Category Archives: corruption/Illegal markets

How to Manage Water Like Money and Fail: Australia

Australia’s Darling River…provided fresh water to farmers seeking to tame Australia’s rugged interior.  No longer. The Darling River hasn’t flowed for eight months, with long stretches completely dried up. A million fish died there in January 2019.  Kangaroos, lizards and birds became sick or died after drinking from toxic pools of stagnant water.  Australia’s water-trading market is drawing blame. The problems with the system, created more than a decade ago, have arisen as similar programs are being considered in the U.S.

Water crises are unfolding across the world as surging populations, industrial-scale farming and hotter temperatures deplete supplies.  Australia thought it had the answer: a cap-and-trade system that would create incentives to use water efficiently and effectively in the world’s driest inhabited continent. But the architects of water trading didn’t anticipate that treating water as a commodity would encourage theft and hoarding.   A report produced for a state resources regulator found the current situation on the Darling was caused by too much water being extracted from the river by a handful of big farmers. Just four license holders control 75% of the water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system.

The national government, concerned that its water-trading experiment hasn’t turned out as intended, in August 2019 requested an inquiry by the country’s antitrust regulator into water trading.  Anticorruption authorities are investigating instances of possible fraud, water theft and deal making for water licenses. In one case, known as Watergate, a former agriculture minister allegedly oversaw the purchase of a water license at a record price from a Cayman Islands company co-founded by the current energy minister. The former agriculture minister said he was following departmental advice and had no role in determining the price or the vendor. The energy minister said he is no longer involved with the company and received no financial benefit from the deal.

Since 2007, Australia has allowed not only farmers but also investors who want to profit from trading to buy and sell water shares. The water market is now valued at some $20 billion.    But making water valuable had unintended consequences in some places. “Once you create something of real value, you should expect people to attempt to steal it and search for ways to cheat,” says Mike Young, a University of Adelaide professor. “It’s not rocket science. Manage water like money, and you are there.”  Big water users have stolen billions of liters of water from rivers and lakes, according to local media investigations and Australian officials, often by pumping it secretly and at night from remote locations that aren’t metered. A new water regulator set up in New South Wales investigated more than 300 tips of alleged water thefts in its first six months of operation.  In 2018, authorities charged a group of cotton farmers with stealing water, including one that pleaded guilty to pumping enough illegally to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools.  Another problem is that water trading gives farmers an incentive to capture more rain and floodwater, and then hoard it, typically by building storage tanks or lining dirt ditches with concrete. That enables them to collect rain before it seeps into the earth or rivers.

The subsequent water shortages, combined with trading by dedicated water funds and corporate farmers, have driven up prices. Water in Australia’s main agricultural region, the Murray-Darling river basin, now trades at about $420 per megaliter, or one million liters, compared with as low as $7 in previous years.  David Littleproud, Australia’s water-resources minister, says 14% of water licenses are now owned by investors. “Is that really the intent of what we want this market to be?” he asks. “Water is a precious commodity.”

Excerpts from Rachel Pannett , The U.S. Wants to Adopt a Cap-and-Trade Plan for Water That Isn’t Working, WSJ, Sept. 4, 2019

First Armed Attack on Amazon Rainforest in 30 Years

On Ju;ly 28, 2019, heavily armed gold miners invaded a remote indigenous reserve in northern Brazil and stabbed to death one of its leaders, officials say.  Residents of the village in Amapá state fled in fear and there were concerns violent clashes could erupt if they tried to reclaim the gold-rich land.  

Tensions in the Amazon region are on the rise as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who is against the reserves, vows to open some of them to mining.  Mr Bolsonaro says the indigenous territories are too big given the number of people living there, and critics accuse him of encouraging illegal mining and invasions of reserves.  The group of 10 to 15 heavily armed miners overran the village Yvytotõ of the Wajãpi community and “tensions were high”, according to Brazil’s indigenous rights agency, Funai. The residents fled to the Mariry village, some 40 minutes away by foot, and have been warned not to try to come into any contact with the invaders.

