Where does your bank stand?
The Problem for the Big Four
Almost three years ago Oxfam first alerted our big four banks that they are connected to companies linked to agriculture and land grabs overseas in our Banking on Shaky Ground report. These cases frequently involve violence and intimidation, forced evictions and the destruction of crops. Land grabs have long-term consequences on the lives of affected people.
Our 2016 report Still banking on land grabs revealed new links between the banks and already widely reported land grabs. This showed that the banks will remain exposed to companies connected to land grabs — and the negative impacts this has on their reputation — until they take a zero tolerance for land grabs approach. This involves clear commitments, greater transparency and accountability to ensure that the banks operations don’t contribute to negative impacts on vulnerable communities overseas.
In 2014, NAB and Westpac took some significant steps with new land-specific policies. However two years on it is not clear if the banks will move closer to Zero Tolerance for Land Grabs or stand still. In October 2016 ANZ acknowledged the issue of land grabs with a new land acquisition policy.
Despite three of its key competitors taking the first steps to commit on land rights, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) is a clear laggard.
However no bank has done enough.
In its 2016 report, Still banking on land grabs, Oxfam revealed that Commonwealth Bank (CBA) has connections to companies linked to widely reported land grabs in Colombia and Indonesia. The report has also included an update on CBA’s connection to a land grabs in Brazil, first reported in 2014.
Today CBA still has a financing or investment relationship with numerous companies linked to credible and ongoing allegations of land grabs – particularly in the palm oil sector. This includes companies who operate in communities with high levels of violence towards people speaking out on land issues, and who continue to face ongoing allegations of links to human rights abuses.
The Commonwealth Bank also manages millions of dollars in shareholdings in an agribusiness giant, Bunge. From 2008–2014 Bunge’s Brazilian sugar mill committed to sourcing sugarcane from five farms on land that had been designated as belonging to local Indigenous people. Farmers had used their political influence and intimidation to disrupt the next steps towards returning the land to the community.
Community members also report their river was polluted due to fertiliser run-off causing children to get ill with diarrhoea, skin infections and other illnesses. People have to travel further away to hunt as so much forest has been cleared for farms.
In 2015 Bunge stopped sourcing sugar from these farms — yet it has not taken any action to address its role in profiting from land grabs across many years. This takes place at a time of escalating violence towards Indigenous people in Brazil.
Is the Commonwealth Bank adopting Zero Tolerance for Land Grabbing?
While CBA’s three key competitors have acknowledged the problem of land grabs at the highest level, CBA has done little.
The bank has taken no policy action. It has made no effort to speak with affected communities. In 2015 and 2016 CBA failed to even tell its shareholders that it continued to face criticism from multiple NGOs for backing companies linked to land-related human rights abuses.
After three years CBA’s claim that it is taking land grabs seriously just doesn’t stack up.
In its 2016 report, Still banking on land grabs, Oxfam revealed that ANZ has connections to companies linked to widely reported land grabs in Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia and another case in Papua New Guinea. ANZ was linked to all but one of the land grabs cases investigated in depth in our report.
Oxfam has also closely followed ANZ’s response to a concerning case in Cambodia. From 2011–2014 the ANZ Bank part-financed a sugar plantation that has been involved in child labour, military backed land grabs, forced evictions and food shortages. While ANZ would not disclose the amount it loaned Phnom Penh Sugar (PPS) since 2011, it is believed to be tens of millions of dollars through its Cambodian subsidiary, ANZ Royal Bank. This loan was issued for a sugar mill, built on, and sourcing from, contested land.
Hundreds of families were forcibly removed from their homes in 2010–2011 to make way for the sugar crop. Families were evicted without compensation, or with figures as low as $50 for land that once provided them with food and a livelihood. There have been food shortages because resettlement sites were located on infertile land and destruction of community forests and crops, and many community members are now in debt.
In July 2014 it was announced that Phnom Penh Sugar had suddenly repaid its loan to ANZ. ANZ has now left the communities high and dry. The community points out that ANZ has profited from its link to land grabs. They are calling on the bank to make amends and to take action that leads to meaningful change that helps them to rebuild their lives.
Our 2016 report goes into much more detail on issues that should have alerted the bank beforehand to problems connected with PPS, as well as the bank’s response to the case since Oxfam reported on this case in 2014.
Is the ANZ adopting Zero Tolerance for Land Grabbing?
In October 2016 ANZ published a Land Acquisition position statement. In doing so ANZ joined Westpac and the NAB in acknowledging the importance of land rights.
While Oxfam has welcomed the policy as a good step forward, it does not go far enough. For example ANZ did not match Westpac’s existing commitment to respect the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the rights of local peoples in relation to their land rights when development projects are proposed.
