Category Archives: Human Rights

Exist, Evolve, Be Restored: the Rights of Nature

Only a few years ago, the clear, shallow waters of Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon off eastern Spain that is Europe’s largest, hosted a robust population of the highly endangered fan mussel, a meter-long bivalve. But in 2016, a massive algal bloom, fueled by fertilizer washing off farm fields, sucked up the lagoon’s oxygen and killed 98% of the bivalves, along with seahorses, crabs, and other marine life.

The suffocating blooms struck again and again, and millions of dead fish washed onto shore. In 2021 local residents—some of whom benefit from tourism to the lagoon—had had enough. Led by a philosophy professor, activists launched a petition to adopt a new and radical legal strategy: granting the 135-square-kilometer lagoon the rights of personhood. Nearly 640,000 Spanish citizens signed it, and on 21 September, Spain’s Senate approved a bill enshrining the lagoon’s new rights. The new law doesn’t regard the lagoon and its watershed as fully human. But the ecosystem now has a legal right to exist, evolve naturally, and be restored. And like a person, it has legal guardians, including a scientific committee, which will give its defenders a new voice.

The lagoon is the first ecosystem in Europe to get such rights, but this approach to conservation has been gaining popularity around the world over the past decade…The clearest success story, scholars say, is the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was given legal rights by an act of Parliament in 2017. Like a person, the river and its catchment can sue or be sued, enter contracts, and hold property. In that case, the aim was not to stop pollution but to incorporate the Māori connection between people and nature into Western law. “The river and the land and its people are inseparable,” Niko Tangaroa, a Māori elder of the Whanganui Iwi people and a prominent activist for the river, wrote in 1994.

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, This Lagoon is Effectively a Person, New Spanish Law Says, Science, Oct. 7, 2022

Rich Environmental Criminals

“The brutality and profit margins in the area of environmental crime are almost unimaginable. Cartels have taken over entire sectors of illegal mining, the timber trade and waste disposal,” according to Sasa Braun, intelligence officer with Interpol’s environmental security program  Braun listed examples. Villages in Peru that had resisted deforestation efforts had been razed to the ground by criminal gangs in retribution, he said, while illegal fishing fleets had thrown crew overboard to avoid having to pay them.

Environmental crime has many faces and includes the illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging, illegal waste disposal and the illegal discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere, water or soil. It is a lucrative business for transnational crime networks. Illegal waste trafficking, for example, accounts for $10 to 12 billion (€10.28 to 12.34 billion) annually, according to 2016 figures from the United Nations Environment Program. Criminal networks save on the costs of proper disposal and obtaining permits. For some crime networks, the profits from waste management are so huge that it has become more interesting than drug trafficking…The profits from illegal logging have also grown…

According to the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), environmental crime — the third most lucrative area of crime worldwide after drug trafficking and counterfeit goods — generates profits of between $110 billion and $280 billion each year.

Excerpts from Environmental crime: Profit can be higher than drug trade, DW, Oct. 16, 2022

Patriotic Traitors: Covering Up Oil Theft in Nigeria

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country desperately needs the money an oil boom could bring. Some 40% of its people live on less than the equivalent of $1.90 a day. The woeful economy has contributed to the violence that afflicts much of the country. In the first half of this year, nearly 6,000 people were killed by jihadists, kidnappers, bandits or the army.

One of the reasons Nigeria’s public finances benefit so little from high oil prices is that production itself has slumped to 1.1m barrels per day, the lowest in decades. Output has been dipping since 2005.  Output is falling partly because the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is so short of cash…And a lot of the oil it pumps never makes it into official exports because it is stolen. Watchdogs reckon that 5-20% of Nigeria’s oil is stolen…The spate of vandalism at one point prompted the NNPC to shut down its entire network of pipelines, he said.

One way to steal is to understate how much oil has been loaded in legitimate shipments. Another is to break into pipelines and siphon oil off, then cook it up in bush refineries before selling it. Five years ago the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a watchdog in the Niger Delta, carried out a survey that found more than a hundred such refineries in just two of Nigeria’s nine oil-producing states. Lacking other ways to make a good living, hundreds of thousands of young people are involved in illegal refining, says Ledum Mitee, a local leader from Ogoniland, a region in the Delta.
 
Plenty of stolen crude goes straight into the international market. Small boats glide along the Delta’s canals, filling up from illegally tapped pipelines. They deliver it to offshore tankers or floating oil platforms. Sometimes the stolen crude is mixed with the legal variety, then sold to unknowing buyers. Much of it, however, is bought by traders who pretend not to know it is stolen, or simply do not care if it is or not. “

Tapping into the pipes for large volumes, heated to keep the crude flowing, requires real expertise. It also requires complicity from some of the officials running the pipelines and from the security forces supposedly guarding them…The NNPC itself is “the north star in Nigeria’s kleptocratic constellation”, says Matthew Page of Chatham House, a think-tank in London.

Excepts from How oil-rich Nigeria failed to profit from an oil boom, Economist, Sept. 17, 2022

Employers Kill: Knowing Your Place in Global Economy

Most migrant workers in the Gulf are Asian, but a growing number of East Africans are joining them. Last year 87,000 Ugandans travelled to the Middle East under the government’s “labor externalization” program. About that many Kenyans made similar trips. Official routes to the Gulf are distinct from irregular migration… but they are not risk-free. Returning workers tell stories of racism, abuse and exploitation.

For African governments, exporting workers is easier than creating jobs for them at home. Remittances sent back to Uganda by workers from abroad generate more foreign exchange than coffee, the main export crop. Labor migration is good business for more than 200 recruitment firms, some of which are owned by army officers and close relatives of the president, Yoweri Museveni.

Employers in the Gulf want African labor because it is cheap. Under bilateral agreements a Ugandan maid in Saudi Arabia gets 900 riyals ($240) a month—much more than she could make at home, but less than the 1,500 riyals which most Filipinos earn…For most Africans, the Gulf means two years of drudgery, mixing long hours with grinding isolation. For some it is far worse. Jacky (not her real name) was raped by her boss in Saudi Arabia.

In a survey of Kenyan migrants to the Gulf by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, a campaign group, 99% said they had been abused. The most frequent complaints were the confiscation of passports or withholding of wages, but violence and rape were also depressingly common. Last year 28 Ugandans died while working in the Middle East. Activists suspect that some may have been killed by their bosses…The kafala system, prevalent in the Gulf,  ties migrant workers to the employers who sponsored their visas. “The minute you leave your workplace without the employer’s permission, you can be deported as a runaway,” says Vani Saraswathi of Migrant-Rights.org, an advocacy group based in the Gulf. 

Why then do Ugandans still migrate? Some may be naïve, but many are grimly realistic about their place in the world economy. This pragmatism is evident at a training session in Kampala, where a hundred recruits are learning how to make beds, wash a car and use a microwave. 

Excerpts from In the Gulf 99% of Kenyan migrant workers are abused, a poll finds, Economist, Sept. 17, 2022

The Power of Listening: when Indigenous People Win

 Indigenous traditional owners on Sept. 21, 2022 won a court challenge that prevents an energy company from drilling for gas off Australia’s north coast. The Federal Court decision against Australian oil and gas company Santos Ltd. was a major win for Indigenous rights in the nation. Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, who was described in court documents as an elder, senior lawman and traditional owner of the Munupi clan on the Tiwi Islands, had challenged the regulator’s approval of Santos’ $3.6 billion plan to drill the Barossa Field beneath the Timor Sea. Justice Mordy Bromberg quashed the February decision by the regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, to allow the drilling.

Tipakalippa had argued that the regulator could not be “reasonably satisfied,” as required by law, that Santos had carried out necessary consultations with indigenous peoples about its drilling plans. Santos had not consulted with his clan, Tipakalippa said, and he feared the project would harm the ocean environment.

See Tipakalippa v National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (No 2) [2022] FCA 1121    

Judge Bromberg went to the Tiwi Islands in August and took evidence about the Munupi people’s connection to the environment. According to indigenous peoples, the court’s willingness  to travel and listen to communities are signs that Australian institutions are increasingly taking  the concerns and heritage of indigenous peoples into account.

ROD McGUIRK, Australian Indigenous traditional owners halt gas drilling, AP, Sept. 21, 2022; Mike Cherney, In Australian Gas-Project Dispute, Sacred Dances Part of Court Hearing, WSJ, Sept. 8, 2022

Everybody and their Watch Box: State Surveillance

Aerial surveillance can reach backwards in time, by the expedient of indiscriminately recording everything that is going on in a particular neighborhood, and then looking for useful patterns in the resulting footage. This technique, called wide-area motion imagery (Wami), has been around since 2006. But improvements in both the recording equipment used and the means by which the images are analysed are making it more and more valuable.

Wami was first employed by American forces in Iraq to track down those placing roadside bombs. When such a bomb went off, it was possible to run the relevant footage in reverse and trace the events that led up to the explosion. That often allowed the bombers to be identified and dealt with…Wami began with an aircraft-borne system called Constant Hawk, which was developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California. Constant Hawk’s success in Iraq begat more powerful versions. Gorgon Stare, carried by drone, was designed by the armed forces themselves…

But there is a problem. Explosions are easy to see. For many tasks, however, an awful lot of staring at screens looking for things that are out-of-the-ordinary is involved. People are bad at this…So AI is here to help…. Chips called graphic-processing units, borrowed from the video-game industry, are helping. So is machine learning, the basis of much modern artificial intelligence. .

l3Harris, a company in Florida, sells Wami sensors for use as automatic sentries. Their software monitors the coming and going of vehicles and pedestrians into and out of so-called watch boxes. These are protected areas surrounded by virtual trip wires, the triggering of which will cause a vehicle or individual of interest to be tracked…This approach can detect immediate threats. It can also, working over a longer period, carry out “pattern of life” analysis by building up a picture of what normal daily traffic looks like in an area. That permits the identification of anomalies which might signal hostile agents whose movements would otherwise be masked by the hurly-burly around them.

The sensors themselves are getting better, too….The latest version includes a so-called hyperspectral sensor, which sees simultaneously across many different wavelengths, including infrared and ultraviolet. It is thus able to distinguish things which the naked eye cannot, such as the difference between camouflage and vegetation. This approach’s real power, however, lies in software which automatically passes data between sensors…Future multi-sensor pods may include other instruments, such as signals-intelligence receivers. These are bits of equipment which can detect radio-frequency communicators like mobile phones and walkie-talkies, enabling particular devices to be identified and located. That would permit the individual carrying the phone, and also those he or she came into contact with, to be tracked and photographed. 

So far, the costs and complexity of Wami have kept it as a predominantly military technology. But that is starting to change. Smaller and more affordable versions are now within the reach of police, fire services and other non-military users…The most famous examples were in Baltimore, where the local cops experimented with the idea twice—first in 2016 and then in 2020. The second time around they made the mistake of monitoring a political protest as well as looking for crimes such as vehicle theft. 

Excerpts from Aerial Surveillance: The Spies in the Sky that See Backwards in Time, Economist, May 7, 2022

Who Cares? Clicking Away Privacy Rights

The latest developments in a high-profile criminal probe by  US special counsel John Durham show the extent to which the world’s internet traffic is being monitored by a coterie of network researchers and security experts inside and outside the US government. The monitoring is made possible by little-scrutinized partnerships, both informal and formal, among cybersecurity companies, telecommunications providers and government agencies.

The U.S. government is obtaining bulk data about network usage, according to federal contracting documents and people familiar with the matter, and has fought disclosure about such activities. Academic and independent researchers are sometimes tapped to look at data and share any findings with the government without warrants or judicial authorization…

Unlike the disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden from nearly a decade ago, which revealed U.S. intelligence programs that relied on covert access to private data streams, the sharing of internet records highlighted by Mr. Durham’s probe concerns commercial information that is often being shared with or sold to the government in bulk. Such data sets can possess enormous intelligence value, according to current and former government officials and cybersecurity experts, especially as the power of computers to derive insights from massive data sets has grown in recent years.

Such network data can help governments and companies detect and counter cyberattacks. But that capability also has privacy implications, despite assurances from researchers that most of the data can’t be traced back to individuals or organizations.

At issue are several kinds of internet logs showing the connections between computers, typically collected on networking devices such as switches or routers. They are the rough internet equivalent of logs of phone calls—showing which computers are connecting and when, but not necessarily revealing anything about the content of the transmissions. Modern smartphones and computers generate thousands of such logs a day just by browsing the web or using consumer apps…

“A question worth asking is: Who has access to large pools of telecommunications metadata, such as DNS records, and under what circumstances can those be shared with the government?…Surveillance takes the path of least resistance…,” according to Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Excerpts from Byron Tau et al., Probe Reveals Unregulated Access to Data Streams, WSJ, Feb.. 28, 2022

The Sacrificial Lambs of Green Energy

Lithium Americas, a Canadian company, has plans to build a mine and processing plant at Thacker Pass, near the southern tip of the caldera in Nevada. It would be America’s biggest lithium mine. Ranchers and farmers in nearby Orovada, a town of about 120 people, worry that the mine will threaten their water supply and air quality. Native American tribes in the region say they were not properly consulted before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency that manages America’s vast public lands, decided to permit the project. Tribes also allege that a massacre of their ancestors took place at Thacker Pass in 1865…

The fight over Thacker Pass is not surprising. President Joe Biden wants half of all cars sold in 2030 to be electric, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These ambitious climate targets mean that battles over where and how to mine are coming to mineral-rich communities around the country. America is in need of cobalt, copper and lithium, among other things, which are used in batteries and other clean-energy technologies. As with past commodity booms, large deposits of many of these materials are found in America’s western states . America, of course, is not the only country racing to secure access to such materials. As countries pledge to go carbon-free, global demand for critical minerals is set to soar. The International Energy Agency, a forecaster, estimates that by 2040 demand for lithium could increase by more than 40 times relative to 2020. Demand for cobalt and nickel could grow by about 20 times in the same period.

Beyond its green goals, America is also intent on diversifying mineral supplies away from China and Russia (big producer of nickel), which—by virtue of its natural bounty and muscular industrial policy—has become a raw-materials juggernaut… The green transition has also turned the pursuit of critical minerals into a great-power competition not unlike the search for gold or oil in eras past. Mining for lithium, the Department of Energy (DOE) says, is not only a means of fighting climate change but also a matter of national security.

Westerners have seen all this before, and are wary of new mines…The economic history of the American West is a story of boom and bust. When a commodity bubble burst, boomtowns were abandoned. The legacy of those busts still plagues the region. In 2020 the Government Accountability Office estimated that there could be at least 530,000 abandoned hardrock-mine features, such as tunnels or waste piles, on federal lands. At least 89,000 of those could pose a safety or environmental hazard. Most of America’s abandoned hardrock mines are in 13 states west of the Mississippi River…

Is it possible to secure critical minerals while avoiding the mistakes of previous booms? America’s debates over how to use its public lands, and to whom those lands belong, are notoriously unruly. Conservationists, energy companies, ranchers and tribal nations all feel some sense of ownership. Total harmony is unlikely. But there are ways to lessen the animosity.

Start with environmental concerns. Mining is a dirty business, but development and conservation can coexist. In 2020 Stanford University helped broker a national agreement between the hydropower industry and conservation groups to increase safety and efficiency at existing dams while removing dams that are harming the environment….Many worry that permitting new development on land sacred to tribes will be yet another example of America’s exploitation of indigenous peoples in pursuit of land and natural resources. msci, a consultancy, reckons that 97% of America’s nickel reserves, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt are found within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

TThe BLM is supposed to consult tribes about policies that may affect the tribes but the  consultation process is broken. Often it consists of sending tribes a letter notifying them of a mining or drilling proposal.

Lithium Americas has offered to build the town a new school, one that will be farther away from a road that the firm will use to transport sulphur. Sitting in her truck outside a petrol station that doubles as Orovada’s local watering hole, Ms Amato recalled one group member’s response to the offer: “If all I’m going to get is a kick in the ass, because we’re getting the mine regardless, then I may as well get a kick in the ass and a brand new school.”

Excerpt from America’s Next Mining Boom: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

Living in the Russian Digital Bubble

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has portrayed his aggression on the Ukrainian border as pushing back against Western advances. For some time he has been doing much the same online. He has long referred to the internet as a “CIA project”. His deep belief that the enemy within and the enemy without are in effect one and the same… Faced with such “aggression”, Mr Putin wants a Russian internet that is secure against external threat and internal opposition. He is trying to bring that about on a variety of fronts: through companies, the courts and technology itself.

In December 2021, VK, one of Russia’s online conglomerates, was taken over by two subsidiaries of Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant. In the same month a court in Moscow fined Alphabet, which owns Google, a record $98m for its repeated failure to delete content the state deems illegal. And Mr Putin’s regime began using hardware it has required internet service providers (ISPS) to install to block Tor, a tool widely used in Russia to mask online activity. All three actions were part of the country’s effort to assure itself of online independence by building what some scholars of geopolitics, borrowing from Silicon Valley, have begun calling a “stack”.

