Business and Biodiversity: A Licence to Operate

Business wants access to resources, capital and markets, and a seat at the global policy development table in order ensure it has a licence to operate. At a time of growing concern about pressure on natural resources and the need for sustainability, business also has to talk about biodiversity and sustainable development as a means to secure its business targets. But its motives, influence and outcomes in terms of biodiversity conservation, sustainable use and equitable benefits need to be assessed. Before COP12, steps should be taken to reduce the direct and indirect influence of business on biodiversity decisions in order to assert the primacy of biodiversity as part of our global commons, to be governed by the CBD, not the corporate sector.
At COP 11, business was omnipresent. There were more than 70 events described as ‘business-related’ around COP11 in Hyderabad. It is worth looking a little more closely at the groupings involved. For example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), originally commissioned by the G8 +5 was linked to several of them. The TEEB for Business Coalition has powerful founder members including a UK accountancy institute, large conservation organisations and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which was involved in 3 side events. This is a very large group whose emergence dates back to the Earth Summit of 1992. Top business clusters within WBCSD include 23 utilities and power companies, 17 oil and gas, 17 engineering, 17 chemical companies, 13 consumer goods, 13 cement, 12 mining and 11 tyre companies.

Rio+20: Where's the debate about corporate power?

In the face of the multiple crises of biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation and climate change plus economic turbulence and injustice, it is strange that there is so little discussion about controlling corporate power and exploitation in the run-up to Rio+20. There are proposals for increasing the participation of women, youth and communities in decision-making. There are calls to reduce land degradation and deforestation, promote sustainable production and consumption, increase energy and resource-use efficiency, and protect ecosystems.

Calling the corporations to account

The first Earth Summit took place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, - this was the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), from which the three major environmental agreements on climate, biodiversity and desertification (UNFCCC, CBD, UNCCD) emerged. The Precautionary Principle was established as a fundamental part of the CBD. Just a few months later, in December 1992, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created “to ensure effective follow-up of Rio Earth Summit”. There were high hopes that at last the international community would begin to address some of the major collective issues of planetary health: biodiversity loss, climate change and desertification.

Corporations are not human, so why should they have human rights?

We live in a world where corporations wield immense power. They operate at global level, beyond the reach of national governments. They play a major part in dictating the kind of development path humanity is following, based on the concept of endless economic growth. Now we are beginning to reach the limits of what the planetary ecosystem can sustain, but there is apparently no limit to the ambition of large corporations. Yet attempts to control them and limit their power and reach have not been successful to date.

Hungry Corporations

The influence of corporations on our lives, the planet and human possibilities for the future is immense. At the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, civil society aimed to highlight the role of corporations in undermining the life support systems of the planet. Instead, the corporations succeeded in making themselves invisible and removing themselves from being the target of criticism. This process continues and is currently gathering pace both in climate and biodiversity negotiations. Here more and more mechanisms are emerging that allow corporations to expand their resource and profit base with few environmental or human rights obligations attached.

Corporations are legally obliged to prioritise profits for their shareholders over all other considerations. The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was invented in the 1960s as a means to promote corporations as good citizens. But CSR is not legally binding. And citizens in general have no say over what the company has to do to show Responsibility. Whilst access to information is widely regarded as a citizen’s right, only a few countries have made legal provisions for public access. Even so, corporations can and do prevent or delay disclosure. They do this by claiming, for example that details about a pesticide are Confidential Business Information (CBI) and cannot be disclosed. As a consequence, the public increasingly has to resort to legal proceedings – where such legal frameworks exist - and go to court in an attempt to force disclosure.

Falling revenues from property and banking have led to investors, speculators and companies seeking new sources of profit from land, agriculture, the climate markets and biodiversity. Thus instead of tackling climate change, they seek to profit from it, as discussed in Carbon markets – a distraction from the real priority . This diverts attention from what we really need: to reduce the destructive consumption of energy, water, soil, minerals and biodiversity.

EcoNexus has produced and stimulated the production of materials that tell the history of the corporation, analyse areas of particular concern, plus possible means of addressing corporate power.
A brief outline of the development of the corporation and some of the major problems can be found in Who’s in Charge? , a guest paper for EcoNexus.

Analysis and examples focusing on agriculture, food and seed from around the world can be found in the book Hungry Corporations – transnational biotech companies colonise the food chain which is available for download as individual chapters.

Who’s in Charge?

Corporations are treated as if they are people or "persons" under the law. The first Corporations were charities. The first Corporations to act for commercial ends did so fraudulently.
But what are Corporations? Where did they come from? How did they become so powerful?

Argentina and GM soya

Soya is not bringing wealth to Argentina.
"We are being occupied by the seed multinationals that have patented life and are forcing us to pay tribute to them," says Jorge Eduardo Rulli, one of Argentina’s leading agronomists. "The more we produce the poorer we become."

Hungry Corporations

This book demonstrates that a handful of companies have gained an alarming level of control over the food chain through the industrialisation of agriculture, the forces of globalisation, and the vertical and horizontal integration of business. These corporations are deeply involved in the current push for genetic engineering in agriculture. Industry argues that genetic engineering is the technology of the next industrial revolution and that it can help resolve the problem of hunger.

Subscribe to Corporations