- Over the course of 2020, Mongabay published more than 5,200 stories, which collectively had on-site readership of 140 million pageviews.
- The reach of this content was further amplified by readership within social media and by the many third party outlets that syndicate our stories.
- This post reviews some of the investigations we undertook in 2020. Some of these investigations were collaborative efforts with other news outlets and agencies.
Over the course of 2020, Mongabay published more than 5,200 stories, which collectively had on-site readership of 140 million pageviews. The reach of this content was further amplified by readership within social media and by the many third party outlets that syndicate our stories. We’ll be sharing more information on our most popular articles and readership, as well as details on some of the impacts of our reporting, in subsequent posts.
This post reviews some of the investigations we undertook in 2020. Some of these investigations were collaborative efforts with other news outlets and agencies.
Commodities kingpin leaves a troubling legacy in Moldova: This Mongabay investigation traced the rise and fall of a billion-dollar commodities cartel in Eastern Europe, finding it relied on money laundering, tax avoidance and state capture. Over more than six months, reporters reviewed hundreds of court filings, corporate and property records, and carried out interviews with those involved to reveal how the deals were done and where the money went. Despite mounting evidence of impropriety by the group, major development banks continued to fund its projects, lending legitimacy to its operations. A former U.S. ambassador to Moldova who is employed by the country’s top commodities baron is being investigated for his links to the company.
World Bank’s investments in factory farms: Over the past 10 years, the World Bank’s private investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has put more than $1.8 billion into major livestock and factory farming companies across the world. While the IFC says the investments create jobs and reduce poverty, critics contend they harm the environment and concentrate profits into the hands of a small few. The investments came amid calls to reduce meat and dairy consumption to help tackle climate change and deforestation.
Insect Apocalypse, one year on: In June 2019, in response to media outcry and alarm over a supposed ongoing global “Insect Apocalypse,” Mongabay published a thorough four-part survey of the state of the world’s insect species and their populations. Jeremy Hance interviewed 24 leading entomologists and other scientists on six continents and working in 12 nations to get their expert views on the rate of insect decline in Europe, the U.S., and especially the tropics, including Latin America, Africa, and Australia. Now, 16 months later, Hance reaches out to seven of those scientists to see what’s new. He finds much bad news: butterflies in Ohio declining by 2% per year, 94% of wild bee interactions with native plants lost in New England, and grasshopper abundance falling by 30% in a protected Kansas grassland over 20 years.
Mining in Liberia’s Nimba county: USAID and other donors spent tens of millions of dollars supporting community-led forest management in Liberia, hoping conservation would follow. In one forest, a Swiss-Russian iron prospector has other plans. The mining company’s dubious exploration permit exposed cracks in the reforms and raised questions about their future.
A troubled gorilla sanctuary: Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary (AMWS), near the Nigeria-Cameroon border, was established in 2000 to serve as a refuge for endangered primates including Cross River gorillas. Though officially protected, the AMWS suffers from encroachment for hunting, logging and agriculture. Conservationists say rangers and resources are too few to effectively protect the sanctuary. Without a major commitment from the Cross River state government, the sanctuary “may very well be doomed,” one expert says.
Nigeria’s wildlife traders, eye post-COVID-19 boom: Restrictions imposed by the Nigerian government to slow the spread of COVID-19 have hampered field operations of conservation agencies and NGOs, who are turning to creative and high-tech solutions to maintain operations. Conservationists fear that a reduction in patrols and enforcement leaves Nigeria’s biodiversity — already under pressure due to a vast wildlife trade — extremely vulnerable. In Nigeria’s wildlife markets, some traders report a downturn due to a generally slow economy, and to movement restrictions on customers. However, they say a ban on interstate travel has not stopped the flow of wildlife products between forests and cities.
The diminishment of Madagascar’s Tsaratanana Reserve: Satellite data show an increase in deforestation in Tsaratanana Reserve and the neighboring COMATSA protected area in northern Madagascar in recent years, accompanied by an uptick in the last few months. Though many of the island’s forests have been extensively cleared, these northern forests were relatively well protected until recently.