In technology, the stack is the sum of all the technologies and services on which a particular application relies, from silicon to operating system to network. In politics it means much the same, at the level of the state. The national stack is a sovereign digital space made up not only of software and hardware (increasingly in the form of computing clouds) but also infrastructure for payments, establishing online identities and controlling the flow of information

China built its sovereign digital space with censorship in mind. The Great Firewall, a deep-rooted collection of sophisticated digital checkpoints, allows traffic to be filtered with comparative ease. The size of the Chinese market means that indigenous companies, which are open to various forms of control, can successfully fulfil all of their users’ needs. And the state has the resources for a lot of both censorship and surveillance. Mr Putin and other autocrats covet such power. But they cannot get it. It is not just that they lack China’s combination of rigid state control, economic size, technological savoir-faire and stability of regime. They also failed to start 25 years ago. So they need ways to achieve what goals they can piecemeal, by retrofitting new controls, incentives and structures to an internet that has matured unsupervised and open to its Western begetters.

Russia’s efforts, which began as purely reactive attempts to lessen perceived harm, are becoming more systematic. Three stand out: (1) creating domestic technology, (2) controlling the information that flows across it and, perhaps most important, (3) building the foundational services that underpin the entire edifice.

Russian Technology

The government has made moves to restart a chipmaking plant in Zelenograd near Moscow, the site of a failed Soviet attempt to create a Silicon Valley. But it will not operate at the cutting edge. So although an increasing number of chips are being designed in Russia, they are almost all made by Samsung and TSMC, a South Korean and a Taiwanese contract manufacturer. This could make the designs vulnerable to sanctions….

For crucial applications such as mobile-phone networks Russia remains highly reliant on Western suppliers, such as Cisco, Ericsson and Nokia. Because this is seen as leaving Russia open to attacks from abroad, the industry ministry, supported by Rostec, a state-owned arms-and-technology giant, is pushing for next-generation 5g networks to be built with Russian-made equipment only. The country’s telecoms industry does not seem up to the task. And there are internecine impediments. Russia’s security elites, the siloviki, do not want to give up the wavelength bands best suited for 5g. But the only firm that could deliver cheap gear that works on alternative frequencies is Huawei, an allegedly state-linked Chinese electronics group which the siloviki distrust just as much as security hawks in the West do.

It is at the hardware level that Russia’s stack is most vulnerable. Sanctions imposed may treat the country, as a whole,  like Huawei is now treated by America’s government. Any chipmaker around the world that uses technology developed in America to design or make chips for Huawei needs an export license from the Commerce Department in Washington—which is usually not forthcoming. If the same rules are applied to Russian firms, anyone selling to them without a license could themselves risk becoming the target of sanctions. That would see the flow of chips into Russia slow to a trickle.

When it comes to software the Russian state is using its procurement power to amp up demand. Government institutions, from schools to ministries, have been encouraged to dump their American software, including Microsoft’s Office package and Oracle’s databases. It is also encouraging the creation of alternatives to foreign services for consumers, including TikTok, Wikipedia and YouTube. Here the push for indigenization has a sturdier base on which to build. Yandex, a Russian firm which splits the country’s search market with Alphabet’s Google, and VK, a social-media giant, together earned $1.8bn from advertising last year, more than half of the overall market. VK’s vKontakte and Odnoklassniki trade places with American apps (Facebook, Instagram) and Chinese ones (Likee, TikTok) on the top-ten downloads list.

This diverse system is obviously less vulnerable to sanctions—which are nothing like as appealing a source of leverage here as they are elsewhere in the stack. Making Alphabet and Meta stop offering YouTube and WhatsApp, respectively, in Russia would make it much harder for America to launch its own sorties into Russian cyberspace. So would disabling Russia’s internet at the deeper level of protocols and connectivity. All this may push Russians to use domestic offerings more, which would suit Mr Putin well.

As in China, Russia is seeing the rise of “super-apps”, bundles of digital services where being local makes sense. Yandex is not just a search engine. It offers ride-hailing, food delivery, music-streaming, a digital assistant, cloud computing and, someday, self-driving cars. Sber, Russia’s biggest lender, is eyeing a similar “ecosystem” of services, trying to turn the bank into a tech conglomerate. In the first half of 2021 alone it invested $1bn in the effort, on the order of what biggish European banks spend on information technology (IT). Structural changes in the IT industry are making some of this Russification easier. Take the cloud. Its data centres use cheap servers made of off-the-shelf parts and other easily procured commodity kit. Much of its software is open-source. Six of the ten biggest cloud-service providers in Russia are now Russian…The most successful ones are “moving away from proprietary technology” sold by Western firms (with the exception of chips)…

Information Flow

If technology is the first part of Russia’s stack, the “sovereign internet” is the second. It is code for how a state controls the flow of information online. In 2019 the government amended several laws to gain more control of the domestic data flow. In particular, these require ISPS to install “technical equipment for counteracting threats to stability, security and functional integrity”. This allows Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, to have “middle boxes” slipped into the gap between the public internet and an ISPS’ customers. Using “deep packet inspection” (DPI), a technology used at some Western ISPS to clamp down on pornography, these devices are able to throttle or block traffic from specific sources (and have been deployed in the campaign against Tor). DPI kit sits in rooms with restricted access within the ISPS’ facilities and is controlled directly from a command center at Roskomnadzor. This is a cheap but imperfect version of China’s Great Firewall.

Complementing the firewall are rules that make life tougher for firms. In the past five years Google has fielded 20,000-30,000 content-removal requests annually from the government in Russia, more than in any other country. From this year 13 leading firms—including Apple, TikTok and Twitter—must employ at least some content moderators inside Russia. This gives the authorities bodies to bully should firms prove recalcitrant. The ultimate goal may be to push foreign social media out of Russia altogether, creating a web of local content… But this Chinese level of control would be technically tricky. And it would make life more difficult for Russian influence operations, such as those of the Internet Research Agency, to use Western sites to spread propaganda, both domestically and abroad.

Infrastructure

Russia’s homegrown stack would still be incomplete without a third tier: the services that form the operating system of a digital state and thus provide its power. In its provision of both e-government and payment systems, Russia puts some Western countries to shame. Gosuslugi (“state services”) is one of the most-visited websites and most-downloaded apps in Russia. It hosts a shockingly comprehensive list of offerings, from passport application to weapons registration. Even critics of the Kremlin are impressed, not least because Russia’s offline bureaucracy is hopelessly inefficient and corrupt. The desire for control also motivated Russia’s leap in payment systems. In the wake of its annexation of Crimea, sanctions required MasterCard and Visa, which used to process most payments in Russia, to ban several banks close to the regime. In response, Mr Putin decreed the creation of a “National Payment Card System”, which was subsequently made mandatory for many transactions. Today it is considered one of the world’s most advanced such schemes. Russian banks use it to exchange funds. The “Mir” card which piggybacks on it has a market share of more than 25%, says GlobalData, an analytics firm.

Other moves are less visible. A national version of the internet’s domain name system, currently under construction, allows Russia’s network to function if cut off from the rest of the world (and gives the authorities a new way to render some sites inaccessible). Some are still at early stages. A biometric identity system, much like India’s Aadhaar, aims to make it easier for the state to keep track of citizens and collect data about them while offering new services. (Muscovites can now pay to take the city’s metro just by showing their face.) A national data platform would collect all sorts of information, from tax to health records—and could boost Russia’s efforts to catch up in artificial intelligence (AI).

Excerpt from Digital geopolitics: Russia is trying to build its own great firewall, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

The EU and US Bait and Switch Operation in Ukraine

What Is Bait and Switch?
Bait and switch is a morally suspect sales tactic that lures customers [Ukraine] in with specific claims about the quality or low prices on items [joining NATO and the EU] that turn out to be unavailable in order to upsell them on a similar, pricier item [Russian invasion]. It is considered a form of retail sales fraud, though it takes place in other contexts…From the Investopedia

Q-Day: the Behind-The-Scenes Internet

In cybersecurity circles, they call it Q-day: the day when quantum computers will break the Internet. Almost everything we do online is made possible by the quiet, relentless hum of cryptographic algorithms. These are the systems that scramble data to protect our privacy, establish our identity and secure our payments. And they work well: even with the best supercomputers available today, breaking the codes that the online world currently runs on would be an almost hopeless task.

But machines that will exploit the quirks of quantum physics threaten that entire deal. If they reach their full scale, quantum computers would crack current encryption algorithms exponentially faster than even the best non-quantum machines can. “A real quantum computer would be extremely dangerous,” says Eric Rescorla, chief technology officer of the Firefox browser team at Mozilla in San Francisco, California.

As in a cheesy time-travel trope, the machines that don’t yet exist endanger not only our future communications, but also our current and past ones. Data thieves who eavesdrop on Internet traffic could already be accumulating encrypted data, which they could unlock once quantum computers become available, potentially viewing everything from our medical histories to our old banking records. “Let’s say that a quantum computer is deployed in 2024,” says Rescorla. “Everything you’ve done on the Internet before 2024 will be open for discussion.”

But the risk is real enough that the Internet is being readied for a makeover, to limit the damage if Q-day happens. That means switching to stronger cryptographic systems, or cryptosystems. Fortunately, decades of research in theoretical computer science has turned up plenty of candidates. These post-quantum algorithms seem impervious to attack: even using mathematical approaches that take quantum computing into account, programmers have not yet found ways to defeat them in a reasonable time.

Which of these algorithms will become standard could depend in large part on a decision soon to be announced by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In 2015, the US National Security Agency (NSA) announced that it considered current cryptosystems vulnerable, and advised US businesses and the government to replace them. The following year, NIST invited computer scientists globally to submit candidate post-quantum algorithms to a process in which the agency would test their quality, with the help of the entire crypto community. It has since winnowed down its list from 65 to 15. In the next couple of months, it will select a few winners, and then publish official versions of those algorithms. Similar organizations in other countries, from France to China, will make their own announcements…

Although NIST is a US government agency, the broader crypto community has been pitching in. “It is a worldwide effort,” says Philip Lafrance, a mathematician at computer-security firm ISARA Corporation in Waterloo, Canada. This means that, at the end of the process, the surviving algorithms will have gained wide acceptance. “The world is going to basically accept the NIST standards,” he says. He is part of a working group that is monitoring the NIST selection on behalf of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, an umbrella organization for groups worldwide. “We do expect to see a lot of international adoption of the standard that we’ll create,” says Moody…

China is said to be planning its own selection process, to be managed by the Office of State Commercial Cryptography Administration... “The consensus among researchers in China seems to be that this competition will be an open international competition, so that the Chinese [post-quantum cryptography] standards will be of the highest international standards,” says Jintai Ding, a mathematician at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Meanwhile, an organization called the Chinese Association for Cryptologic Research has already run its own competition for post-quantum algorithms. Its results were announced in 2020, leading some researchers in other countries to mistakenly conclude that the Chinese government had already made an official choice…

Fully transitioning all technology to be quantum resistant will take a minimum of five years and whenever Q-day happens, there are likely to be gadgets hidden somewhere that will still be vulnerable, he says. “Even if we were to do the best we possibly can, a real quantum computer will be incredibly disruptive.”

Excerpts from Davide Castelvecchi, The race to save the Internet from quantum hackers, Nature, Feb. 8, 20202

Treating People Like Roaches-no longer legal

Since its adoption in 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention has banned the development, possession, and use of weaponized toxic chemicals.  However, whether this prohibition also applied to law enforcement use of certain agents that act on the central nervous system (CNS) remained the subject of debate. In December 2021,  Chemical Weapons Convention adopted a landmark Decision to effectively outlaw the aerosolized use of CNS-acting chemical agents for law enforcement purposes.  

Although 85 countries supported the Decision, including Australia, Switzerland, and the United States, the vote was opposed by 10 countries, which may not feel constrained by its prohibitions. Notable among the opponents was Russia, whose security forces used aerosolized fentanyl derivatives to end the 2002 Moscow theater siege, causing the deaths of more than 120 hostages from poisoning and asphyxiation. Subsequent dual-use research into CNS-acting chemicals has been reported by Russian scientists as well as scientists from China and Iran, who also opposed this Decision.

Furthermore, the Decision is limited in scope. It explicitly prohibits only aerosolized CNS weapons, excluding other delivery mechanisms such as law enforcement dart guns…
 
Excerpt from MICHAEL CROWLEY AND MALCOLM DANDO, Central nervous system weapons dealt a blow, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

Alas! Computers that Really Get You

 Artificial intelligence (AI) software can already identify people by their voices or handwriting. Now, an AI has shown it can tag people based on their chess-playing behavior, an advance in the field of “stylometrics” that could help computers be better chess teachers or more humanlike in their game play. Alarmingly, the system could also be used to help identify and track people who think their online behavior is anonymous

The researchers are aware of the privacy risks posed by the system, which could be used to unmask anonymous chess players online…In theory, given the right data sets, such systems could identify people based on the quirks of their driving or the timing and location of their cellphone use.

Excerpt from  Matthew Hutson, AI unmasks anonymous chess players, posing privacy risks, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

Rapes and Razor Blades: Raping Children to Death in War Zones

Sexual abuse of young children happens all around the world. But children living in war-torn countries are at much higher risk. Those in countries recovering from conflict, such as Liberia, may also face greater dangers. The UN has recorded 15,000 cases of rape and sexual violence against children in conflict zones over the past 15 years. This, it warns, is probably a fraction of the true number. Around 72m children live in war zones in which fighters sexually attack children, according to research by Ragnhild Nordås of the University of Michigan and co-authors. That is almost ten times the number in 1990. In 2021, Liberia recorded 1,275 sexual assaults or rapes of people of all ages, according to official figures. Fully 10% of the victims were younger than six and 36% were younger than 13.

At a sexual-violence clinic in Monrovia, the capital, a nurse recounts how an eight-month-old baby was raped by her step father. A soft toy to comfort children perches on the examination table next to a large doll which young victims, often unable to speak, can point at to show what happened to them… In 2020,  another three-year-old was lured away from a water pump by a 15-year-old who used a razor blade to cut open her genital area to penetrate her. That attack caused large protests in Monrovia, which prompted President George Weah to declare rape a “national emergency”.

Why so many men rape young children in war and its aftermath is not well understood. Some experts think that war warps not just morality but also common sense. Between 2013 and 2016 in Kavumu, a village in eastern Congo, at least 11 men kidnapped and raped about 40 girls under the age of ten. Some were as young as 18 months. After each rape the men would take some blood from the victim’s hymen, believing this would protect them from bullets in battle. In 2017 a court convicted the 11 men of murder and rape.

Many of their victims were treated at Panzi Hospital, which was founded by Denis Mukwege, who was jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2018 for his efforts to end sexual violence in war. The number of babies and infants treated for rape at the hospital dipped in the year after the trial, says Sylvain Mwambali, a doctor who works there. But it soon shot up again, to a higher level than in the three years before the convictions. In the past three years the hospital has treated 103 raped children aged five or younger, or about one every ten days. In 2020 Dr Mwambali treated a baby just a few months old whose vagina and intestines were mutilated by rape. “I could not sleep for weeks,” she says. “How can someone carry on, creating a wound like that? She would have been suffering, crying, they destroyed her vulva, up until the anus, yet they continued.”

Sometimes rebels may rape children to terrorise and control the population. Other men may copy them, perhaps because it makes them feel powerful. A breakdown in law and order may allow rapists to escape any punishment. “There is a social deterioration,” says Dr Mwambali. “People can rape your mother in front of you…there are rapes in churches.” In Liberia, warped beliefs of a different kind are a common explanation for why men rape young children. Some traditional healers tell people, “If you have intercourse with a young girl, you will become rich,” says Margaret Taylor of Women Empowerment Network, an NGO. “The younger the person is, the more riches they get.”

Excerpt from: The Sexual Abuse of Children: Child rape is far too common in some war-torn African countries, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022

The Other Middle East Crisis: Rivers are Drying

Protests in the Iranian city of Isfahan erupted in November 2021 due to a severe shortage of water, as the region continues to suffer from a year of low rainfall and drought. Thousands of farmers and others who supported them took to the streets in Isfahan in central Iran, expressing their dissatisfaction at the water shortages and urging the government to solve the crisis. They shouted “let Isfahan breathe again, revive Zayandeh Rud,” referring to the dried river which supplies their crops with water.

The drying up of the Zayandeh Rud river has not only been caused by drought, however, but also by the government’s diversion of water from the river to supply other areas and with a pipeline supplying water to Yazd province also having been damaged. Those incidences have contributed to the farms being left dry and the famers’ livelihoods being threatened.

The water shortages and the drying of the river come at a time when the region is suffering from a similar shortage, as rainfall has been low and temperatures have increased to make it one of the hottest and driest years recorded. ..Neighboring Iraq and Syria have also been expressed concern over the shortage of water this year… In November 201, a major reservoir in Syria also dried up completely, and was similarly due to a combination of climatic and structural causes.

Excerpts from Protests over water shortages erupt in Iran, as river dries up, Middle East Monitor, Nov. 21, 2021

Genocide in the Empire of Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook failed to quickly stop the spread of hate speech and misinformation against the Rohingya people, in turn contributing to the persecution and alleged genocide of the minority community in Myanmar, according to a lawsuit filed in December 2021 in a California court that asks for more than $150 billion in compensation.
 
The class-action lawsuit against Meta, Facebook’s parent company, was brought by a Rohingya woman in Illinois on behalf of the 10,000-plus Rohingya refugees who have resettled in the United States since 2012. It alleges that Facebook’s algorithm amplified hate speech and that the company neglected to remove inflammatory content despite repeated warnings that such posts could foment ethnic violence.
A similar complaint against the tech giant is expected to be filed in a British court.

