The Rainforest Action Network’s Founder Targets Big Timber
Randy Hayes doesn’t just talk about rainforests. At the time of our interview, the founder and executive director of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) was nursing an ear infection “after getting dumped several times into the rapids in Costa Rica.” There are, says Hayes with a laugh, “serious medical issues around doing work on tropical rainforests.”
Randy Hayes says he’s “hopeful, but not optimistic” about the long-term fate of the forests.
Hayes, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, founded RAN in 1985 and, with bold direct action campaigns, built it into the primary American advocate not only for tropical rainforests, but also for its temperate cousins in places like the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska. In its first year, RAN took on no less a target than the World Bank, fighting to reform its environmentally destructive loan practices. When polite meetings wouldn’t work, RAN staged civil disobedience actions, CEO confrontations and boycotts. San Franciscans soon got used to the sight of Hayes in handcuffs. The boycott list rapidly expanded, to include Burger King, Scott Paper, Conoco and Texaco.
“The environmental movement is full of reasonable people,” says Hayes, making it clear that he is not one of them. Direct action works, he says, pointing to $2 billion in rainforest contracts in the Amazon and Indonesia that have been stopped through RAN’s work.
After a decade of effective pressure on the lumber lobby, however, RAN is broadening its approach with a new campaign aimed at the Big Three corporate logging companies-Mitsubishi, MacMillan-Bloedel and Georgia-Pacific. Mitsubishi, hasn’t yet mended its ways, but it was concerned enough about the boycott to arrange a meeting between Hayes and its CEO, Minouri Makihara.
RAN has also developed a practical, four-page 500-Year Plan that outlines how, over time, the world could, by international agreement, protect all remaining primary forests (providing economic compensation to the host countries), allow secondary forests to mature, and restrict sustainable logging to special commercial zones. The plan encourages alternative fiber development, and advocates a reduction in wood and paper use by 7.5 percent a year. Hayes says the plan “gets us closer and closer to the root causes of the social and ecological crises at the end of the industrial era.”
E: How did you first get involved in trying to save the rainforests?
Hayes: I grew up in the West Virginia forests until I was eight years old, then we moved to Central Florida’s swamplands. I’m sure that playing in nature had something to do with it. Oddly enough, I spent from 1973 to 1983 in the deserts of the Southwest, and that’s where I really got interested in forests. I was doing some work with the Hopi and Navajo Indians, and making a documentary film, The Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area, about the effects of coal and uranium mining. I met a lot of Indians from all over the world at that time, including some from tropical rainforests. That led to the founding of RAN in 1985.
RAN has been incredibly successful in increasing public understanding of the scope of the problems affecting forests worldwide. But has that gain in public awareness changed the situation much?
The first and most critical step is to popularize your issue and to have it rank as one of the big-ticket ecological goals of our time. But that and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee in a cheap place. It’s too early to tell if we’re going to save much of the world’s forests—and I mean not just tropical forests but Siberian forests, boreal forests, temperate forests-but we have a fighting chance.
Your job would seem to be to convince people that, once lost, the original old-growth forests will never come back again.
I’ve been screaming at the industry for 10 years now that ancient forests are an unrenewable resource. These forests evolved over 10,000 years or longer and they’re not tree farms. In my mind, commercial logging is the key. If we can radically alter that in the next five to seven years, we’ve bought some time to deal with many of the other issues that relate to deforestation, from population expansion to mining, hydroelectric dam building and cattle ranching.
Is that why you launched your Campaign for Corporate Responsibility, which targets the big guns of corporate logging?
If you count Mitsubishi’s empire as a single entity—and Mitsubishi denies that—then it’s by far the largest transnational corporation on the planet. And it’s not only their wood products division, which is trading in tropical timber and temperate boreal timber from ancient forests. Their heavy industries division is also building roads through rainforests, and their banking division is financing other destructive activities.
“We’ll boycott a corporation until the ends of the Earth if we have to, because the end of the Earth is literally what’s at stake.”
We chose the world’s largest transnational as both symbolic and a major obstacle to our goals. Nation states are losing power and transnationals are gaining. We now know that corporations are controlling elections, even in the so-called democracies. If you don’t have government as a proper check on commerce, then you’ve got a real problem. At RAN we talk about confronting these major issues, while also fighting the brushfires, which can seem like one step forward, two steps back.
You point out that .01 percent of all tropical logging is done sustainably. You’re trying to change corporate policy and attitudes towards the forest.
That’s only part of it. Solving deforestation by sustainable logging is a bit like trying to sober up by drinking martinis. Independently certified sustainable logging is a slice of the solution, but it’s not a major slice. Wood is at least theoretically a renewable resource. We’re not against using wood. But the scale of logging has got to be addressed, first and foremost by reductions in consumption. So perhaps more important than our Mitsubishi campaign is our launching of a wood-use reduction campaign. What we’re proposing is a 75 percent reduction in the use of wood-based paper in the U.S. over the next 10 years.
Since you’ve been targeting Mitsubishi with boycotts for a long time, does that lead to increased access? Can you get them to listen to your 500-Year Plan?
If you go back to our Burger King boycott of 1986 and 1987, we certainly got the corporate cold shoulder; they wouldn’t return phone calls or answer letters. That’s not the case any more. Last year I met with the president of Mitsubishi here in San Francisco, and we sat down and talked specifically about the 500-Year Plan, about a 75 percent reduction in paper use, about turning tree farms into what we call commercial restoration zones, about alternative materials like kenaf. In fact, his business card was printed on
kenaf paper: It’s a small step in a long process, but we’re looking for constructive dialogues with industry on that level.
