Wall Street Journal

Too many environmental organizations are betraying their ideals for the love of the yuan.

Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef of the Spratly Islands.


Greg Rushford

Scores of Chinese dredgers ground up the coral of semisubmerged reefs in the South China Sea over the past three years to build artificial islands that are now becoming military bases. The enormity of the destruction to marine biodiversity is unprecedented. The Chinese government has destroyed more than 5 square miles of coral reef in fishing grounds that help feed hundreds of millions of people, including Chinese.

“China is committing a grand theft of the global commons,” says Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio in an e-book published earlier this month. It’s a theft that has inflicted “permanent and irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem,” an arbitral tribunal in The Hague determined last year in litigation brought by the Philippines.

Yet Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International have all averted their eyes. “None of them have really stepped up to the plate,” says Edgardo Gomez, an award-winning professor emeritus of marine biology at the University of the Philippines.

China’s environmental crimes have been well-documented by Mr. Gomez and a small band of dedicated marine scientists. Biologist John McManus at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School warns of a major fisheries collapse if China continues to thwart remedial action. Kent Carpenter, a professor at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, has demonstrated China’s extensive damage to threatened marine species.

The best-funded environmental groups don’t have much to say when asked about the issue. A spokesman for Conservation International in Manila declines to comment. “As we’re sure you can appreciate, we cannot undertake conservation efforts everywhere,” says WWF spokesman Christopher Conner in Washington. “WWF is not a political organization,” adds Joel Palma, president of WWF-Philippines.

It’s the same story with Greenpeace. “The reason we don’t work on the South China Sea is because the nations around the area are embroiled in a territorial dispute,” says J.P. Agcaoili, the communications manager for Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Mr. Agcaoili asserts that it would be “counterproductive” to tackle the South China Sea issue.

But the environmental NGOs don’t usually hesitate to confront governments. For example, Greenpeace activists scaled an oil rig in 2012 to protest Russian drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The WWF and Greenpeace even spoke out against Chinese-government subsidies that have resulted in destructive overfishing, especially off the coast of West Africa.

So why didn’t they utter a peep about China’s degradation of the South China Sea?

Knowing when to keep their mouths shut seems to be the price these organizations must pay to enjoy the good will of Beijing. It’s one thing to offer respectful criticism over Chinese fishing subsidies within the bounds that the Communist Party tolerates as a social safety valve. But it’s another matter entirely to condemn the crimes that China is committing in the South China Sea, a position that would infuriate the Politburo.

Greenpeace, Conservation International and the WWF all have offices in China. The WWF’s programs to protect the giant panda drive donations globally, and well-heeled do-gooders pay $10,000 per person for panda safaris in Sichuan. Mr. Gomez of the University of the Philippines laments, “Sad but true, money talks.”

As the WWF notes on its website, it operates in China “at the invitation of the Chinese government.” But invitations can be withdrawn. With dozens of Chinese nationals employed on the mainland by the WWF, Greenpeace and Conservation International, the NGOs’ operations in the Middle Kingdom are hostage to the whims of the Party.

The WWF’s international board of directors includes Wang Shi, founder of China’s biggest residential real-estate developer. An avid sportsman, Mr. Wang is no stranger to danger, having climbed Mt. Everest. Yet he declined to comment on China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Likewise the WWF-Philippines board, which includes some of that country’s wealthiest executives, has stayed silent. Christopher Po, the CEO of Century Pacific Tuna, is looking to China as a major growth market for his seafood exports. Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, who chairs one of the Philippines’s largest conglomerates, is currently in talks with Chinese enterprises about infrastructure projects.

Hotel developer Elizabeth Sy has even closer ties to the mainland. Ms. Sy is an advisor to the board of SM Prime, which has shopping malls across the Philippines and also in five Chinese cities. She is the daughter of the Philippines’s richest man, Henry Sy Sr. , who was born in Fujian and has large ventures on the mainland.

WWF-Philippines president Joel Palma, on behalf of the board, declined requests for comment on conflicts between members’ businesses and protecting the marine environment. The WWF has revenue of more than $300 million annually.

Environmental organizations appeal for donations by pointing to their record of speaking truth to power. But the flagship groups are betraying their ideals in the pursuit of money and access in China. That’s the real reason we don’t see Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior protesting Beijing’s environmental crimes in the South China Sea.

Mr. Rushford is editor of the Rushford Report, which tracks international economic and security issues.