‘Existential threat’: Indigenous leaders urge Citigroup to stop backing Amazon oil

Indigenous leaders said the bank's role in enabling the expansion of the oil and gas industry was pushing the Amazon rainforest closer to the brink of collapse.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indigenous leaders have called on Citigroup to stop financing oil and gas projects in the Amazon, saying the bank’s activities contradict its climate pledges by putting the threatened ecosystem at greater risk. 

Citigroup, a leading financier of the fossil fuel industry, has sought to position itself as a climate leader in the past year, pledging to slash emissions from its portfolio to net zero by 2050, and announcing a coal phase-out.

But Indigenous leaders speaking ahead of the U.S. bank’s annual general (AGM) meeting on Tuesday said that its role in enabling the expansion of the oil and gas industry was pushing the Amazon rainforest closer to the brink of collapse.

The call aligns with a shareholder resolution submitted to the AGM urging the bank to end all financing for new fossil fuel projects—part of a series of similar, largely symbolic resolutions being filed at U.S. banks in the coming weeks.  

“Oil drilling in our Amazon has brought contamination, disease, deforestation, destruction of our cultures, and the colonization of our territories. It is an existential threat for us and violates our fundamental rights as Indigenous peoples,” said Nemo Andy Guiquita, a Waorani Indigenous leader and Women and Health Coordinator for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, or Confeniae.

“We are calling for an end to all new extraction on our lands, and as our ancestors and science now affirm, we must keep fossil fuels in the ground,” she said in a statement.

Indigenous groups including Confeniae took part in a protest against the world’s largest fossil fuel financier, JP Morgan, at the COP26 U.N. climate talks in Glasgow late last year. The bank—a U.S. rival to Citi—is helping fund the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which threatens First Nation lands in Canada.

Citigroup did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Jane Fraser, the bank’s chief executive, who announced the net zero target on her first day in the role in March, 2021, outlined the bank’s approach to climate change in a blog post this January. 

“We know it is not enough to say Citi is committed to tackling climate change. That’s the easy part,” Fraser wrote. “As the world’s most global bank, we can help drive the transition to a net zero economy and make good on the promise of the Paris Agreement.”

Second largest fossil fuel funder

Citigroup’s role in the Amazon partly reflects its legacy as the world’s second largest fossil-fuel funding bank overall, having channeled more than $250 billion into fossil fuel projects worldwide since the Paris Agreement on climate change was signed at the end of 2015, according to environmental non-profit Bank Track. 

But the bank also has a uniquely high exposure to the region, serving as the leading international lender to state-run oil companies in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, according to a new report by The Exit Amazon Oil and Gas campaign, led by advocacy groups Stand.earth and Amazon Watch in partnership with Amazonian Indigenous organizations. 

Between 2016 and 2020, Citigroup provided an estimated $43.8 billion worth of finance and investment to oil and gas companies operating in the Amazon basin, contributing to deforestation, pollution and infringement of Indigenous land rights, the report found.

Campaigners are demanding Citigroup follow the cue of European peers including ING, Credit-Suisse, Natixis, Societe Generale, BNP Paribas, and Intesa that introduced various Amazon-related restrictions after a 2020 report revealed their financial links to the region. 

“Activists are fed up with Citi’s greenwashing. It can’t call itself a climate leader while pouring billions into oil and gas exploitation anywhere, let alone on Indigenous territories in the Amazon,” said Pendle Marshall-Hallmark, climate and finance campaigner at Amazon Watch. “Citi’s fossil fuel financing is razing the rainforest, spewing oil into local water sources, and destroying our climate. It has to stop now.”

A DeSmog investigation published last year found that current board members of Citi—such as former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, had experience working for major polluting companies. Zedillo had previously worked as an adviser for global oil and gas giant BP and as a director for the Mexican state-run oil company Pemex.

California-based asset manager Harrington Investments has submitted a shareholder resolution to the AGM calling on Citigroup to end all financing for new fossil fuel projects. The resolution seeks to bring the bank in line with the Paris-based International Energy Agency’s (IEA) finding last year that there can be no investment in new coal, oil or natural gas projects if the world is to have a chance of limiting the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5C in line with the Paris climate accord. 

Although observers say the resolution has little chance of passing, campaigners are seeking to highlight the mismatch between the IEA’s warning and continued financing for fossil fuels with a series of parallel resolutions at Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley. 

Construction takes place in the Yasuní National Park, where the Ecuadorian state oil company, Petroecuador, is developing new oil wells. Credit: Amazon Watch

‘Amazon exclusion policy’

With heavily-indebted countries in the Amazon basin reeling from the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are hoping to boost export earnings by opening up new tracts of rainforest to oil exploration.

In Ecuador, where President Guillermo Lasso has pledged to double oil production, Citigroup is one of the only U.S. banks that has been providing funding to the state oil company Petroecuador, the Exit Amazon Oil and Gas report said. 

Drilling is expanding in the country’s Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in areas near Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, with concessions spanning approximately 30,000 square kilometres of rainforest due to be auctioned this year.

“Many of those expansion projects are slated for extraction in largely pristine and roadless Amazon rainforest,” the report said.

In Peru, Citigroup is one of a group of banks extending a 10-year, $1.3 billion loan to the state-owned oil company Petroperu, which is planning to expand into the ancestral territory of the Achuar and Wampis people, who have a long tradition of strongly opposing drilling.

“Our collective fight to defend our lands and prevent oil drilling is not just a fight to protect our own communities but to protect the entire planet from the climate crisis we all face,” said Nelton Yankur, president of the Federation of the Achuar Nationality of Peru. “The banks that finance the extraction and expansion of oil in the Amazon are complicit in genocide against Indigenous peoples and in the perpetuation of a climate crisis that is an existential threat to all of us.”

Scientists warn that deforestation is rapidly driving the Amazon towards a “tipping point” that would lead to the collapse of the rainforest ecosystem, robbing Indigenous people of their home, and the world of a critical carbon sink to buffer against catastrophic climate change. 

Against this backdrop, campaigners want Citigroup and other banks to adopt an “Amazon oil and gas exclusion policy” modeled on an Indigenous-led campaign that prompted Citigroup and other major lenders to rule out finance for Arctic oil drilling. 

‘Critical opportunity’

Citigroup points to its 2030 emissions targets as evidence it is taking climate change seriously. In January, it became the first big U.S. bank to set an absolute target to reduce so-called “financed” emissions from the energy sector—committing to a 29 percent reduction by the end of the decade. 

Campaigners say such targets mean little if the bank is continuing to support the oil industry’s expansion into some of the last intact bastions of the Amazon rainforest. 

“The Amazon is the last place on the planet where oil drilling should be expanding, so Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser has a critical opportunity before her,” said Tyson Miller, Amazon campaigns director at Stand.earth. “Will she show a new kind of leadership and commit to aligning bank policy with what the world needs and what generations of Indigenous peoples and concerned citizens are calling for, or will she allow for business as usual and continued degradation of the Amazon?” 


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