How the legacy of colonialism built a palm oil empire: Due to the legacy of decades of colonial rule and the subsequent lack of local expertise and capital needed to meet the requirements of the World Bank’s economic incentive programs, newly independent governments drew on foreign capital during decolonization in the mid-20th to keep businesses and exports running. As a result, some of the biggest tropical commodity companies were founded during colonial times and still operate in countries once occupied by colonial powers. One of these is Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (Socfin), a Belgian holding company that operates palm oil and rubber plantations through dozens of subsidiaries across Africa and Southeast Asia. For years, Socfin has been rebuked by civil society organizations for alleged human rights violations at its plantations.
Corruption and palm oil in Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone is among the poorest countries in the world. In the 1990s, when other African countries were privatizing key industries in order to attract foreign investment and become eligible for international loans, a civil war was raging in Sierra Leone that prevented the country from taking part in the controversial structural adjustment programs initiated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Sources say that the country, eager to catch up, has been rushing into deals with foreign investors without first enacting legislation to protect the interests of local landowners. In less than 10 years, the forest and farmland around the chiefdom of Sahn Malen were transformed into thousands of hectares of monoculture oil palm fields.
Takeover of Nigerian reserve highlights uphill battle to save forests: Akure-Ofosu Forest Reserve in southwestern Nigeria, home to rare primates and valuable timber trees, has some of the highest deforestation rates in the country. Logging is ostensibly prohibited, but sawmills thrive here, while farmers who clear land inside the reserve often have their actions legitimized by the authorities. Researchers say poverty and a lack of jobs are at the root of the problem, with communities compelled to farm, log and hunt in the absence of other forms of livelihoods. With Nigeria’s forest reserves among the few areas left unfarmed, population pressure threatens to drive an influx of newcomers from around the country into these reserve areas in the competition for arable land.
The Consultant: Why did a palm oil conglomerate pay $22m to an unnamed ‘expert’ in Papua?: In partnership with The Gecko Project, the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa and Al Jazeera, Mongabay spent a year tracing a $22 million “consultancy” payment connected to a major land deal in Indonesia’s Papua province. It took us from South Korea and Singapore to the heart of the largest rainforest left in Asia, to find out how the payment helped make the Korindo Group one of the most powerful oil palm producers in the region.
The impact of mining in Goa: Mining in Goa has been one of the pillars of its economy with thousands of people involved directly or indirectly, including those operating trucks and barges used for transporting the ore. Over the years, unchecked transportation of ore has violated necessary environmental safeguards. This series also looked at the impact of mining on agriculture and Goa’s mining policies
Papuan coal boom: Across Indonesia, a huge and poorly regulated coal industry has generated enormous wealth for investors but left local people behind to deal with the impacts of environmental degradation. The country’s easternmost Papua region has several untapped coal reserves. But the central government is working on a plan to open it for coal mining. This investigation into the coal industry in Horna, on the Bird’s Head Peninsula of the island of New Guinea, reveals that a company granted exploration rights in the area is closely connected to local and national power players.
A look at the lucrative trade in live reef fish in Asia: High demand for wild-caught reef fish from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia to stock upscale restaurants in East Asia could be driving overfishing and depletion of fish stocks, export trends indicate. Government attempts to regulate the trade by imposing size limits and closed fishing seasons have largely fallen short.
Outcry as loggers gut Cambodian reserve: Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, which stretches across five provinces in northern Cambodia, contains one of the region’s last remaining large areas of old-growth rainforest. But Prey Lang’s forests are under attack, with satellite data and imagery showing a recent surge in deforestation. Sources say the reserve is being illegally logged by politically connected timber companies.
Police assault on Indigenous Papuan caught on camera: Marius Betera was allegedly assaulted by a police officer in May in Papua, Indonesia. Though he died some two hours later, authorities moved quickly to attribute his death to a heart attack. Mongabay and The Gecko Project have learned that the alleged assault was caught on CCTV camera belonging to a palm oil company, the Korindo Group. The video has yet to be released to the public.
Lobster exporters ignore new Indonesian fisheries law: The resumption of Indonesia’s exports of wild-caught lobster larvae was supposed to be a golden opportunity for the country’s small fishers, who had been hit by an export ban imposed in 2016. Part of the requirements for lifting the ban was that exporting companies would partner with small fishers to set up lobster farms. However, this hasn’t happened, with exporters bypassing the requirement by buying directly from the fishers — in some cases not paying in full — and not investing in aquaculture farms.
