched the spectacle with interest even if I didn’t always grasp the end game.

The non-governmental organization’s (NGO) recent contortions over bioenergy offer a case in point. Its struggles with this dossier have drawn yawns and confusion from the general public. In seeming to favour the fossil fuel status quo over the growing use of a renewable, low-carbon alternative, Greenpeace wandered down a path few could follow. Fortunately for the organization, that issue dropped off the radar faster than you could say “waiting for Utopia.” Yet as odd as that move was, Greenpeace’s behaviour was about to get stranger still.

Oops, my bad
In a truly bizarre move late in 2012, Greenpeace dramatically withdrew from the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA), an initiative of which it was a founding member. In justifying the abrupt departure, Greenpeace came up with what seemed like a solid reason – Resolute Forest Products, also a founding member, had been caught red-handed breaking the terms of the agreement. 

The company had been logging and building roads outside the boundaries set by the agreement, and Greenpeace held irrefutable proof in the form of photos and video of roads and harvest sites complete with GPS co-ordinates. Not one for dialogue with a partner, forest co-ordinator Stephanie Goodwin publically called it “a definite breach of trust.” As former Prime Minister Jean Chretien said in explaining his doubts about imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, “a proof is a proof is a proof.”  

Except when it’s not. Fast-forward a few months, and Greenpeace was forced to admit that its statements were “incorrect.” Supposed harvest sites were actual burnt forest being prepared and replanted. Anyone who’s spent time in the woods north of Lac St. Jean has seen these vast tracts. The forbidden roads had in fact been authorized for other purposes or were built by the government (you know, the land owner) for reforestation. 

Enter another blow to the organization’s credibility. Openly accusing an organization and the people who work for it of a breach of trust is always risky, especially when the proof turns out to be at best erroneous, and obviously so. In this case, several factors combined to make the blow worse than it needed to be:

  • Greenpeace never fully or convincingly explained how the once convincing bank of evidence was assembled in the first place, or why it was so quick to attack Resolute prior to verifying the facts with the company itself. Nor did it explain how it took over three months to come clean when many of us suspected the errors within days of the initial accusations.
  • Despite admitting its error on the issue it used as a pretext for withdrawing from the CBFA, Greenpeace did not then return to the table. Was the issue a red herring from Day 1?
  • Greenpeace chose its victim poorly. Like those of the industry as a whole, Resolute’s harvest levels have been in steady decline over the past decade, and like those of the industry as a whole, well below the available wood supply as calculated by Natural Resources Canada. Even with a recovery underway, the 2011 harvest in the two provinces Resolute operates in was under 22 million m3 (Quebec) and 14 million m3 (Ontario). Wood supply based on long-term plans was at 45 and 29 million m3 respectively, meaning the harvest in both provinces was under 50 per cent of available supply.
  • Resolute is also the global leader in FSC certification, the only third-party certification that Greenpeace supports. Just a few months prior to Greenpeace withdrawing from the CBFA, the World Wildlife Federation celebrated Resolute becoming the world’s largest manager of FSC lands through the certification of its Lac St. Jean region to the FSC Boreal standard. Yes, that’s correct, the same region under dispute certified to the Boreal standard. Either Greenpeace is unfairly targeting Resolute, or FSC certification isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Which is it?

Given all that, Resolute has been admirably restrained in its response to the initial false accusations, Greenpeace’s tepid mea culpa, and its ongoing harassment. You could argue that the company has in fact been too constrained, showing Greenpeace’s current batch of campaigners more respect than they have earned to date. Still, by the end of it all one fact became clear. If there is a CBFA partner guilty of a “definite breach of trust,” it is not Resolute.  

As Chretien concluded, Canadians will know a proof when they see one. We’re still waiting.

Scott Jamieson, Editorial Director

June 12, 2013  By  Scott Jamieson

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