The World Forum on Natural Capital to discuss how businesses can value and protect nature has run into fierce criticism from campaign groups in Scotland and India for hosting companies with controversial environmental records.
Amongst those due to give a presentation is Mary Draves, a global director of the US chemical giant, Dow. Critics hold the company responsible for the fallout-out from 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, which caused 25,000 deaths.
Carina Mueller, a scientist from the UK-Dutch consumer goods firm, Unilever, is also scheduled to address the conference. The company has been attacked for failing to properly clean up mercury contamination and compensate former workers at a thermometer factory in Kodaikanal in South India.
The World Forum on Natural Capital is organised by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and backed by other major environmental groups. Due to take place on 23-24 November in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, it is expected to attract over 500 delegates from more than 35 countries.
Other speakers include the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon; the Scottish Government’s chief economist, Gary Gillespie; Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson; and David Nussbaum, the chief executive of WWF UK. The aim, according to the conference blurb, is to explore how the risks to the world’s £47 trillion worth of natural capital can be “turned into opportunity”.
But a coalition of 14 groups has issued a joint statement describing the conference as “a con”. They are calling on the organisers to demand that companies “come clean on their criminal negligence, social injustice and environmental destruction before lecturing on how to make ecosystem protection compatible with their corporate profiteering.”
Eurig Scandrett, from Scottish Friends of Bhopal, argued that corporations would always put their shareholders first. “Putting a price on nature won’t change that,” he said.
“They will still dump where there’s least cost, which means on the poorest. We should be forcing these companies to be accountable for their actions, not helping them profit from greenwash.”
He criticised Dow, which took over the company that ran the Bhopal plant, for trying to evade liability for the disaster. “We will be protesting outside the conference centre and targeting the companies who have been invited to speak,” he said.
The joint statement was backed by Global Justice Now, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Scottish Hazards Campaign. It has also been signed by groups in India campaigning for justice from Dow and Unilever.
The leading Bhopal campaigner, Satinath Sarangi, said: “I am sure the people of Edinburgh are not happy being known as the hosts to this festival of smoke and mirrors by some of the worst corporate criminals in the world. We Bhopalis hope they make their displeasure known loud and clear.”
Another Indian campaigner, Nityanand Jayaraman, added: “If Unilever prides itself in being the gold standard of corporate responsibility, why is it penny-pinching when it comes to compensating mercury-affected workers or cleaning up the mercury contamination in Kodaikanal?”
Jonathan Hughes, the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, welcomed peaceful protest at the World Forum. “It is important that those who care about the future of the natural world make their voices heard in a variety of ways,” he said.
“On the one hand this might mean banners and placards on the streets. On the other it might mean environmental organisations trying to work constructively with businesses and governments to help improve their environmental sustainability.”
He added: “We founded the World Forum because we wanted to help make businesses and governments an ever increasing part of the solution to the huge environmental challenges we face in the 21st century.”
A spokeswoman for Dow said the company had “no statement to share at this time”. In the past Dow has argued that compensation has already been paid to Bhopal victims, and that it has no remaining liability.
Unilever said that it had been striving to resolve issues at Kodaikanal after an incident 14 years ago closed its factory. “There is no authoritative medical data from any report showing that our operations at Kodaikanal caused illness,” said a company spokesman.
“Independent expert studies showed that there was no adverse impact on the environment in Kodaikanal, except in some areas of the factory premises. We are keen to continue work on clearing up the factory site.”