It takes a combination of the stick and the carrot. We’ll boycott a corporation until the ends of the Earth if we have to, because the end of the Earth is literally what’s at stake. We now know how to be an effective thorn in the sides of a transnational. A company like Mitsubishi has its vulnerabilities: their public image, their logo. Recently we were able to help stop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries contract with San Francisco Airport, a $137 million project. That’s a lot of money, and it gets their attention.
A common failing in the environmental movement is placing too much emphasis on what’s wrong without putting constructive solutions on the table. RAN is shifting its emphasis to concentrate on the carrot-what, for instance, are the elements of the sustainable society? How can a combination of consumption reduction and alternative technologies be seen as profitable steps for industries so they don’t freak out and fight us to the death?
I wanted to ask you about the approach taken by the Clinton administration in brokering a deal between conservationists and the Maxxam Corporation, which averted at least some of the planned logging of the Headwaters Forest in California. The administration used the same barter approach in its deal canceling the New World mine near Yellowstone Park. Do you think Clinton gave away too much in these deals?
Hayes was most recently arrested in a protest against old-growth logging in Canada.
I think Clinton asked for too little. In the Headwaters deal, we should have been looking at protecting 60,000 acres, encompassing all the remaining patches of old growth that are currently held by Maxxam. Unfortunately, Clinton is saving what is considered the heart of the Headwaters, but not the entire watershed. There needs to be a bigger deal, not just for 7,500 acres, but for 60,000. RAN has been on the periphery of the Headwaters fight for the last five years, but we’ve now launched a major effort. We’re hoping to approach every lumber yard in the entire state of California to get them to commit to not selling old-growth redwood. This is not preaching to the choir: We have teams of volunteers committed to going to the yards to convince them to do the right thing. We’ve wiped out over 96 percent of old growth redwood, and it’s time to stop selling it. We used the same approach successfully to try and stop old-growth logging in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound-targeting the paper buyers, including the western edition of The New York Times.
I’ve learned some important lessons in the last 11 years. We’ve been able to shut down some majorly destructive projects, from Conoco’s extraction of oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest to the $650 million project by Scott Paper Company in the Indonesian rainforest. Sometimes you just shift the problem from one ecological system to another, shutting down one bad player and allowing another one to step in. That’s not a systemic solution.
Haiti is something like 97 percent deforested. Do you think that countries like that can be ecologically healed?
Haiti can be turned around, but you have to think of it as a long-term process. One of the first actions RAN was involved in was a campaign, involving civil disobedience and banner hanging, at The World Bank in 1986 and 1987. In my mind, The World Bank is virtually unreformable. It would be better to just defund it and let other institutions come up out of its ashes. When I talked to other activists working on The World Bank, I would say, “This thing ought to be shut down.’ And a common answer was, ‘It can’t be; quit deluding yourself.’ But while it’s not likely to be shut down next year, it certainly could be at the culmination of a 75-year campaign, or a 100-year campaign. In my mind it will be shut down.
If you look ahead 500 years, you can at least conceptualize a solution to your problems. I’m not sure we can fully stabilize climate, but you can begin to see the healing of the ozone holes and dealing with the global warming phenomenon. You can see us grappling with the restoration of damaged ecological systems like Haiti. It has to be a 500-year plan, because the soil erosion and damage done to Haiti is going to take some serious work over quite a long time.
In your old-growth campaign to save the redwoods, you’ve got help from celebrities like actors Steven Seagal and Ed Asner, and musicians like Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. I’ve been noticing that a lot more environmental themes are being seen in films and in music. Like Seagal’s On Deadly Ground, which is an environmental thriller with a strongly worded environmental lecture in it.
“A common failing in the environmental movement is placing too much emphasis on what’s wrong without putting constructive solutions on the table.”
That’s actually how I met Steven Seagal. He was nominated for an Environmental Media Associates Award for that film. I went to the presentation and told him that I thought his statement at the end of that film was powerfully eloquent. You can criticize the film and Steve Seagal’s career in a number of different ways, but his identifying big business as at the core of a lot of ecological and cultural destruction was important, and I was moved by it. We started meeting, and now he’s willing to help us out in terms of attending press conferences, writing op-ed pieces, signing ads.
Using celebrities is part of a targeted strategy. We not only want to get the celebrity notoriety of a Steven Seagal, Oliver Stone, Woody Harrelson, Tom Cruise or Barbra Streisand-all people who have signed our ads-but Hollywood also does $200 to $300 million in business with British Columbia every year. We’re encouraging the celebrities who work with us to stop shooting their commercials, sitcoms and feature films there until British Columbia quits the process of clear-cutting ancient forests. We could launch a boycott there, but right now we want to see how the Clayoquot Sound issue plays out-if we get permanent protection of the rainforest, it may not be necessary.
On your 500-year scale, are you optimistic that some of these problems we’ve been talking about can be solved?
I make a distinction between being optimistic and going forward with a good heart. I’m not optimistic. The situation looks really terrible to me. However, there are windows of opportunity, and we have to be ready to go through them. So I’m not optimistic, but I am hopeful. I hope that’s not a distinction without a difference.
JIM MOTAVALLI is Editor of E.