Logging starts in world’s largest palm oil plantation: A company owned by a politically-connected Indonesian family and an investor from New Zealand has begun clearing rainforest within an area slated to become the world’s largest oil palm plantation. The project will push industrial agriculture deep into the primary rainforests of southern Papua, but has been plagued by allegations of illegality. While the new investors represent a break from those allegations, the government’s failure to investigate them has ongoing consequences.
Loggers plunder Cambodian wildlife sanctuary: Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia has lost almost a fifth of its forest cover since 2010, largely to agricultural expansion, illegal logging, and land grabbing. Cambodia has laws in place to protect sanctuaries and crackdown on violators, but environmental watchdogs say enforcement is lacking because the authorities are largely complicit in the plunder of natural resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem by locking out international conservation NGOs that would otherwise maintain a presence on the ground.
Illegal marijuana farms in Paraguay: This series of articles, a collaboration between La Nación and Mongabay Latam, looked at the expansion of illegal marijuana plantations in Paraguay’s protected forests. The Upper Parana is one of the world’s most endangered forests. The ecoregion has been almost entirely cleared in Brazil, and Argentina holds the largest remaining areas of connected habitat. Agriculture is the driving force of deforestation in Paraguay, with much of the country’s forests cleared legally to make way for cattle, soy, corn, and sugar cane fields over the past half-century. But clearing for illicit marijuana cultivation is also taking a toll on eastern Paraguay’s forests.
Nicaraguan beef sourcing: Major multinational companies including Nestlé and Cargill are at risk of sourcing Nicaraguan beef from indigenous regions consumed by settler-occupation and mass deforestation. Both companies admit they can only trace the origin of their Nicaraguan beef back to the slaughterhouses, not the ranches. More than 100 indigenous people living in the country’s autonomous indigenous regions have been killed, kidnapped, or injured since 2015 amid conflicts ignited by settler migration and land grabbing.
BlackRock has $400m stake in Amazon meatpackers: An investigation published in partnership with Reporter Brasil analyzed $408 million worth of investments made by BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, via various funds into Brazil’s top three meatpackers operating in the Amazon. These holdings are at odds with BlackRock’s stated position of pursuing environmentally sustainable investments, given that the meatpackers — JBS, Marfrig and Minerva — are closely associated with deforestation in the Amazon. Experts say the sheer size of BlackRock’s stake in these companies could be decisive in forcing the meatpackers to adopt deforestation-free practices.
Tracking illegal fishing in Latin America [Spanish]: This investigative series looked at the impact of illegal fishing on marine reserves in Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador. The series, which was done in coordination with Ciper (Chile), Cuestion Pública (Colombia), and El Universo (Ecuador), concluded that protected areas in Latin America often do not have sufficient surveillance or budget to prevent illegal fishing. Mongabay tracked the progress of illegal fishing in four marine protected areas in the region by analyzing satellite data on the movement of vessels along the borders and within protected areas during the last 5 years, as well as tracked vessels and companies to obtain their background. The Global Investigative Journalism Network included this reporting their list of the 10 most important investigative reports in Latin American in 2020.
Contentious Guatemala nickel mine ‘ignores coronavirus lockdown’: A nickel mine in Guatemala is at the center of fresh allegations of misconduct after it was alleged to have endangered local residents by operating throughout the coronavirus pandemic, despite a government order to close and its license being suspended last year. The mine’s operator, Switzerland-based Solway Investment Group, has denied it is breaking the rules, saying it has been given special permission by ministers to continue operations. The Fenix mine has sparked numerous social conflicts in El Estor going back to the 1960s. Dozens of locals have been arbitrarily detained and at least three killed since 2004.
Colombia’s parks suffer as land conflicts intensify: Satellite data show deforestation is intensifying in Colombia’s Sierra de la Macarena, as well as in two adjacent national parks: Tinigua and Cordillera de los Picachos. This trend is not limited to these parks, with a new study finding a dramatic increase in deforestation in the majority of Colombia’s protected areas and buffer zones following the demobilization of the FARC in 2016. The study said armed groups, especially FARC dissidents, are consolidating within national parks such as Tinigua, assigning land to farmers and promoting livestock and coca crops as an economic engine of the colonization process. Local sources say areas without FARC presence are being invaded by large-scale landowners.
Palm oil in Latin America [Spanish]: A series of four stories on oil palm expansion in Honduras, Colombia, Perú and Ecuador and the effect these plantations have had on native communities. Communities claim to be losing their land and access to rivers that are now used for large-scale palm oil production.
