In December of 2010, Rainforest Action Network [RAN], issued a press release that was full of praise for the Royal Bank of Canada adopting a new framework around investments in companies involved in tar sands production.
RBC was coming under increasing pressure to end their investments in tar sands extraction, and on December 22nd of 2010 RAN announced an end to the campaign to force RBC to divest from tar sands production, citing a 'victory' when RBC announced their intentions to use Free Prior and Informed Consent [FPIC] in evaluating future investments in energy and related projects.
FPIC means many things, but the core component of the concept is the 'right to say no' to development on the part of an affected community. RBC uses many words to describe how they interpret FPIC-- but the absolute right of a veto is nowhere in their description. “The policy also recognizes the importance of community relations, and in particular aboriginal community relations, in operating and growing a business, and we look at how our clients consult and meaningfully accommodate these communities,” said Gordon Nixon, the CEO of RBC in their announcement.
This is the same exact language used by the Federal government of Canada: the language of consultation and accommodation, which is different from Free, Prior and Informed Consent. That RBC wants to end the public pressure and remake their image as one of friendly to indigenous and frontline communities is of no surprise-- but why would an organization like RAN want to help in this endeavor, and even go so far as to counsel other activists to “lay off for awhile”?1
This question of the impacts of RBC's new policy was urgent from the get go of the RAN announcement-- but is made even more urgent by the recent moves of RBC in Trinidad and Tobago-- where the government has recently begun advertising for possible tar sands mining.
(The glossy advertisement from the current Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs for Trinidad and Tobago is available here.)
RBC involvement in Canadian tar sands has not abated, nor has there been any actual commitment to removing any level of investment, but RBC can now publicly state they have been given “applause” from the Rainforest Action Network in Canada. “RBC is raising the bar for the financial sector and signaling to oil and gas corporations that it is time to take environmental and human rights seriously," said Brant Olson, campaign director of RAN, in a release applauding the policy.
RAN's involvement in such a climb down has no small implications. Not only have many of the activists opposed to RBC tar sands investment become dormant, confusion about what exactly is Free, Prior and Informed Consent has been sewn. FPIC means the right to say no, something that the communities near tar sands in T&T have already done through social struggle to developments such as smelter plants and steel mills.
In Trinidad and Tobago, it was in 2009 (during the annual Carnival) that then Minister of Energy and Energy affairs Conrad Enil announced that the People's National Movement [PNM] government would be opening tar sands mining to exploration. Previous work on deposit evaluation came from a joint venture consisting of Canadian based Western Oil Sands alongside T&T's own Petrotrin in the early 2000s. After Marathon Energy of the US bought out Western Oil Sands the arrangement with Petrotrin was abandoned in 2008.
On February 13 of 2009, Enil announced exploration blocks of pilot projects extracting bitumen for synthetic petroleum production. During the announcement of licenses for the Parrylands and Guapo Field, Enil also stated that T&T was trying to follow the Canadian model, a model that people of all stripes across North America have labelled the most destructive industrial development on earth today.
Having seriously slowed down the campaign against them without divesting a single penny, RBC has moved on to other sources of energy revenue. Having bought the Royal Bank of Trinidad & Tobago [RBTT], RBC recently attended a “Green Business Forum” held by the T&T Environmental Management Authority [EMA] in Port of Spain (the capital of the Twin Island Nation).
RBC sent their “Director of Corporate Environmental Affairs” Sandra Odendahl to the forum, to tout their socially and environmentally responsible policies as potentially large investors in Trinidad and Tobago (one of 58 countries in which RBC operates).
As reported in the T&T Newsday on March 31, 2011 “Now that RBTT is part of the RBC umbrella, Odendahl would like to introduce RBC’s Capital Markets Policy (CMP) to TT, once the integration process has been completed. [....] It was developed after extensive stakeholder consultation, much of it headed by Odendahl, on Canada’s oil sands energy sector.”
The Royal Bank of Canada has received further publicity help from environmental organizations as well, with Odendahl recently appearing on panels held in Canadian cities alongside well-known environmental organizers to ostensibly debate whether bank funding for major industrial developments can be made socially responsible. Given the small attendance at such events, the appearance of environmental organizers along side Ms Odendahl will further help the RBC spokeswoman shore up the image of the bank that only months ago was in dire straits.