Myanmar’s military launched a “scorched-earth campaign” in 2017 to push Rohingya residents, who are mostly Muslim, out of Rakhine state. Some 750,000 Muslim men, women and children were driven out in a campaign of rape, murder and razed villages that a top United Nations official called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” That year, Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya people had been killed as a result of the attacks. Around the same time, influential figures such as nationalist monks and top government officials posted or recirculated slurs against the Rohingya, while spreading falsehoods and doctored images that suggested some Rohingya burned their own villages and then blamed it on Myanmar security forces. Myanmar has denied the genocide accusations and has justified some actions on counterterrorism grounds.
 
In 2018, a U.N. report connected Facebook to the atrocities against the Rohingya people. According to the report:

“Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where, for most users, Facebook is the Internet. Although improved in recent months, the response of Facebook has been slow and ineffective. The extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence must be independently and thoroughly examined.” 

After the publication of the UN Report, the region became a priority for the company, which began flooding it with resources in 2018… The platform said that it removed some 64,000 pieces of content in Myanmar that violated its policies against hate speech…“Not until 2018 — after the damage had been done — did Facebook executives … meekly admit that Facebook should and could have done more,” the lawsuit alleges. “Facebook is like a robot programed with a singular mission: to grow. And the undeniable reality is that Facebook’s growth, fueled by hate, division, and misinformation, has left hundreds of thousands of devastated Rohingya lives in its wake.”….

Backed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Gambia asked a U.S. court to force Facebook to turn over data related to accounts it deleted in 2018 that fueled atrocities in Myanmar. After some legal wrangling, a federal judge in D.C. shot down the request  on December 3, 2021.

Excerpt from Amy Cheng, Rohingya refugees sue Facebook for $150 billion, alleging it helped perpetuate genocide in Myanmar, Washington Post, Dec. 7, 2021

Israel’s Preemptive Attacks on Chemical Weapons, Syria

Israel twice struck chemical weapons facilities in Syria between 2020 and 2021 in a campaign to prevent Syria from renewing chemical weapons production…Syria’s government denies using chemical arms. In 2013 it promised to surrender its chemical weapons, which it says it has done.

On June 8, 2021, Israeli jets hit three military targets near the cities of Damascus and Homs, all linked to Syria’s former chemical weapons program. In March 2020, Israel targeted a villa and compound tied with the procurement of a chemical that can be used in nerve agents. Whether Israel’s attacks were fully successful in disrupting Syria’s plans is unclear. Israeli officials intended the strikes to be preemptive, knocking out the country’s production capabilities before actual weapons could be made…

Excerpts from Israel hit chemical weapons facilities in Syria over past two years, Reuters, Dec. 13, 2021

Battle for Storing Medical Nuclear Waste: Australia

Napandee, a 211 hectare property near the town of Kimba, has been acquired by the Australian  government and will be used to store low and medium-level nuclear waste. “This is still the right decision at the right site,” Resources Minister Keith Pitt said.  “It’s certainly got all of the right geological requirements, we have majority support from the local community and we should never forget that this has taken 40 years and I understand some 16 ministers,” he said.  “Fundamentally, for the local community of Kimba it’s been over six years of consultation.” The consultation culminated in a ballot which showed just over 60 per cent of Kimba residents supported the project.

However, the Barngarla traditional owners opposed the project and said they were not included in the consultation. “There have been significant and repeated grave problems with the government’s conduct regarding the site selection process,” a spokesperson for the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation said in a statement. “We remain confident that, once assessed by the Court, the declaration to locate the facility at Napandee on our Country will likely be overturned.”

According to the Australian minister, every Australian would need to use nuclear medicine at some point in their life. “If we are going to use this technology, it produces low-level radioactive waste and we have to deal with it and store it. This is the best option on the table.” “This is a facility that will last more than 100 years and it’s important for the country.” The Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, created to establish the Napandee facility, will start work on detailed designs.

Excerpts from Declan Gooch and Emma Pedler, Napandee chosen as nuclear waste storage site after ‘six years of consultation’, ABC, Nov. 29, 2021

Animal Rights March On

A dispute over the fate of hippos in Colombia has given rise to a federal court ruling in Ohio, United States that, for the first time in American law, recognizes animals as people. This should come as welcome news to the 100-plus hippos of Colombia’s Magdalena river. They are the offspring of four hippos smuggled into the country by Pablo Escobar, a drug lord. 

The surfeit of hippos has coated lakes with algae and could displace otters, manatees and endangered turtles. Hippos have begun wandering into villages, too—a potential peril for human persons. In 2020, Colombia’s government considered a cull, prompting a Colombian lawyer to take up the cause. The hippos, his lawsuit says, enjoy protection under Colombian law and must not be killed….

Judge Karen Litkovitz, the federal judge in Ohio (USA), does not get to decide the hippos’ fate. But on October 15, 2021 she agreed with the Animal Legal Defense Fund that the hippos are “interested persons” under a law permitting foreign litigants to gather evidence in America that may buttress their claims. Experts in non-surgical sterilization will be deposed for their insights on PZP, a contraceptive that could spare the hippos while dampening their growth.

America is not the first country to regard animals as legal persons. An Indian court cited the constitution in banning a bullfighting festival in 2014. A judge in Argentina ruled that Sandra, an orangutan, was a non-human person eligible for better environs than her concrete enclosure in a Buenos Aires zoo; she now luxuriates in a sanctuary in Florida. In 2020 a court in Islamabad, faced with cases involving stray dogs, an elephant and a bear, recognized the “right of each animal…to live in an environment that meets the latter’s behavioral, social and physiological needs”.

Judge Litkovitz’s decision is not couched in such sweeping terms. It remains to be seen whether other American courts take her cue in cases such as that of Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo who has shown signs of self-awareness and misery. In 2022 New York’s highest court will consider whether the writ of habeas corpus—protection from unjust imprisonment—applies to Happy.

Excerpt from Animal rights: Pablo Escobar’s hippos lead a charge for animal rights, Economist, Oct. 30, 2021

Mining to Death for Uranium: the Navajo

The Navajo people have petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights arguing that the U.S. government failed to protect the human rights of Indigenous communities when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensed uranium mining on their territories.

The Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM)  petition states that when the NRC licensed Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI) (now known as NuFuels) to operate uranium mining in the two Diné (Navajo) communities of Crownpoint and Churchrock it violated human rights guaranteed in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, including the rights to life, health, benefits of culture, fair trial, and property.
According to the Navajo, the NRC licensed uranium mining  it knew would contaminate the groundwater that is an important resource of drinking water and cultural identity to communities that suffer increased risk of death and disease from historic uranium mining and milling the United States government not only tolerated but promoted.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared ENDAUM’s petition “admissible” in March 2021 and provided until October 21, 2021 for additional observations to be submitted. These additional observations were submitted in October, 2021. 

New Mexico Environmental Law Center, Press Release, Oct. 20, 2021

Case with annexes

How to Relocate a Whole Nation

Small island states will not, most likely, be swallowed by the sea… In research published in 2010, Paul Kench measured the size of 27 atolls over a period of decades and found that while 14% had shrunk and a couple had disappeared, 43% stayed the same size and another 43% became bigger. Many of the ring-shaped coral reefs have been able to adapt to sea-level rise, changing shape as sediment is eroded and pushed around. Tuvalu’s land surface, for instance, increased by 3% between 1971 and 2014 despite a rise in the local sea level of 4mm a year, twice the global average for that period…

But there are other, more immediate effects of climate change that threaten the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of these countries. They are less arresting, harder to explain and, as in the changing shape and size of islands, sometimes counterintuitive. But the upshot is the same: the countries may soon become uninhabitable.

One is “king tides”, high tides that briefly but entirely inundate the narrow strips of low-lying land that comprise most atoll, are becoming more frequent. The saltwater can kill crops such as banana and papaya and seeps into groundwater, making it unfit to drink

There are also ways to keep islands habitable: Kiribati plans to dredge its lagoons and use the sand to raise the surrounding islands higher above the sea. Tuvalu has embarked on a land-reclamation project. But the spectre of climate change makes it harder to drum up investment for such schemes. “I am trying to change the minds of the many people who say, ‘We cannot invest in your country, you’re finished’,” says Kiribati’s Mr Tito.

The depressing long-term solution may be to move. The Marshall Islands hopes to renegotiate its post-colonial “Compact of Free Association” with America, which expires in 2023, to ensure a permanent right of residence in the United States for all Marshallese. Tuvalu has no such option. Maina Talia, a climate activist, thinks that the government should take Fiji up on its offer of a home where Tuvaluans could practice the same culture rather than “be dumped somewhere in Sydney’‘.

Earlier this year, the government of Tuvalu, which until recently insisted that there would be no Plan B, established a new un initiative. Its aim is to work with “like-minded countries” to figure out how and where such countries could be relocated, how they could continue to function ex-situ, and whether they could still lay claim to vast exclusive economic zones if their land disappeared under water.

Relocating a country would raise other big questions, too, for both the international system and the way in which people think about statehood. “How to prepare to move a nation in dignity, that has never been done before,” says Kamal Amakrane, a migration expert whose ideas helped spark the UN initiative. 

Excerpt from Moving story: Pacific countries face more complex problems than sinking, Economist, August 7, 2021

Surveillance by the Masses for the Masses

New sensors, from dashboard cameras to satellites that can see across the electromagnetic spectrum, are examining the planet and its people as never before. The information they collect is becoming cheaper. Satellite images cost several thousand dollars 20 years ago, today they are often provided free and are of incomparably higher quality….

Human Rights Watch has analysed satellite imagery to document ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Nanosatellites tag the automatic identification system of vessels that are fishing illegally. Amateur sleuths have helped Europol, the European Union’s policing agency, investigate child sexual exploitation by identifying geographical clues in the background of photographs. Even hedge funds routinely track the movements of company executives in private jets, monitored by a web of amateurs around the world, to predict mergers and acquisitions. OSINT (open-source intelligence) thus bolsters civil society, strengthens law enforcement and makes markets more efficient. It can also humble some of the world’s most powerful countries.

In the face of vehement denials from the Kremlin, Bellingcat, an investigative group, meticulously demonstrated Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight mh17 over Ukraine in 2014, using little more than a handful of photographs, satellite images and elementary geometry. It went on to identify the Russian agents who attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in England in 2018. Amateur analysts and journalists used OSINT to piece together the full extent of Uyghur internment camps in Xinjiang. In recent weeks researchers poring over satellite imagery have spotted China constructing hundreds of nuclear-missile silos in the desert.

Such an emancipation of information promises to have profound effects. The decentralised and egalitarian nature of OSINT erodes the power of traditional arbiters of truth and falsehood, in particular governments and their spies and soldiers. The likelihood that the truth will be uncovered raises the cost of wrongdoing for governments. Although osint might not prevent Russia from invading Ukraine or China from building its gulag, it exposes the flimsiness of their lies

Liberal democracies will also be kept more honest. Citizens will no longer have to take their governments on trust. News outlets will have new ways of holding them to account. Today’s open sources and methods would have shone a brighter light on the Bush administration’s accusation in 2003 that Iraq was developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That would have subjected America’s invasion of the country to greater scrutiny. It might even have prevented it.,,

The greatest worry is that the explosion of data behind open-source investigations also threatens individual privacy. The data generated by phones and sold by brokers let Bellingcat identify the Russian spies who last year poisoned Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader. Similar data were exploited to pick out a senior Catholic priest in America, who resigned last month after his location was linked to his use of Grindr, a gay dating app.

Excerpts from The people’s panopticon: The promise of open-source intelligence, Economist, Aug. 7, 2021

Eradicating Old Cities and their Populations

The fighters of Islamic State…raided the tombs of Assyrian kings in Nineveh, blew up Roman colonnades in Palmyra and sold priceless relics to smugglers. But their vandalism was on a modest scale compared with some of the megaprojects that are habitually undertaken by many Middle Eastern government… Iraq’s government began to build the Makhoul dam. Once complete, it is likely to flood Ashur—and another 200 historical sites.

Similar archaeological tragedies have occurred across the region, mainly thanks to the appetite of governments for gigantism in the name of modernization…The re-landscaping displaces people as well as erasing their heritage, sometimes as a kind of social engineering….

Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has bulldozed swathes of Cairo, the old capital, to make way for motorways, flyovers and shiny skyscrapers that line the road to the new administrative capital he is building. To ease congestion he has scythed a thoroughfare named Paradise through the City of the Dead, a 1,000-year-old necropolis that is a un-designated world heritage site. Hundreds of tombs were destroyed. He has turfed out tens of thousands of people from their homes in Boulaq, along the Nile, calling it slum clearance. This was where Cairo’s old port prospered in Ottoman times. Instead of rehabilitating it, Mr Sisi is letting property magnates carpet the area with high-rise apartment buildings. Mr Sisi has allowed investors from the United Arab Emirates to build a mini-Dubai on Cairo’s largest green space, a nature reserve on al-Warraq island. Its 90,000 residents will be shunted off, mainly to estates on the city’s edge. Protesters have been condemned as Islamist terrorists and sent to prison, many for 15 years…

Some rulers have security in mind when they bulldoze history. Mr Sisi can send in the tanks faster on wider roads. Removing Egypt’s poor from city centres may curb the risk of revolution. “They know that poor areas revolted in 2011,” says Abdelrahman Hegazy, a Cairene city planner. “They’re afraid of population density.” During Syria’s current civil war, President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons ruined parts of the old cities of Homs and Aleppo, treasure troves of antiquity that were also rebel strongholds, with relentless barrel-bombing….

Excerpts from Bulldozing history: Arab states are wrecking old treasures, Economist, Sept. 4, 2021

Keep Killing Environmental Defenders

A report released by Global Witness in September 2021 reveals that 227 land and environmental activists were murdered in 2020 for defending their land and the planet. That constitutes the highest number ever recorded for a second consecutive year…The figures show the human cost of the destruction wrought by exploitative industries and corporations. At least 30% of recorded attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation – across logging, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure, mining, and large-scale agribusiness. Logging was the industry linked to the most murders with 23 cases – with attacks in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines…

Colombia was once again the country with the highest recorded attacks, with 65 defenders killed in 2020. A third of these attacks targeted indigenous and afro-descendant people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers. In 2020 the disproportionate number of attacks against indigenous communities continued – with over a third of all fatal attacks targeting indigenous people. Attacks against indigenous defenders were reported in Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Nicaragua saw 12 killings – rising from 5 in 2019, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2020.

Excerpt from  LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS, Global Witness Press Release, Sept. 13, 2021

To Know the Truth Even if it Harms You

Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets, an NGO, had been a thorn in the side of secretive governments, corrupt corporations, and powerful law firms since its founding in late 2018. In June 2020, in a release known as BlueLeaks, the group published 269 gigabytes of law enforcement data, which exposed police malfeasance and surveillance overreach across the United States.

DDoSecrets also published incriminating records from overseas tax shelters, from the social media site Gab, and from a Christian crowdfunding site often used by the far right. The group has affected autocrats as well, exposing the Russian government’s plans in Ukraine and mapping out the Myanmar junta’s business dealings. These revelations have spawned numerous news stories in the public interest, making DDoSecrets a valuable source for journalists, but also rendering it a target: In July 2020, German authorities seized one of the organization’s servers. August of 2020 brought ominous news of a Department of Homeland Security bulletin labeling DDoSecrets a “criminal hacker group.” ..

Avowedly nonpartisan, DDoSecrets nonetheless exhibits an ethos that seems to fuse anarchist politics, a hacker’s curiosity about forbidden knowledge, and a general sympathy for the oppressed. Its barbed Latin slogan, Veritatem cognoscere ruat caelum et pereat mundus, roughly translates to, “To know the truth, even if the heavens fall and the world perishes.” Call it a bolder, more transformative version of “information wants to be free.”

Emma Best…launched DDoSecrets in December 2018 with someone known only by the pseudonym “The Architect.” Together, they set out to distinguish their group from WikiLeaks, which they felt had morphed into a vehicle for Julian Assange’s ego…”Truth has an impact, regardless of the respectability politics some people choose to engage in when it comes to the alleged sources,” Best wrote after Swiss law enforcement, at the request of U.S. authorities, arrested Tillie Kottmann, a hacker who alerted journalists to security vulnerabilities in a vast commercial network of surveillance cameras. “The world can no longer be rid of hacktivists or leaktivists. Not as long as people are willing.”

Excerpts from Jacob Silverman, The New WikiLeaks, The New Republic, Aug. 18, 2021

Who Owns your Cells? the case of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, a young mother of five named Henrietta Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of vaginal bleeding….As medical records show, Mrs. Lacks began undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer…. A sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent, without her knowledge or consent, to Dr. George Gey’s nearby tissue lab. For years, Dr. Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each sample quickly died in Dr. Gey’s lab. What he would soon discover was that Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die, Mrs. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Today, these incredible cells— nicknamed “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names — are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine.

In July 2021, the family of Henrietta Lacks has hired a prominent civil rights attorney, who says he plans to seek compensation for them from big pharmaceutical companies across the country that made fortunes off medical research with her famous cancer cells…The legal team is investigating lawsuits against as many as 100 defendants, mostly pharmaceutical companies, but they haven’t ruled out a case against the Johns Hopkins Hospital.’

Excerpts from Family of Henrietta Lacks hires civil rights attorney to seek funds over famous cells, Washington Post, July 31, 2021, and https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/

Decoding Brain Signals with a Credit Card

A man unable to speak after a stroke has produced sentences through a system that reads electrical signals from speech production areas of his brain, researchers reported in July 2021…The participant had a stroke more than a decade ago that left him with anarthria—an inability to control the muscles involved in speech. Because his limbs are also paralyzed, he communicates by selecting letters on a screen using small movements of his head, producing roughly five words per minute.

