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Eco soundings

John Vidal
21st May 2003
The Guardian

Making waves

A storm is brewing over the running of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), awarder of international eco-labels designed to reassure consumers that the fish they eat comes from sustainable sources. The group, chaired by former environment secretary John Gummer and funded by food conglomerate Unilever and the WWF, started by approving small, politically uncontentious fisheries such as those for the Western Australia rock lobster and the Berry Inlet cockles of south Wales. But the MSC recently approved the New Zealand hoki, a fishery that, according to critics, is overfished and unnecessarily kills fur seals and sea birds. This has inflamed Gerry Leape, head of the oceans programme at the National Environment Trust in the US and who also is a member of the MSC's advisory committee. In London last week, he laid into Gummer and the council, warning that any rapid approval of two more controversial fisheries (for toothfish around the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands in the south Atlantic, and the Alaska pollock) would strain the credibility of the organisation to breaking point. A pained Brendan May, head of the MSC, retorted that Gummer was "not exactly [US defence secretary] Donald Rumsfeld... but most definitely green. I reject the charge our board is stacked in favour of industry."

Deserted island

Anyone seen the puffins of Coquet Island, off Amble in Northumberland? For as long as anyone can remember, these birds have clowned around on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve in great numbers. Last year, a record 18,700 pairs were crammed on to its 14 acres. But this week, when the nesting season would normally be in full swing, only 87 pairs - less than 0.5% of the population - have been counted. The locals are bemused. There's no recorded pollution, plenty of food around and other nearby colonies are in good shape.

Protection racket

Senior BP staff had a strained visit last week from John Rumbiak, a leader of the powerful West Papuan independence movement. BP has invested billions of pounds in a giant natural gas plant in West Papua, which is nominally part of Indonesia, and Rumbiak is not a man to be crossed. He confronted the company's managing director and vice-president with "evidence" that the killing of five West Papuan police officers in June 2001 was an attack staged by the Indonesian military to help it secure a lucrative security contract with BP. The inference was that BP was implicated in human rights violations. "We've heard the claim, but we respectfully disagree," says a BP spokesman. "We don't think it's the reality."

Pipe dream

Meanwhile, BP had to fend off another claim this week, this time from Amnesty International. The campaigner for human rights is concerned about the company's Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. This 2.9bn project, which would connect the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, is even now seeking financial support from British taxpayers, but, says the Nobel prize-winning group, it could lead to human rights violations. "It could mean inferior rights of redress for the 30,000 people who will be forced to give up their land rights to make way for the pipeline; inadequate enforcement of health and safety legislation to protect workers and local people; [be a] serious risk to the human rights of any individuals who protest against the pipeline; and [become a] threat to access to water for local people. For a company like BP to encourage a government to sign away its ability to fully uphold human rights is unacceptable. We must not allow this kind of precedent to be set, and the UK government should not lend British taxpayers' support to this," says Amnesty. BP swats them off. "BP is proud to be leading a large group of international investors in this project. We believe we are applying the highest standards to all the issues raised.” So there.

On tour

When US trade representative Robert Zoellick announced last week that the US would take Europe to the World Trade Organisation court over GM foods, the press conference was attended by some of the biotech industry's finest ambassadors. One special guest of the government was Greg Conko, of the rightwing Competitive Enterprise Institute, which funds pro-GM websites. But there also was TJ Buthelezi, a "small farmer" from Natal, South Africa. Buthelezi is becoming a star turn. In the past year, he has popped up courtesy of the industry on pro-GM platforms in Washington, Brussels, Pretoria, St Louis, London, Johannesburg and Philadelphia. He also was on the "fake parade" at the Johannesburg earth summit, when the biotech industry rustled up its friends for a pro-GM demo. Not bad for a small farmer.