Based on accounts from the Wajãpi, Funai said the miners had killed 68-year-old Emyra Wajãpi, whose body was found with stab marks in a river near Mariry…”This is the first violent invasion in 30 years since the demarcation of the indigenous reserves in Amapá,” Senator Rodolfe Rodrigues told local newspaper Diário do Amapá (in Portuguese), warning of a “blood bath”…. Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, has promised to integrate indigenous people into the rest of the population and questioned the existence of their protected territories, which are rights guaranteed in the country’s Constitution.The president has also criticised the environmental protection agency, Ibama, and accused the national space institute, Inpe, of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon.

Excerpts from Brazil’s indigenous people: Miners kill one in invasion of protected reserve, BBC,  July 28,  2019

Free-For-All: Gold Mining and the Polluted Rivers of Central African Republic

Four Chinese-run gold mines should be closed in the Central African Republic because of pollution threatening public health, a parliamentary panel said in a report published on July 14, 2019.  “Ecological disaster,” “polluted river,” “public health threatened,” were some of the phrases used in the report.  “Gold mining by the Chinese firms at Bozoum is not profitable for the state and harmful to the population and the environment,” the commission found after its investigation into mining in the northern town.  “The nature of the ecological disaster discovered onsite justifies the immediate, unconditional halt to these activities,” the report found.

Members of the commission spent four days in Bozoum a month ago in response to “multiple complaints from the population.”  There, they found a badly polluted River Ouham, shorn of several aquatic species following the excavation of its riverbed.  They discovered that a rising death rate in fishing villages as well as shrinking access to clean drinking water.

The investigators also voiced fears that the country’s “resources are being squandered with the complicity of certain ministry of mines officials.”  The CAR is rich in natural resources but riven by conflict which has forced around one in four of its 4.5 million population to flee their homes. Under those circumstances, exploitation of the country’s natural resources is difficult to monitor effectively given that the state only has partial control of its own territory.

Central African Republic Report Cites Ecological Disaster in Calling for Closing of 4 Chinese Gold MInes, Agence France Presse,  July 14, 2019

Another Resource Curse: Amber Fossils

In a bustling market in Tengchong, China, vendors hawk globs of amber, some the size of cantaloupes, with astonishingly pristine fossils inside. Mined across the border in Myanmar, the amber has yielded extraordinary finds—the hatchlings of primitive birds, the feathered tail of a dinosaur, frogs, snakes, a host of insects, and more—allowing scientists to build a detailed chronicle of life in a tropical forest 100 million years ago. 

In 2018, scientists reported 321 new species immaculately preserved in Burmese amber, bringing the cumulative total to 1195. One team recently argued that Burmese amber may boast more biodiversity than any other fossil deposit from the entire reign of the dinosaurs. “You think this can’t even be possible,” says Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, “but it’s happening.”

But as much as Burmese amber is a scientist’s dream, it’s also an ethical minefield. The fossils come from conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar… In Kachin, rival political factions compete for the profit yielded by amber and other natural resources. The amber comes from mines near Tanai township in Kachin, where for decades Myanmar’s army and the local Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic insurgency, have battled over control of lucrative resources such as jade, timber, and, most recently, amber. “These commodities are fueling the conflict,” says Paul Donowitz, the Washington, D.C.–based campaign leader for Myanmar at Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization. “They are providing revenue for arms and conflict actors, and the government is launching attacks and killing people and committing human rights abuses to cut off those resources.”

 Visitors to the mines describe a lush terrain transformed into barren hillsides. Tents cover claustrophobic holes up to 100 meters deep but only wide enough for skinny workers, who say they are responsible for their own medical care after accidents. The miners dig down and, when they hit layers of amber, tunnel horizontally with hand tools to dig it out. They sort finds at night, to avoid publicizing valuable discoveries. Amber with fossil inclusions is the most precious, proof after weeks of uncertainty that a mine will be profitable. Reached by phone through an interpreter, miners say both warring sides demand bribes for the rights to an area and equipment—and then tax 10% of the profit.

The amber is then smuggled into China and sold to the highest bidder. Yet if scientists don’t engage in the amber trade, specimens are lost to science.

Exerpts from Joshua Sokol, Troubled Treasure, Science, May 24, 2019

Who is Afraid of the United States?