Meanwhile, the communities impacted by the Phnom Penh Sugar case continue to call for ANZ to provide meaningful redress and to give its profits from the deal to the affected communities who face incredible day-to-day hardship.
What is clear is that ANZ’s efforts to improve its land rights approach will continue to be overshadowed by its reluctance to first reach a fair agreement with the community impacted by the Phnom Penh Sugar case.
In 2014 Oxfam reported that NAB had been funding the world’s leading processor and trader of Palm Oil — Asian agribusiness giant Wilmar. Since 2007, Wilmar and its subsidiaries have been linked to numerous land grab allegations in Asia and Africa, and have been targeted by environmental NGOs for contributing to deforestation and negative impacts on threatened species such as the orangutan.
While the company has made efforts to improve, it still faces a number of concerning allegations that it is operating without the free, prior and informed consent of communities.
In its 2016 report, Still banking on land grabs, Oxfam revealed that NAB has connections to companies linked to widely reported land grabs in Brazil and Colombia. The report also provided information on a new case study linked to one of Wilmar’s suppliers in Indonesia.
In Indonesia, communities are reporting threats, intimidation and the destruction of their crops and rubber trees after a palm oil company (PT SIL) acquired a controversial lease to 2,800 hectares. Communities report violence and threats as the company seeks to push them off their land in order to expand its plantation.
Is the NAB adopting Zero Tolerance for Land Grabbing?
In November 2014 the NAB published its policy on improper land acquisitions — and became the first of the big four banks to take policy action on land grabs since the release of our report.
Oxfam welcomed the policy as a positive step in the right direction. But Oxfam has pointed out that it does not yet ensure that the bank can’t back land grabs. To do so it would need to include measures to ensure justice for affected communities, a stronger recognition of community land rights through requiring Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and clearer disclosure of its links to land deals.
As noted above, Still banking on land grabs included new information about NAB’s links to companies connected to land grabs – raising the question of how the bank will respond given its new policy.
The year 2017 marks two years since NAB’s initial land policy and it is up for review. It remains to be seen if NAB will continue its early momentum and evolve its policy to meaningfully respect land rights or stall.
In its 2016 report, Still banking on land grabs, Oxfam revealed that Westpac has connections to companies linked to widely reported land grabs in Brazil and Colombia and Indonesia.
The impacts of these cases on communities, include deepening land inequality, food shortages and community-directed violence and intimidation.
In its 2016 report, Oxfam also revealed updated information on Westpac’s possible connection to a company with likely links to land grabs in Papua New Guinea (first reported in 2014).
In Banking on Shaky Ground we reported that Westpac had a long-standing financing relationship with WTK — a company that has links to land grabs in Papua New Guinea (PNG). We also found links with other companies connected to land grabs.
The information on Westpac’s connection to WTK was based on public records with the PNG Investment Promotion Authority (IPA) on two WTK companies. Company filings from both companies listed a relationship with Westpac as recently as 2010 and 2012.
On 18 November 2014 new documents were filed with the IPA that state that as of this date Westpac no longer has a financing relationship with WTK. Westpac then said that the relationship with one of two company subsidiaries, WTK Realty Ltd, had ended in 2000.
The documents filed are normally expected to be filed at the time the financing relationship ended – not more than a decade later.
On checking the new evidence, Oxfam assesses Westpac’s recent claim that it has not had a relationship with WTK for several years as plausible, but not conclusive. If true, this would mean that Westpac’s former clients incorrectly listed a financial relationship with the bank for many years after the relationship ended.
This case highlights the challenges of researching the world of finance and the reasons why we call for the banks to be more transparent on their exposure to the risks associated with land acquisitions and land grabs.
Is Westpac adopting Zero Tolerance for Land Grabbing?
In mid-November 2014 Westpac published a ‘Financing Agribusiness’ policy. In the policy, Westpac said it would not finance agribusiness companies that did not respect the rights of all local communities including the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) on land deals.
Oxfam welcomed this as a significant step, as FPIC is central to safeguarding their land rights.
Westpac has also said it won’t fund companies that destroy important conservation forests, violate the rights of workers, or mistreat livestock.
While Westpac refers to the term ‘zero tolerance for land grabbing’ in its policy, it does not yet tackle issues such as disclosing the bank’s exposure to land deals, or justice for communities affected by land grabbing which are central to Oxfam’s recommendations for a zero tolerance approach.
As noted above, Still banking on land grabs included new information about Westpac’s links to companies connected to land grabs – raising the question of how the bank will respond given its new policy.
The question now is whether Westpac will commit to respect FPIC across all its business dealings, including where it invests its clients money – and not just loans.