Protesters decry 'feeding frenzy' of African mining investors

Africa has become a feeding ground for foreign investors hoping to strike it rich by exploiting the continent's mineral resources. 

In London last week, a group of protestors disrupted a major event designed to attract new investors -- which was entitled "Mining on Top in Africa" -- arguing that an avalanche of new investment is posing huge environmental and social risks for African nations.

Africa shouldn't be for sale, argued the protestors

Africa shouldn't be for sale, argued the protestors

The protestors included members of international and British environmental and social-rights groups, including the Gaia Foundation, London Mining Network, War on Want, Divest London, Global Justice Now, and Stop Mad Mining, among others.

In addition to disrupting the proceedings, the protestors presented to the conference organizers a letter signed by 56 different environmental and social organizations (including ALERT) that underscored their many concerns.

They also distributed a list of ten case studies in which foreign-funded mining operations have had disastrous consequences for African nations.

Each year, hundreds of billions of dollars are pouring into African nations for mining projects.  China alone is investing over $120 billion annually, with India, Brazil, Russia, Canada, and Australia also making huge private investments there.

These investments are having many impacts.  For one thing, they are providing an economic impetus for a stampede of road and infrastructure expansion.  At present, there are plans for 29 massive "development corridors" -- almost all prompted by mining investments -- that will open up huge swaths of wild and semi-wild areas to a range of new human pressures, such as poaching, logging, and habitat destruction.

"Development corridors" driven by mining could open up Africa to massive exploitation.

"Development corridors" driven by mining could open up Africa to massive exploitation.

Beyond this, huge influxes of foreign funds for mining can promote large-scale bribery and corruption, which is already an endemic problem in many African nations. 

Large foreign investments can also fuel inflation.  A few become fabulously rich from big mining projects but many others are left behind -- and often struggle just to put food on the table or pay their rent.

Beyond this, many have questioned the value of so-called "Corporate Social Responsibility" investments by mining corporations, claiming they are little more than greenwashing designed to make the corporation look good but often have few real benefits for local communities.

Finally, foreign investments tend to drive up the value of national currencies, sometimes dramatically.  This makes other industries such as tourism and agricultural and manufacturing exports less competitive.  As a result, the economy becomes less diversified and stable -- and more prone to a 'boom and bust' when the minerals run out.

According to Hannibal Rhoades from the Gaia Foundation, one of the organizers of the protest, "Foreign investors can smell blood in the water in Africa right now.  They're after quick profits but we see huge long-term risks to Africa's natural wonders and native societies if this feeding frenzy isn't brought under control."

 

 

 

 

 

The corruption scandal engulfing Papua New Guinea

Hearing about a bad deed is one thing.  Seeing it with your own eyes is something else altogether.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Think, for example, about the riots that engulfed Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers who were filmed viciously beating Rodney King

Or the firestorm that engulfed National Football League star Ray Rice in the U.S.  Rice reported to his team that he and his wife had had an altercation and that he'd struck her in an elevator.  The NFL was inclined to fine and forgive Rice until a video of the actual incident emerged.  It now remains unclear whether Rice will ever play NFL football again.

Alas, we are now seeing a comparable scandal in Papua New Guinea.  Everyone in the know is aware that corruption is a serious problem in PNG

But this shocking tape -- filmed with a hidden camera -- shows in graphic detail just how bad things have become.  Indeed, one of the most alarming elements of the video is just how matter-of-fact those interviewed are about how one actually goes about bribing high officials in PNG.

It's worth a few minutes to watch this short documentary -- it's well produced and more than compelling. 

And here's an intriguing teaser: One of the main 'bad guys' in the tape actually has an intimate financial and personal connection to one of the world's most popular rock bands. 

Ever hear the hit song "Go Geronimo" by the Australian rock band Sheppard?  

After seeing this short documentary, I doubt you'll ever think of that song the same way again.

 

It's not just big corporations that are killing Indonesia's forests

Corporations are easy targets as environmental bad-guys -- they're big, faceless, wealthy entities.  And in countries like Indonesia, many corporations -- including oil palm, wood pulp, timber, and mining companies -- have had bad environmental records.

But it's an oversimplification to blame the corporations for everything, as Indonesia-based conservation scientist Erik Meijaard argues in a recent editorial.

It's not just corporations that are killing forests  (photo by William Laurance)

It's not just corporations that are killing forests (photo by William Laurance)

Meijaard homes in on an uncomfortable truth: half or more of all forest destruction is evidently caused by smallholders -- farmers and locals who burn or log forests, often illegally.

In a recent email message, Meijaard adds that deforestation is also being driven by small- and medium-scale investors.  "These are not small, poor, disadvantaged farmers, but government and law enforcement officials, local legislature members, local business people."

One key problem is that the rule of law in Indonesia is so lax, and corruption so rampant.  Even those who get caught usually find it easy to bribe their way out of trouble.

Indonesia's newly elected president, Joko Widodo, was originally trained as a forester, and he is being urged to follow through on his campaign promises to "eradicate illegal logging, illegal fishing, and illegal mining" and "enforce environmental laws".