In 2018 America imposed sanctions on about 1,500 people, firms, vessels and other entities, nearly triple the number in 2016. The past six months of 2019 have been particularly eventful. America began imposing sanctions on Iran in November, and in January on Venezuela, another big oil exporter. On May 9th 2019, for the first time, it seized a ship accused of transporting banned North Korean coal.

Second, blackballed countries and unscrupulous middlemen are getting better at evasion. In March 2019advisers to the un, relying in part on Windward data, and American Treasury officials published separate reports that described common ways of doing it. Boats turn off their transmissions systems to avoid detection. Oil is transferred from one ship to another in the middle of the ocean—ships trading on behalf of North Korea find each other in the East China Sea using WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging service. Captains disguise a ship’s identity by manipulating transponder data to transmit false locations and identity numbers of different vessels.

Such methods have helped Iran and Russia transport oil to Syria, American officials say. In 2018 North Korea managed to import refined petroleum far in excess of the level allowed by multilateral sanctions. The situation in Venezuela is different—technically, America’s sanctions still allow foreigners to do business with the country. But fear that sanctions will expand mean that traditional trading partners are scarce. Nicolás Maduro’s regime this month found a shipowner to transport crude to India, according to a shipbroker familiar with the deal, but Venezuela had to pay twice the going rate.

Businesses keen to understand such shenanigans can be roughly divided into two categories. The first includes those who can profit from grasping sanctions’ impact on energy markets, such as hedge funds, analysts and traders. A squadron of firms is ready to assist them, combing through ship transmission data, commercial satellite imagery and other public and semi-public information. They do not specialise in sanctions, but sanctions are boosting demand for their tracking and data-crunching expertise.

A main determinant of Venezuela’s output, for instance, is access to the diluent it needs to blend with its heavy crude. A firm called Clipper Data has noted Russian ships delivering diluent to vessels near Malta, which then transport it to Venezuela. Kpler, a French rival, uses satellite images of shadows on lids of storage tanks to help estimate the volume of oil inside. Using transmissions data, images, port records and more, Kpler produces estimates of Iran’s exports for customers such as the International Energy Agency and Bernstein, a research firm—including a recent uptick in Iranian exports without a specific destination (see chart).

The second category of companies are wary of violating sanctions themselves. They need assistance of a different sort. Latham & Watkins, a firm that advised the chairman of EN+, which controls a Russian aluminium giant, as he successfully removed the company from America’s sanctions list this year, has seen a surge in sanctions-related business. Refinitiv, a data company, offers software which permits clients to screen partners and customers against lists of embargoed entities. Windward uses machine learning to pore over data such as ships’ travel patterns, transmissions gaps (some of which may be legitimate) and name changes to help firms identify suspicious activity. Kharon, founded last year by former United States Treasury officials, offers detailed analysis of anyone or anything on sanctions lists.

HIde and Seek: Sanctions Inc, Economist, May 18, 2019

Killing Popcupines for their Bellies: endangered species

Porcupines  are been hunted for undigested plant material in their gut known as bezoars.


Varieties of porcupine bezoar

According to leading wildlife trafficking experts, the small, spiny rodents are at risk of becoming endangered across Southeast Asia.  Demand is predominantly driven by China, where some believe that bezoars, which accumulate in the digestive tract, have potent medicinal properties, including the ability to cure diabetes, dengue fever, and cancer. Bezoars are sold either raw or in powdered form and may be processed into capsules. A few ounces of the substance can command hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Most sought after is the dark red “blood” bezoar, believed to be the most potent of the several varieties. Prices for bezoars have “increased exponentially during the past few years, following recent claims of their cancer-curing properties,” according to a 2015 report by the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic.

The Philippine porcupine, the Asiatic brush-tailed porcupine, and the Malayan porcupine, which live throughout Southeast Asia, are all flagged as threatened and declining in number by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the body that sets the conservation status of wildlife species. None has yet been listed as endangered, which would bolster legal protection and international awareness.

Excerpts from Porcupines are being poached for their stomach content, National Geographic, Mar. 22, 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019