Making money talk for BC forests and First Nations

US banking giant’s policy helps BC forests & First Nations

Decisions in far-off corporate boardrooms have a profound impact in BC. Whether it be Weyerhauser corporate honchos in Federal Way, Washington deciding to shut another mill, or Ontario Teachers Pension Fund adivisors in Toronto deciding to invest in coal, it’s the communities, workers and First Nations here in BC who live with the consequences.

In response to this corollary of globalization, First Nations, labour, environmental and community activists are seeking to increase their leverage in corporate boardrooms by educating players in the financial markets about the risks and liabilities that flow from specific corporate actions.

These efforts in BC leaped forward recently with the announcement of US banking giant Bank of America’s Global Corporate Investment Policy on Forests.

Bank of America is the second-largest bank in North America, with $474 Billion in assets. In 2003 the Bank was among the six most profitable corporations in the world, with over $10 billion in earnings.

The new investment policy, which resulted from a short but effective campaign by Rainforest Action Network, opens up a potent set of new tools to activists working on forest issues–particularly First Nations advocates.

Bank of America’s policy bans all financing for logging in “intact forests” (defined by Global Forest Watch maps), creating strict “No-Go Zones” that are off limits to destructive industrial activity. Additionally, all resource extraction (e.g. oil and gas, mining, and logging) in all forests must be verified by an independent, third-party audit.

Perhaps the biggest impact in BC will result from the bank’s policy to not provide money to logging on unceded indigenous lands.

The policy states that Bank of America, “will not finance [logging in primary temperate/boreal or high conservation value forest] unless it is determined that indigenous peoples impacted by projects in these sensitive areas, whether directly or by induced impact, have the opportunity and, if needed, culturally appropriate representation, and have access to the information to engage in informed participation.

Additionally, Bank of America will not finance operations in these areas where indigenous land claims are not settled.”

While the former sentence is a powerful tool for forest activists nationwide, the later statement essentially precludes Bank of America from financing any logging in BC, where the reconciliation of Aboriginal and Crown Title has been long-delayed on virtually the entire land base.

Facing an antagonistic government determined to create certainty by giving resource corporations more control over unceded lands, First Nations are coming together to exercise their collective power in the financial markets.

Witness the Title & Rights Alliance promise to “make uncertainty” if the provincial Crown and industry do not address First Nation issues, and the First Nations Summit’s demand that only Forest Stewardship Council certified logging occur in BC. This policy gives BC First Nations powerful leverage to force a response to their demands and challenge unsustainable operations that threaten their Title.

Unlike other corporate commitments that phase in over decades, Bank of America’s policy applies to all new loans and underwriting activities as of May 15, 2004 and for existing contracts at the time of renewal.

Bank of America’s policy is a significant advancement over that of its chief rival, Citibank. The Citibank policy only protects intact tropical forests, and only requires the “informed participation of indigenous peoples.” Industry spin doctors are easily able to satisfy such vague requirements, allowing destructive logging to continue in indigenous lands.

Corporations are increasing their power in international political affairs. It is important for people concerned about the future of civil society to find new, innovative ways to resist this anti-democratic corporate power. The buzzword that describes various attempts to do so is “corporate accountability.”

People’s views on the concept of Corporate Accountability reveal their own political convictions. Many people–including fans of the popular movie The Corporation–believe the phrase is an oxymoron. They believe corporations are inherently unaccountable because of their structure (limited liability, perpetual existence and a mandated profit motive). Others think that there are a few corporate “bad apples” but generally corporations are a positive force in society.

Regardless of your position, few would disagree that corporations need to become more accountable. Investors who have been ripped off by fraudulent accounting or disclosure; communities that have been abandoned as their resources are plundered; indigenous people confronting resource extraction on their lands: all want new tools to hold corporations accountable before, during and after their operations begin.

Dogwood Initiative will be working with First Nations to identify BC resource companies engaged with Bank of America, and hold them accountable to the banks policy.

Breakthroughs like Bank Of America’s new policy give us new tools to use. Now it’s up to us to implement these tools to move closer to the just, equitable and sustainable society we believe in.

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