In politics, promises are cheap.  Action is what counts.  And despite plenty of talk and promises in the past, Indonesia now has the world's highest rate of forest loss.

A number of mega-corporations in Indonesia have recently pledged to halt their forest-destroying ways.  The jury is still out on these promises.

But it's going to take a broader effort -- to enforce the law and protect environments from all illegal exploiters, large and small -- to save Indonesia's vanishing forests.

 

China's massive role in illegal logging

China produces more wood and paper products than any nation on Earth.  Sadly, much of it comes from illegal timber.

Bound for China...

Bound for China...

China's timber is mostly imported from developing nations -- especially from the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America -- as well as Siberia. 

And much of that timber is illegal -- effectively stolen, because no royalties or taxes are paid.  Or the timber is acquired by bribery.  Or it results from logging in places that shouldn't be logged -- such as national parks and protected areas.

Illegal logging takes a terrible toll on native forests and is a massive driver of deforestation and resulting greenhouse gas emissions.  It also robs developing nations of tens of billions of dollars yearly in direly needed revenues -- funds that could be used for schools and hospitals, for instance.

China has been criticized for its role in illegal logging for many years -- and for good reasons.  ALERT director Bill Laurance has frequently voiced his concerns -- for instance, see here, here, here, and here.

And now a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggests that China's belated efforts to limit illegal logging are far too limited. 

New logging guidelines issued by China -- which are entirely voluntary -- do not regulate importers of illegally-logged timber into China, said the EIA. 

Instead of voluntary standards, the Chinese government should establish binding and enforceable laws for its timber importers, just as the E.U., USA, and Australia have done.

“As the world’s biggest importer of illegal wood, and in light of extensive irrefutable evidence that Chinese companies are complicit in driving destructive illegal logging and timber smuggling, China needs to move beyond unenforceable voluntary guidelines and take unequivocal actions to prohibit illegal timber”, said the EIA.

Remnants of an Indonesian rainforest...

Remnants of an Indonesian rainforest...

China is playing with fire here.  As it fails to clean up its act, its wood-product-exporting corporations become increasingly vulnerable to boycotts and other consumer actions.  Such actions can have a big impact on a corporation's market share.

Of course, China is not alone.  For instance, South Korea, India, and Thailand are also major importers of illegal timber.

But when it comes to illegal timber imports, China is the biggest, hungriest bear in the room.  And so far this bear has done far too little to limit its burgeoning appetite for illegal timber.


Should conservationists resort to bribery?

Imagine having several million dollars to spend on nature conservation--and not being able to get a thing accomplished.

Time for the bribery quickstep?

Time for the bribery quickstep?

That's the position the leader of a prominent European nature organization finds himself in.  He and the organizations he represents are trying to save endangered forests in Sumatra, Indonesia, but they've been at a standstill for years. 

Why?  Because the only real way to get things done there is to pay off the right people.

"Corruption is a nightmare," he said.  "We are ready to buy forests for conservation and put millions into it, but we are not really making any progress because we don't pay under the table."

He continues: "It is unbelievable how difficult it is to save the forests for the local people, the nation and the global community by honest (and generous) payments for ecosystem restoration.  We are being overrun by bad governance and individuals giving away common goods for private profits."

This is a real and serious dilemma for those working to advance nature conservation in certain parts of the world

As conservationists, we hope we're above such things... but is it naive to pretend bribery isn't part and parcel of the way business is done in some places

One thing is certain: Many resource-exploiting corporations working in Sumatra and elsewhere in the developing world use bribes to get what they want

It's a debate worth having.  If the stakes are high and there's no apparent alternative, should conservationists consider crossing some palms to advance a just cause?  

 

Indonesian politician gets 14 years for illegal logging permits

The former governor of Riau Province in Sumatra, Indonesia has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for issuing illegal logging permits.  The Riau region has suffered catastrophic forest loss over the last decade.

Legal?  Forest clearing by APRIL in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

Legal?  Forest clearing by APRIL in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

An anti-corruption court in Sumatra found former Governor Rusli Zainai guilty of embezzlement in relation to the logging permits and several construction projects.

The illegal permits were issued to subsidiaries of APP (Asian Pulp & Paper) and APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Limited), two major producers of wood pulp in Sumatra.  The two mega-corporations have logged and cleared several million hectares of native rainforest for their pulp plantations.

After years of being vilified internationally, both APP and APRIL now claim to be cleaning up their acts environmentally, bringing in 'no deforestation' policies (see our blog below). 

Predatory...   Rainforest timber stockpiled outside APRIL's Riau woodpulp plant (photo by William Laurance)

Predatory...   Rainforest timber stockpiled outside APRIL's Riau woodpulp plant (photo by William Laurance)

At least initially, APP appears to be passing muster, but the jury is still out on APRIL.

Some, however, believe the corporations are getting off too lightly, and along with crooked politicians should also be facing prosecution for their recent legacy of corruption and predatory behavior.