To enable faster, more natural communication, neurosurgeon Edward Chang of the University of California, San Francisco, tested an approach that uses a computational model known as a deep-learning algorithm to interpret patterns of brain activity in the sensorimotor cortex, a brain region involved in producing speech . The approach has so far been tested in volunteers who have electrodes surgically implanted for non-research reasons such as to monitor epileptic seizures.

In the new study, Chang’s team temporarily removed a portion of the participant’s skull and laid a thin sheet of electrodes smaller than a credit card directly over his sensorimotor cortex. To “train” a computer algorithm to associate brain activity patterns with the onset of speech and with particular words, the team needed reliable information about what the man intended to say and when….So the researchers repeatedly presented one of 50 words on a screen and asked the man to attempt to say it on cue. Once the algorithm was trained with data from the individual word task, the man tried to read sentences built from the same set of 50 words, such as “Bring my glasses, please.” 


With the new approach, the man could produce sentences at a rate of up to 18 words per minute, Chang says…The system isn’t ready for use in everyday life, Chang notes. Future improvements will include expanding its repertoire of words and making it wireless, so the user isn’t tethered to a computer roughly the size of a minifridge.

Excerpts from Kelly Servick, Brain signals ‘speak’ for person with paralysis, Science, July 16, 2021

The Uses and Abuses of Alexa

Excerpts from the Interview with Robert Lewis Shayon author of “The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen In to Exploit Your Feelings, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet” published  at the Pennsylvania Gazette July 2021

There is  emerging industry that is deploying immense resources and breakthrough technologies based on the idea that voice is biometric—a part of your body that those in the industry believe can be used to identify and evaluate you instantly and permanently. Most of the focus in voice profiling technology today is on emotion, sentiment, and personality. But experts tell me it is scientifically possible to tell the height of a person, the weight, the race, and even some diseases. There are actually companies now trying to assess, for example, whether you have Alzheimer’s based upon your voice…

The issue is that this new voice intelligence industry—run by companies you know, such as Amazon and Google, and some you don’t, such as NICE and Verint—is sweeping across society, yet there is little public discussion about the implications. The need for this conversation becomes especially urgent when we consider the long-term harms that could result if voice profiling and surveillance technologies are used not only for commercial marketing purposes, but also by political marketers and governments, to say nothing of hackers stealing data.

There are hundreds of millions of smart speakers out there, and far more phones with assistants, listening to you and capturing your voice. Voice technology already permeates virtually every important area of personal interaction—as assistants on your phone and in your car, in smart speakers at home, in hotels, schools, even stores instead of salespeople. 

Amazon and Google have several patents centering around voice profiling that describe a rich future for the practice…But consider the downside: we could be denied loans, have to pay much more for insurance, or be turned away from jobs, all on the basis of physiological characteristics and linguistic patterns that may not reflect what marketers believe they reflect.

The first thing to realize is that voice assistants are not our friends no matter how friendly they sound. I argue, in fact, that voice profiling marks a red line for society that shouldn’t be crossed.

From Natural Landmark to an Oil Spill Wasteland

Mohammad Abubakar, Minister of Environment  disclosed in July 2021 that Nigeria recorded 4,919 oil spills between 2015 to March 2021 and lost 4.5 trillion barrels of oil to theft in four years.

Mr Abubakar disclosed this at a Town Hall meeting in Abuja, organised by the Ministry of Information and Culture, on protecting oil and gas infrastructure. “The operational maintenance is 106, while sabotage is 3,628 and yet to be determined 70, giving the total number of oil spills on the environment to 235,206 barrels of oil. This is very colossal to the environment.

“Several statistics have emphasised Nigeria as the most notorious country in the world for oil spills, loosing roughly 400,000 barrels per day. “The second country is followed by Mexico that has reported only 5,000 to 10,000 barrel only per day, thus a difference of about 3, 900 per cent.

“Attack on oil facilities has become the innovation that replaced agitations in the Niger Delta region against perceived poor governance and neglect of the area.

Excerpts from Nigeria Records 4,919 Oil Spills in 6 Years, 4.5trn Barrels Stolen in 4 Years, AllAfrica.com, July 6, 2021

Who’s Not Giving a Damn about Nuclear Fallout

On May 1st 1962, French officials in Algeria told Algerians to leave their homes in the southern city of Tamanrasset. It was just a precaution. France was about to detonate an atom bomb, known as Beryl, in the desert some 150km away. The blast would be contained underground. Two French ministers were there to witness the test. But things did not go as planned. The underground shaft at the blast site was not properly sealed. The mountain (Taourirt Tan Afella) above the site cracked and black smoke spread everywhere. The ministers (and everyone else nearby) ran as radioactive particles leaked into the air. Nevertheless, in the months and years after, locals would go to the area to recover scrap metal from the blast for use in their homes.

France carried out 17 nuclear tests in Algeria between 1960 and 1966. Many took place after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, under an agreement between the two countries. There are no good data on the effects of the explosions on public health and the environment, but locals note that some people living near the test sites have suffered cancers and birth defects typically caused by radiation. The sites, say activists, are still contaminated.

Taourirt is a group dedicated to identifying the location of nuclear waste left by France. All that exists in the public domain is an inventory of the contaminated materials buried somewhere in the desert. (The known test sites are poorly secured by the Algerian government.) Others are pressing France to clean up the sites and compensate victims. There has been some progress in this direction, but not enough, say activists.

In 2010 the French parliament passed the Morin law, which is meant to compensate those with health problems resulting from exposure to the nuclear tests. (France carried out nearly 200 tests in French Polynesia, too.) But the law only pertains to certain illnesses and requires claimants to show they were living near the tests when they took place. This is difficult enough for Algerians who worked for the French armed forces: few had formal contracts. It is almost impossible for anyone else. Only a small fraction of the claims filed have come from Algeria.

Excerpts from Algeria and France: Lingering Fallout, Economist, June 26, 2021

How to Detect Humans Under-the-Ground: Surveillance Best

Tunnel-digging in times of conflict has a long history. These days, secret tunnels are used to move weapons and people between Gaza and Egypt, and by Kurdish militia operating on the frontier between Syria and Turkey. But the same principle applies. What happens underground is hard for the enemy to observe. Digging for victory is therefore often a good idea…

That, though, may be about to change. Real-time Subsurface Event Assessment and Detection (RESEAD), a project being undertaken at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, uses novel sensors to make accurate maps of what is happening underground. This will, no doubt, have many civilian applications. But Sandia is principally a weapons lab…The sensors themselves are a mixture of accelerometers, which pick up vibrations, current detectors, which measure the electrical-resistance of rocks and soil, and subsurface radar…

Exactly how RESEAD sensors would be put in place in a zone of active conflict remains to be seen. But the system could certainly be useful for other sorts of security. In particular, America has a problem with tunnels under its border with Mexico being used to smuggle drugs and migrants into the country. RESEAD would be able to detect existing tunnels and nip new ones in the bud. 

Excerpts from Tunnel Vision: How to detect the enemy when they are underground, Economist, June 24, 2021

How to Spy on Your Own Country for $1.25 per day

San Francisco-based Premise Data Corp. pays users, many of them in the developing world, to complete basic tasks for small payments. Typical assignments involve snapping photos, filling out surveys or doing other basic data collection or observational reporting such as counting ATMs or reporting on the price of consumer goods like food.

About half of the company’s clients are private businesses seeking commercial information, Premise says. That can involve assignments like gathering market information on the footprint of competitors, scouting locations and other basic, public observational tasks. Premise in recent years has also started working with the U.S. military and foreign governments, marketing the capability of its flexible, global, gig-based workforce to do basic reconnaissance and gauge public opinion.

Premise is one of a growing number of companies that straddle the divide between consumer services and government surveillance and rely on the proliferation of mobile phones as a way to turn billions of devices into sensors that gather open-source information useful to government security services around the world.

Premise launched in 2013,, As of 2019, the company’s marketing materials said it has 600,000 contributors operating in 43 countries, including global hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. According to federal spending records, Premise has received at least $5 million since 2017 on military projects—including from contracts with the Air Force and the Army and as a subcontractor to other defense entities. In one pitch on its technology, prepared in 2019 for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, Premise proposed three potential uses that could be carried out in a way that is “responsive to commander’s information requirements”: gauge the effectiveness of U.S. information operations; scout and map out key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes; and covertly monitor cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square-kilometer area. The presentation said tasks needed to be designed to “safeguard true intent”—meaning contributors wouldn’t necessarily be aware they were participating in a government operation…

 Another Premise document says the company can design “proxy activities” such as counting bus stops, electricity lines or ATMs to provide incentives for contributors to move around as background data is gathered. Data from Wi-Fi networks, cell towers and mobile devices can be valuable to the military for situational awareness, target tracking and other intelligence purposes. There is also tracking potential in having a distributed network of phones acting as sensors, and knowing the signal strength of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points can be useful when trying to jam communications during military operations. Nearby wireless-network names can also help identify where a device is, even if the GPS is off, communications experts say.

Mr. Blackman said gathering open-source data of that nature doesn’t constitute intelligence work. “Such data is available to anyone who has a cellphone,” he said. “It is not unique or secret.” Premise submitted a document last July to the British government describing its capabilities, saying it can capture more than 100 types of metadata from its contributors’ phones and provide them to paying customers—including the phone’s location, type, battery level and installed apps. 

Users of the Premise app aren’t told which entity has contracted with the company for the information they are tasked with gathering. The company’s privacy policy discloses that some clients may be governments and that it may collect certain types of data from the phone, according to a spokesman…Currently the app assigns about five tasks a day to its users in Afghanistan, according to interviews with users there, including taking photos of ATMs, money-exchange shops, supermarkets and hospitals. One user in Afghanistan said he and others there are typically paid 20 Afghani per task, or about 25 cents—income for phone and internet services. A few months ago, some of the tasks on the site struck him as potentially concerning. He said the app posted several tasks of identifying and photographing Shiite mosques in a part of western Kabul populated largely by members of the ethnic Hazara Shiite minority. The neighborhood was attacked several times by Islamic State over the past five years…. Because of the nature and location of the tasks in a hot spot for terrorism, the user said he thought those tasks could involve spying and didn’t take them on.

Excerpt from Byron Tau, App Users Unwittingly Collect Intelligence, WSJ,  June 25, 2010

Green Con Artists and their Moneyed Followers

Green investing has grown so fast that there is a flood of money chasing a limited number of viable companies that produce renewable energy, electric cars and the like. Some money managers are stretching the definition of green in how they deploy investors’ funds. Now billions of dollars earmarked for sustainable investment are going to companies with questionable environmental credentials and, in some cases, huge business risks. They include a Chinese incinerator company, an animal-waste processor that recently settled a state lawsuit over its emissions and a self-driving-truck technology company.

One way to stretch the definition is to fund companies that supply products for the green economy, even if they harm the environment to do so. In 2020 an investment company professing a “strong commitment to sustainability” merged with the operator of an open-pit rare-earth mine in California at a $1.5 billion valuation. Although the mine has a history of environmental problems and has to bury low-level radioactive uranium waste, the company says it qualifies as green because rare earths are important for electric cars and because it doesn’t do as much harm as overseas rivals operating under looser regulations…

When it comes to green companies, “there just isn’t enough” to absorb investor demand…In response, MSCI has looked at other ways to rank companies for environmentally minded investors, for example ranking “the greenest within a dirty industry”….

Of all the industries seeking green money, deep-sea mining may be facing the harshest environmental headwinds. Biologists, oceanographers and the famous environmentalist David Attenborough have been calling for a yearslong halt of all deep-sea mining projects. A World Bank report warned of the risk of “irreversible damage to the environment and harm to the public” from seabed mining and urged caution. More than 300 deep-sea scientists released a statement today calling for a ban on all seabed mining until at least 2030. In late March 2021, Google, battery maker Samsung SDI Co., BMW AG and heavy truck maker Volvo Group announced that they wouldn’t buy metals from deep-sea mining.

[However the The Metals Company (TMC) claims that deep seabed mining is green].

Excerpts from Justin Scheck et al, Environmental Investing Frenzy Stretches Meaning of ‘Green’, WSJ, June 24, 2021

Tesla as Catfish: When China Carps-Tech CEOs Fall in Line

Many countries are wrestling with how to regulate digital records. Some economies, including in Europe, emphasize the need for data privacy, while others, such as China and Russia, put greater focus on government control. The U.S. currently doesn’t have a single federal-level law on data protection or security; instead, the Federal Trade Commission is broadly empowered to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive data practices.

Behind China’s moves is a growing sense among leaders that data accumulated by the private sector should in essence be considered a national asset, which can be tapped or restricted according to the state’s needs, according to the people involved in policy-making. Those needs include managing financial risks, tracking virus outbreaks, supporting state economic priorities or conducting surveillance of criminals and political opponents. Officials also worry companies could share data with foreign business partners, undermining national security.


Beijing’s latest economic blueprint for the next five years, released in March 2021, emphasized the need to strengthen government sway over private firms’ data—the first time a five-year plan has done so. A key element of Beijing’s push is a pair of laws, one passed in June 2021, the Data Security Law,  and the other a proposal updated by China’s legislature in Apr0il 2021. Together, they will subject almost all data-related activities to government oversight, including their collection, storage, use and transmission. The legislation builds on the 2017 Cybersecurity Law that started tightening control of data flows.

The law will “clearly implement a more stringent management system for data related to national security, the lifeline of the national economy, people’s livelihood and major public interests,” said a spokesman for the National People’s Congress, the legislature. The proposed Personal Information Protection Law, modeled on the European Union’s data-protection regulation, seeks to limit the types of data that private-sector firms can collect. Unlike the EU rules, the Chinese version lacks restrictions on government entities when it comes to gathering information on people’s call logs, contact lists, location and other data.

In late May 2021, citing concerns over user privacy, the Cyberspace Administration of China singled out 105 apps—including ByteDance’s video-sharing service Douyin and Microsoft Corp.’s Bing search engine and LinkedIn service—for excessively collecting and illegally accessing users’ personal information. The government gave the companies named 15 days to fix the problems or face legal consequences….

Beijing’s pressure on foreign firms to fall in line picked up with the 2017 Cybersecurity Law, which included a provision calling for companies to store their data on Chinese soil. That requirement, at least initially, was largely limited to companies deemed “critical infrastructure providers,” a loosely defined category that has included foreign banks and tech firms….Since 2021, Chinese regulators have formally made the data-localization requirement a prerequisite for foreign financial institutions trying to get a foothold in China. Citigroup Inc. and BlackRock Inc. are among the U.S. firms that have so far agreed to the rule and won licenses to start wholly-owned businesses in China…

Senior officials have publicly likened Tesla to a “catfish” rather than a “shark,” saying the company could uplift the auto sector the way working with Apple and Motorola Mobility LLC helped elevate China’s smartphone and telecommunications industries. To ensure Tesla doesn’t become a security risk, China’s Cyberspace Administration recently issued a draft rule that would forbid electric-car makers from transferring outside China any information collected from users on China’s roads and highways. It also restricted the use of Tesla cars by military personnel and staff of some state-owned companies amid concerns that the vehicles’ cameras could send information about government facilities to the U.S. In late May 2021, Tesla confirmed it had set up a data center in China and would domestically store data from cars it sold in the country. It said it joined other Chinese companies, including Alibaba and Baidu Inc., in the discussion of the draft rules arranged by the CyberSecurity Association of China, which reports to the Cyberspace Administration…

Increasingly, China’s president, Mr. Xi, leaned toward voices advocating greater digital control. He now labels big data as another essential element of China’s economy, on par with land, labor and capital.  “From the point of view of the state, anti-data monopoly must be strengthened,” said Li Lihui, a former president of state-owned Bank of China Ltd. and now a member of China’s legislature. He said he expects China to establish a “centralized and unified public database” to underpin its digital economy.

Excerpts from China’s New Power Play: More Control of Tech Companies’ Troves of Data, WSJ, June 12, 2021

Nuking Tahiti: the Moruroa Files

From 1966 to 1974, France blew up 41 nuclear weapons in above-ground tests in French Polynesia, the collection of 118 islands and atolls that is part of France. The French government has long contended that the testing was done safely. But a new analysis of hundreds of documents declassified in 2013 suggests the tests exposed 90% of the 125,000 people living in French Polynesia to radioactive fallout—roughly 10

The findings come from a 2-year collaboration, dubbed the Moruroa Files, between Disclose, a French nonprofit that supports investigative journalism; Interprt, a collective of researchers, architects, and spatial designers affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who focus on environmental issues; and the Science & Global Security program at Princeton. The findings were presented on 9 March on the project’s website, in a book, and in a technical paper posted to the arXiv preprint server.

The abandoned testing facility at the Moruroa Atoll. The atoll is at the risk of collapsing due to nuclear blasts

Declassified documents suggest actual exposures were between two and 20 times higher than France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) estimates… Reasons for the discrepancies vary from test to test, he says. For example, CEA acknowledged that the first test, dubbed Aldébaran, exposed residents of the Gambier Islands to relatively high levels of fallout. But actual exposures were likely higher still… Although CEA noted that contaminated rainwater fell on the island, he says, it failed to consider that many residents likely drank the contaminated water, collected in household cisterns, for days.

