Category Archives: corruption/Illegal markets

Free-All-Countries: 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

A Swamp of Oil Pollution: Ogoniland

Status of Cleaning up Oil Pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria:

According to the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), the clean-up of Ogoniland is bugged with identity crisis, procedures, processes and overheads. Perception of corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, complex decision making, internal crisis of choice between Ogoni and the Niger Delta….The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011 after series of protests of oil spillage in the community that culminated to the death of Ken Sarowiwa and eight others.  The report  made recommendations to the government, the oil and gas industry and communities to begin a comprehensive cleanup of Ogoniland, restore polluted environments and put an end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination in the region…

Pollution of soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in Ogoniland is extensive in land areas, sediments and swampland.  In 49 cases, UNEP observed hydrocarbons in soil at depths of at least 5 metres. At 41 sites, the hydrocarbon pollution has reached the groundwater at levels in excess of the Nigerian standards permitted by National Laws..

Excerpts from Ogoni: Cleanup Exercise by Authorities Questioned by Civil Society Groups, UNPO, Mar. 12, 2019

100 Ways to Finance Criminal Cartels Logging Forests

The report – Green Carbon, Black Trade (2012) – by UNEP and INTERPOL focuses on illegal logging and its impacts on the lives and livelihoods of often some of the poorest people in the world set aside the environmental damage. It underlines how criminals are combining old fashioned methods such as bribes with high tech methods such as computer hacking of government web sites to obtain transportation and other permits. The report spotlights the increasingly sophisticated tactics being deployed to launder illegal logs through a web of palm oil plantations, road networks and saw mills. Indeed it clearly spells out that illegal logging is not on the decline, rather it is becoming more advanced as cartels become better organized including shifting their illegal activities in order to avoid national or local police efforts. By some estimates, 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the volume of wood traded globally has been obtained illegally…

The much heralded decline of illegal logging in the mid- 2000s in some tropical regions was widely attributed to a short-term law enforcement effort. However, long-term trends in illegal logging and trade have shown that this was temporary, and illegal logging continues. More importantly, an apparent decline in illegal logging is due to more advanced laundering operations masking criminal activities, and notnecessarily due to an overall decline in illegal logging. In many cases a tripling in the volumes of timber “originating” from plantations in the five years following the law enforcement crack-down on illegal logging has come partly from cover operations by criminals to legalize and launder illegal logging operations….

Much of the laundering of illegal timber is only possible due to large flows of funding from investors based in Asia, the EU and the US, including investments through pension funds. As funds are made available to establish plantations operations to launder illegal timber and obtain permits illegally or pass bribes, investments, collusive corruption and tax fraud combined with low risk and high demand, make it a highly profitable illegal business, with revenues up to 5–10 fold higher than legal practices for all parties involved. This also undermines subsidized alternative livelihood incentives available in several countries.

[It is important to discourage] the use of timber from these regions and introducing a rating og companies based on the likelihood of their involvement in illegal practices to discourage investors and stock markets from funding them.

Excerpts from Nellemann, C., INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme (eds). 2012.Green Carbon, Black Trade Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the Worlds Tropical Forests. A Rapid Response Assessment United Nations Environment Programme