Last November, I arrived in Amsterdam shortly after reporting from Standing Rock, where I had been covering the indigenous-led resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline. I checked on social media to learn the latest there and soon found myself watching on livestream as events at Highway 1806 near the Oceti Sakowin Camp deteriorated. People were being sprayed with water in subfreezing temperatures. Others were pepper-sprayed. There were makeshift ambulances. I looked on helplessly. What could I do from so far away?
I scanned a list of the banks that were financing the pipeline, and one name jumped out at me: ING Bank, headquartered right there in Amsterdam.
ING has cultivated a reputation for upholding human rights and sustainability principles, so I was surprised to find they were financing DAPL -- even more so when I read the "ING Environmental and Social Risk Framework," which says: "No financing will be allowed for activities that are known to have elements of human rights abuses."
The statement urges caution when projects have "impacts on critical natural habitats, critical cultural heritage sites and/or indigenous peoples" or generate "international (negative) media coverage, NGOs scrutiny and/or general public concern."
Wait -- did they say international media coverage?
I sent an email in my capacity as editor-at-large of an international media organization. "How does this project jibe with your policies on human rights and environmental sustainability?" I asked. "Does the fact that the Norwegian DNB Bank recently divested from DAPL affect your view of the project? And does your funding of DAPL put at risk your future working relationships with indigenous peoples?"
The response from the bank press officer suggested that I read the statement on ING's website, which said that the bank was monitoring the situation, had commissioned further human rights reviews, and was urging an outcome acceptable to all.
As my visit to Amsterdam was wrapping up, I sent an email with more questions and said I would come by in the morning for an interview.
Doing my best to channel my inner Michael Moore, I showed up at ING world headquarters early the next day. The building on the outskirts of Amsterdam looked familiar. Then I remembered: Years ago, I had commissioned an article about its sustainability features. Clearly, the bank had invested heavily in its environmental bona fides. Would it squander that reputation by continuing to finance DAPL?
There were no metal detectors or guards at the entrance. I walked right in and stepped up to the reception desk where I told a flustered receptionist that no, I didn't have an appointment but would be happy to wait. After some time, Diederik Heinink, a member of the bank's public relations staff, met me in the lobby and said he knew nothing of this DAPL-financing controversy -- his colleague was handling the issue, and she was out that day, and really, everything they wanted to say was on the website.
Still, I tried, asking about ING's analysis of the project's impact on indigenous rights.
Heinink kindly referred me back to the website, apologized, and answered none of my questions. It was time to catch my flight back to Seattle. I left realizing that I had accomplished exactly nothing.
Despite the frustration of that day, signs of change soon appeared. ING updated its website with information about its attempts to influence the DAPL developers for the better. Then ING sold its shares, worth about $220 million, in the parent companies behind DAPL and announced it would not engage in any future business with them.
But ING remained insistent that it had a contractual obligation to make good on its $120 million share of a $2.5 billion credit package financing DAPL.
Then, last month, ING officials met face to face with leaders of the Standing Rock tribe, and last week announced that the bank had sold the loan at the request of tribal leaders.
"We are heartened that ING has made the conscious decision to remove itself from a project that tramples on the rights of sovereign nations," Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.
What made the difference? Maybe it was the international media attention -- other reporters picked up on this story -- or the ING customers who wrote to their bank and complained, or the Greenpeace activists who showed up at the ING headquarters and dug up the brick patio to install a big, black, ugly snake of a pipeline.
But all of this happened only because of the water protectors who held their ground at Standing Rock. Their actions made it impossible for ING and others to ignore the moral challenge of participating in the Dakota Access pipeline.