Resign, you Prince of Darkness

The Duke of Edinburgh, currently president of the WWF, is an environmental disaster area

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th September 1995.

One of the most famous stories in northern India tells of how a tyrannical prince ordered the felling of an ancient grove, sacred to local people. The villagers put themselves in the way of the axes, hugging the trunks of the trees. The fellers were merciless, and a young girl was hacked in two as she clung on. But the prince was shamed into calling off his enterprise, and the grove was saved.

The tale became an inspiration for one of India’s most successful environment campaigns, the Chipko Movement. It has also been cited by officials of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as a demonstration of how protecting the environment means listening to local people, while unaccountable power leads to destruction.

Future generations in Britain may tell a similar tale, of how a prince who would not listen ordered the felling of a line of ancient trees, and how only the brave actions of local people, putting themselves between the trees and the chainsaws, saved them from destruction. But WWF is unlikely to be encouraging people to learn from this example, for the prince in question is its president.

If the felling of some of the trees in Windsor Great Park were an isolated occasion, marring an otherwise laudable environmental record, the Fund – which is among the world’s most powerful conservation groups – would have little to worry about. But as Prince Philip’s environmental indiscretions accumulate, his position becomes ever more anomalous.

The problem, like that of many of the organizations WWF claims it is trying to reform, is one of accountability. Both Windsor Great Park – of which Prince Philip is Ranger – and the rest of the Crown or royal estates are exempt from the laws protecting rare wildlife and important habitats elsewhere. Had the Great Park belonged to an ordinary landowner, the local authority could have imposed tree preservation orders on the ancient oaks, one of which harbours a fungus found in only three other places in Britain. But Berkshire County Council, much as it wanted to stop the felling, was powerless to intervene.

The Queen’s Balmoral Estate contains a remnant of the endangered Caledonian Forest, populated by rare wildcats, pine martens, capercaillies and crossbills. Lochnagar, the estate’s highest point, is the home of some of Britain’s rarest alpine plants. These spots should, in other words, be listed as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. But in the 1970s Prince Philip insisted that they be exempted, and the Nature Conservancy Council secretly dropped its application. As a result, Balmoral was excluded this year from designation as one of the European Union’s Special Areas of Conservation. Buckingham Palace insists that the estate is being managed just as well as it would be if it were officially protected, but local conservationists say there are too many deer and not enough eagles.

But the prince’s intransigence is felt still more keenly abroad. Five years ago, I traced mahogany cut illegally in an Indian reserve in Brazil back to the company supplying the furniture restoration departments of Buckingham Palace and Sandringham. I showed that the mahogany trade was not only the primary cause of destruction inside protected reserves in the Amazon, but also the greatest threat to the survival of their inhabitants. In some places, the Indians were being gunned down when they tried to impede the logging.

The palace has not changed its purchasing policy. In July, when the United Nations Environment Programme repeated my allegations, Prince Philip despatched a furious letter insisting that his mahogany came from well-managed sources, but without providing any evidence to support his assertion.

This year, WWF joined the campaign to prevent the company RTZ from mining in a region of Madagascar in which there are species found nowhere else on earth. Thanks partly to the work of the Friends of the Earth campaigner Andrew Lees – and the publicity surrounding his disappearance and death in the Madagascan forest – the campaign looked as if it had a good chance of success. Then the prince, again without citing his evidence, announced that the mining area “was not frightfully significant – I gather it’s marginal.” Environmentalists point out that the Duke of Edinburgh International Award Programme was housed in the offices of RTZ.

In Indonesia the same programme is fronted by Bob Hasan, the country’s chief apologist for predatory timber logging, whose companies have cleared land belonging to indigenous people. This summer, despite warnings from British and Indonesian campaigners that his involvement would support rainforest destroyers, the Duke sent Prince Edward to represent him at Bob Hasan’s D of E Awards jamboree. The venue, constructed for the event, was built from illegally logged timber on a site expropriated from indigenous people.

The World Wide Fund for Nature is already perceived by some as losing touch with the local people whose environments it claims to defend. Prince Philip’s presidency can only exacerbate this impression. WWF must ask him to resign, before the fund is more widely seen as an impediment, rather than a catalyst, to conservation.