/ 27 May 2021

Activists protest outside Standard Bank over its financing of fossil fuel initiatives

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Civil society groups demonstrated outside Standard Bank’s headquarters in Johannesburg on Thursday while the bank was holding its annual general meeting

Civil society groups demonstrated outside Standard Bank’s headquarters in Johannesburg on Thursday while the bank was holding its annual general meeting. 

Earthlife Africa said they wanted to spotlight the bank’s continued financing of fossil fuel projects, which contribute to the climate crisis. 

Makoma Lekalakala, director at Earthlife Africa, said: “It is time that Standard Bank divests from fossil fuel financing. Global investment companies have led the way. It is time for Standard Bank to clean up its act and focus on a sustainable future,” she said. 

The protest against Standard Bank’s financing activities was not limited to South Africa. Shareholders put the bank’s East African oil investments on the table at the annual general meeting. Among these was the continued detention of human rights activist Maxwell Atuhura, of the African Institute of Energy Governance in Uganda. 

Reacting to Atuhura’s arrest on 25 May, the organisation Amis de la Terre France said: “For many years, Maxwell Atuhura has been relentlessly defending the rights of people affected by oil operations in the region. His organisation, AFIEGO, is actively involved in the lawsuit against Total in France, including by gathering evidence on the ground. Like many other human rights defenders who speak out against oil-related issues, Maxwell has been facing repeated threats and intimidations. In recent weeks, he has received a large number of anonymous threatening phone calls, and both his home in the oil region and his family’s home in the capital — several hundred kilometers away — have been broken into.” 

He was arrested alongside an Italian journalist, Federica Marsi, while investigating the effect of the oil and gas industry on people. Marsi was released after being detained for a day. 

“The police asked him [Atuhura] why he was working against Total with foreigners. The UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment has called for his release. Standard Bank is, of course, working with the Ugandan government as an adviser for the EACOP [East African Crude Oil Pipeline]. Will the bank contact its client urgently to express concern and call for their release,” said Ryan Brightwell on behalf of BankTrack, a global organisation monitoring banking activities. 

Efforts to get Standard Bank to commit to holding talks with the Ugandan government over the continued intimidation and illegal arrests of activists were unsuccessful at Thursday’s meeting. 

Standard Bank group chief executive Sim Tshabalala said its consultant’s environment report on the EACOP was provided “with no red flags noted”.  

“The lenders and environmental social consultants will act on behalf of the lenders in reviewing the environmental social and environment plans and reports and findings and will evaluate the effectiveness of the project’s ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance] litigation plans,” he said.

Tshabalala said the climate change impact assessment for the project is yet to be completed or reviewed, adding that pre-project stakeholder discussions have taken place. The assessment is set to be released in May 2021, according to Tshabalala. 

Tshabalala did not respond directly to the arrests of human rights defenders in Uganda, but said the bank subscribes to all global norms in respect to people’s rights and the rule of law. 

Globally organisations are campaigning against the pipeline. They argue that the EACOP will jeopardise ecosystems, fuel climate change and pose significant risks to millions of people.

The pipeline is expected to cross about 200 rivers, run through thousands of farms and displace about 100 000 people. 

“Local landowners that resist this process have faced intimidation and manipulation, forcing them to give up their land for derisory cash compensation. These impacts all have gendered effects, disproportionately harming women and girls in the region,” said an alliance of civil society groups under the campaign #StopEACOP. 

The bank’s chairperson, Thulani Gcabashe, opened the annual general meeting with an eight-point climate plan, responding to the resolution that shareholder activists filed last month

Among the bank’s commitments are that it will set and publish science-based short, medium and long-term climate targets to support meeting the sustainable development goals of the Paris Agreement and the target of net-zero carbon by 2050. It also commits to reviewing its targets in line with the available climate change science.