Illegal deforestation by Mennonite communities in the Amazon [Spanish]: With high population growth rates and an industrious approach to large-scale agriculture, Mennonite communities are responsible for significant amounts of deforestation in parts of Latin America. This investigation, which leveraged analysis of satellite data by the Amazon Conservation Association’s MAAP Initiative, looked at alleged illegal clearing by Mennonites in the Peruvian Amazon. Another story looked at a similar issue in Bolivia.
Brazilian Cerrado quilombos fight for land and lives: Thousands of quilombos — communities formed by descendants of runaway slaves — exist in Brazil, but lack of resources, structural racism, and a lethargic bureaucracy prevents them from gaining official title and control over their traditional lands, despite guarantees under the 1988 Constitution. The Brazilian government’s Quilombola Program has mapped more than 3,000 communities, but less than 200 have had their lands officially demarcated, and even fewer have been given full title. In the Brazilian Cerrado, on the nation’s agricultural frontier, rapid deforestation by expanding agribusiness, depletion of water resources, and an unsympathetic government are further complicating the resolution of the long-time struggle over land rights.
Deforestation in Bolivia’s Amboró and Madidi [Spanish]: Mongabay Latam and El Deber (Bolivia) looked at illegal deforestation within two of Bolivia’s best-known national parks, Amboró and Madidi, finding clearing for coca plantations, illegal logging of valuable hardwoods, and pollution from gold mining. During a reporting trip in the Amboró National Park, contributors had to leave the park after realizing that they were being followed by people allied with drug traffickers who work in an area that contained illegal coca crops and laboratories for producing cocaine base. Republished in English here.
Multiplying Amazon river ports open new Brazil-to-China commodities routes: Mongabay and Diálogo Chino co-produced a report looking at major industrial river ports that have been built on the Brazilian Amazon’s major rivers. Many of the projects have been internationally financed and built by commodities companies with little government oversight. These ports have transformed the region, opening it to agribusiness and the export of commodities, especially soy, to China and the rest of the world. However, this boom in port infrastructure often came at the expense of the environment and traditional riverine communities.
Brazil sees record number of bids to mine illegally on Indigenous lands: This data-driven investigation, produced with InfoAmazonia, shows Brazil’s mining regulator is continuing to entertain requests to mine in Indigenous territories, which is prohibited under the country’s Constitution. Through November 2020, there have been 145 such applications filed this year, the highest number in 24 years, spurred by President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous rhetoric and a bill now before Congress that would permit mining on Indigenous lands. Prosecutors and judges say that by maintaining these unconstitutional mining applications on file and not immediately rejecting them, the mining regulator is granting them a semblance of legitimacy.
Latin American environmental defenders under threat [Spanish]: Latin America was the deadliest region for environmental leaders in 2019. They not only face assassinations, threats, attacks and criminalization, but they end up being displaced from their territories. This series included six stories from Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Mexico.
Cordillera del Cóndor’s gold rush [Spanish]: This investigation delves into the long standing issue of illegal Ecuadorian miners crossing the border into Peru to extract gold from the Cordillera del Cóndor – an ecosystem that is distinguished by its extremely high diversity of flora and fauna. Before COVID-19 limited field work, a team from El Comercio and Mongabay Latam managed to reach the area to investigate its wealth of biodiversity, importance to Indigenous communities, and the creation of a national park, which ended up being 65 thousand hectares (160,618 acres) less than the length that had been proposed.
Colombia’s ‘Heart of the World’ at risk: The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated group of mountains situated along Colombia’s northern coast, which has the unique distinction of harboring more threatened endemic species than anywhere else in the world. Agricultural expansion has come at the expense of vital habitat over the past several decades. Now, resource exploitation and infrastructure projects planned for the region are further threatening the mountains’ ecosystems, according to scientists and local activists.
North America’s looming salamander pandemic?: Another pandemic is currently on the march, and it’s got salamanders in its sights. ‘Bsal’ nearly wiped out a population of salamanders in Europe, and scientists worry it could invade the United States–the home of the world’s greatest diversity of salamanders–next.
These stories represent a sampling of Mongabay’s investigative reporting in 2020. We have a number of active investigations that will result in more stories in 2021.