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Activists cry ‘greenwashing’ over TotalEnergies’ ties with SANParks

Activists cry ‘greenwashing’ over TotalEnergies’ ties with SANParks
Illustrative image: (Photos: Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images) | Wikimedia | Rawpixel)

Not only is TotalEnergies a sponsor of South African National Parks’ National Parks Week campaign, which gives citizens free access to all national parks, but the petroleum company also sponsors the coveted Kudu Awards, which recognises conservation and environmental programmes.

Activists and legal experts have labelled TotalEnergies’ relationship with SANParks, which spans more than 60 years, as greenwashing.

They say the state agency is “allowing a national asset like our natural heritage to be used to greenwash the fossil fuel company’s image”. 

Stephen Horn, the South Africa director of Clean Creatives who shared this sentiment with Daily Maverick, adds that SANParks has an ethical responsibility to cut ties with TotalEnergies.

TotalEnergies’ partnership with SANParks been in the spotlight in recent months, with activists calling for SANParks to drop the company as a partner because they believe the relationship undermines SANParks’ mission, threatens biodiversity and human life, and gives TotalEnergies a free platform to greenwash its activities across the continent.

The concept of greenwashing – where companies purposefully mislead the public to believe they are doing more to protect than harm the environment – is not new but is rarely called out in South Africa. However, it is so pervasive that people rarely view their actions as greenwashing. 

SANParks spokesperson Rey Thakhuli said that aside from managing fuel stations in some national parks, “TotalEnergies is, as with many others, a corporate sponsor of public-good projects within and outside of national parks”. 

These “worthy sponsorships” included:

  • The Walk and Learn on the Wild Side campaign, focusing on environmental education for young people living in impoverished communities;
  • SA National Parks Week, which focuses on bringing awareness of the national parks to the majority of South Africans with free access to parks for citizens. This campaign has been running for 18 years and TotalEnergies has been a partner since its inception;
  • The Kudu Awards, which recognise excellence in conservation and environmental programmes outside national parks;
  • Fuel for helicopters involved in anti-poaching activities;
  • Establishment of waste recycling projects in communities adjacent to national parks, resulting in sustainable economic activities; and
  • Prospecting for biofuel partnerships with the University of Venda in conjunction with SANParks for economic benefits to impoverished communities.

TotalEnergies, SANParks and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) have denied there is anything untoward about the partnership. This is despite TotalEnergies fervently trying to acquire an offshore production right and associated environmental authorisation for Sea Concession Block 11B/12B in the country while undertaking these public good projects.

A TotalEnergies marketing spokesperson said it was “unfounded to draw any links from the long partnership between TotalEnergies Marketing South Africa, its recent environmental and production rights applications and SANParks”. 

The company added that it made sense to collaborate with SANParks by focusing on nature conservation, “which is a major concern in South Africa”. 

SANParks also denied any conflicts of interest in the partnership, saying that all sponsorships it accepted, including from TotalEnergies, did not compromise SANParks’ ability to fulfil its mandate. 

We have to see this association for what it is – an attempt to reframe TotalEnergies as an eco-friendly company, when its expansion of fossil fuel production across Africa shows that the opposite is true.

“If anything, these enable the execution of critical biodiversity and conservation interventions which otherwise would have been difficult to realise. Most importantly also is that all such relationships, including the one with TotalEnergies, are legally sound,” it said.

In October, the DFFE rejected an appeal to stop TotalEnergies’ application to drill in Block 5/6/7 off the Cape coast. It was the latest in a series of legal actions and protests aimed at preventing the company from searching for offshore discoveries in South Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Drill, baby, drill: Environment Ministry gives Total green light for Western Cape coast offshore drilling

Asked whether the DFFE had any conflicts of interest or concerns about SANParks’ corporate partnership with TotalEnergies’ application to acquire an offshore production right and associated environmental authorisation for Sea Concession Block 11B/12B, DFFE spokesperson Peter Mbelengwa said:

“At no stage of the appeal process was Minister Barbara Creecy compromised in her role as the Appeal Authority over the decision that was taken to grant TotalEnergies an Environmental Authorisation for Sea Concession Block 11B/12B. As correctly pointed out, TotalEnergies’ corporate sponsorship within and outside of national parks is a long-standing sponsorship and could therefore not have been premised on the outcome of the appeal.”

In addition, Creecy had obtained advice and recommendations on the outcome of the appeal from an independent senior counsel on her appeal advisory team, which was appointed in terms of Regulation 6 of the National Appeal Regulations. 

“It must also be pointed out that the minister upheld the decision of the competent authority (Department of Mineral Resources and Energy) who has no interest in any aspect relating to the corporate sponsorship of TotalEnergies to SANParks. Therefore, there aren’t ethical or questionable implications arising from this matter,” Mbelengwa said.

Subsequent to Creecy’s appeal decision, some public interest organisations raised the issue of “conflict of interest” as a matter of concern, but Mbelengwa said no appellant or party to the appeal had raised this as a matter of concern during the appeal process.

