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Sleeping with the enemy: Can big oil and greens get along?

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A new partnership between an environmental group and an oil company last week aims to prove wrong those who say oil and water don't mix.

Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and Tundra Oil & Gas Partnership, an affiliate of James Richardson & Sons, Ltd. (JRSL), unveiled the Sustainable Land Use Centre just north of Whitewater Lake near Deloraine on Friday.

"The Sustainable Land Use Centre will demonstrate to landowners and resource developers in the area that it is possible to develop oil and gas resources with minimum impact to habitat," Robert Grant, DUC's manager of provincial operations in Manitoba, said in a release.

"We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate and be accountable to the community, conservation specialists and to our employees and shareholders that resource extraction and respect for our environment are compatible," said Tundra Oil and Gas Partnership president and CEO Dan MacLean.

Pish-posh platitudes you say? Has Ducks Unlimited gone a little quackers forming a partnership with an industry known for its less-than-stellar environmental track record?

Twenty years ago, that would have been the prevailing view, but the keynote speaker at an annual banquet hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) last week said partnerships and collaborations between industry and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are becoming more common.

"Today there are hundreds, probably thousands of such partnerships,"said Claude Martin, IISD's international vice-chairman and a past director general of the International World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In fact, most of the major environmental organizations, with the exception of Greenpeace, now work with the private sector through a range of partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

He says they are necessary if the world is to have more sustainable development.

Martin said the culture around such partnerships has been evolving since the Rio Summit of 1992, which left NGOs "disenchanted with the paralysis of governments... the slowness of enforcement of existing rules and regulations."

Never mind trying to up the ante on environmental performance, governments continue to be sluggish at the national and global levels.

"We also realized that unless you had an influence on the large capital flows that stood against sustainable development you never really had a chance to influence the way business and industry was dealing with the natural resources of the world," Martin said.

After all, a company such as Walmart has a larger turnover than the entire GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. "So unless you try to influence that business, you are not achieving sustainable development," he said.

But getting NGOs to set aside their traditional suspicion of business and persuading business to see NGOs as something more than disorganized ideologists has been a challenge.

Martin said some NGOs have refused to compromise. "They are captured within a fundamentalist anti-business attitude with a deep distrust or a fear that they could be pulled over the table," he said. "They are the ones who believe a good marriage will be between a blind wife and a deaf husband."

But there can be benefits for both those interested in improved environmental quality and corporate profits. Increasingly, corporations see public goodwill as a necessary component of their ability to generate profits.

"Successful partnerships between a trusted NGO and well-known company can increase and improve the credibility of both organizations involved and funding by the corporate partner, if there is funding, for an independent NGO can in fact build the capacity of an NGO to develop new policy sectors."

Of course, the road to sustainability is littered with failed partnerships too, usually because the partners neglected to spell out clear objectives or one of the parties wasn't acting in good faith.

Looking back over the past 20 years, Martin said there are several principles businesses and NGOs need to keep in mind: Both organizations must remain true to their missions, and the partnership must be mutually beneficial. "Realism and modesty are key to any successful partnerships," he said.

The company must demonstrate executive-level commitment to sustainable development, he said.

Neither partner can relinquish its independence, even if it may mean publicly criticizing the other. These success stories also need transparency, clearly identified goals, and both human and budgetary commitments to the plans.

Rather than steering clear of companies or industries that have the worst track records, that's exactly who the NGOs should be working with, provided they don't get caught up in the "greenwash" phenomenon, he said. "That should be our business, isn't it, to move them ahead?"

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 B8

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