- Two years ago, Mongabay and its partners launched a project dedicated to revealing corruption and collusion at the core of many natural resource industries around the world via its investigative journalism program.
- The result was observable impacts in multiple sectors including government agencies, international financial institutions, local communities and civil society organizations.
- The project supported investigations focused on cattle, fisheries, minerals, palm oil, soybeans, sunflower oil, and timber.
- Some findings include exposing contradictory actions from sustainability statements of financial institutions, mining encroachment on Indigenous lands, suspicious payments made to unnamed consultants by palm oil conglomerates and broken promises of land rights acknowledgements.
As deforestation and the violation of Indigenous land rights continue to be an ever-present part of the global supply chain, many consumers (and even investors) are calling for transparency on sustainability practices and on the ties of financial institutions or government entities to unsustainable or illegal land use.
In the past two years, Mongabay collaborated with a network of individual and organizational peers with the aim of uncovering corruption and links to deforestation among these sectors.
Mongabay conducted 11 investigations, producing 44 articles and 13 videos, published in multiple languages. Most of these reports were published as collaborative series with partner outlets including Al Jazeera, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Ciper, Cuestión Pública, Diálogo Chino, Earthsight, El Universo, The Gecko Project, InfoAmazonia, the Korean Center for Investigative Reporting, ((o))eco, the Pulitzer Center, Tansa, The Environmental Reporting Collective and Repórter Brasil. Below is a brief overview of some of the findings from these reports.
The start of the beef supply chain was explained through an investigation by Mongabay and Repórter Brasil into the violent land grabbing associated with “indirect suppliers” in Lábrea, a town in the border region of the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia.
Additional investigations shed light on the relationship between financial institutions and the Brazilian beef industry and included multiple revelations about inconsistencies between investment portfolios and publicly stated commitments in the case of BlackRock, as well as resistance to calls to accept environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) standards in the case of Morgan Stanley.
In January 2020, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, published an open letter in which he announced measures to “position sustainability at the heart of investment strategy” of the company. But an investigation by ((o))eco and Mongabay found that BlackRock administers more than $400 million of shares in the three largest Brazilian meatpackers operating in the Amazon today: JBS, Marfrig and Minerva. Both Marfig and Minerva have been fined for illegal deforestation in their supply chains.
Likewise, Morgan Stanley states its Brazilian subsidiary “doesn’t engage in third-party asset management,” yet owns 3.4% of Marfig shares and 4.94% of Minerva.
Outside Brazil, Mongabay investigated the beef supply chain originating from Nicaragua and found similar issues with cattle laundering and land conflict as were observed in Brazil.
In Latin America, Mongabay collaborated with Ciper, Cuestión Pública and El Universo on an investigative series focused on the impact of illegal fishing on marine reserves in Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador. The series 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 by analyzing satellite data on the movement of vessels along the borders of – and inside – protected areas over a five-year period, as well as tracked vessels and companies to obtain their background. The Global Investigative Journalism Network included this reporting in its 2020 list of the 10 most important investigative reports in Latin America.
Over the past year, Mongabay collaborated with Tansa and the Environmental Reporting Collective on an investigation that uncovered widespread abuse of Indonesian and Filipino deckhands working for Dalian Ocean Fishing, which claims to be China’s largest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan.
Obtained were testimonies from deckhands who worked on 14 of the company’s boats, some 40% of the fleet. Workers said they were subject to beatings, fed substandard food, given possibly dangerous drinking water, and made to work around the clock. Dozens of men fell ill and in some cases died from unknown illnesses that clinicians said were likely caused by the limited diets and/or the drinking water.
Mongabay worked with InfoAmazonia to document increasing pressures on forests and Indigenous communities in the world’s largest rainforest from both illegal miners and mining companies. This effort was supported by the Pulitzer Center and included the development of a Twitter bot to track and distribute information about new permit requests filed with Brazil’s National Mining Agency that overlap with 385 Indigenous territories and 49 protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon.
During a year-long investigation in collaboration with the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa, Al Jazeera, and The Gecko Project, Mongabay followed the trail of a $22 million consultancy fee associated with a land deal in Indonesia’s Papua region made by the Korindo Group, an Indonesia-South Korea joint venture and palm oil giant. Published in 2020 (and a 2021 finalist for the Online Journalism Awards: Knight Award for Public Service, and Excellence In Collaboration and Partnerships), this work uncovered the circumstances around the suspicious payment and the role it played in the conglomerate’s rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in Papua. Anti-corruption experts told Mongabay that while it’s impossible to tell if the payment financed bribery, they considered the payment to closely resemble the typology of bribery cases involving consultants.
Continuing to bring global awareness to the Korindo Group, Mongabay reported on an independent investigation based on satellite imagery in late 2020, which concluded that the company deliberately set fires to clear rainforest in its concession. After the article was published, a senior Indonesian member of parliament launched an investigation into Korindo’s activities. By July 2021, the Korindo Group was stripped of its membership in the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The announcement came after the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on how to verify the company’s compliance.
Additionally, in December 2019 Mongabay published the guide “Follow the permits: How to identify corruption red flags in Indonesian land deals” that outlines how civil society can use permit data to identify corruption.
The importance of women-led resistance to exploitative development practices was noted in Brazil through Mongabay’s collaborative investigation with Diálogo Chino into the expansion of privately owned grain ports along the Amazon River and its tributaries.
Sarah Sax and Maurício Angelo journeyed to the Brazilian Amazon to report on the struggles for land recognition by descendants of runaway slaves, known as quilombolas, and their communities, quilombos. Despite the fact that the Brazilian Constitution guarantees land recognition for them since 1988, fewer than 200 of the 3,000 quilombo communities have been given full title to their land, which continues to be cleared of primary forest in the Brazilian Cerrado savanna for agribusiness.
Mongabay also traced the rise and fall of a billion-dollar commodities cartel in Eastern Europe, finding that it relied on money laundering, tax avoidance and state capture to amass great wealth. Over the course of six months, reporters reviewed hundreds of court filings and corporate and property records, and interviewed 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. This investigation was covered widely by the Moldovan media in the days following publication, prompting a response from Trans-Oil and Moldovan officials.
Mongabay called attention to an increase in illegal logging and linkages to the coronavirus pandemic. Interpol told Mongabay that the pandemic has decreased enforcement capacity and spurred deteriorating economic conditions. The on-the-ground effects of this situation were revealed by Mongabay’s coverage of the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, where exploitative agricultural companies and illegal loggers are operating with renewed vigor under the cover of the pandemic.
While the pandemic presented clear challenges to traditional field reporting, Mongabay took the challenge of this situation to focus its efforts on document- and data-driven investigations, particularly on financial beneficiaries. The findings can be used to follow the supply chains of consumer products.
Readers can follow continuing coverage of investigations at the Mongabay Investigations page.
Banner Image: Rural property with vast banana plantations in Seringal São Domingos, located in the extreme south of Lábrea, is home to a great dispute for land between farmers, loggers and squatters. Image by Avener Prado/Repórter Brasil.
Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s audience engagement associate. Find him on Twitter @MikeDiGirolamo, Instagram or TikTok via @midigirolamo.