New Internationalist

Doesn’t David Hockney see the irony?

The Spring 2012 edition of the National Trust’s magazine features an interview with artist David Hockney titled, ‘When it comes to things like the threat of development to our landscapes, we should speak out.’

The interview is mainly about Hockney’s avowed love of East Yorkshire, but it is also intended to draw attention to an exhibition of his landscape work, ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’, which is on at the Royal Academy of Arts (RAA) in London until 9 April.

’When it comes to things like the threat of development to our landscapes, we should speak out a bit more, stand up more,’ Hockney is quoted as saying at the end of the interview. ‘We’re a bit too polite at times. We should shout: “Hold it!” It’s a lovely country, ours.’

I couldn’t agree more, but then who do you think is sponsoring Hockney’s exhibition at the Royal Academy? None other than BNP Paribas, a French bank and an investor in projects that are destroying landscapes, in the name of ‘development’, around the world.

’BNP Paribas is among the banks involved in the most dodgy deals,’ says Yann Louvel from BankTrack, a Netherlands-based NGO network monitoring financial sector investments. ‘Among those in which it is currently investing is the Canadian tar sands.’

According to BankTrack, these tar sands, recently the subject of a furious debate over European Commission legislation, contain a massive two trillion barrels of oil. Exploiting them, it says, will mean ‘destroying an area larger than the state of Florida.’

Indeed, one Greenpeace campaigner has called the exploitation of the Canadian tar sands ‘the biggest global warming crime ever’, while the UK Tar Sands Network describes it as ‘the world’s most destructive project.’

’The tar sands have obliterated vast swathes of the Boreal forest and contaminated the Athabasca water systems leaving behind a toxic moonscape,’ says Suzanne Dhaliwal, a UK Tar Sands Network spokesperson. ‘They are truly the filthiest form of fuel on the planet and need to be kept in the ground.’

Of course, the landscape isn’t just something to look at or paint, as Hockney likes to do, nor is the tar sands exploitation just an environmental problem. For the indigenous First Nations people who depend on it for their lives and livelihoods, it’s a matter of human rights and their future survival.

According to the Canada-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the tar sands have already made life hell for the First Nations. Their water has been poisoned, game and fish contaminated, and their landscape is now littered with huge ‘tailing ponds’ full of toxic waste from the exploitation process.

‘They should really be called “tailing lakes” or “tailing oceans”,’ says Clayton Thomas-Muller, the IEN’s tar sands campaign director, who says people have died from rare cancers as a result. ‘They’re a toxic soup at super-concentrated, extremely deadly levels.’

Sure, there are other banks investing in the Canadian tar sands, but BNP Paribas’ investment totals more than $6 billion. Doesn’t that make a mockery of its sponsorship of Hockney’s Royal Academy show? How can you promote the appreciation of landscape in one part of the world if you’re trashing it in another?

’An important link in fighting the tar sands and catastrophic climate change is to identify and shine a light on banks invested in this dirty energy project,’ says Thomas-Muller. ‘One such bank is BNP Paribas. It isn’t one of the biggest investors, but $6 billion is still a substantial amount.’

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