Category Archives: indigenous peoples

Another Resource Curse: Amber Fossils

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killing Albinos for the Body Parts: Endangered Humans

In Malawi, ritual human sacrifice is till practiced. Murders are not uncommon. Women and children are killed for their breasts and genitals. Albinos, who number no more than 10,000 in Malawi, are said to carry the most powerful magic and are thus most at risk. Albino body parts can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The Association for Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) says it began documenting attacks in 2014 after a surge before an election that year. Since then it has recorded 25 murders, 15 disappearances and 122 other crimes, including attempted abductions and exhumations.

In 2019, as Malawians prepare to vote in a general election on May 21st, there has been another rise in attacks. An albino man was killed and dismembered in front of his nine-year-old son. Three weeks later an 18-month-old girl was kidnapped. In February, a machete-wielding gang carried away Goodson Makanjira, aged 14. Another 11 attempted attacks were thwarted by neighbours, AAPM says.  Activists suspect politicians are involved. Though evidence remains circumstantial, suspicions have been fuelled by the mysterious deaths (one in police custody) of two suspects who may have held clues about who is behind recent attacks…The scandal has only deepened since, with the parties of Mr Mutharika and his two chief rivals blaming each other for the killings. Mr Kalindo says that, while in custody earlier this year for insulting the president in song, he met suspects held for the murder of an albino in 2014. Lurid recordings of the men purportedly implicating one of the president’s senior advisers have been circulated widely on social media….Malawi’s albinos would rather their politicians stopped trading accusations and worked together to protect them…

Kenya has an albino senator and holds albino beauty pageants, which helps demystify the condition. Tanzania has created an island refuge for albinos.

White magicThe killing of albinos is overshadowing Malawi’s election, Economist, May 11, 2019

Suing and Wining: Indigenous People, Ecuador

Hunter-gatherers in the Amazon sought in court on in April 2019 to stop Ecuador’s government auctioning their land to oil companies, as tension mounts over the future of the rainforest…The Waorani said the government did not properly consult them in 2012 over plans to auction their land to oil companies.

“We live on these lands and we want to continue to live there in harmony. We will defend them. Our fight is that our rights are respected,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader of the 2,000-strong Waorani….Ecuador is pushing to open up more rainforest and develop its oil and gas reserves in the hope of improving its sluggish economy and cutting its high fiscal deficit and foreign debt…

The constitution gives the government the right to develop energy projects and extract minerals on any land, regardless of who owns it, but requires that communities are consulted first and are properly informed about any projects and their impact. Laws to regulate the consultation process have yet to be introduced – although the court case could push the government to do this, said Brian Parker, a lawyer with campaign group Amazon Frontlines, which is supporting the Waorani…

The government announced last year that it had divided swathes of forest up into blocs for auction, one of which – bloc 22 – covers the Waorani’s ancestral lands, raising the specter of pollution and an end to their way of life.  In two landmark cases in 2018, local courts sided with indigenous communities who said the government had failed to inform them before designating their land for mineral exploitation….The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2012 that Ecuador had violated its Sarayaku Amazonian community’s right to prior consultation before drillers started exploration on their lands in the late 1990s.

Excerpts Ecuador’s hunter-gatherers in court over oil drilling in Amazon, Reuters, Apr. 11, 2019

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

A Swamp of Oil Pollution: Ogoniland

Status of Cleaning up Oil Pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria:

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

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

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

How to Save the Rhino? Torture and Kill Civilians

In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved nonprofit WWF  with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people…WWF has provided high-tech enforcement equipment, cash, and weapons to forces implicated in atrocities against indigenous communities…Villagers have been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted, shot, and murdered by WWF-supported anti-poaching units, according to reports and document

 WWF has provided paramilitary forces with salaries, training, and supplies — including knives, night vision binoculars, riot gear, and batons — and funded raids on villages…The charity has operated like a global spymaster, organizing, financing, and running dangerous and secretive networks of informants motivated by “fear” and “revenge,” including within indigenous communities, to provide park officials with intelligence — all while publicly denying working with informants.

The charity funnels large sums of cash to its field offices in the developing world where staff work alongside national governments — including brutal dictatorships — to help maintain and police vast national parks that shelter endangered species. But many parks are magnets for poachers, and WWF expends much of its energy — and money — in a global battle against the organized criminal gangs that prey on the endangered species the charity was founded to protect.  It’s a crusade that WWF refers to in the hardened terms of war. Public statements speak of “boots on the ground,” partnerships with “elite military forces,” the creation of a “Jungle Brigade,” and the deployment of “conservation drones.”  WWF is not alone in its embrace of militarization: Other conservation charities have enlisted in the war on poaching in growing numbers over the past decade, recruiting veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to teach forest rangers counterinsurgency techniques

The enemy is real, and dangerous. Poaching is a billion-dollar industry that terrorizes animals and threatens some species’ very existence. Poachers take advantage of regions ravaged by poverty and violence. And the work of forest rangers is indeed perilous: By one 2018 estimate, poachers killed nearly 50 rangers around the world in the previous year. But like any conflict, WWF’s war on poaching has civilian casualties.

