Wolves in sheep’s clothing: industrial lobbyists and the destruction of tropical forests

25 10 2010



As of this morning, a group of distinguished scientists (which I have had the honour of being invited to join) has released an Open Letter to be published in various media outlets worldwide. The letter addresses some of our major concerns over the misinterpretation of facts, and openly misleading statements, by proponents of deforestation in the Asian tropical region. Professor Bill Laurance, an old favourite on ConservationBytes.com, has led the charge and organised a most impressive and shocking list of assertions. I produce the letter below – I encourage all my readers to distribute it as far and wide as possible in the social media-verse.

An Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests

To whom it may concern:

As professional scientists employed by leading academic and research institutions, we are writing to alert the general public about some of the claims and practices being used by the World Growth Institute (WGI) and International Trade Strategies Global (ITS), and their affiliated leadership.

WGI and ITS operate in close association. ITS is owned by Alan Oxley, an Australian industrial lobbyist, former trade representative, and former Ambassador who also heads WGI. According to its website1, ITS also has “close associations” with several politically conservative US think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.

In our personal view, WGI and ITS — which are frequently involved in promoting industrial logging and oil palm and wood pulp plantations internationally — have at times treaded a thin line between reality and a significant distortion of facts. Specifically, we assert that:

  • ITS is closely allied with, and frequently funded by, multinational logging, woodpulp, and oil palm corporations. The financial supporters of ITS include parent corporations producing paper and wood products under the aegis of ‘Asia Pulp & Paper’, among others.
  • Alan Oxley and ITS have often lobbied in favor of Rimbunan Hijau2, one of the world’s largest industrial logging corporations. Rimbunan Hijau has been repeatedly criticized for its environmental and human-rights impacts in Papua New Guinea3,4.
  • WGI frequently lobbies public opinion on the behalf of Sinar Mas holdings, a conglomerate of mostly Indonesian logging, wood-pulp, and oil palm companies that includes Golden Agri Resources, a Singapore-based firm. One of these companies, known as ‘SMART’, could face expulsion by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry-led trade group, for “serious non-compliance with the RSPO Code of Conduct” with respect to its environmental and social sustainability guidelines5.
  • In an interview with Malaysia’s The Star newspaper, in which he strongly advocated further oil palm expansion in that country, Mr Oxley refused to answer a direct question as to whether he or WGI was supported by the Malaysian palm oil industry. He dismissed this question as being “immaterial”6. We believe that WGI’s financial supporters include many of the same industrial sectors for which WGI regularly advocates.
  • While routinely accusing several environmental organizations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of bias and scientific misrepresentation, WGI and ITS have, in our opinion, advanced a range of biased or distorted arguments themselves. For example, consider an ostensibly “independent”2 audit7 from ITS that sought to exonerate Asian Pulp & Paper from claims of illegal and damaging logging practices in Sumatra, Indonesia. This audit appears to be far from objective in scope, especially given the clear financial links between these two entities, which brings into question its claims to be “independent”. Among other claims, the ITS audit broadly understates the scope and gravity of forest loss and degradation in Indonesia, despite that nation having among the world’s highest absolute rates of deforestation8 and being ranked 7th worst out of 200 nations in terms of net environmental damage, according to a recent analysis9. It also suggests that the palm oil and pulp and paper industries are not important drivers of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia. Yet recent research has demonstrated that much of the oil palm expansion in Indonesia between 1990 and 2005 came at the expense of native forests10 (many plantation owners favor clearing native forests over already-degraded lands as they use revenues from logging to offset the costs of plantation establishment11). Moreover, the rapid expansion of pulp plantations is a serious driver of native-forest loss in both Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia12.
  • A recent technical report by ITS concluded that “There is no evidence of substantial deforestation” in Papua New Guinea13, a conclusion strongly at variance with quantitative, remote-sensing studies of forest conversion published in the refereed scientific literature14,15.
  • Reports from WGI and ITS routinely claim that newly established oil palm plantations sequester carbon more rapidly than do old-growth rainforests. This claim, while technically correct, is a distraction from the reality that mature oil palm plantations store much less carbon than do old-growth rainforests (plantations store just 40-80 tonnes of biomass aboveground, half of which is carbon, compared to 200-400 tonnes of aboveground biomass in old-growth rainforests16). WGI and ITS reports have also in our view dismissed or downplayed other important environmental concerns, including the serious impact of tropical peatland destruction on greenhouse gas emissions17 and the impact of forest disruption on threatened species such as orangutans and Sumatran tigers18,19. Furthermore, WGI and ITS, we believe, have failed to recognize adequately that many forests of high conservation value are being destroyed and fragmented by plantation development20 — a process that is mostly driven by corporations, not small holders.
  • WGI, ITS, and Alan Oxley frequently invoke “poverty alleviation” as a key justification for their advocacy of oil palm expansion and forest exploitation in developing nations, and it is true that these sectors do offer significant local employment. Yet forest loss and degradation also have important societal costs. There are many examples in which local or indigenous communities in the tropics have suffered from large-scale forest loss and disruption, have had their traditional land rights compromised, or have gained minimal economic benefits from the exploitation of their land and timber resources4,21. Such costs are frequently ignored in the arguments by WGI, ITS, and Alan Oxley.
  • One of the most serious misconceptions being promulgated by WGI and ITS in our view is that “two-thirds of forest clearance is driven by low-income people in poor countries”22. In fact, the importance of industrial drivers of deforestation — which includes large-scale palm oil and wood-pulp plantations, industrial logging, large-scale cattle ranching, large-scale farming of soy, sugarcane, and other crops, and oil and gas exploration and development — has risen dramatically in the past 1-2 decades23,24. These industrial drivers are largely responsible for the explosive expansion of roads in tropical frontier regions, which facilitates massive forest loss and degradation25. Such industries and their lobbyists also create great pressures on the governments of developing nations to allow access to their lands and natural resources, both via legal and illegal means26,27. Hence, a crucial and overarching cause of tropical forest loss and degradation today is rapidly increasing industrialization and globalization. We believe WGI either fails to comprehend, or is failing to convey accurately, the real and growing magnitude of industrial drivers as a threat to tropical forests.

