Top: Deforestation is associated with the agricultural sector in Liberia. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

By Gabriel M. Dixon  

MONROVIA – Dutch Bank, ING, has backed down from an OECD investigation into a complaint filed by NGOs that accused it of supporting companies that are allegedly clearing forests and grabbing land in Liberia and other parts of the world.    

A statement by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which looks into OECD matters, on April 7 said “No agreement could be reached between the parties [ Friends of the Earth and partners vs. ING]” after several months of negotiations.

Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), its Dutch and Indonesian affiliates, Friend of the Earth Netherlands and WAHLI complained in July 2019 that ING bank allegedly violated OECD’s guidelines.

“ING has breached several provisions of the OECD Guidelines by contributing to specific adverse environmental, human rights, and labor rights impacts caused by subsidiaries of ING’s clients Noble Group Ltd., Bollore Group/Socfin Group S.A., and Wilmar International Ltd,” stated the complaint in summary.

In January 2020, the OECD started to look into the complaint and concluded that it  “merited further consideration.”  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an international body that issues guidelines and recommendations to multinational enterprises for responsible business conduct. The body works with governments, decision-makers, and citizens on establishing international standards and best practices on a range of issues including the environment.  Its guidelines are, however, not binding.  

ING denies any wrongdoing, saying, “The bank refused to accept any liabilities” and “opined there are no harms to which [it] contributed.”

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed regret the mediation did not continue.  “Efforts to bring (the) parties to an agreement on possible improvements of ING’s due diligence policies and practices regarding palm oil, and to assess the enterprise’s involvement with the actual or potential adverse impacts identified, in order to determine the appropriate responses, ended prematurely,” it said.

The international standards-setting body, therefore, concluded that “No agreement could be reached between the parties… on the question whether and to what extent there was a responsibility of ING to cease its (possible) contribution and to contribute to remedying the adverse impacts.”  

The petitioners represent communities and individuals in Africa and Asia where companies Like Wilmar/SICFA, Bollore Group/Socfin, and GAR run various oil palm and rubber plantations funded by investments from ING bank and other financial institutions. At the time of their complaint, the three NGOs sought “to ensure that oil palm companies operate within the confines of the Liberian laws and international standards on human rights and the environment,” stated James Otto-lead campaigner for SDI. 

An earlier report by FoE showed how Dutch banks heaped investments in multinationals like GAR, Wilmar, the Bolloré Group, and SOCFIN Group to fund their operations in Liberia and countries in Africa and Asia.  Subsidiaries of those foreign companies are accused of carrying out deforestation, land grab, and human rights violations. In a few cases, some were found guilty by the RSPO and other international regulators.

The Maryland Oil Palm Plantation and the Cavalla Rubber Corporation,  both of whom are owned and run by SIFCA, a subsidiary of Wilmar, were found to have engaged in deforestation and human rights violations including killing in Maryland County. SIFCA’s total investment in MOPP is about US$203 million. The investment was largely funded by ING bank.   

“ING bank chooses to continue deforestation and human rights violations on the palm oil plantations in which they invest money [leaving] affected residents in Liberia, Indonesia, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone… empty-handed,” Friends of the Earth said in the release responding to ING’s pullout.  

“The unilateral withdrawal from Dutch ING bank is outrageous……… This shows the urgent need for regulating the financial sector…,” said Wouter Kolk, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

The DayLight has reached out to ING bank for comment on the statement released by the office of OECD in the Netherlands and the claims made by Friend of the Earth in its news release.  

The bank’s action comes at a time when the UN and climate scientists continue to warn the world of the fast-increasing impact of climate change and the ability of many communities to adapt. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists,  deforestation and forest degradation now constitutes 10 percent of global warming.  Environmentalists agree that the clearing of forests for agriculture and mining projects leads to emissions of high CO2 into the air. 

James Otto, lead campaigner at SDI called on the Dutch government to “ensure justice and redress” for victims in Liberia.

“We will continue to work with local communities to identify other ways to hold ING bank and other financiers to account,” Otto said in a statement. “They can walk away from the table but not from having to face the responsibility of their clients’ misconduct.”

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