Creecy had already finalised her appeal function when she sought clarity from her legal team on this issue and was advised that there was not any conflict of interest between SANParks and TotalEnergies.

The partnership between TotalEnergies and SANParks is as ethically or morally corrupt as a tobacco company sponsoring a lung cancer unit in a hospital.

The fossil fuel industry uses public relations, advertising, sponsorship and, most recently, “ecological offsetting”, to deceive the public into thinking they are greener and more sustainable than they are, and that their products are good for humanity, when in reality the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels is the leading cause of the climate crisis which threatens social and ecological life on Earth.

Clean Creatives’ Horn said: “This (partnership) is a betrayal of all South Africans in light of the fact that TotalEnergies has knowingly downplayed the risks of climate change since the 1970s… We have to see this association for what it is – an attempt to reframe TotalEnergies as an eco-friendly company, when its expansion of fossil fuel production across Africa shows that the opposite is true.”

‘Drop them’

There is no doubt that having to reconsider the relationship between TotalEnergies and SANParks would be an extremely difficult task with a number of implications, but Fossil Free South Africa campaigner James Granelli said the partnership between TotalEnergies and SANParks has to be seen in the broader context of climate collapse and biodiversity loss, both of which are caused by the profiteering of fossil fuel companies. 

“The partnership between TotalEnergies and SANParks is as ethically or morally corrupt as a tobacco company sponsoring a lung cancer unit in a hospital,” Granelli said.

He said SANParks should drop TotalEnergies as a partner, and that the government and other private investment should be encouraged to “fill the gaps that dirty oil money” leaves, while legislation similar to the laws on tobacco advertising and sponsorship should be put in place for fossil fuel companies in South Africa to prevent natural heritage being the stage for fossil fuel companies to clean their reputation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SANParks should not be providing a platform to help climate-breaking companies like TotalEnergies look good

Liz McDaid, the strategic lead at the Green Connection, added: “While it should be a way of contributing to social good by those who have the means to do so, and could be commendable for corporates to help with ecosystem protection by supporting SANParks, it is not ethical in our view to claim to be acting in the public good while carrying out activities which could have the exact opposite effect! That is greenwashing and we should condemn such behaviour.”

Karpowership and a dangerous precedent 

Recently Karpowership offered a game farm to the government as “ecological compensation” to make up for temporary damage to the “irreplaceable” and globally significant bird habitat around Richards Bay as it tried to clear its final environmental hurdle. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Quid pro quo — Karpowership offers to buy government a game farm

In response to questions by Daily Maverick, Karpowership SA, said: “As announced publicly in September, Karpowership SA reached a landmark biodiversity offset agreement with a governmental organisation responsible for maintaining wildlife conservation areas and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal.”

The company said that “contrary to the agenda being set by those who oppose our projects, this is not a donation. It is a mitigation measure in line with South Africa’s biodiversity offset regulations to ensure compliance with the law.”

However, there are still concerns, particularly that Karpowership’s offset agreement may operate and contemplate something that exists outside the parameters of South African law.

In an interview with Daily Maverick, Kate Handley, an environmental attorney and co-founder of the Biodiversity Law Centre, said:

“Our national Biodiversity Offset Guideline doesn’t contemplate estuarine offsets. Offsets are such a novel concept and I know they’ve been around for a few years, but they’re still being tested. The fact that we now have a national guideline is encouraging, but to try and instrumentalise an offset that operates in this kind of policy and law vacuum, is really problematic and taking it a step too far.

“I think there’s lots of structural issues with this… and  fundamentally, I don’t think this arrangement is accommodated within our law.”

Deals done in the name of “ecological compensation” or “carbon offsetting” set a dangerous precedent in how we value nature, its benefits and its “tradeability”. 

Granelli said the Karpowership deal assumes that nature in one place is equivalent to nature in another – the same assumption that TotalEnergies makes in its partnership with SANParks – “which we know is not true”. 

“It also lets these multinational companies off the hook for the responsibility they bear for the disruption of the environments they operate in, and allows them to use these ‘offset’ projects as PR and marketing goldmines, while communities and ecosystems in distant, unacknowledged places bear the brunt of the fossil fuel economy and climate crisis.” DM

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  • chris smit says:

    I have been visiting Kruger since early childhood . All the time I believed I was caring for the environment while cherishing nature and learning about other living creatures. But now I realize that I was only GREENWASHING. During every visit I was spewing toxic gasses over fenced animals that had no way to escape. SO no more Kruger for me.
    This Greenwashing sound like an offshoot from Green Peace that did their darnest to stop the nuclear industry from supplying mankind with cheap, abundant reliable, safe and CLEAN electricity. They eventually had their way and for 40 to 50 years fossil fuel ruled. Today we sit with the results.
    My take is that the fossil fuel industry has made almost incalcable profits and are in a good position, given their wealth and their guilt, to make amends. Rather than making Totals relation with Sanparks suspect we should encourage Total to do even more. Maybe some of the other fuel giants will also come aboard and build Sanparks into a great national asset for all to enjoy

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