In summary, our goal is not to defend any environmental organization or to suggest that environmentally and socially equitable development is not an important objective for developing and transitional nations. Nor do we dispute that oil palm plantations, when established on previously deforested or abandoned lands such that they do not contribute either directly or indirectly to deforestation, can have important economic benefits and largely acceptable environmental costs. However, we do assert that a number of the key arguments of WGI, ITS, and Alan Oxley, represent significant distortions, misrepresentations, or misinterpretations of fact. In other cases, the arguments they have presented amount to a “muddying of the waters” which we argue is designed to defend the credibility of the corporations we believe are directly or indirectly supporting them financially. As such, WGI and ITS should be treated as lobbying or advocacy groups, not as independent think-tanks, and their arguments weighted accordingly.


William F. Laurance, PhD, Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, James Cook University, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Thomas E. Lovejoy, PhD, Biodiversity Chair, The Heinz Center, Washington, D.C., USA; University Professor, George Mason University, Virginia, USA

Sir Ghillean Prance, FRS, VMH, Professor and Director Emeritus of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK

Paul R. Ehrlich, PhD, Bing Professor of Population Studies, President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University, California, USA

Georgina Mace, PhD, FRS, CBE, Professor and Director of the NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London, Ascot, UK

Peter H. Raven, PhD, President Emeritus Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Susan M. Cheyne, PhD, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, UK; Orang-utan Tropical Peatland Project, Director of Gibbon and Felid Research

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, PhD, Professor and Director of Ecological Modelling, The Environment Institute and School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide; South Australian Research and Development Institute, Adelaide, Australia

Omar R. Masera, PhD, Professor and Director, Bioenergy Lab, National University of Mexico (UNAM); President, Mexican Network on Bioenergy, Morelia, Mexico; Nobel Laureate on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Gabriella Fredriksson, PhD, Research Fellow, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Studies; Knighted in the Order of the Golden Ark University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Barry W. Brook, PhD, Professor and Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, Director of Climate Science, The Environment Institute and School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia

Lian Pin Koh, PhD, Senior Research Fellow ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), Zurich, Switzerland




3W.F. Laurance et al. (2010) Better governance to save rainforests. Nature 467:789.

4W.F. Laurance et al. (2010) Predatory corporations, failing governance and the fate of forests in Papua New Guinea. Conservation Letters In press




8Scientists laud forest conservation deal for Indonesia”, Tropical Biology and Conservation, Bali, Indonesia, 23 July 2010.

9C.J.A. Bradshaw et al. (2010) Evaluating the relative environmental impacts of countries. PLoS One 5:e10440.

