Responsible business conduct is necessary for sustaining humanity’s future

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As a leading global conservation organization, central to WWF’s mission is building a world where people live in harmony with nature. This is often seen as a plea to save the planet, but it is in fact about saving humanity.

This week I joined a panel of public and private sector leaders at the headquarters of the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) in Paris to discuss advancing responsible business conduct. Together, we are seeking a way of working that redefines value to include not just financial capital, but also the natural and social capital that is so essential to our societies.

WWF is compelled to join this conversation because some of the world’s most extraordinary protected places are becoming flashpoints as industrialisation comes into conflict with preservation. To reduce these pressures, we are working with businesses to find solutions that allow development to be achieved sustainably without jeopardizing nature. Our vision is one where our food, fibre, water and energy is sourced smartly, used wisely, and valued at its true worth.

One such flashpoint is Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, located in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Home to endangered species found nowhere else, 85 per cent of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is covered by oil concessions. We believe that as long as concessions exist, Virunga’s long-term value is at risk. Research shows that this park, which currently generates over US$48 million per year and sustains 50,000 families, could grow in value to US$1.1 billion annually. By investing in hydropower, fisheries and ecotourism, 28,000 permanent jobs could be created.

Villagers tending to their nets in the fishing village of Kavanyongi, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. ©Brent Stirton / WWF-CanonVillagers tending to their nets in the fishing village of Kavanyongi, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. ©Brent Stirton / WWF-Canon

WWF has argued that oil exploration in this protected area by UK-listed Soco International PLC breached the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the world’s most respected corporate responsibility standards. Our OECD complaint was accepted, and in June we reached a mediated solution with Soco that includes not only the company ending current oil operations in Virunga, but also pledging to stay out of all World Heritage Sites globally.

OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria welcomed the outcome as one that will help “ensure future development benefits both people and the environment.” He went on to point out that WWF’s case “highlights how powerful the [OECD] guidelines can be.”

“Society’s expectations of responsible business conduct cannot be ignored. Every day, citizens’ voices are louder and clearer,” Gurria said. “We are here to promote a more inclusive, more human and more sustainable economic progress.”

In a sign of progress, a number of oil and mining companies have agreed to respect natural places that have outstanding universal value. However, many more multinational enterprises are seeking to exploit protected areas and World Heritage Sites. We believe that best way to sustain these precious parks and the ecosystem services they provide is early discussion between governments, businesses and civil society actors. We do not shy away from public campaigns and OECD complaints, but they are our last resort.

The Virunga case shows that OECD complaints can be used successfully bring about corporate compliance and accountability, but inequality remains. It is essential that this process becomes more accessible and more effective for civil society organizations both big and small.

Government ministers gathering here agree that safeguarding people and the planet makes good business sense, and so do we. We echo the message of the ministers’ communiqué: “A more responsible trade regime, which is respectful of social and environmental standards … would be a decisive driver for sustainable development and competitiveness globally.”

By Janos Pasztor, Executive Director of Conservation, WWF International

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