In the months right prior to the 2009 announcement around possible tar sands development in Trinidad's South there was a major turning point in the so-called battle over tar sands in Canada. A campaign was launched by grassroots groups and environmental Non-Governmental Organizations [ENGOs] alike to force the hand of RBC out of their tar sands investments.
The campaign was effective, and RBC took serious hits to their credibility thanks to RAN and grassroots organizers-- even going so far as to target the ostensibly green sensibilities of RBC chairman Gordon Nixon's wife, Janet. In recent months RAN has ended their participation in the activist campaign against the Royal Bank of Canada.
Like Canada, in Trinidad and Tobago companies that wish to develop are required to go through a hearing process with affected communities. In the recent past Trinidad has seen such hearings into a now cancelled plan to construct an aluminium smelter in Southern Trinidad, the same region where bitumen deposits exist at a depth suitable to the energy industry for mining.
From Canada, with neither divestment nor the right to say no established for indigenous and frontline communities, RBC may attempt to start investments in Petrotrin for the development of tar sands in the south of the island. If such were to happen, RBC may try to use such applauded policy at the Trinidadian Environmental Management Authority [EMA].
In environmental struggles against industrial development in Trinidad the Rights Action Group has been front and centre as a part of the resistance. “The EMA said you had to have consultation, but really didn't define what consultation was. So they would do something and say they had consultation,” said Rights Action Group executive Burton Sankeralli.
Regarding the piecemeal approach to approvals, Sankeralli says that the EMA would give licensees a certificate to clear, and a separate certificate to build, so they can clear without disclosing they will put there. This approach scattered the permitting process. “It would be like you were getting one certificate for the first project you were planning, another certificate for the port, another certificate for the power plant so it was like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “There was no overall assessment on cumulative impacts and all that, it was a mess.”
How the EMA holds such hearings would fit RBC fairly well.
“The environmental impact assessment [EIA] is done by a company hired by the corporation or the government agency who want the land cleared or who is putting up the structure. So they do the EIA and they anticipate the ending. And then they do the consultation. With this whole farce of consultations when the decision has been made and no clear things on all these consultations has been done,” said Sankeralli.
According to Attilah Springer, journalist at Gayelle TV in Trinidad,
“There was one extra consultation that happened which the head of the EMA attended. This meeting went on for about four hours and at some point somebody came up and said 'Can you tell me what I said at 3:05pm?', then it was discovered that nobody was taking notes. So there was this long meeting going on that was not being properly documented or recorded. At that point people had no more faith in the consultation process and realized that it was completely flawed.”
This breakdown led to more determined resistance to the Smelter outside of the consultation process.
“After the consultation began a new phase, outside the process that started with a replanting of areas cleared for the proposed smelter, in a buffer zone on the edge of the proposed site,” explained Springer. Also important in the resistance was community level cultural activities and gatherings.
“Culture played a huge role in everything that we did and we used a lot of things in our cultural landscape to drive the point home.”
When permits were granted resistance did not stop, but increased. Springer explains in this quote:
“It was soon after that it was announced that the CEC had been granted and that's when the shit really hit the fan and things went into high gear and there were protests and general wildness that I don't think it's appropriate to talk about considering some of the parties involved are still alive.
People would go on the site, you know, and liberate things... a lot of the stuff that happened we didn't share information on.”
“What started happening was that the government of the day started to accuse some of the more prominent environmental activists of being outsiders, when the case was that these communities had asked for help. Here you had two communities that absolutely and unequivocally said to Hell with Y'all and Hell no.
Nobody was ever convinced that the EMA was concerned with protecting the interests of communities.”
The EMA is now getting ready to help the RBC use their recently applauded “policy” developed around tar sands for effected communities in Trinidad. Despite the retreat of RAN, and the greenwashing of tar sands projects in Canada, perhaps the first victory against tar sands developments will take place in the Caribbean-- which would not only protect dwindling water supplies and the forests themselves near La Brea, it may indeed help Canada reverse course on the tar sands gigaproject right from the global ground zero of Alberta, where a global fate tied to locking into the worst fossil fuel developments around the planet has begun to export.
Macdonald Stainsby is a freelance journalist, social justice activist and the coordinator of http://oilsandstruth.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 http://understory.ran.org/2010/12/22/rbc-takes-a-step-away-from-tar-sands/ (note comment below article, also written by Brant Olson)