Most important, the documents suggest a single test in 1974, called Centaure, exposed the entire population of Tahiti—87,500 people at the time—to fallout. French authorities set off a relatively tiny atom bomb with an explosive yield equal to 4 kilotons of TNT, and weather forecasts predicted that winds should carry fallout to the north. Instead, the wind blew to the west, carrying the plume directly over Tahiti. A new simulation based on data in the documents shows how the plume of radiation wafted over the island. CEA estimated that people on the island received a dose of about 0.6 mSv.  However, Phillipe and colleagues argue that CEA underestimated the total amount of radiation that accumulated on the ground over several days, didn’t account for radiation lingering in vegetables consumed later…

The new analysis moves the vast majority of French Polynesians past the exposure threshold to qualify for compensation. Philippe and Schoenberger would like to see France do away with the exposure standard and compensate anyone who lived through the tests and developed a qualifying cancer. “Our hope is to demonstrate that this kind of threshold can be prejudicial to claimants just because of the difficulties of proving exposure,” Schoenberger says.

Philippe estimates that, assuming a cancer rate of 0.2% per year, roughly 10,000 cancer patients or their families would qualify retroactively and that compensating them would cost about €700 million. Future cancers would cost about €24 million per year, he estimates. However, Hughes says it remains to be seen whether the French government will even acknowledge the analysis. “My fear is that they will simply ignore it,” Hughes says.

The declassified documents also show the French government routinely failed to warn Polynesians about the radiation risks, Philippe says. In the Centaure test, authorities could have warned Tahitians about the approaching fallout 2 days in advance, but did not. Ironically, Philippe notes, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries were monitoring the tests remotely. “Everybody knew what was going on,” he says, “except the Polynesians.”

Excerpt from Adrian Cho, France grossly underestimated radioactive fallout from atom bomb tests, study finds, Science, Mar. 11, 2021

Wild West: Mercury Pollution in the Amazon Rainforest

Munduruku Indigenous people in the Tapajós basin – an epicenter of illegal gold mining in the Amazon rainforest – in southwestern Pará state have reported increasing encroachments upon their lands by armed “wildcat” miners known as “garimpeiros” since March 14, 2021. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office has warned of a potential for violence between local residents and the miners and urged the deployment of the federal police and other authorities to remove the trespassers. But the government has yet to act. The tension has escalated in recent weeks after a group of miners brought equipment to the area.

Illegal mining causes significant deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and has been linked to dangerous levels of mercury poisoning, from mercury widely used to process the gold, in several Munduruku communities along the Tapajós basin. Indigenous people also fear that miners could spread the Covid-19 virus in their communities.

In a public statement on March 16, 2021 the Federal Prosecutor’s Office reported that a helicopter appeared to have escorted the miners and their equipment, suggesting the invasion is “an orchestrated action” by an organized crime group. The office also reported that the miners may be coordinating the invasion with a “small group” of Indigenous people who support the mining. Members of Munduruku communities who oppose the mining and have reported the invasions to the authorities say they have faced threats and intimidation. On March 19, 2021 armed men reportedly prevented a group of Munduruku Indigenous people from disembarking from their boats in an area within their territory. On March 25, 2021 in the Jacareacanga municipality, miners and their supporters forced their way into a building that houses the Wakoborun Women’s Association and other community organizations that have opposed the mining. The attackers destroyed furniture and equipment and set fire to documents, Indigenous leaders reported…

President Bolsonaro has signaled his aversion to protecting Indigenous lands. As a candidate, he vowed not to designate “one more centimeter” of land as Indigenous territory. His administration has halted the demarcation of Indigenous territories – there are 237 pending requests – leaving Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to encroachments, deforestation, and violence. The Munduruku territory is already demarcated. In 2020, Bolsonaro introduced a draft bill in Congress to allow mining and other commercial activities in Indigenous territories. The bill is pending in Congress and is listed as one of Bolsonaro’s priorities.

Excerpt from Brazil: Remove Miners from Indigenous Amazon Territory, Human Rights Watch, Apr. 12, 2021

Shallow Your Tongue: The Giddy Western Plutocracy of Hong Kong

You might think the death of liberalism in Asia’s financial center, Hong Kong, which hosts $10trn of cross-border investments, would trigger panic, capital flight and a business exodus. Instead Hong Kong is enjoying a financial boom. Share offerings have soared as China’s leading companies list there. Western firms are in the thick of it: the top underwriters are Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. In 2020, the value of us dollar payments cleared in Hong Kong, a hub for the world’s reserve currency, hit a record $11trn.

The same pattern of political oppression and commercial effervescence is to be found on the mainland…Yet when they talk to shareholders about China, global firms gloss over this brutal reality: “Very happy,” says Siemens; “Phenomenal,” reckons Apple; and “Remarkable,” says Starbucks…Tougher policing does not affect Westerners, says a mainland financier. His foreign clients in Hong Kong laugh about the anxious memos they receive from bosses at home, asking about political developments. “It doesn’t really affect their life, right? They’re not going on the street to try to demonstrate against the government.”

Mainland China attracted $163bn of fresh multinational investment in 2020, more than any other country. It is opening the mainland capital markets to foreigners, who have invested $900bn, in a landmark shift for global finance.

Moreover, the pull China exerts is no longer just a matter of size—although, with 18% of world GDP, it has that too. The country is also where firms discover consumer trends and innovations. It is increasingly where commodity prices and the cost of capital are set, and is becoming a source of regulations. Business is betting that, in Hong Kong and the mainland, China’s… government is capable of self-restraint in the commercial sphere, providing contractual certainty, despite the lack of fully independent courts and free speech. Though China’s best-known tycoon, Jack Ma, has fallen from political favor, foreign investors’ stakes in his empire are still worth over $500bn.

Excerpts from Dealing with China, The Way its Going to Be, Economist, Mar 20, 2021 

The Horrors of Bombing: 50 Years After

 In Cambodia, however, fertile land often signifies danger rather than abundance. When America dropped an estimated 1.8m tonnes of explosives on the country during the Vietnam war, those falling on hard ground generally detonated, whereas many landing on softer earth did not. No one knows how many bombs remain in rich soil. But a paper by four academics at Ohio State University who studied satellite images and reports by landmine-removal groups from a single village, found that perhaps half of the munitions have not exploded.

These wartime remnants have given the United States’ bombing campaign of 1965-73—which ostensibly targeted Viet Cong supply lines, but caused perhaps 150,000 deaths—an enduringly lethal legacy. Since 1979, unexploded ordnance has killed at least 19,000 people in Cambodia (though some may have been blown up by landmines from subsequent wars, rather than by American bombs). Cambodia now has the world’s highest rate of amputees.

A recent study by Erin Lin shows that America’s bombardment injured not just Cambodia’s people but its economy as well. She first interviewed farmers in the country, who said they thought that richer, darker soil presented an unusually high risk of hidden ordnance—especially in heavily bombed areas. They work in constant fear of explosions. Some said that they only planted crops in parts of their farms that they were confident contained no bombs, or that they used hand tools instead of machines to reduce the risk of detonation.

Excerpt from Blood and Soil: American Bombing 50 Years Ago Still Shapes Cambodian Agriculture, Mar. 20, 2021

The Thirst for Rape that Won’t Go Away

Ethiopia’s government says it is conducting a policing operation against the ousted rulers of Tigray, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. Yet as phone connections to the region are restored, having been cut off since the fighting started on November 4th, 2020 credible reports of atrocities and war crimes are emerging. Many involve troops from neighbouring Eritrea, who are fighting alongside Ethiopian forces.

Perhaps the worst incident took place in Axum, one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities. According to Amnesty International, a rights group, Eritrean soldiers killed hundreds of civilians over two days in late November 2020 in retaliation for an attack on their camp. The soldiers picked out unarmed young men and killed them on the spot. They then plundered the city. “All we could see on the streets were bodies and people crying,” one survivor told Amnesty…

Months of restrictions on journalists and NGOs make it hard to know exactly what has been happening. The state-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says it is investigating the Axum massacre and that its preliminary findings indicate that Eritrean soldiers killed a number of civilians in the city. It says it is also investigating reports of shelling in several parts of Tigray. Ethiopian officials including the president, Sahle-Work Zewde, have admitted that women in Tigray have been raped in large numbers. “We cannot pretend that we do not see or hear,” she said on February 19th, 2021. But she failed to identify the perpetrators, even though the victims said their rapists were soldiers in Eritrean and Ethiopian uniforms.

One survivor recounted a harrowing 10-day ordeal during which she said she and five other women were gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers. She said the troops joked and took photos as they injected her with a drug, tied her to a rock, stripped, stabbed and raped repeatedly her. Doctors who’ve treated Tigrayan women have said one woman’s vagina was stuffed with nails, stones and plastic.

Excepts from Murder in the mountains: Soldiers have killed hundreds of civilians in Tigray, Economist, Feb. 27, 2021

The Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown: Ten Years — and Counting

A resolution to the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains a distant goal a decade after three of its reactors melted down. The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin because of high radiation inside the reactor buildings, putting the targeted decommissioning of the plant by 2051 into doubt.

More than 80% of the Japanese public doesn’t feel significant progress is being made and is concerned about further accidents because of recent events. On Feb. 13, 2021 a large earthquake centered near Fukushima, an aftershock of the one 10 years ago, caused water to slosh out of a tank containing spent fuel rods, which must be kept submerged to avoid overheating. A week later, a fish caught off the coast of Fukushima was found to contain 10 times the allowed level of radioactive cesium…This incident shows how risks from the plant continue to weigh on those who live and work nearby. 

“We are still struggling with harmful rumors from the nuclear plant accident,” said Tadaaki Sawada, a spokesman for the federation of Fukushima fishery cooperatives. “How many more years will it continue?”…By several measures, the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 has been contained. Only around 2% of Fukushima prefecture, or state, is still a no-go area, down from 12% immediately after the disaster. An extensive decontamination process removed topsoil from areas around the plant. Still, thousands of people remain forced out of towns closest to the plant.

In 2020, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, and the government were close to a decision to start releasing into the sea over a million cubic meters of water from the plant, but plans were suspended amid opposition from local fishermen and concerns raised by neighboring countries. Contaminated rain and groundwater is stored in large tanks that dominate one side of the plant site. Once treated to remove most radioactive elements, the water still contains tritium, a form of hydrogen that emits a weak form of radiation. Tritium is regularly released into the sea and air from nuclear plants around the world after dilution.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the Fukushima plant in 2020 and said disposal of the treated water into the sea would be in line with international practice. “A decision on the disposition path should be taken urgently” to keep the overall decommissioning on track, the IAEA said.

The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin…Tepco has yet to get a clear picture of the location of molten fuel in the reactors because the levels of radiation are damaging even to robots…Gov. Uchibori said that gaining an accurate grasp of the molten-fuel situation was critical to making headway. “If you look at the entire process, right now we are still around the starting point of decommissioning,” he said.

Excerpts from Alastair Gale Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup Is Just Beginning a Decade After Disaster, 

So You Want a Job? De-Humanizing the Hiring Process

Dr. Lee, chairman and chief executive of venture-capital firm Sinovation Ventures and author of “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order,” maintains that AI “will wipe out a huge portion of work as we’ve known it.” He hit on that theme when he spoke at The Wall Street Journal’s virtual CIO Network summit.

Artificial intelligence (AI) (i.e., robots), according to Dr. Lee, can be used for recruiting…We can have a lot of résumés coming in, and we want to match those résumés with job descriptions and route them to the right managers. If you’re thinking about AI computer and video interaction, there are products you can deploy to screen candidates. For example, AI can have a conversation with the person, via videoconference. And then AI would grade the people based on their answers to your questions that are preprogrammed, as well as your micro-expressions and facial expressions, to reflect whether you possess the right IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence) for a particular job.

Excerpts from Jared Council , AI’s Impact on Businesses—and Jobs, WSJ,  Mar. 8, 2021

The Fake Green Labels Lulling Our Conscience

Certification is a verification process through which an owner of a farm, a fishery or a forest can indicate they comply with social or environmental standards, and earn the right to sell their products as certified. Certified products often include consumer-facing ecolabels. Companies producing or trading “forest and ecosystem-risk commodities” often rely on certification to reassure customers. They want to show that they or their suppliers have taken action to minimize the negative environmental and social impacts linked to production, so their products can be considered ‘sustainable’.

According to a Greenpeace report, while some certification schemes have strong standards, weak implementation combined with a lack of transparency and product traceability means even these schemes have major failings. Too many certified companies continue to be linked to forest and ecosystem destruction, land disputes and human rights abuses. Currently, certification enables destructive businesses to continue operating as usual. By improving the image of forest and ecosystem risk commodities and so stimulating demand, certification risks actually increasing the harm caused by the expansion of commodity production. Certification schemes thus end up greenwashing products linked to deforestation, ecosystem destruction and rights abuses.

Excerpt from Certification schemes such as FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) are greenwashing forest destruction, Greenpeace Press release, Mar. 10, 2021

Beyond Deforestation–Toxic Waste Pollution at the Amazon Rainforest

Maria do Socorro explains in graphic detail the spate of ailments affecting newborns in her remote community in the Amazon: her grandson died after being born with his intestines outside his body, while others were missing organs or had undeveloped bones.  For the 56-year-old community leader, there is little doubt about the cause of these illnesses. She said the rainforest town had for years suffered from toxic waste pollution from the local operations of Norwegian aluminum producer Norsk Hydro.

Long a simmering environmental scandal in Brazil, the allegations were brought on to the international stage in February 2021 when Socorro’s community sued the Norwegian giant in a Dutch court, seeking damages for claims that “the incorrect disposal of toxic waste” from operations in the area had caused a variety of health ailments, polluted the rainforest and destroyed economic opportunities.

“If business can be global, why can’t justice? These companies have businesses everywhere, but then when they do something wrong they want to smother the possibility of people getting compensation,” said Pedro Martins, partner at law firm PGMBM, which is representing 40,000 alleged victims bringing the suit against Norsk Hydro…

Through local entities, Norsk Hydro runs three facilities — a bauxite mine, a refinery and a smelter — in Pará, a vast Amazonian state that is a flashpoint for illegal deforestation, gold mining and land-grabbing.  The company…denied that in 2018 pollutants from its facilities spilled over during heavy rains and polluted nearby rivers and earth….

Locals say bauxite, lead and aluminium pollution have turned the region’s rivers red. A study from the Evandro Chagas Institute, a Brazilian public health body, found in 2018 that the region’s waters were so polluted with industrial waste from the Norsk Hydro facilities that they “cannot be used for recreation, fishing, or human consumption”.

“I invite these Norwegians to come and bathe in our waters. I challenge them. They have good water there in Norway. Our wealth just goes there,” said Socorro, who heads Cainquiama, a group representing mainly indigenous people and quilombolas — the descendants of runaway slaves. Nearly all of the claimants in the suit have complained about chronic pain, hair loss and skin conditions. The suit also contains claims in relation to birth defects, such as those that have affected Socorro’s grandson, who was born with gastroschisis — a hole in the abdominal wall.

The case is a sensitive one for Norwegian investors and the government, which owns a 34 per cent stake in Norsk Hydro. Oslo has long attempted to hold Brasília to account for the environmental destruction of the Amazon, even publishing its own data on deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.

Excerpts from Bryan Harris, Norsk Hydro blamed for birth defects in Amazon forest pollution case, FT, Feb. 27, 2021

Gorillas, Murders and Making $1.50 per day-Congo Rainforest

Protecting the forests of Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – home to endangered mountain gorillas – could be described as one of the toughest jobs on the planet. In the past 12 months, more than 20 of the park’s staff have been murdered – and last week rebels were accused of killing the Italian ambassador to DR Congo, his security guard and driver in an attack within the park. “The level of sacrifice that’s involved in keeping this work going will always be the hardest thing to deal with,” says Emmanuel de Merode, who is in charge of more than 800 rangers at Virunga, Africa’s oldest and largest national park.


The Virunga park spans 7,800 sq km (3,000 sq miles) and is home to an astonishingly diverse landscape – from active volcanoes and vast lakes to rainforest and mountains.
The park was set up nearly 100 years ago to protect mountain gorillas, of which there are only 1,000 left in the world. It’s a national park which is part of the Congolese state which has been affected by civil war for the most of its recent history.

In  April 2020, 13 rangers were murdered in what park officials described as a “ferociously violent and sustained” attack by an armed group In January 2021, six rangers, patrolling the park’s boundary on foot, were killed in an ambush by militias. All of those who died were aged between 25 and 30.  It’s a national park which is part of the Congolese state which has been affected by civil war…. 

It’s estimated that a dozen or so armed militia groups survive off the park’s resources – poaching or chopping down wood to sell for fuel. DR Congo’s natural resources have been fought over for decades. The country – which is the size of mainland western Europe – has more mineral wealth, with diamonds, oil, cobalt and copper, than anywhere else on the planet. These are some of the elements essential to modern technology, making up key components in electric cars and smartphones.
Virunga is no different. It’s rich in resources underground as well as in nature and wildlife. But the two million people living in the region of the park mainly live on under $1.50 (£1.08) a day. This tussle for survival is not lost on Mr De Merode who sees protecting the park as essentially a social justice issue.

“It’s not a simple problem of protecting gorillas and elephants; it is overcoming an economic problem at the heart of one of the most horrific civil wars in history,” says Merode. 