10L.P. Koh & D. Wilcove (2008) Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity? Conservation Letters 1:60-64.

11E.B. Fitzherbert et al. (2008) How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23:538-545.

12C. Barr & C. Cossalter (2004) Pulp and Plantation Development in Indonesia. Centre for International Forestry Research, Bogor, Indonesia.

13http://fiapng.com/PDF_files/PNG Land Use Report Final4 Nov 2009.pdf

14P.L. Shearman et al. (2009) Forest conversion and degradation in Papua New Guinea 1972- 2002. Biotropica 41, 379-390.

15P.L. Shearman & J. Bryan (2010) A bioregional analysis of the distribution of rainforest cover, deforestation and degradation in Papua New Guinea. Austral Ecology doi:10.1111/j.1442-9993.2010.02111.x.

16H.K. Gibbs et al. (2008) Carbon payback times for crop-based biofuel expansion in the tropics: the effects of changing yield and technology. Environmental Research Letters 3:34001.

17L.P. Koh et al. (2009) Conversion of Indonesia’s peatlands. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7:238.

18M.F. Kinnaird et al. (2003) Deforestation trends in a tropical landscape and implications for endangered large mammals. Conservation Biology 17:245-257.

19M. Linkie et al. (2003) Habitat destruction and poaching threaten the Sumatran tiger in Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatra. Oryx 37:41-48.

20B. Yaap et al. (2010) Mitigating the biodiversity impacts of oil palm development. CAB Reviews 5:1-11.

21M. Colchester (2010) Palm Oil and Indigenous Peoples in Southeast Asia: Land Acquisition, Human Rights Violations and Indigenous Peoples on the Palm Oil Frontier. Forest Peoples Programme, Moreton-in-Marsh, UK.


23R.A. Butler & W.F. Laurance (2008) New strategies for conserving tropical forests. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23:469-472.

24T.K. Rudel et al. (2009) Changing drivers of tropical deforestation create new challenges and opportunities for conservation. Conservation Biology 23:1396-1405.

25W.F. Laurance et al. (2009) Impacts of roads and linear clearings on tropical forests. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24:659-669.

26W.F. Laurance (2004) The perils of payoff: Corruption as a threat to global biodiversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 19:399-401.

27J. Riaño & R. Hodess (2008) Bribe Payers Index 2008. Transparency International, Berlin, Germany.



26 responses

10 06 2014
Corporate wolves posing as environmental sheep | ConservationBytes.com

[…] A recent director of the AEF is Alan Oxley, an industrial lobbyist and former Australian trade ambassador who’s spearheaded opposition to numerous environmental initiatives around the world. […]


17 10 2012
Wise guys of deforestation « ConservationBytes.com

[…] well-worn “free-trade-at-any-cost” arguments of former Australian trade ambassador Alan Oxley. Oxley is now a well-heeled lobbyist who defends the interests of the some of the world’s largest f…. His efforts to sink the illegal logging bill are especially dubious because he steadfastly refuses […]


16 03 2012
Bill Laurance wins Heineken Prize « ConservationBytes.com

[…] is a huge recognition of Bill’s amazing scientific track record, environmental portfolio, advocacy and […]


15 03 2012
World’s collide: greenwashed development to kill biodiversity « ConservationBytes.com

[…] massive (and superlatively greenwashed) oil palm development in the tropics (see our previous Open Letter), Bill Laurance and Josh Linder have organised another Open Letter from some of the world’s […]


30 09 2011
1 million hectares annually – the forest destruction of Indonesia « ConservationBytes.com

[…] also fund aggressive lobbyists, such as World Growth in Washington DC [CJA Bradshaw's note: see our piece on one particular patron of WG – Alan Oxley], to combat their critics and dissuade major retail chains from dropping their […]


12 09 2011
When you have no idea, you should shut up « ConservationBytes.com

[…] BP combined. That preface of conflict of interest now explained, I will now expose Mr. Lawrence for the wolf in sheep’s clothing he really […]


18 08 2011
Recognising differing viewpoints in a rapidly changing world « ConservationBytes.com

[…] areas of tropical rainforest and killing endangered wildlife such as orangutans in the process. To others it is an important source of economic development. These others do not just include oil palm companies and governments, but also many local farmers […]


31 03 2011
A very pissed-off New Guinean versus the Destroyer of Forests « ConservationBytes.com

