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Divest Invest Protect: the indigenous-led campaign fighting financing of oil & gas pipelines

Three major pipelines halted this month after protests

“Listen to indigenous peoples”. 

That is the message to the finance community from Michelle Cook, a Dineh lawyer focused on indigenous rights, and Founder of Divest Invest Protect, an indigenous-led campaign for the financial industry to cut ties with extraction companies and projects seen to be harmful to such communities. 

Earlier this month, in the space of 24 hours, three high-profile and controversial oil pipelines under construction, backed by big finance but vigorously opposed by indigenous people and environmental groups, were hindered.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), protested against heavily by Native American groups, was forced to close by a federal judge – although it was quickly given a temporary reprieve by the US Appeals Court while the ruling is considered. 

The Keystone XL Pipeline, which will carry crude oil from Canada to Nebraska, is delayed after the Supreme Court rejected a request by the Trump Administration to allow its construction. A Carbon Tracker report this month says it is uneconomic in a low-carbon world. 

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was expected to carry natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina, was cancelled by its owners, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, because of “legal uncertainty”.   

Observers say the victories reflect the growing sophistication of environmental groups and indigenous communities in fighting such infrastructure projects, which often infringe on nature, people’s homes and livelihoods, as well as being at odds with most climate transition forecasts.

Cook says the court rulings have vindicated indigenous communities. She was directly involved in opposing the DAPL, protesting on the ground, and is connected to an OECD human rights grievance brought against Credit Suisse over its financial ties to DAPL. That resulted in a partial victory, after the Swiss banking giant agreed to include the protection of indigenous communities’ rights into its internal guidelines on project finance. 

Now, Cook – along with indigenous women from Standing Rock, the Native American reservation impacted by DAPL – has filed a new complaint against Credit Suisse at the US OECD National Contact Point, to push it to widen the scope of its internal guidelines on indigenous rights to include corporate-level finance, not just project finance. 

“For four years, Credit Suisse has maintained a boiler-plate response on the issue,” says Cook. “They say they have conducted efficient, reputational risk reviews with respect to DAPL companies, despite the fact that survivors continue to identify and experience adverse effects.” 

Cook says there is a systematic ignorance of indigenous rights in the US by financial institutions, and with increased focus on human, civil and environmental rights more broadly, the ignorance risks fuelling land conflicts and public backlash. 

“Banks need to take it seriously when indigenous peoples come to their ESG teams with grievances,” she warns. “Because if they had taken us seriously in 2016, they could have pulled out of a pipeline that is now inoperable,” she says, referring to DAPL. “And they would have been aware of the problem in the US of criminalisation of indigenous human rights defenders and militarised police violence against people of colour.” 

Cook says there are still indigenous people incarcerated today as a result of the DAPL protests in 2016, which resulted in fierce clashes with police and life-changing injuries for some activists. They are being represented by NGO NoDAPL, which is raising money and awareness for their cause.

She adds that UN bodies issued warnings and recommendations over police behaviour towards the protesters, although there is still to be an investigation, despite heightened scrutiny over police violence in the US as a result of the current Black Lives Matter movement. 

“The banks who are continuing to finance the companies building the pipelines will continue to ignore and turn a blind eye to those human rights violations if we allow them. They facilitate the destruction of our people and our cultures by not intervening, by not using their leverage to mitigate and prevent that bad behaviour and conduct of their business partners and relationships.” she says. 

DAPL, controlled by Energy Transfer Partners, has reportedly cost $4.8bn, of which $2.5bn was financed by loans. The project-level loans have been tied to 17 banks. 

A number sold out of the loans after public pressure, including ING and BNP Paribas.

This month, Cook, as part of the Indigenous Women’s Divestment Delegation, met with Deutsche Bank to discuss the currently-suspended Keystone XL Pipeline. 

Deutsche Bank is one of many banks “supporting” TransCanada Pipelines, the operator of Keystone XL, according to a Rainforest Action Network investigation from this May, which identified around 20 finance institutions that played “a range of roles on its current lines of credit and recent bond sales”. It did not specify Deutsche Bank’s role.

Deutsche Bank, which confirmed the meeting with the Indigenous Women’s Divestment Delegation, said in a statement to RI: “Deutsche Bank is NOT financing the named pipeline projects. We appreciate the respectful, fair discourse with many of our stakeholders, including numerous NGOs.”

Osprey Orielle Lake, Founder of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network International and Co-Director of Indigenous Women’s Divestment Delegations, said: “As a lead financier of the fossil fuel industry in Europe, Deutsche must be accountable to activities of the companies they finance regarding further destruction of the climate, the violation of indigenous rights, escaping harms to public health during a pandemic, and increased rates of violence towards indigenous women living near ‘man camps’ associated with pipeline construction.” 

“Man camps”, which house pipeline workers, have been linked to increased crime, drug use and sexual violence, and trafficking in indigenous communities.

The Deutsche Bank spokesman said: “We have clear policies on pipeline projects and the respect of human rights. We comment in detail on our positions on the criticized issues in our Environmental and Social Policy Framework as well as in our Non-Financial Report.”