Excerpt from Vivienne Nunis and Sarah Treanor, DR Congo’s Virunga National Park: The deadly job of protecting gorillas, BBC, Mar. 4, 2021

The Great Green Wall and its Past Mistakes

The Great Green Wall  aims to transform the lives of some 100 million people by planting a mosaic of trees, shrubs, and grasses along a corridor stretching some 8000 kilometers across Africa by 2030. Since the African Union first launched the Great Green Wall in 2007, the initiative has struggled to make headway. Made up of local efforts across 11 countries, it has reached just 16% of its overall goal to vegetate 150 million hectares.

But in January 2021, the project—which analysts estimate will cost at least $30 billion—got a major boost: a pledge of $14 billion in funding over the next 5 years from a coalition of international development banks and governments. The money is meant to accelerate the effort to sustain livelihoods, conserve biodiversity, and combat desertification and climate change, French President Emmanuel Macron said in announcing the pledges on January 11, 2021.

Environmental restoration and community development specialists welcomed the news. But many are also apprehensive. In recent years, research by ecologists, economists, and social scientists has shown that many forestry projects around the world have failed because they didn’t adequately address fundamental social and ecological issues…Many efforts, particularly those not led by local communities, stumble. Newly planted trees can die of neglect when planners don’t engage communities from the start in discussions about which species to plant, as well as whether residents are willing and able to provide the water, fertilizer, and protection from grazing animals that saplings need. Farmers are often busy and have their own priorities; they “will not … manage trees that they do not value.” …

Elvis Paul Tangem, who coordinates the Great Green Wall Initiative for the African Union Commission, agrees. He says promises to plant huge numbers of trees at low cost, for example at $1 per seedling, can distract from the real challenge. “You can plant a tree for $1,” he says, “but you cannot grow a tree for $1.”

Excerpt from Rachel CernanskyNew funds could help grow Africa’s Great Green Wall. But can the massive forestry effort learn from past mistakes?, Science, Feb. 11, 2021

Genomic Surveillance

The use of DNA profiling for individual cases of law enforcement has helped to identify suspects and to exonerate the innocent. But retaining genetic materials in the form of national DNA databases, which have proliferated globally in the past two decades, raises important human rights questions.

Privacy rights are fundamental human rights. Around the world, the unregulated collection, use, and retention of DNA has become a form of genomic surveillance. Kuwait passed a now-repealed law mandating the DNA profiling of the entire population. In China, the police systematically collected blood samples from the Xinjiang population under the guise of a health program, and the authorities are working to establish a Y-chromosome DNA database covering the country’s male population. Thailand authorities are establishing a targeted genetic database of Muslim minorities. Under policies set by the previous administration, the U.S. government has been indiscriminately collecting the genetic materials of migrants, including refugees, at the Mexican border.

Governments should reform surveillance laws and draft comprehensive privacy protections that tightly regulate the collection, use, and retention of DNA and other biometric identifiers .They should ban such activities when they do not meet international human rights standards of lawfulness, proportionality, and necessity.

Excerpts from Yves Moreau and Maya Wong, Risks of Genomic Surveillance and How to Stop it, Science, Feb. 2021

Natural Capital and Human Well-Being

What is the contribution of nature to the economy?… The breathable air, drinkable water and tolerable temperatures that allow humans to do everything they do, and the complex ecosystems that maintain them, tend to be taken for granted. Professor Dasgupta’s review on the Economics of Biodiversity does not seek to play on the heartstrings with tales of starving polar bears. Rather, it makes the hard-headed case that services provided by nature are an indispensable input to economic activity. Some of these services are relatively easy to discern: fish stocks, say, in the open ocean. Others are far less visible: such as the complex ecosystems within soil that recycle nutrients, purify water and absorb atmospheric carbon. These are unfamiliar topics for economists, so the review seeks to provide a “grammar” through which they can be analysed.

The report features its own illustrative production function, which includes nature. The environment appears once as a source of flows of extractable resources (like fish or timber). But it also shows up more broadly as a stock of “natural” capital. The inclusion of natural capital enables an analysis of the sustainability of current rates of economic growth. As people produce GDP, they extract resources from nature and dump waste back into it. If this extraction and dumping exceeds nature’s capacity to repair itself, the stock of natural capital shrinks and with it the flow of valuable environmental services. Between 1992 and 2014, according to a report published by the UN, the value of produced capital (such as machines and buildings) roughly doubled and that of human capital (workers and their skills) rose by 13%, while the estimated value of natural capital declined by nearly 40%. The demands humans currently place on nature, in terms of resource extraction and the dumping of harmful waste, are roughly equivalent to the sustainable output of 1.6 Earths (of which, alas, there is only the one)…Indeed, Professor Dasgupta argues that economists should acknowledge that there are in fact limits to growth. As the efficiency with which we make use of Earth’s finite bounty is bounded (by the laws of physics), there is necessarily some maximum sustainable level of GDP…

Professor Dasgupta hints at this problem by appealing to the “sacredness” of nature, in addition to his mathematical models and analytical arguments.

Excerpts from How should economists think about biodiversity?, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

At Gunpoint in Congo: Is Coltan Worse than Oil?

Tantalum, a metal used in smartphone and laptop batteries, is extracted from coltan ore. In 2019 40% of the world’s coltan was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to official data. More was sneaked into Rwanda and exported from there. Locals dig for the ore by hand in Congo’s eastern provinces, where more than 100 armed groups hide in the bush. Some mines are run by warlords who work with rogue members of the Congolese army to smuggle the coltan out.

When demand for electronics soared in the early 2000s, coltan went from being an obscure, semi-valuable ore to one of the world’s most sought-after minerals. Rebels fought over mines and hunted for new deposits. Soldiers forced locals to dig for it at gunpoint. Foreign money poured into Congo. Armed groups multiplied, eager for a share.

Then, in 2010, a clause in America’s Dodd-Frank Act forced American firms to audit their supply chains. The aim was to ensure they were not using minerals such as coltan, gold and tin that were funding Congo’s protracted war. For six months mines in eastern Congo were closed, as the authorities grappled with the new rules. Even when they reopened, big companies, such as Intel and Apple, shied away from Congo’s coltan, fearing a bad press.

The “Obama law”, as the Congolese nickname Dodd-Frank, did reduce cash flows to armed groups. But it also put thousands of innocent people out of work. A scheme to trace supply chains known as ITSCI run by the International Tin Association based in London and an American charity, Pact, helped bring tentative buyers back to Congo.  ITSCI staff turn up at mining sites to see if armed men are hanging about, pocketing profits. They check that no children are working in the pits. If a mine is considered safe and conflict-free, government agents at the sites put tags onto the sacks of minerals. However, some unscrupulous agents sell tags on the black market, to stick on coltan from other mines. “The agents are our brothers,” Martin says. It is hard to police such a violent, hilly region with so few roads. Mines are reached by foot or motorbike along winding, muddy paths.

For a long time those who preferred to export their coltan legally had to work with itsci, which held the only key to the international market. Miners groaned that itsci charged too much: roughly 5% of the value of tagged coltan. When another scheme called “Better Sourcing” emerged, Congo’s biggest coltan exporter, Société Minière de Bisunzu, signed up to it instead.

Excerpts from Smugglers’ paradise: Congo, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021

Living in the World of Tesla: Cobalt, Congo and China

 A 20% rise in the price of cobalt since the beginning of 2021 shows how the rush to build more electric vehicles is stressing global supply chains. 

A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. It typically is carried overland to South Africa, shipped out from the port of Durban, South Africa, and processed in China before the material goes to battery makers—meaning the supply chain has several choke points that make it vulnerable to disruption…

Car and battery makers have been looking for more control over their cobalt supply and ways to avoid the metal altogether. Honda Motor Co. last year formed an alliance with a leading Chinese car-battery maker, Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. , hoping that CATL’s supply-chain clout would help stabilize Honda’s battery supply..

Meanwhile, China plays a critical role even though it doesn’t have significant reserves of cobalt itself. Chinese companies control more than 40% of Congo’s cobalt-mining capacity, according to an estimate by Roskill, the London research firm…China’s ambassador to Congo was quoted in state media last year as saying more than 80 Chinese enterprises have invested in Congo and created nearly 50,000 local jobs…

To break China’s stronghold, auto makers and suppliers are trying to recycle more cobalt from old batteries and exploring other nations for alternative supplies of the material.  Another reason to look for alternatives is instability in Congo and continuing ethical concerns about miners working in sometimes-harsh conditions with rudimentary tools and no safety equipment.

Excerpt from Yang Jie, EV Surge Sends Cobalt Prices Soaring, WSJ, Jan. 23, 2021

The New Lepers: Oil in Ecuador and Arctic Drilling

Some of Europe’s largest banks are phasing out trading services for the export of oil from the Ecuadorean Amazon, a move that reflects the growing focus of global banks on climate change and their shift away from increasingly risky fossil fuels.

On January 25, 2021, Switzerland’s Credit Suisse Group AG and Holland’s ING said that they were excluding new transactions related to exports of Ecuador’s Amazonian oil from their trading activities, citing climate change and concerns for the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous people. France’s BNP Paribas SA, the largest bank in the eurozone and one of the region’s trading powerhouses, said in December 2020 that it would immediately exclude from its trading activities the seaborne exports of oil from the Esmeraldas region in Ecuador under its latest environmental finance policies.

Ecuador isn’t one of the world’s top oil producers, but petroleum exports are a key contributor to the country’s economy. Petroecuador, the nation’s state-owned oil company, didn’t respond to requests for comment.  The banks’ flight from Amazonian crude follows last year’s crash in oil prices and growing fears of so-called stranded assets, which are fossil fuels that lose value due to the world’s transition to cleaner forms of energy…

Banks are also facing calls from environmentalists and Indigenous peoples to limit their involvement in fossil fuels. In Ecuador, a campaign by activists and Indigenous people spurred ING and Credit Suisse to reduce their exposure to the Amazonian oil trade. The nonprofits Stand.earth and Amazon Watch published a report in 2020 that called out banks—including ING, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas—for their financing of Amazonian crude…

Banks and insurers are also cutting ties with Arctic oil drilling. This month, Axis Capital Holdings joined fellow insurers AXA and Swiss Re in pledging not to underwrite any new oil-and-gas drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.  The six biggest U.S. banks— Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. , Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo & Co.—have also said they would end funding for new drilling and exploration projects in the Arctic.

Excerpts from Dieter Holger & Pietro Lombardi, European Banks Quit Ecuador’s Amazonian Oil Trade, WSJ, Jan. 25, 2021

Assigning Responsibility for Oil Leaks: Shell’s Deep Pockets

Royal Dutch Shell’s  Nigerian subsidiary has been ordered on January 29, 2021 by a Dutch court to pay compensation for oil spills in two villages in Nigeria…The case was first lodged in 2008 by four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands. They had accused Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary of polluting fields and fish ponds through pipe leaks in the villages of Oruma and Goi.

The Court of Appeal in the Hague, where Shell has its headquarters, also ordered the company to install equipment to safeguard against future pipeline leaks. The amount of compensation payable related to the leaks, which occurred between 2004 and 2007, is yet to be determined by the court.  The case establishes a duty of care for the parent company to play a role in the pollution abroad, in this case by having the duty to make sure there is a leak-detection system…

Shell argued that the leaks were caused by sabotage…

In recent years there have been several cases in U.K. courts related to whether claimants can take matters to a parent company’s jurisdiction. In 2019, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that a case concerning pollution brought by a Zambian community against Vedanta, an Indian copper-mining company previously listed in the U.K., could be heard by English courts. “It established that a parent company can be liable for the actions of the subsidiary depending on the facts,” said Martyn Day, partner at law firm Leigh Day, which represented the Zambians.

The January 2021 case isn’t the first legal action Shell has faced related to pollution in Nigeria. In 2014, the company settled a case with over 15,000 Nigerians involved in the fishing industry who said they were affected by two oil spills, after claims were made to the U.K. High Court. Four months before the case was due to go to trial Shell, which has its primary stock-exchange listing in the U.K., agreed to pay 55 million British pounds, equivalent to $76 million…  

The January 2021  verdict tells oil majors that “when things go wrong they will be held to account and very likely held to account where their parent company is based,” said Mr. Day, adding that the ruling could spark more such actions.

Excerpts from Sarah McFarlane, Shell Ordered to Pay Compensation Over Nigerian Oil Spills, WSJ, Jan. 29, 2021

The Perils of Inhaling Lead Dust: Zambia

Kabwe,  in Zambia,  sprung up around a mine founded in 1904 by the Rhodesian Broken Hill Development Company, a British colonial firm. For decades miners crushed and burnt ore to extract lead. That metal made Kabwe but it also devastated it. To this day lead particles blow across town, making their way into houses and bloodstreams.

Scientists generally consider soil hazardous if it has more than 400mg of lead per kilogram. In three townships near the old mine the soil contains six, eight and 15 times that amount, according to analysis in 2014 by Pure Earth, an environmental ngo. “Kabwe is the most toxic place I’ve ever been to,” says Richard Fuller, its president…

The pollution in Kabwe is a scandal. Yet responsibility for it has long been contested, and that is set to continue. In October 2020, Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys, a South African law firm, with help from Leigh Day, a British one, announced a class-action lawsuit against a subsidiary of Anglo American on behalf of potentially more than 100,000 children and women of reproductive age in Kabwe. It is targeting Anglo because it was affiliated to the mine from the 1920s until shortly after Zambia’s mines were nationalised in 1970. The suit claims that most of the pollution stems from the period when the mine was under the de facto control of Anglo, which allegedly did not do enough to stop the harm. Anglo rejects the claims, arguing that its involvement ended five decades ago and that, before then, it was neither the operator nor a majority shareholder in the mine and thus not responsible.

The case may take years. The lawyers for the plaintiffs must first convince a South African court to take it on. Only then may it proceed to a trial. Meanwhile children in Kabwe will keep on playing in the dust.

The World Bank included Kabwe in a broader project it funded to clean up Zambian mines. The scheme, which ran from 2003-2011, had some successes. It dredged a toxic canal and buried some contaminated soil. But it did not treat the main source of the dust—the former mine and dumps—and it left roads unpaved and most houses untreated…Another clean-up funded by the bank was started in December 2016. But it, too, is struggling. Some children have been tested and have received therapy to reduce blood lead levels. But since little has been done about the lead in the environment there is a risk their levels will rise again. 

Excerpt from Mining’s Toxic Legacy: Lead Astray, Economist,  Dec. 12, 2020

The Worst Cultural Calamity of 2020: Blowing Up the 46 000-Year-Old Caves at the Juukan Gorge

In May 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto blasted through two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in order to mine iron ore. Evidence of human habitation there dates back tens of millennia.  Rio Tinto obtained permission to mine in the area in 2013, a right which was not affected by the discovery of ancient artefacts such as stone relics, faunal remains and human hair in one of the Juukan caves a year later…

Critics of Rio Tinto say there is abundant evidence that the company was aware of the site’s importance before the blasting. For example, the BBC reported that in the days running up to the caves’ destruction in May 2020, Rio Tinto hired lawyers in case opponents tried to seek injunctions to stop them.

Some 7,000 artefacts were discovered during the excavation of one of the Juukan sites.

Excerpt from MERRIT KENNEDY, A Mining Company Blew Up A 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site. Its CEO Is Resigning, NPR, Sept. 11, 2020

Satellites Shed Light on Modern Slavery in Fishing

While forced labor, a form of modern slavery, in the world’s fishing fleet has been widely documented, its extent remains unknown. No methods previously existed for remotely identifying individual fishing vessels potentially engaged in these abuses on a global scale. By combining expertise from human rights practitioners and satellite vessel monitoring data, scientists have showed in an recent study that vessels reported to use forced labor behave in systematically different ways from other vessels. Scientists used machine learning to identify high-risk vessels from among 16,000 industrial longliner, squid jigger, and trawler fishing vessels.

The study concluded that 14% and 26% of vessels were high-risk. It also revealed patterns of where these vessels fished and which ports they visited. Between 57,000 and 100,000 individuals worked on these vessels, many of whom may have been forced labor victims. This information provides unprecedented opportunities for novel interventions to combat this humanitarian tragedy….

The study found, inter alia, that longliners and trawlers using forced labor travel further from port and shore, fish more hours per day than other vessels, and have fewer voyages and longer voyage durations…  Taiwanese longliners, Chinese squid jiggers, and Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean longliners are consistently the five fisheries with the largest number of unique high-risk vessels. This pattern is consistent with reports on the abuses seen within distant water fleets that receive little legal oversight and often use marginalized migrant workers .

Excerpts from Gavin G. McDonald et, al, Satellites can reveal global extent of forced labor in the world’s fishing fleet, Dec. 21, 2020

Your Phone Is Listening: smart-phones as sniffers

U. S. government agencies from the military to law enforcement have been buying up mobile-phone data from the private sector to use in gathering intelligence, monitoring adversaries and apprehending criminals. Now, the U.S. Air Force is experimenting with the next step.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is testing a commercial software platform that taps mobile phones as a window onto usage of hundreds of millions of computers, routers, fitness trackers, modern automobiles and other networked devices, known collectively as the “Internet of Things.” SignalFrame, a Washington, D.C.-based wireless technology company, has developed the capability to tap software embedded on as many as five million cellphones to determine the real-world location and identity of more than half a billion peripheral devices. The company has been telling the military its product could contribute to digital intelligence efforts that weave classified and unclassified data using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The Air Force’s research arm bought the pitch, and has awarded a $50,000 grant to SignalFrame as part of a research and development program to explore whether the data has potential military applications, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Under the program, the Air Force could provide additional funds should the technology prove useful.

