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Rainforest Action Network

Nicola Graydon

1st February, 2006

Described as a ‘mosquito inside a tent’,
Rainforest Action Network are forcing corporate
America to change its destructive practices.
Nicola Graydon meets this inspiring group of activists

The last five years have seen three of America’s largest financial institutions – Citibank, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase – coming out with environmental policies: both publicly and in documents they can be held to.

In May last year the board of JP Morgan Chase announced that they were going to lobby Washington about global warming. In September they used the brutal hurricane season – which cost approximately $200 billion in damages – to warn US clients that global warming poses financial risks. Then, in November, it seemed as though the unthinkable had happened: Wall Street was turning a shade of green that was not solely linked with a dollar bill.

The financial pages of American newspapers began buzzing with the news that Goldman Sachs had called on the Government to introduce mandatory regulations to confront climate change, saying that ‘voluntary action alone cannot solve the problem’.

In a carefully worded Environmental Policy Framework the company also acknowledges that ‘diverse, healthy natural resources – fresh water, oceans, air, forests, grasslands and agro-systems – are a critical component of social and sustainable economic development’ and that as a leading global financial institution they ‘take seriously our responsibility for environmental stewardship.’ Blink.

It continues: ‘We will work to ensure that our people, capital and ideas are used to help find effective market-based solutions to address climate change, ecosystem degradation and other critical environmental issues, and we will seek to create new business opportunities that benefit the environment.’ Blink. Blink.

Finally, amidst a raft of other promises, aims and objectives, the company commits to establishing and funding a Centre for Environmental Markets.

If this is for real (which it seems to be) then it is in no small way attributable to a diminutive nonprofit organisation. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) – started by Randy ‘Hurricane’ Hayes in 1984 – occupies two floors of a non-descript office block in downtown San Francisco, employs just 28 members of staff and is trying to save the planet on donations of $2.4 million a year.

Six months ago they received a call from the communications director at Goldman Sachs wanting to talk. They were interested, he said, in coming up with an environmental policy and needed advice. For Mike Brune, executive director at RAN, it was the turnaround they’d been looking for. ‘It was the first time a Fortune 500 company had come to us,’ he says, ‘instead of us chasing them.’

Secret of our success

According to Hayes, the methodology of their campaigns has its roots in the Burger King Boycott of 1986. ‘We contacted Burger King and told them that the beef they were importing from Central America was directly responsible for pristine rainforest being felled to make way for cattle farms'.

‘They didn’t respond. We got the classic corporate cold shoulder. So we hit the streets with the basic formula of grass roots action – combining non-violent civil disobedience with a lot of colourful street theatre, including a life-size papier-mâché cow with two people inside that was being fed rainforest leaves and defecating huge Styrofoam whopper burgers.’

It took 18 months of lunchtime demos outside Burger Kings around the country before the company cancelled a $35 million contract for rainforest beef with Costa Rica. ‘The cattle industry was shell-shocked,’ grins Hayes, ‘and the campaign triggered a worldwide focus on the significance of the rainforests.’

In their next breakthrough campaign against DIY giant Home Depot in 1989, they had activists turning up at stores carrying clip boards and dressed in white coats with ‘Old Growth Inspectors’ written on the back and leaked instore intercom codes were used for customer announcements such as ‘Attention all shoppers. The wood in aisle 2D is ripped from the heart of the Amazon. Do be careful of any spilt blood on the floor as we do our bit to destroy the earth.’ Approximately a year later, Home Depot told its suppliers it wouldn’t buy wood unless it was FSC certified, slashed imports from both Indonesia and Gabon – both notorious for illegal logging, and helped broker a deal between loggers and environmentalists in Chile to prevent the felling of native forests.

‘Much more effective than a bunch of hippies saying “Please stop logging”,’ grins Hayes. ‘They’re such a major buyer it effects far greater change – there were ripple effects across the whole industry.’ Several huge US retailers followed suit including Office Depot and giant stationers Lowes.

Leverage from Home Depot was also partly responsible for the permanent protection of 35 per cent of pristine rainforest in British Columbia. ‘It was a milestone for RAN,’ says Brune, ‘but the issue is not over. We only have protection for a third.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2006

 

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