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Putting banks on the hot seat: accountability in World Heritage protection


What’s the connection between the banks that we trust with our money and potentially destructive activity such as oil and gas exploration in the World’s most precious places, UNESCO World Heritage sites?

Taking oil and gas as an example, companies approach banks for finance in order to carry out exploration or exploitation projects. Sadly, if the banks don’t have a strong policy in place to respect the value of these protected areas, then nothing stops them financing extractives companies who can cause irreversible damage. Banks can also actively choose to finance companies that act more responsibly, such as the members of the International Council of Mining and Metals who have a policy to respect World Heritage sites.

Sunset over Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania.Sunset over Selous Game Reserve. Selous, Tanzania. © Greg Armfield / WWF

As part of the Saving Our Shared Heritage campaign, WWF have been working with banks to encourage them to have a, or improve their, policy around World Heritage sites. Strong policies will empower banks to ensure they are better equipped to ask the right questions, which will put such risky harmful industrial scale activities at a disadvantage and make it harder for companies to win funding.

Some of our supporters who are shareholders of UK banks have been asking their bank just when we can expect them to put in place strong policies, or improve their existing policies and implementation.  With almost half of natural World Heritage sites threatened by industrial scale activities banks need to act now.

Annual General Meeting One: HSBC

HSBC already have in place a policy for the protection of World Heritage sites, and they have in fact lodged this with UNESCO. It is WWF’s belief, however, that as it stands the policy isn’t strong enough to effectively do it’s job. We wanted to know from their board members when they were going to review their policy and bring it in line with our recommendations.

WWF representatives that are also shareholders of HSBC asked for this timeline and used the example of the Kinder Morgan pipeline extension, which could have been partly funded by HSBC, to highlight how harmful activity may still slip through the net. This pipeline transports oil from tar sands through a World Hertiage site called Jasper National Park and has had six oil spills already in its time of operation.

HSBC CEO John Flint responded to the question positively, highlighting that they had tightened up tar sands regulations. We’ll be following up with them behind the scenes to see what progress can be made on their World Heritage site policy.

Jasper National Park, a World Heritage site in CanadaJasper National Park, a World Heritage site in Canada. A pipe line transports oil through this World Heritage site and HSBC were linked to financing the expansion of this pipeline. They have now withdrawn © Wilfried D. Schurig / WWF

Find out more about the campaign to Save Our Shared Heritage to understand why it’s so important we protect World Heritage sites.

We’ll be updating this blog after each of the banks AGM’s that we attend.. The next one will be Barclays on May 1.

Annual General Meeting 2: Barclays

Barclays published their first public policy focusing on World Heritage and RAMSAR site protection on Monday 30 April. It was a good start and prevents the further funding of projects that could be harmful to the world’s most precious places. There is still room for improvement though when looking at corporate lending. General corporate lending involves a company requesting a loan without stating which project the money is for, and therefore potential damage to World Heritage sites could occur. In the new policy, Barclays did state that they were looking to “broaden its scope to include other financial transactions that directly support such projects” and Barclays will raise concerns to clients operating in World Heritage sites  “irrespective of whether Barclays has directly financed the project in question”

We went along to their AGM to push them on a timetable for the improvements we want to see. The response was very positive and we’ll be working with Barclays going forward to help them improve policy and implementation and to broaden the scope of the policy.

Beautiful ray in BelizeBelize’s waters are home to over 1,400 kinds of plants an animals, including rare sharks and rays. Antonio Busiello/ WWF-US

Annual General Meeting 3: Lloyds Banking Group

Currently Lloyds don’t have a policy for the protection of World Heritage sites, and although we’d been told they were working up a new sustainability strategy we hadn’t heard when this was likely to be published or whether it would include these special places explicitly. At the AGM the chair, Lord Blackwell, assured us that being a UK focused bank meant that they wouldn’t have dealings in such activity, but they would be delighted to meet with us and go through their wider strategy and take on board our comments. We’ll be taking them up on their offer to ensure that their sustainability policy goes above and beyond.

Annual General Meeting 4: Royal Bank of Scotland

RBS made some exciting announcements ahead of their AGM, including a committment to end the funding of any projects in the Arctic. Sustainability featured heavily in the agenda of the AGM, with the board pledging more funding to renewables projects. When we asked them about their World Heritage policy, they were extremely keen to meet and discuss the issue further. We’ll be following up with them in the coming weeks.

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