Columbans show divestment is possible in the Philippines

April 3, 2024

“Care for the Earth” – these are the words that the Missionary Society of St. Columban has been living by for decades, in both words and actions.

This mission is exemplified in the Columbans’ ongoing divestment from ecologically destructive activities such as fossil fuels, which was announced in October 2016. It is a reflection of not only their dedication to embodying the Catholic life but to also adapt to the changing world. 

When established more than a century ago in Ireland, the society’s primary goal was to help the poor. The publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ in 2015 not only enriched this vision but also added a new dimension to its mission and work.

“It reinforced the process. There was a commitment before, but it was really the Laudato Si’ that provided the big push for the whole society to divest. It gives you a sense that we are doing the right thing,” said Brother John Din, Regional Coordinator on Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation for the Columbans.

That prior commitment refers to how it has implemented socially responsible investing worldwide since the 1990s. They start avoiding investments in anything related to human trafficking, nuclear weapons, armaments, and human rights violations.

Yet the Laudato Si’ has empowered them to change their approach to include environmentally responsible investing. Currently, only five percent of corporations in which they have invested are exposed to fossil fuels globally.

Referring to divestment, Din added that “it was really a turning point because it never occurred to us that investing in dirty fuels would be harmful to the environment.”

In the Philippines, the Columbans have also been at the forefront of caring for creation. For example, Irish ecologist and priest Sean McDonagh was instrumental in the development of the 1988 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Pastoral Letter on Ecology, “What is Happening to our Beautiful Land?”, one of the earliest statements from the Catholic Church that directly addressed ecological issues.

More than three decades later, the society is one of the few Catholic groups in the Philippines that have made significant strides in divestment, aligned with the CBCP’s commitment by 2025 to withdraw all its finances from banks still enabling fossil fuel operations.

Faith-consistent practices

Divestment is intended as a long-term process to uphold the advocacy for genuine sustainability without compromising financial security. For the Columbans in the Philippines, the process has not come without challenges.

From their experience, the regional finance officer in the country, Arlenne Villahermosa, said that one such issue is the lack of opportunities for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing in the past 10 years. Only recently did they start seeing more viable opportunities emerge, coupled with promising results in financial returns.

“Several recent empirical studies we have been shown also indicate that investing in ESG manner does not hurt financial returns and in fact, at times may even outperform from business-as-usual investments,” she quoted what their General Bursar shared with them.

The Columbans’ divestment from fossil fuels was originally intended to last for six years. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced a delay in their plans, presenting another notable challenge.

To overcome these concerns, Villahermosa emphasized that a Catholic institution’s aspiration should not be profit-oriented and should have a clear approach to the divest-invest process. This starts with remaining firm with the list of industries in which to avoid investing.

“In the Philippines, the investment managers gave us options. They started telling us that this company is into this, but they have other businesses that fit your criteria. But we said no,” she added. “If this is a tiny percentage of their operations, we still don’t want to invest in that company.”

Some of the Philippine branch’s investments are currently in government bonds that finance projects promoting sustainability, such as renewable energy. While some financial returns are not as high as from investments in past decades, the returns are still positive and likely to increase in the next few years, as the global and national markets would inevitably favor more ecologically sound industries.

Another key aspect of the divest-invest approach is to have a roster of financial experts and investment managers that would enable any Catholic institution to attain ecologically sound financial security. The necessary steps include a regular portfolio review, consistent communications from advisers and managers, and trust in their financial personnel, especially laypeople.

Din recognized that most Catholic leaders lack sufficient knowledge of recent sustainable finance policies, which necessitates working together with experts in the field. He remarked, “If a diocese doesn’t have that, it is missing an essential dimension in the process and it is likely to fail.”

He also acknowledged that “there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before 2025” if the Philippine Catholic community is to achieve its divestment target. But the ongoing divest-invest of his society at both the global and national scale is proof that this target is not unattainable.

“For us, we have to be ethical in our usage of funds and investments. We take responsibility for the finance we receive”, Din said.

The Columban example is reflective of how the returns of divestment and subsequent reinvestment cannot be measured solely in monetary value.

“That’s being in line with our commitment to care for the Earth. In a way, it may not be directly tangible, but it is in line with what we believe in. It is making us continue our mission,” Villahermosa remarked.

This is the first part of a four-part series featuring the best practices on Catholic-led fossil fuel divestment in the Philippines. John Leo is the National Coordinator of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines. He has been a climate and environmental journalist since 2016. 

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