Buffett, Darfur, Mutual Funds and Myanmar

By now, you've probably read that Berkshire Hathaway, the investment firm led by Warren Buffett, has sold most if not all of its holdings in PetroChina. PetroChina is the publicly listed unit of the China National Petroleum Co., which has come under harsh criticism for doing business with the repressive government of Sudan.

Heartened by Buffett's action, Darfur activists are now shifting their focus to other investment funds, including Fidelity, that continue to hold PetroChina stock.

Meanwhile, oil companies are facing pressure from human rights activists to pull out of Myanmar, where the regime has cracked down on Buddhist monks and other dissidents.

All this is a reminder to western multinationals with operations in the developing world that they face risks to their brands if they end up on the wrong side of human rights abuses.

There's no way to know what led Buffett to sell PetroChina. Berkshire bought the stock in 2003, investing about $488 million; at the end of last year, the stock was worth $3.3 billion. So he may simply have decided to take profits.

But because Berkshire Hathaway was at one time PetroChina's largest shareholder (other than the government of China), the company came under sustained pressure to sell by activists who said the Chinese oil company's payments to Sudan helped finance the genocide in Darfur.

The divestment campaign is now turning its attention to other firms that, according to their public reports, hold stock in PetroChina. Investors Against Genocide has a website listing the firms, which including Franklin Templeton, JPMorgan Chase, Credit Suisse, Capital Research and Fidelity.

Today, activists in more than a dozen cities will hold protests at the offices of mutual fund firms that are linked to the Darfur genocide. They are targeting the officies of Fidelity in Washington, Franklin Templeton in San Francisco, JPMorgan Chase in New York and Capital Group in Los Angeles, among others. You can learn more about the campaign at Divest for Darfur as well as at the website of the Sudan Divestment Task Force, which has done a superb job of organizing around the issue.

Finally, according to Business for Social Responsibility, oil companies face pressure from human rights activists to pull out of Burma, where at least 10 people were killed during a military crackdown in recent weeks. Many more may have died; the western media have been barred from the nation.

"There's no question that the money from the pipeline project helps prop up the military government," said Marco Simons, U.S. legal director for EarthRights International, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which has an excellent report on the topic.

Chevron Corporation, which owns a 28 percent minority stake in the Yadana natural gas field and pipeline, told the Chronicle that it intends to stay. Its executives noted that Chevron pays for social programs in communities along the Yadana pipeline's route, funding teachers, libraries and doctors.

Total S.A., which operates the Yadana field and has a 31 percent stake in the project, also insists that it is doing more harm than good. "We are convinced that through our presence we are helping to improve the daily lives of tens of thousands of people who benefit from our social and economic initiatives," said Jean-François Lassalle, a vice president for public affairs at Total.

Nine offshore companies, including Total, Petroliam Nasional Berhad, PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited, South Korea's Daewoo International Corporation, Chinese state-run companies CNOOC Limited, and China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, or Sinopec Corp., are exploring or developing oil and gas in Myanmar.

As a U.S. company, Chevron is probably the most vulnerable. It bought its stake from Unocal, which was sued in a landmark case human rights groups over its handling of a big oil pipeline project in Myanmar. Unocal settled out of court. Look for Chevron to take some hits in the court of public opinion.