Global Policy Forum

Money can Taint NGO's Clean Image

The Seub Nakhasatien Foundation, a prominent Thai environmental NGO, has accepted 25.89 million baht - approx 851,000 USD - from the energy company Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT).  In the 1990s, the Foundation campaigned against a gas pipeline built by PTT through the Huay Kayeng forest reserve.  By accepting sponsorship from PTT, the Foundation exposes itself to the firm's influence.  Regardless of whether PTT exercises actual influence over the Foundation's environmental agenda, the appearance that it does is enough to damage the NGO's credibility.

By Kultida Samabuddhi

March 4, 2011

Controversial deals exist not only in the business world, but also in the non-commercial arena. A deal signed on Feb 10 between energy giant PTT Plc and the environmental group Seub Nakhasatien Foundation is one of them.

Under the deal, PTT agrees to pay 25.89 million baht to sponsor the foundation's "Jompa" western forest conservation project. It is a landmark deal indeed as it involves a huge sum of money which a business entity grants to a local NGO that once used to protest against the company's investment projects.

Back in the late 1990s, the SNF co-engineered a high-profile protest against PTT's Thai-Burmese gas pipeline project for fear of the negative impact on the pristine Huay Kayeng forest reserve, which forms part of the western forest complex in Kanchanaburi province. The year-long protest failed to stop the construction of the gas pipeline, however.

Activists joining the camp-in protest in the jungle were heartbroken when they saw big trees felled and giant pits built in the forest to lay down the gas pipeline.

A few years later, when activists and local people staged a protest in Songkhla's Chana district against the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline (a joint venture between PTT and Malaysia's Petronas) the SNF came out to support the villagers' bid to protect marine resources and fishing villages from the possible impact of the gas pipeline and gas separation plant.

Optimists may say the PTT-SNF's multi-million-baht deal marks a new chapter in the Thai environmental movement, where a business player joins hands with a green group to do good things for nature. Pessimists may condemn the foundation's decision to receive the PTT's money because the move tarnishes the credibility of the SNF and the environmental movement as a whole.

I am one of those pessimists.

It is a huge disappointment to see the foundation, whose main mission is to protect the western forest complex, accept the huge sum of money from an organisation that once destroyed part of the western forest complex.

Although the PTT has come up with several environmental conservation activities over the past years, these activities could not offset the environmental and social damage caused by its projects, from the Thai-Burmese and Thai-Malaysian gas pipelines, to its petrochemical industry in Rayong province.

By inking such a deal with the PTT, the foundation becomes part of the "greenwash" process big business uses to build its green image. This is not the first and only deal of its kind. The business sector has spent lots of money supporting green activities conducted by environmentalists. But the PTT-SNF pact is more controversial than other deals. It involves a huge sum of money and more importantly the foundation is one of the most highly respected and reliable environmental organisations in Thailand.

The foundation was established in 1990 to carry on the dedication shown by the late forestry official Seub Nakhasathien, who devoted his life to the conservation of forests, wildlife and natural resources.

SNF secretary-general Sasin Chalerm-larp said the foundation is very much in need of money to run the second phase of the Jompa project after the Danish International Development Agency stopped funding the project in 2009. He insists the grant will not stop the SNF from criticising the PTT if the firm does anything that harms the environment.

There is no doubt that the SNF will spend the grant effectively to protect the western forest complex. But is it worth losing credibility and public trust in exchange for 25.89 million baht?

It is crucial for a civil group to stay away from money of a company or state agency with an unclean environmental record, in order to maintain its strength and credibility.

This doesn't mean NGOs have to always work on limited financial resources. They just need to carefully screen the source of funds.

If the budget is really limited, then it is better to launch small projects that suit the financial resources they have.

The foundation should learn the following lesson from Seub Nakhasathien: he never spent tens of millions of baht on his work. Still, he incredibly managed to do many things for the forest and the wildlife he loved.


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