Home Banking The Role of Banks in Protecting World Heritage Sites

The Role of Banks in Protecting World Heritage Sites

by internationalbanker

By Ray Dhirani, Head of Sustainable Finance and Extractives, WWF




From the Galápagos Islands to the Great Barrier Reef, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are some of the planet’s most precious places. Many of us have been lucky enough to visit these unique spots and experience their stunning scenery and majestic, but endangered, wildlife. Bankers may seem far removed from these sites, but the lending decisions that they make can either help safeguard this critical natural capital—or their actions can put these sites at risk.

The power of the industry first struck me in 2002 when I walked onto the trading floor of Merrill Lynch in New York City for my first job out of university. I was immediately struck by the football field of screens and traders around me. This was, of course, one floor of one global bank. The power of capital was staring me in the face. Little did I realise at the time, though, how important the finance sector was in terms of playing its role to secure our global natural capital. Banks can help finance companies that act responsibly; but unfortunately, they can also finance companies willing to put our environment and even their own long-term business models at risk.

At WWF (World Wildlife Fund), we believe the finance sector has a critical role to play in helping to safeguard our natural world. We engage in the United Kingdom and across the world with banks, insurers, investors and policymakers on a range of environmental topics, including biodiversity, climate change, forests and water. A key focus of our current global campaign—Together, Saving Our Shared Heritage—is achieving better levels of protection for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are a cornerstone example of critical biodiversity.

A view across some deforested grasslands towards the forests of Virunga National Park, near the Provincial capital of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Virunga © Kate Holt WWF-UK

When the actions of a British oil company posed a threat to Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and home to the endangered mountain gorilla, WWF did more than campaign at the oil company. We engaged shareholders of the oil company as well as their main bank. We were heartened when people working in those institutions got in touch to see what they could do to help. As a result of our engagement, the company pulled out and committed not to go into any other World Heritage Site globally. Because of this experience, many working in finance wanted to better understand their exposure to these risks.   

Working with Aviva Investors and Investec Asset Management, our research revealed that, despite being awarded the highest levels of protection by the United Nations, almost a third of sites listed for their natural value were under threat of oil, gas and mining exploration. Further investigation found this figure rose to almost 50 percent when including other industrial-scale threats.

These harmful industrial activities are of significant concern. There is a risk of destroying the attributes that led UNESCO to award the sites with World Heritage status. Natural, economic and cultural values may be damaged, with the effects often long-term or permanent. Local people’s livelihoods, health and safety may also be put at risk. That is one reason target 11.4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for strengthened protection for these sites.

Friends and former colleagues across banking have been asking me what they can do to avoid damage to World Heritage. Perhaps they are also thinking about the generations to follow us. Banks have a critical role to play, most notably through their lending to companies. Despite some good practices, we found that currently no major global bank that we examined has robust enough policies and implementation procedures in place—though some are certainly stronger than others.

Male African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. Selous has lost about 90 per cent of its elephants to poachers in recent years.
Selous © GaryRobertsphotography Alamy Stock Photo

It’s clear that environmental issues can expose both retail and investment banks to risks. Banks also have an inherent shared responsibility to help safeguard natural capital, including World Heritage Sites. Surely no banker or investor would want to support actions that threaten the future of some of the world’s most-endangered animals, such as rhinos and tigers, or puts the future of the 11 million people whose livelihoods are reliant on the sites at risk. World Heritage Sites make up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface; once they are compromised, their unique value could be lost forever.

At WWF, we’re committed to helping to secure a positive future for World Heritage; but to do this, we are dependent on banks also taking action. To this end, we have published a report—How Banks Can Safeguard Our World Heritage— to help guide financial institutions to make the necessary changes needed. It was clear from our ongoing engagement with various global banks that, though many had existing World Heritage policies in place, none were robust enough, and they can all be improved. The report—with research undertaken by the consultancy ECOFACT—illustrates how to develop, improve and put in place a clearly worded policy and implementation procedure that prevents banks from financing harmful industrial practices in or around World Heritage Sites.

So how can you help? First ask your risk department or sustainability team if your bank has well-defined environmental and social policies.  Is there a policy in place on World Heritage Sites specifically? How is it implemented? Ensure your colleagues read WWF’s report —How Banks Can Safeguard Our World Heritage— and encourage them to better manage business risk by lodging a strong policy with the UNESCO World Heritage centre. Extractive clients also need to be made aware of their responsibilities and your expectations that they will respect World Heritage Sites and commit to staying out of them.

There are promising signs that change is on the way, with some banks starting to more carefully assess and manage this risk. Not only will banks more effectively manage their business risks, but they will also play their parts in safeguarding our natural world. It is our planet and our shared home. We need to ask ourselves what kind of legacy we want to leave for future generations.

The time to act is now.


Featured Photo Attribution: Belize © Brandan Cole | The Blue Hole Natural Monument at Lighthouse Atoll is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site and a popular dive site. | All web usage, social media, press release and print. Worldwide 5 years. No 3rd party usage without explicitly mentioning WWF. No merchandising use.

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1 comment

Tan Ming Chau August 14, 2021 - 1:08 pm

Hi, there is information on ‘How banks can Safeguard Our World Heritage’, when I click on it.


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