Indigenous people living near one park in southeast Cameroon described a litany of horrors incuding dead-of-night break-ins by men wielding machetes, rifle butt bludgeonings, burn torture involving chilis ground into paste, and homes and camps torched to the ground. Their tormentors in these accounts were not poachers, but the park officials who police them. Although governments employ the rangers, they often rely on WWF to bankroll their work.  …Documents reveal WWF’s own staffers on the ground are often deeply entwined with the rangers’ work — coordinating their operations, jointly directing their raids and patrols alongside government officials, and turning a blind eye to their misdeeds.

Iindigenous groups — both small-fry hunters and innocent bystanders — say they suffer at the hands of the rangers.  Nepal’s park officials were given this free rein decades ago, shortly after WWF first arrived in Chitwan in 1967 to launch a rhinoceros conservation project in a lush lowland forest at the foot of the Himalayas. To clear the way, tens of thousands of indigenous people were evicted from their homes and moved to areas outside the park’s boundaries..

The park’s creation radically changed their way of life: Now they must scrape together money to buy tin for their roofs, pay hospital bills, and farm new crops. They also live in fear of the park’s wild animals, which, while rising in number thanks to anti-poaching efforts, have destroyed crops and mauled people to death.  Rhinoceros horns can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. Professional poachers offer a tiny portion to locals who assist them, which can be hard for impoverished residents of villages to turn down.

Chitwan’s forest rangers work alongside over 1,000 soldiers from the park’s army battalion. Nepalese law gives them special power to investigate wildlife-related crimes, make arrests without a warrant, and retain immunity in cases where an officer has “no alternative” but to shoot the offender, even if the suspect dies….. Indigenous groups living near Chitwan have long detailed a host of abuses by these forces. Villagers have reported beatings, torture, sexual assaults, and killings by the park’s guards. They’ve accused park officials of confiscating their firewood and vegetables, and forcing them into unpaid labor.

WWF’s work with violent partners spans the globe. In Central Africa, internal documents show the charity’s close involvement in military-style operations with both a repressive dictatorship and a notoriously fierce army. …The park’s management plan says WWF will help organize raids, known as “coup de poings,” on local villages suspected of harboring poachers. A confidential internal report found that such missions, frequently conducted in the dead of night with the help of police units, were often violent.

Excerpts from WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People, BuzzFeed News

Satellites and Algorithms against Slaveholders

Brick kilns, tens of thousands across South Asia are often run on forced labor.  Satellite imagery of such kilns can help tally the kilns, enabling organizations on the ground to target slaveholders at the sites…

Some 40.3 million people are held in bondage today, according to the latest estimates from the International Labor Organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. But finding them is hard… Boyd who works for the Rights Lab estimates, however, that one-third of all slavery is visible from space, whether in the scars of kilns or illegal mines or the outlines of transient fish-processing camps.

Boyd is now using artificial intelligence to speed up the search. As a pilot project, she and her colleagues at the Rights Lab used crowdsourced visual searchers to identify brick kilns. The oval shape of the large ovens, sometimes 150 meters long, and their chimneys are distinctive, even from space. “You cannot mix them up with something else,” Boyd says.

Since then, Boyd has turned to machine-learning algorithms that recognize the kilns after being trained on the human-tagged examples. Last month, in the journal Remote Sensing, she and her colleagues reported that the algorithms could correctly identify 169 of 178 kilns in Google Earth data on one area of Rajasthan, although it also output nine false positives…

Another company, called Planet, has about 150 small satellites that snap images of the globe’s entire landmass daily. The images are lower-resolution than DigitalGlobe’s, but their frequency opens up opportunities to identify changes over time.With Planet data, Boyd and the Rights Lab plan to investigate fast moving signatures of slavery. From space, you can watch a  harvest in Turkmenistan and, based on how quickly the cotton disappears, you can tell whether machines or hands picked it. In the Sundarbans, an area spanning India and Bangladesh, shrimp farms and fish-processing camps employ slave labor to clear mangrove trees—a process satellites can capture.

Excerpts from Sarah Scoles, Researchers Spy Signs of Slavery from Space, Science, Feb. 21, 2018