[…] those of you who follow ConservationBytes.com, you might remember a fairly recent post where a group of leading conservation biologists exposed one of the most danger…, the (very embarrassing to admit) Australian destroyer of tropical biodiversity and future welfare […]


31 01 2011
Habitat for Humanity Should Cut its Ties with Asia Pulp and Paper | My Nice Planet

[…] its values of integrity, upholding human rights, and addressing poverty by associating with a company that regularly bends the truth, undermines rights and grabs community land and […]


29 01 2011
The Understory » Habitat for Humanity Should Cut its Ties with Asia Pulp and Paper

[…] its values of integrity, upholding human rights, and addressing poverty by associating with a company that regularly bends the truth, undermines rights and grabs community land and […]


21 11 2010
One billion people still hungry

[…] Recently, we blew the whistle on an equally dangerous man and the institutes he represents – climate-denier Alan Oxley; he and the business interests he represents are responsible for more deforestation, biodiversity loss and financial inequity in South East Asia over the last few decades than almost any single group. […]


12 11 2010
One billion people still hungry « ConservationBytes.com

[…] we blew the whistle on an equally dangerous man and the institutes he represents – climate-denier Alan Oxley; he and […]


29 10 2010
Wolves masquerading as sheep: the fallout « ConservationBytes.com

[…] we’ve managed to stimulate quite a lively conversation after dropping the Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests regarding the questionable tactics employed by Alan Oxley and his industrial lobbyist […]


28 10 2010

See also related post on ‘the two faces of conservation evil‘.


28 10 2010
Daud Mazlan

Wow. A bunch of orang putih from Europe and America abusing another orang putih from America. All over a part of the world that neither of them live in. Amazing. I think I might just go back to my jungle and eat some berries, and if I’m lucky, eat an orang-utan.


28 10 2010

Environmental degradation and and the short-sighted stupidity aren’t restricted to your country, I’m afraid. The depth and usefulness of your comments are… amazing.


28 10 2010
Bruno Walther

To further encourage people take species and ecosystem conservation serious, a new website shows some of the leading scientists in the world being interviewed about the threat to and the value of biodiversity, and some of the solutions that can be pursued, one of which is to greatly enhance the protection of forests, especially rainforests, by using carbon credits to pay forest rangers:


The videos are ideal for education and activism. We need to act now to avert the collapse of ecosystems all around the world, which these videos of eminent scientists warn about. Once they have collapsed, societies will collapse with them, as Jared Diamond showed in his book Collapse. For our own well-being and the well-being of all our fellow creatures on this planet, distribute this information as widely as possible. Time is running out.

We need support for biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being!

Dr Bruno Walther
Research Fellow
Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute (TESRI)
Assistant Professor for Environmental Science
Taipei Medical University, Taiwan


28 10 2010
Barry Dalgleish

Greenpeace has picked up on this and given it worldwide exposure on its blogs. It should be going through the social networking sites like wildfire now.


27 10 2010
Tweets that mention Wolves in sheep’s clothing: industrial lobbyists and the destruction of tropical forests « ConservationBytes.com -- Topsy.com

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anupama Ranawana, nef, Shailendra Yashwant, Mary Ellen Ryall, Jonathan and others. Jonathan said: RT @conservbytes: Wolves in sheep's clothing: industrial lobbyists and the destruction of tropical forests: http://wp.me/phhT4-1e2 […]


27 10 2010
Chris Lang

Hi Corey – I posted the letter on REDD-Monitor today: “Who the hell does Alan Oxley think he is?


27 10 2010

Great one, Chris. Thanks.


27 10 2010
Tom Keen

Excellent stuff. I love how direct it is. It’d be great to see more of this sort of stuff from scientists who are clearly leaders in their fields. You can feel the weight behind a letter like this. Hopefully those in decision making positions do too – and don’t choose to completely ignore it.

Consider it shared.


27 10 2010

Thanks, Tom. I appreciate you spreading this around. For too long companies masquerading as public-good entities have been misinterpreting science for their own profit.


26 10 2010

The letter was picked up by Nature.com: ‘Scientists question think tanks’ motives‘.


25 10 2010

Hi Corey, We posted to Facebook and Twitter in support of your timely message about deforestation. Mary Ellen


26 10 2010

Thanks, Mary Ellen. These people need their true colours revealed.


Leave a Reply to Tweets that mention Wolves in sheep’s clothing: industrial lobbyists and the destruction of tropical forests « ConservationBytes.com -- Topsy.com Cancel reply

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