HSBC funding destruction of vast areas of Indonesian rainforest, new report claims

British bank denies helping provide billions of pounds of funding for palm oil producers 'bulldozing rainforest'

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The Independent Online

A major British bank is financing the destruction of vast areas of rainforest in Indonesia, a new report claims. 

HSBC has allegedly helped provide billions of pounds in funding for companies that destroy natural forests to make way for palm oil plantations - despite the bank promising to not finance deforestation. 

The London-based bank is part of a group that provided over $16 billion (£13.2 billion) in loans and a further $2 billion (£1.7 billion) in corporate bonds to palm oil producers, according to Greenpeace International. 

​Greenpeace alleges the companies have been involved in destroying vital rainforest without permission. Some producers are also accused of exploiting workers and using child labour.

HSBC’s sustainability policy says it does not “knowingly” finance deforestation. 

The bank told The Independent it was “not aware” of any of its customers breaking the terms of its sustainability policy.  

In a statement, a spokesman said: “HSBC's policies prohibit the financing of operations that are illegal, damage high conservation value forest/landscaping or violate the rights of workers and local people. 

“HSBC does not knowingly provide financial services which directly support palm oil companies which do not comply with our policy. 

“We are not aware of any current instances where customers are alleged to be operating outside our policy and where we have not taken, or are not taking, appropriate action.”

The spokesman declined to comment on the details of loans provided to palm oil producers or confirm whether HSBC would be investigating the claims about it alleged customers.

Jamie Woolley, Forests Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said:

“The damage being done to Indonesia’s rainforests and air quality by destructive palm oil companies is one of the world’s great environmental scandals, and HSBC’s continued support for palm oil producers who deforest and increase the fire risk in Indonesia is only making matters worse.

"HSBC’s funding is allowing these companies to expand their palm oil plantations, which means less rainforest, fewer orangutans, more carbon emissions, and thousands of deaths across Southeast Asia every year from air pollution.

"All of these issues need urgent action, and HSBC could be a big part of the solution, but right now they’re still a big part of the problem. We’re confident HSBC will listen to their customers and do the right thing.”

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Greenpeace trawled through financial records and company statements to uncover what it says is HSBC’s financing of six palm oil producers involved in deforestation.

In one case, HSBC reportedly helped arrange two loans to Bumitama Agri Ltd., which the organisation alleges is responsible for clearing and planting 160,000 hectares of palm oil plantations in Indonesia – much of it land that was previously natural peatland and rainforest home to endangered orangutan species.

Campaigners have claimed much of the clearing and planting was done illegally, without proper permits or compensation paid to local communities. Bumitama has denied any wrongdoing. 

HSBC was also closely involved in helping to launch Bumitama on the Singaporean stock exchange in 2012. At the time, Bumitama said this move would allow it to “increase the size of our land bank and planted area through selective external acquisitions and additional concessions from the Indonesian government”. 

It promised to turn an additional 13,000 hectares per year into palm oil plantations and “clear existing vegetation in such uncultivated land…for planting”.

In its prospectus, Bumitama boasted of its “aggressive planting programme” and said it had turned 120,000 hectares of land into palm oil plantations since 2004. Greenpeace claims well over half of this land was planted without full ownership rights or permits being secured.

A spokesperson for Bumitama told The Independent the company is "operating legally, in accordance to the various laws and regulations of Indonesia". They said the Singaporean stock exchange "has high level[s] of governance and would not have allowed us to be listed in Singapore if the legality of our plantations are in doubt".

Bumitama was trialling a new approach to "ensuring there is no deforestation" and had launched a new sustainability policy in 2015.

HSBC also reportedly helped arrange $360 million of financing for companies in the Salim Group. Greenpeace alleges “extensive forest destruction” has taken place on the group’s plantations in Kalimantan, Indonesia. 

In 2013 the Centre for Orangutan Protection released images it said showed orangutan nests in a forest that was being bulldozed to make way for a Salim Group palm oil plantation. Campaigners said they rescued several of the orangutans, including two babies.

One of the group’s companies, Indofood, has also been accused of using child labour and abusing workers. A joint report published last year by the Rainforest Action Network, Indonesian labour rights group OPPUK and Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum claimed children as young as 13 were working on Indofood plantations, employees were being paid less than the minimum wage and female workers were made to handle highly toxic pesticides without adequate protection.

An assessment by Accreditation Services International, which carries out assessments of members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil industry group, last September claimed the company was paying some workers less than the minimum wage.

The Salim Group did not respond to The Independent's request for comment. 

Last year, Franciscus Welirang, a director of Indofood, told the Jakarta Post his company operated within the law but admitted children sometimes helped on plantations.

“Plantations in Indonesia are usually close to villages and thus there’s a plantation culture based on targets. It’s standard for families to ask for help [from their children],” he said.

“There’s a law in Indonesia and we are in compliance but there’s also a culture that cannot be perceived as the same as Western culture.”

HSBC publicly says it will not be involved in financing deforestation.

The bank’s own sustainability criteria state: “HSBC will not knowingly finance operations that are illegal, fail to protect high conservation value forests/land or violate the rights of workers and local people.”

The company’s October 2016 statement on climate change claims its criteria “prohibit the finance of deforestation” and admits the destruction of forests is a ‘particularly important’ factor behind global warming.  

Analysis suggests 31 million hectares of rainforest in Indonesia have been destroyed since 1990 – an area almost the same size as Germany. Indonesia has now surpassed Brazil as the country with the  highest rate of deforestation. 

Across the world, up to 15 million hectares of forest are lost every year – equivalent to 48 football pitches every minute.

The destruction of natural forests has been shown to be a leading factor behind global warming, as forests play a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide in the environment. 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be a result of deforestation.

Destruction of natural habitats has also placed a number of species at risk of extinction, including orangutans, which are now classed as “critically endangered”.  Deforestation and illegal hunting mean the number of orangutans in the world is forecast to drop by 86 per cent between 1973 and 2025. 

Deforestation for palm oil plantations has also been blamed for a series of forest fires and resulting air pollution, including a spate of fires in Indonesia in 2015.

A study by scientists at Harvard and Columbia universities estimated almost 100,000 people had died prematurely in Indonesia as a result of smog caused by the 2015 fires. The World Bank estimated the cost of the disaster to Indonesia’s economy was as much as $16 billion (£13.2 billion).