SignalFrame has largely operated in the commercial space, but the documents reviewed by the Journal show the company has also been gunning for government business. A major investor is Razor’s Edge, a national-security-focused venture-capital firm. SignalFrame hired a former military officer to drum up business and featured its products at military exhibitions, including a “pitch day” sponsored by a technology incubator affiliated with U.S. Special Operations command in Tampa, Fla.

SignalFrame’s product can turn civilian smartphones into listening devices—also known as sniffers—that detect wireless signals from any device that happens to be nearby. The company, in its marketing materials, claims to be able to distinguish a Fitbit from a Tesla from a home-security device, recording when and where those devices appear in the physical world. Using the SignalFrame technology, “one device can walk into a bar and see all other devices in that place,” said one person who heard a pitch for the SignalFrame product at a marketing industry event…

“The capturing and tracking of unique identifiers related to mobile devices, wearables, connected cars—basically anything that has a Bluetooth radio in it—is one of the most significant emerging privacy issues,” said Alan Butler, the interim executive director and general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that advocates for stronger privacy protections. “Increasingly these radios are embedded in many, many things we wear, use and buy,” Mr. Butler said, saying that consumers remain unaware that those devices are constantly broadcasting a fixed and unique identifier to any device in range.

Byron Tau,  Military Tests New Way of Tracking, WSJ, Nov. 28, 2020

To Steal To Survive: the Illegal Lumberjacks of the Amazon

The Amata logging company was supposed to represent an answer to the thorny problem of how countries like Brazil can take advantage of the Amazon rainforest without widespread deforestation.  But after spending tens of millions of dollars since 2010 to run a 178-square-mile concession in the rainforest to produce timber sustainably, Amata pulled out in April 2020. The reason: uncontrolled wildcat loggers who invaded Amata’s land, illegally toppling and stealing trees.

Amata’s executives in São Paulo said that instead of promoting and protecting legal businesses, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration did next to nothing to control the illegal loggers who invaded the concession in the western state of Rondônia. “It’s a conflict area,” Amata Chief Executive Ana Bastos said of the land granted to the company. “Those lumberjacks steal our lumber to survive. If we try to stop them, they will fight back. It will be an eternal conflict.”

Since they pay no taxes and make no effort to protect certain species or invest in restoration, illegal loggers can charge $431 per square meter of lumber, compared with $1,511 per square meter of legally logged timber, concession operators said.  “It is like having a regular, taxpaying shop competing with lots of tax-free peddlers right in front of your door,” said Jonas Perutti, owner of Lumbering Industrial Madeflona Ltda., which also operates concessions in the Amazon…

“The organized crime that funds illegal activity in the Amazon—including deforestation, land grabbing, lumber theft and mining—remains strong and active,” said Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian climate scientist. “It seems [the criminals] aren’t frightened by the government’s zero-tolerance rhetoric or don’t believe it’s serious.”…

Wildcat loggers are among the Amazon’s poorest residents, and many feel they have an ally in Mr. Bolsonaro,[Brazil’s President]…“There’s much corruption in law enforcement, and consumers don’t care if the wood they are buying is legal or not,” said Oberdan Perondi, a co-owner of a concession that is five times as large as Amata’s and also competes with illegal loggers.

Excerpt from Paulo Trevisani and Juan Forer, Brazil Wanted to Harvest the Amazon Responsibly. Illicit Loggers Axed the Plan, WSJ, Oct. 28, 2020

Paper Parks, their Elephants and Marginal People

Since 2010 Chad has taken a step that other African countries are increasingly following. It handed management of its national park to an NGO. Since African Parks took over, the elephant population has begun to rise. In 2011 just one calf was born; in 2018, 127 were. The revival is emblematic of broader success that public-private partnerships (PPPs) are having in conserving some of the most precious parts of the planet.  Sixty years ago, when decolonization was sweeping the continent, the UN counted 3,773 “protected areas” in Africa and its surrounding waters. By 1990 the figure was 6,075; today it is 8,468. Some 14% of the continent’s land has been categorized as protected, according to the World Database on Protected Areas…

Most “protected areas” are “paper parks”, argues Peter Fearnhead, the chief executive of African Parks. In theory their demarcation denotes stewardship; in practice there is often very little care. Since its founding in 2000 the NGO has grown to manage 19 parks in 11 countries. It is the largest of an expanding number of ppp operators across the continent. The African Parks model relies on “three ms”, explains Mr Fearnhead: a clear mandate from a government (which keeps ownership of the area but hands over the running to the NGO); sound management; and money from donors such as the EU.

Zakouma is African Parks’ flagship operation. When it took over its management the priority was security. The national park was caught up in Chad’s civil conflicts in the 2000s, when rebel groups, some backed by Sudan, took on government forces. Janjaweed militias, notorious for mass murder and rape in Darfur, took advantage of the vacuum to slaughter Zakouma’s elephants and launch attacks on nearby villages.
The approach to security is a blend of low and high tech. It relies on residents of surrounding areas to alert it to poachers. Local intelligence is then combined with satellite tracking of the elephants. This helps anti-poaching rangers to know where to go.

Winning the support of people on the edge of the park has been crucial. Locals are happy to help report sightings of the Janjaweed, since they fear being robbed or murdered by them. African Parks also negotiates with nomads to ensure their caravans of camels do not go through the park.

Excerpts from Elephants’ graveyard no more: African governments are outsourcing their natural areas, Economist, Oct. 22, 2020

Modern Slavery and the Collapse of Fisheries

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a staggering 20-50% of the global catch. It is one reason fish stocks are plummeting: just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. Illegal operators rob mostly poor coastal states of over $20bn a year and threaten the livelihoods of millions of small fishermen. A huge amount of illicit fishing happens on licensed boats, too. They might catch more than their quota, or falsely declare their catch as abundant albacore tuna instead of the more valuable bigeye. In port fisheries inspectors are always overstretched. If an operator is caught, for instance, fishing with too fine a net, the fine and confiscation are seen as a cost of doing business. Many pay up and head straight back out to sea.

The damage from illicit fishing goes well beyond fish stocks. Operators committing one kind of crime are likely to be committing others, too—cutting the fins off sharks, or even running guns or drugs. Many are also abusing their crews… A lot of them are in debt bondage…. Unscrupulous captains buy and sell these men and boys like chattel

Too often, the ultimate beneficiaries of this trade are hard to hook because they hide behind brass-plate companies and murky joint ventures. Pursuing them requires the same kind of sleuthing involved in busting criminal syndicates. An initiative led by Norway to go after transnational-fisheries crime is gaining support. Much more cross-border co-operation is needed.

At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behavior and even identify illicit species being brought on board…. Equally, national regulators should set basic labor standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets.

Above all, governments should agree at the World Trade Organization to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labor, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west African coast. 

Excerpt from Monsters of the deep: Illicit fishing devastates the seas and abuses crews, Economist, Oct., 22, 2020

What really happens in the seas? GlobalFishing Watch, Sea Shepherd, Trygg Mat Tracking

The Plight of Electric Cars: Cobalt Batteries and Mining

About 60% of the world’s cobalt is found in Congo, scattered across the copperbelt that stretches east into Zambia. The people of Kawama, Gongo grumble that too much land has been sold to mining firms. “We used to dig freely,” says Gerard Kaumba, a miner. “But now the government has sold all the hills.” There are still some sites where miners can turn up and dig, but they have to sell to whoever owns the concession. A sweltering day’s work might earn you $7. Many people have found they can make more at night, pilfering cobalt from industrial mines.

Glencore, a commodities giant with two mines in Congo, reckons that some 2,000 people sneak into its pits every day. Other companies have even more robbers to contend with. In 2019 Congolese soldiers chased thieves out of a mine owned by China Molybdenum where, it was reckoned, 10,000-odd people were then illegally digging. Sneaking into Glencore’s mines is hardest, says a Kawaman, as its guards do not collude with thieves—and often chase them away with dogs.

Congo’s industrial miners are not all angels.  Gécamines, the state-owned company, has enriched crooked politicians for half a century. Global Witness, a watchdog based in London, says Congo’s treasury lost $750m of mining revenues to graft between 2013 and 2015. ENRC, which has mines in Congo, has faced allegations of corruption and an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (it denies wrongdoing). So has Glencore, which has worked with Dan Gertler, an Israeli billionaire. Mr Gertler, a close friend of a former Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, is under American sanctions… 

While big firms rake in millions, many of the little guys languish in jail. The prison in Kolwezi, the largest city in the mining region, is crammed with men caught stealing copper and cobalt. More than a hundred inmates occupy one stinking room, sitting in rows on the ground, each wedged between another’s legs. Prissoners are allowed to use the toilet only once a day, so they often urinate in their clothes

Excerpt from Cobalt blues: In Congo the little guys are jailed for stealing minerals. Economist, Oct. 17, 2020

Addictive Ads and Digital Dignity

Social-media firms make almost all their money from advertising. This pushes them to collect as much user data as possible, the better to target ads. Critics call this “surveillance capitalism”. It also gives them every reason to make their services as addictive as possible, so users watch more ads…

The new owner could turn TikTok from a social-media service to a digital commonwealth, governed by a set of rules akin to a constitution with its own checks and balances. User councils (a legislature, if you will) could have a say in writing guidelines for content moderation. Management (the executive branch) would be obliged to follow due process. And people who felt their posts had been wrongfully taken down could appeal to an independent arbiter (the judiciary). Facebook has toyed with platform constitutionalism now has an “oversight board” to hear user appeals…

Why would any company limit itself this way? For one thing, it is what some firms say they want. Microsoft in particular claims to be a responsible tech giant. In January  2020 its chief executive, Satya Nadella, told fellow plutocrats in Davos about the need for “data dignity”—ie, granting users more control over their data and a bigger share of the value these data create…Governments increasingly concur. In its Digital Services Act, to be unveiled in 2020, the European Union is likely to demand transparency and due process from social-media platforms…In the United States, Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential candidate, has launched a campaign to get online firms to pay users a “digital dividend”. Getting ahead of such ideas makes more sense than re-engineering platforms later to comply.

Excerpt from: Reconstituted: Schumpeter, Economist, Sept 5, 2020

See also Utilities for Democracy: WHY AND HOW THE ALGORITHMIC
INFRASTRUCTURE OF FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE MUST BE REGULATED
(2020)

The Green Climate Fund and COVID-19

 The Green Climate Fund has promised developing nations it will ramp up efforts to help them tackle climate challenges as they strive to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, approving $879 million in backing for 15 new projects around the world…The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was set up under U.N. climate talks in 2010 to help developing nations tackle global warming, and started allocating money in 2015….

Small island states have criticised the pace and size of GCF assistance…Fiji’s U.N. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad said COVID-19 risked worsening the already high debt burden of small island nations, as tourism dived…The GCF  approved in August 2020 three new projects for island nations, including strengthening buildings to withstand hurricanes in Antigua and Barbuda, and installing solar power systems on farmland on Fiji’s Ovalau island.

It also gave the green light to payments rewarding reductions in deforestation in Colombia and Indonesia between 2014 and 2016. But more than 80 green groups opposed such funding. They said deforestation had since spiked and countries should not be rewarded for “paper reductions” in carbon emissions calculated from favourable baselines…. [T]he fund should take a hard look at whether the forest emission reductions it is paying for would be permanent.  It should also ensure the funding protects and benefits forest communities and indigenous people…

Other new projects included one for zero-deforestation cocoa production in Ivory Coast, providing rural villages in Senegal and Afghanistan with solar mini-grids, and conserving biodiversity on Indian Ocean islands.  The fund said initiatives like these would create jobs and support a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Excerpts from Climate fund for poor nations vows to drive green COVID recovery, Reuters, Aug. 22, 2020

Trade in Human and Animal Hair in the 21st Century

“My outfit for the day determines what hair I will be wearing,” says Olayinka Titilope, a Nigerian wigmaker. She has a different peruke for each day of the month…She sells wigs for between $60 and $800. Those at the top end are made of human hair from Cambodia, she says.  Some African feminists argue that to wear a long, straight-haired wig or hair extension is to grovel to Western ideals of beauty. Yet wig-buyers in Nigeria seem to enjoy variety. Sellers advertise hair from everywhere. Brazilian is praised for its sheen and durability; Vietnamese, for its bounce; Mongolian, because it is easy to curl. One seller in Lagos offers “Italian posh hair” which is supposedly odour-free. Whatever the label says, much of the hair really comes from elsewhere, often China, a source some buyers deem downmarket.

It is hard even for the most conscientious hair-traders to trace where their wares came from. Most of the hair that reaches Africa travels via factories in China, where it is sorted and often treated, dyed or curled. Bundles of human hair may be bulked up with horse mane or goat thatch….“The demand for hair generally exceeds supply, fuelling an almost constant sense of scarcity,”…

In the past decade Myanmar has quadrupled the volume of hair it ships out and is now the world’s fourth-largest exporter. Nay Lin, a hair-trader in the former capital, Yangon, says he knows when the economy is bad because more women turn up at his shop to sell their tresses. …Some 500km north of Yangon, in the town of Pyawbwe, farmers who once harvested onions and chillies now spend their days unpicking hairballs. These are often gathered by door-to-door collectors, who buy hair from people’s combs and bathroom plugs. Some hairballs arrive in sacks from India and Bangladesh. Workers in Pyawbwe (which has earned the nickname “Hair City”) make about $1.20 a day untangling them and removing lice or white strands. This hair is so common in Chinese factories that it is referred to as “standard hair”. It costs more than the fake stuff, but less than locks cut straight from a head. “We call that stuff factory trash,” scoffs Ms Titilope, who insists that none of it goes into her products…

Excerpts from Nigeria’s demand for fancy wigs fuels a global trade, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

The End of the Mindless Self-Indulgence: the Gulf States

Algeria needs the price of Brent crude, an international benchmark for oil, to rise to $157 dollars a barrel. Oman needs it to hit $87. No Arab oil producer, save tiny Qatar, can balance its books at the current price, around $40 (summer 2020)….The world’s economies are moving away from fossil fuels. Oversupply and the increasing competitiveness of cleaner energy sources mean that oil may stay cheap for the foreseeable future. 

Arab leaders knew that sky-high oil prices would not last for ever. Four years ago Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, produced a plan called “Vision 2030” that aimed to wean his economy off oil. Many of his neighbours have their own versions. But “2030 has become 2020…” 

Still, some see an upside to the upheaval in oil-producing states. The countries of the Gulf produce the world’s cheapest oil, so they stand to gain market share if prices remain low. As expats flee, locals could take their jobs…

Remittances from energy-rich states are a lifeline for the entire region. More than 2.5m Egyptians, equal to almost 3% of that country’s population, work in Arab countries that export a lot of oil. Numbers are larger still for other countries: 5% from Lebanon and Jordan, 9% from the Palestinian territories. The money they send back makes up a sizeable chunk of the economies of their homelands. As oil revenue falls, so too will remittances. There will be fewer jobs for foreigners and smaller pay packets for those who do find work. This will upend the social contract in states that have relied on emigration to soak up jobless citizens….With fewer opportunities in the oil-producing states, many graduates may no longer emigrate. But their home countries cannot provide a good life. Doctors in Egypt earn as little as 3,000 pounds ($185) a month, a fraction of what they make in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. A glut of unemployed graduates is a recipe for social unrest…

For four decades America has followed the “Carter Doctrine”, which held that it would use military force to maintain the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. Under President Donald Trump, though, the doctrine has started to fray. When Iranian-made cruise missiles and drones slammed into Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, America barely blinked. The Patriot missile-defence batteries it deployed to the kingdom weeks later have already been withdrawn. Outside the Gulf Mr Trump has been even less engaged, all but ignoring the chaos in Libya, where Russia, Turkey and the UAE (to name but a few) are vying for control.

A Middle East less central to the world’s energy supplies will be a Middle East less important to America. ..As Arab states become poorer, the nature of their relationship with China may change. This is already happening in Iran, where American sanctions have choked off oil revenue. Officials are discussing a long-term investment deal that could see Chinese firms develop everything from ports to telecoms… Falling oil revenue could force this model on Arab states—and perhaps complicate what remains of their relations with America.

Excerpts from The Arab World: Twilight of the Petrostates, Economist, July  18, 2020

How to Poison a Population: War and Persistent Oil Pollution

Oil pollution in Syria has been a growing concern since the 2011 onset of a civil war that has taken a toll on oil infrastructure and seen rival powers compete over control of key hydrocarbon fields. In the Kurdish-held northeast, a large storage facility in the Rmeilan oil field in Hasakeh province is of particular concern, according to the Dutch peace organisation PAX. [A River of Death, pdf] Oil leaks from the Gir Zero storage facility have been suspected since at least 2014, the latest in March 2020, it said in a June report. Thousands of barrels have leaked out into creeks in the area over the past five years, threatening the health and livelihoods of people in dozens of villages….

The major Rmeilan field controlled by the Kurdish administration, located near a US airbase, has been among the Syrian Kurds’ most prized assets since regime forces withdrew early on in the war. But oil wealth comes at a heavy cost for livestock farmers
whose sheep and cows have died because they drank oil contaminated water.

