Eye on the Amazon

BlackRock's CEO Fiddles While the Amazon Burns

We can't allow asset managers to keep profiting from the Amazon crisis

Massive 'Amazon Is Life, BlackRock Kills'street mural in San Francisco. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

A line of dark red paint, symbolizing blood, led protesters from the Brazilian Consulate to BlackRock's San Francisco office on September 5th, the Global Day of Action for the Amazon. Activists painted a massive street mural with the words "Amazon Is Life, BlackRock Kills."

Then on September 20th, thousands of young people in San Francisco took to the streets in a monumental climate strike, stopping, among other places, at the headquarters of BlackRock. "Help us," they wrote in chalk on the company's steps, as BlackRock security looked on.

This morning, September 24th, Indigenous leaders from Brazil and environmental activists managed to deliver a letter from Brazil's National Indigenous Movement to BlackRock's headquarters in New York City, along with a global petition signed by over 260,000 people calling on the Wall Street firm to stop investing in the worst actors in the Amazon. Security personnel tried to block the delegation from delivering their message, but a company representative eventually received it after the group refused to leave.

But what does the world's largest asset manager have to do with the fires raging in Brazil and other parts of the Amazon? In short: a lot.

As the world's biggest money manager, BlackRock plays a key role in deciding where and how the $6.5 trillion in funds they manage are invested. As our friend Bill McKibben wrote last week in The New Yorker, "Money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns." The same can be said of the fires in Brazil's Amazon.

BlackRock is one of the top investors in the agribusiness companies driving deforestation there. And the investment giant has expanded its staff and operations in Brazil since the election of extreme-right president Jair Bolsonaro, whose rhetoric and policies have fanned the flames of profit-driven deforestation in the rainforest.

Forcing our way into BlackRock's headquarters in New York City to deliver a letter from APIB and a petition signed by 260,000 people. Photo credit: Ben Cushing

In May, I accompanied Eloy Terena, legal counsel to the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and a member of the Terena people, to BlackRock's shareholder meeting. There, Eloy warned CEO Larry Fink of the impending crisis in the Amazon, telling him, "You bear responsibility for our future." Although everyone in the room appeared to listen to Eloy with rapt attention, Fink and the rest of the BlackRock board members and executives clearly ignored his warning. And now we're seeing the consequences.

This is particularly egregious because Eloy was not asking BlackRock to divest from agribusiness companies – something BlackRock claims it is unable to do, which is highly debatable because other asset managers have begun to successfully exclude the most egregious climate profiteers from their portfolios. Eloy was simply asking the firm to hold time-bound, consequential engagement with companies in which it invests.

If only Larry Fink had heeded Eloy's warnings and effectively engaged with the companies it invests in that operate and source from the Brazilian Amazon, it may have made a real difference in the fires this year. If agribusiness companies clearly understood that one of their biggest investors would not tolerate new deforestation or Indigenous rights violations, they would act accordingly. And it would almost certainly make a difference for the prevention of medium- to long-term deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

BlackRock constantly says it is performing "engagement" and touts this in the press, although the firm almost always refuses to clarify the who, what, when, where, why, or how of that engagement.

Without being public about its engagement, BlackRock's promises ring hollow. And upon deeper investigation, it's clear just how profoundly hollow they are. A recent report from our allies at Majority Action revealed that BlackRock consistently blocks the passage of key climate proposals at shareholder meetings of the companies they invest in. And to date, there is little concrete progress to show from BlackRock's private engagement with companies, although it makes for good publicity for the company and its CEO.

The shortcomings of BlackRock's "engagement" strategy can be seen in the smoke rising from the Amazon. Left to their own devices, these asset managers and their beneficiary companies won't stop until they burn the planet – so we must keep up the pressure and demand they wield their enormous power to stop the destruction of the Amazon.

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