Students stormed the street on campus last Thursday to “clean up the banks” in an effort to highlight the continued investment in the Canadian tar sands by major British banks including Barclays, HSBC and NatWest.

The action, by UEA People & Planet, was part of a campus-wide ethical investment campaign and was intended to raise awareness amongst students about how British banks, have been funding the development of what has been described as “the most destructive project on earth.”

Situated in Alberta, Canada, the tar sands are an unconventional oil source composed of bitumen deposits beneath Canada’s ancient boreal forest. Their exploitation has drawn criticism due to the highly energy intensive and inefficient extraction process and its devastating impacts for climate change – tar sands oil releases three to five times more carbon dioxide than conventional sources.

The industry has severely impacted the landscape, destroying 140,000 km of pristine forest and leaving behind toxic tailing ponds, both of which have harmed wildlife including caribou and migratory birds. The impacts have been felt most by indigenous first nations communities who have had their land and water sources polluted and seen cancer rates spike, but are now beginning to assert their voice – in 2009 the Beaver Lake Cree took the Canadian government to court over a violation of 19,000 treaty rights.

Student demonstrators dressed in boiler suits clutching cleaning gear mopped and dusted cash machines and bank windows in front of bemused onlookers, whilst a push was made to gain signatures supporting the goals of UEA’s ethical investment campaign.

On a personal level, students and staff are encouraged to switch their bank accounts to alternatives such as credit unions, building societies and “ethical banks” such as Triodos and the Co-operative, while on an institutional level the Union is lobbying the university to ensure that its finances are not implicated in the tar sands industry.

The campaign is also gathering petitions to lobby the government to support the Fuel Quality Directive, legislation going through the European Parliament that would effectively ban tar ands oil from Europe.

Ethical issues officer Rosie Rawle said: “British banks such as RBS, HSBC and Barclays pay lip-service to improving their standards – but we’ve seen no action at all.

“The Union has launched a bold campaign to be one of the first universities to switch their banks on ethical grounds. Hopefully we shall watch its success become a precedent for other institutions alike.”

If you would like to learn more, sign the petition or get involved in the campaign for ethical investment, email
union.environment@uea.ac.uk or search UEA People and Planet on Facebook.