Residents too suffer heavily from the pollution because  of the foul odour of gas and crude oil wafting over the area… Compounding the situation, makeshift oil refineries have cropped up across the northeast in recent years, dumping oil waste in the waterways…These informal refineries receive oil from nearby fields and process it to provide benzine, gasoline and diesel to locals.

Excerpts from Delil SouleimanBlack waters: Oil spills pollute northeast Syria creeks
by Delil Souleiman, AFP, July 23, 2020

Global Nuclear Waste Movements: from Estonia to Utah

Regulators are weighing whether a local uranium company can import the material for processing at a mill near the border of a Native American reservation. For Energy Fuels Inc , the shipment represents an economic lifeline, after the company posted an operating loss of $7.8 million for the first quarter of 2020. Its president in March 2020 described the U.S. uranium industry as being “on the cusp of complete collapse.”
But for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe living near the facility – the only operational uranium mill in the United States – the proposal has stoked fears that tribal land will become a dumping ground for global radioactive waste. Both the White Mesa mill and the tribal reservation are in San Juan County, Utah’s poorest.

The mill, built in 1979, was only meant to process conventional uranium ores from the Colorado Plateau for up to 20 years, the tribe says. The Navajo Utah Commission and Navajo Nation have also that the company’s application be rejected. “The state of Utah must recognize and acknowledge the reality that the mill is far past its design life and no longer a conventional uranium mill, but, instead, a radioactive waste dump seeking to operate for decades, if not a millennium,” the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe said in a document submitted to the state….

The 660 tons of powdered material in question, now sitting in 2,000 drums at a plant on the Estonian coast near the Russian border, would be Energy Fuels’ first-ever radioactive import from outside North America. The powder is a byproduct from tantalum and niobium mining by Estonian company Silmet, which contains uranium. But it cannot stay within Estonia, where there is no licensed facility for reprocessing radioactive material. Energy Fuels says there is enough uranium in that byproduct that it is worth processing. Opponents say Energy Fuels is simply taking in waste, which would be stored on site. According to Energy Fuels business from the shipment would help the company keep its 70 workers employed.

Energy Fuels anticipates demand for domestic uranium could rise, after the Trump administration in April 2020 proposed a $1.5 billion federal uranium reserve that would purchase uranium from domestic producers. Such a reserve, however, would need Congressional approval – a major hurdle. The reserve was one of the main proposals to come from a federal Nuclear Fuel Working Group aimed at reviving the U.S. uranium and nuclear industry. The United States currently imports over 90% of its uranium from abroad for its reactors.

Excerpts from Valerie Volcovicin Utah, a Debate Stirs Over Estonian Radioactive Waste, Reuters, July 16, 2020

Radioactive Water Dumping and Human Rights

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, [UN Special Rapporteurs  have] consistently raised concerns about the approaches taken by the government of Japan. UN Special Rapporteurs have been concerned that raising of “acceptable limits” of radiation exposure to urge resettlement violated the government’s human rights obligations to children.

UN Special Rapporteurs have been concerned of the possible exploitation of migrants and the poor for radioactive decontamination work. Their most recent concern is how the government used the COVID-19 crisis to dramatically accelerate its timeline for deciding whether to dump radioactive wastewater accumulating at Fukushima Daiichi in the ocean

The communities of Fukushima, so devastated by the tragic events of March 11, 2011, have expressed their concerns and opposition to the discharge of the contaminated water into their environment. It is their human right to an environment that allows for living a life in dignity, to enjoy their culture, and to not be exposed deliberately to additional radioactive contamination. Those rights should be fully respected and not be disregarded by the government in Tokyo. The discharge of nuclear waste to the ocean could damage Japan’s international relations. Neighboring countries are already concerned about the release of large volumes of radioactive tritium and other contaminants in the wastewater.

Japan has a duty under international law to prevent transboundary environmental harm. More specifically, under the London Convention, Japan has an obligation to take precaution with the respect to the dumping of waste in the ocean.

Indigenous peoples have an internationally recognized right to free, prior and informed consent. This includes the disposal of waste in their waters and actions that may contaminate their food. No matter how small the Japanese government believes this contamination will be of their water and food, there is an unquestionable obligation to consult with potentially affected indigenous peoples that it has not met…The disaster of 2011 cannot be undone. However, Japan still has an opportunity to minimize the damage…There are grave risks to the livelihoods of fishermen in Japan and also to its international reputation. Again, I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.

Excerpts from, Baskut Tuncak [UN Rapporteur], Fukushima nuclear waste decision also a human rights issue, Kyodo News, July 8, 2020

How to Make Friends: Load Them Up with Debt

“It’s no secret…China is by far the largest bilateral creditor to African governments,” said Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, in June 2020, blaming it for creating an unsustainable debt burden. The World Bank disclosed ib July 2020, how much governments owe to China (and other lenders). The World Bank report revealed that developing countries owed $104 billion to China at the end of 2018. The total includes soft loans from China’s government, semi-soft loans from “policy banks”, such as China Development Bank, and profit-seeking loans from state-owned commercial lenders. The same countries owed $106bn to the World Bank and $60bn to bondholders…

The new figures confirm Mr Pompeo’s observation that China is by far the biggest bilateral creditor to Africa, and in many poor countries elsewhere. It accounts for about 20% of the total foreign debt owed by the 73 governments eligible for the G-20 moratorium on debt payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic (the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI)). That is more than all of the Paris Club lenders, including America, Britain and Japan, combined.

Excerpts from Public Finance: The Debt Toll, Economist, July 4, 2020

The Worst Murderer: Jihadists or Governments?

Sahel: West Africa’s most populous countries, along the Atlantic coast, have become vulnerable to the predations of jihadists spilling out of failing states farther north in the Sahel on the borders of the Sahara desert. Jihadists seized control of chunks of Mali in 2012 and were stopped from overrunning Bamako, its capital, only after thousands of French troops were hurriedly flown in. The insurgents have since pushed across the border into Niger and Burkina Faso. In those three countries alone, 4,800 people lost their lives in the conflict last year. Fully 1.7m people have been forced to flee their homes. Now the war is beginning to jump borders again, putting at risk some of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, including Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast.


This war in the Sahel has been growing rapidly. Ten times more people were killed last year than in 2014 (excluding deaths in north-eastern Nigeria, which faces its own jihadist insurgents). Two main jihadist groups are behind most of the fighting: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which is linked to al-Qaeda. These groups have extended their reach, even though thousands of international peacekeepers and local and Western soldiers have been deployed to stop them. France has sent some 5,100 troops to the Sahel, while the United States has provided another 1,200. In addition, the un has 15,000 blue helmets there, including about 350 Germans, plus 250 British soldiers who are soon to arrive. With American forces leaving Afghanistan, the Sahel will soon be the West’s biggest combat zone.

Worse, the jihadists are expanding in three directions at once. To the south they threaten Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo. To the west there has been a spate of attacks in Mali close to its border with Senegal; and to the east with Nigeria’s insurgent groups. The jihadists already have a “de facto safe haven in northern Mali”, says General Dagvin Anderson, in charge of America’s commandos in Africa. He frets that as they expand they will have more scope to plan attacks on American soil.

The weakness of governments and the feebleness of their public services are helping the jihadists. In the neglected hinterlands of the Sahel the rebels offer themselves as an alternate state, serving up sharia and medical aid. Moreover, the jihadists have been adept at exploiting ethnic faultlines, for instance between largely Muslim and seminomadic Fulani herders and more settled farming communities, which have their own armed groups of traditional hunters known as Dozos. =

Trade and commerce also provide an incentive for the jihadists to expand their reach. The migration corridor between Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast is the busiest in Africa. Jihadists cash in by taxing traders and smuggling stolen livestock, drugs and guns. The gold mines in Burkina Faso have become a target. Much of the gold is smuggled out through Togo, which officially exported seven tonnes of the metal to the United Arab Emirates in 2018, despite mining very little itself. Gold is also pulling jihadists towards Senegal…

But in 2020, more civilians in the Sahel have been killed by government soldiers than by jihadists, says José Luengo-Cabrera of the International Crisis Group (icg), a Brussels-based ngo. “When soldiers kill the head of the family, they almost throw his sons and nephews into the arms of bearded men in shorts hiding in the bush,” one villager told Human Rights Watch, a global monitor. It says in the town of Djibo alone, in Burkina Faso, evidence suggests government forces have murdered 180 men—many of them were blindfolded and had their hands bound before they were shot. In Burkina Faso… citizens may feel safer living among terrorists than with their own country’s security forces.

Governments in the region and some Western forces have made matters worse by supporting militias. In 2018 the French army allied itself with Tuareg militias from Mali to fight against ISGS. They clobbered the jihadists but also killed scores of civilians, aggravating ethnic tensions and fuelling recruitment by the insurgents….Above all, governments need to regain legitimacy by providing services and holding themselves to account. “It is not possible to win the war if there is not trust from the population,” says Niagale Bagayoko of the African Security Sector Network…But good governance and decent services in the region are scarce. At a meeting of Sahelian leaders with Mr hard. In Burkina Faso alone, the jihadists have forced about 2,500 schools to close.

Excerpts from Jihad in the Sahel: Fighting a Spreading Insurgency, Economist, July 11, 2020

I Can’t Imagine Germany without China

Germany is struggling to pick sides in the escalating dispute between the U.S. and China over issues including trade and human rights, amid mounting American pressure and Beijing’s authoritarian drift. Of all advanced economies outside Asia, Germany has the deepest economic ties in both camps and would have the most to lose from a Cold War between Washington and Beijing.

Berlin’s snaking trade links with China and the U.S. have served Germany well in the past two decades, providing it with steady growth, near full employment and full public coffers that have allowed the deployment of more than €1 trillion ($1.13 trillion) in measures to support its economy during the pandemic.  Now, Germany’s reluctance to take sides is diluting Europe’s broader efforts to present a united front to China, undermining the bloc’s power to shape a new global architecture…

Germany’s export-oriented economic model means it can’t really choose at all. It needs both the US and China.  China is Germany’s largest trading partner; the U.S. its biggest export market. And they stand neck-and-neck: Last year, Germany exported €119 billion of goods to the U.S. and €96 billion to China….Around 28% of jobs in Germany are directly or indirectly linked to exports, and in manufacturing that figure is 56%, according to the German Ministry for Economic Affairs. Germany exports nearly as much as the U.S. despite having only one-quarter the population.

Germany’s world-beating engineering companies supplied the factory equipment and the infrastructure that powered China’s transformation into the world’s top manufacturer. Harnessed to the fast-growing giant, Germany rebounded strongly after the financial crisis and weathered the eurozone debt crisis…

“I can’t imagine Volkswagen without China,” said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen.  Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess, who refers to China as his company’s “second home,” has recently praised China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The company in May said it would pour $2 billion into China’s electric-car market….

Excerpts from Tom Fairless et al., U.S.-China Tensions Leave Germany Squirming in the Middle, WSJ, June 24, 2020

No Clean-Up, No Justice: Ogoniland, Nigeria

The UN Environment Programme in 2011 proposed the creation of a $1 billion fund to repair the damage done by decades of crude spills in the Ogoniland area in southeastern Nigeria. However, progress has been poor and the little work that has been done is sub-standard, advocacy groups including Amnesty International reported in June 2020.  “Research reveals that there is still no clean-up, no fulfillment of ‘emergency’ measures, no transparency and no accountability for the failed efforts, neither by the oil companies nor by the Nigerian government,” the groups said.

Shell’s Nigerian unit pumped oil in Ogoniland until 1993, when the company withdrew amid increasing protests against its presence. Even though the Hague-based company no longer produces crude in the area, a joint venture operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company, or SPDC, still owns pipelines that crisscross the region.

A government agency responsible for overseeing the clean-up, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, known as Hyprep, was finally set up in 2017 after several false starts, but it’s failing to deliver. …“Hyprep is not designed, nor structured, to implement a project as complex and sizable as the Ogoniland clean-up,” the report cites UNEP as saying in 2019

Excerpt from Clean Up Oil in Nigerial Lacks Progress, Bloomberg, June 18,, 2020

Oil Spills of Sudan, Humanity for Africa, and East African Court of Justice

The East African Court of Justice delivered in June 2020 a temporary injunction order to the country’s Minister for Justice, the Greater Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC), and the Dar Petroleum Operating Company. The Court approved the application by Hope for Humanity Africa (H4HA), a non-governmental organization (NGO), which sought to highlight the environmental damage caused by oil spills… The NGO contends that: “Over 47,249 of the local population in Upper Nile State and 60,000 in Unity State are at risk of being exposed to the oil pollution this is because the local population depends on the wild foods for survival, the contaminated swamps, streams and rivers waters for cooking, drinking, washing, bathing and fishing.”…

The H4HA is looking for an injunction to stop multiple companies from exporting oil from the region, including CNPC of China, Petronas of Malaysia, and Oil & Natural Gas Corp. of India (ONGC) 

Excerpts South Sudan Suspended by African Union, Barred From Exporting Oil by East African Court, https://www.youngbhartiya.com, June 24, 2020

Amazon Rainforest: Source of Food for Vegans, Meat-Lovers

In the first four months of 2020 an estimated 1,202 square km (464 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon, 55% more than during the same period in 2019, which was the worst year in a decade…Less attention has been paid to the role of big firms like JBS and Cargill, global intermediaries for beef and soya, the commodities that drive deforestation.  The companies do not chop down trees themselves. Rather, they are middlemen in complex supply chains that deal in soya and beef produced on deforested land. The process begins when speculators, who tend to operate outside the law, buy or seize land, sell the timber, graze cattle on it for several years and then sell it to a soya farmer. Land in the Amazon is five to ten times more valuable once it is deforested, says Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist. Not chopping down trees would have a large opportunity cost. In 2009 Mr Nepstad estimated that cost (in terms of forgone beef and soy output) would be $275bn over 30 years, about 16% of that year’s GDP.

Under pressure from public opinion, the big firms have made attempts to control the problem. In 2009, a damning report from Greenpeace led JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, meat giants which together handle two-thirds of Brazil’s exports, to pledge to stop buying from suppliers that deforest illegally. (The forest code allows owners to clear 20% of their land.) JBS, which sources from an area in the Amazon larger than Germany, says it has blocked 9,000 suppliers, using satellites to detect clearing.

The problem is especially acute in ranching, which accounts for roughly 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, nearly all of it illegal. “Cows move around,” explains Paulo Pianez of Marfrig. Every fattening farm the big meatpackers buy from has, on average, 23 of its own suppliers. Current monitoring doesn’t cover ranchers who breed and graze cattle, so it misses 85-90% of deforestation. Rogue fattening farms can also “launder” cattle by moving them to lawful farms—perhaps their own—right before selling them. A new Greenpeace report alleges that through this mechanism JBS, Marfrig and Minerva ended up selling beef from farms that deforested a protected Amazon reserve on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. They said they had not known about any illegality.

One reason that soya giants seem more serious than meat producers about reducing deforestation a network of investors concerned about sustainability, is that most soya is exported. The EU is the second-top destination after China. But companies struggle to get people to pay more for a “hidden commodity”… But few people will pay extra for chicken made with sustainable soya, which explains why just 2-3% is certified deforestation-free. ….Four-fifths of Brazilian beef, by contrast, is eaten in Brazil. Exports go mostly to China, Russia and the Middle East, where feeding people is a higher priority than saving trees. Investors, for their part, see beef firms as unsexy businesses with thin margins

According to soya growers, multinational firms failed to raise $250m to launch a fund for compensating farmers who retain woodland. “They demand, demand, demand, but don’t offer anything in return,” complains Ricardo Arioli….

Reducing deforestation will require consensus on tricky issues like the fate of tens of thousands of poor settlers on public lands in the Amazon, where half of deforestation takes place….

Excerpts from The AmazonL Of Chainshaws and Supply Chains, Economist, JUne 13, 2020

Selling War Services: the Mercenaries

Despite a UN treaty banning mercenaries, their day is far from over. Some analysts think there are now more of them in Africa than ever. But can they ever be a force for good?  ….In the years after most African countries gained independence, mercenaries were notorious for supporting secessionist movements and mounting coups. 

Western governments have in the past winked at mercenary activity that served their commercial interests. But nowadays Russia is seen as the leading country egging on mercenaries to help it wield influence. It does so mainly through Wagner, ***whose founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is close to President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner has been hired to prop up a number of shaky African regimes. In Sudan it tried to sustain the blood-drenched dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. He was ousted last year after big protests. In 2018 hundreds of Wagner men arrived in the Central African Republic to guard diamond mines, train the army and provide bodyguards for an embattled president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In Guinea, where Rusal, a Russian aluminium giant, has a big stake, Wagner has cosied up to President Alpha Condé, who has bloodily faced down protests against a new constitution that lets him have a third term in office. In Libya, despite a un arms embargo, Wagner is reported to have deployed 800-1,200 operatives in support of a rebel general, Khalifar Haftar, who has been trying to defeat the UN-recognised government….

Mercenaries have three main advantages over regular armies. First, they give plausible deniability. Using them, a government such as Russia’s can sponsor military action abroad while pretending not to. Second, they tend to be efficient, experienced, nimble and flexible. Third, they are cheaper than regular armies. Whereas soldiers receive lifelong contracts and pensions, mercenaries are often paid by the job..

***Other firms include Dyke Advisory Group (DAG) , OAM Middle East

See also The UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries

Excerpts from Soldiers of misfortune: Why African governments still hire mercenaries, Economist, May 30, 2020