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Australian banks challenged over 'land grabs'

SYDNEY--Oxfam on Monday accused Australia's big four banks of financing companies the charity said were linked to illegal logging, forced evictions and child labor.

A report by the aid group highlighted cases from Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Indonesia and Brazil in which Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, National Australia Bank or ANZ directly or indirectly funded illegal “land grabs.”

“From PNG and Cambodia to Indonesia and Brazil, our banks have backed companies accused of forcing people from their land,” Oxfam Australia chief executive Helen Szoke said in launching “Banking on Shaky Ground - Australia's big banks and land grabs.”

The banks declined to comment on their links to specific companies highlighted by Oxfam Australia, but emphasized their commitment to ethical lending practices.

Oxfam said Australian banks were investing in Asia and the Pacific and trumpeting the regions as growth opportunities, but were unaware of, or failing to respond, to the risks of doing business there, particularly in the agricultural and timber industries.

It said that in PNG, Westpac was supporting a timber company logging pristine rain forest in defiance of a finding by PNG's Commission of Inquiry into Special Agricultural Business Leases that its lease was invalid and should be revoked.

In Cambodia, ANZ Bank was accused of financing a sugar plantation that used child labor, military-backed land grabs and forced evictions.

The Commonwealth Bank has invested in an agribusiness giant in Brazil that sourced sugar from people occupying land in defiance of Brazilian laws that determined the indigenous people evicted for the plantation were the true landowners, Oxfam said.

Across Asia, NAB has been funding palm oil giant Wilmar, which has been linked to land grab allegations in Indonesia and Malaysia, the report said.

“The banks need to say which companies they're investing in, and where those companies have pushed people off the land, to work with those companies to change their practices and provide compensation to communities,” said Szoke.

“Where there is a risk of customers operating outside the law or the customer does not meet our requirements, Westpac will undertake a review, and if appropriate, exit the banking relationship,” Wespac said in response to the claims.

ANZ said it took its environmental and social responsibilities seriously, and had ended relationships in the past where customers were unwilling to adhere to its standards.

“ANZ will always look to work with our customers to meet internationally accepted standards of good practice and support and encourage them to engage with local communities, governments or other interest groups such as NGOs,” it said in a statement.

National Australia Bank voiced similar sentiments although Commonwealth Bank was not immediately available for comment.

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