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Mongabay’s 10 hardest-hitting investigations of 2021

  • Mongabay published numerous deep-dive investigations this year, some of them data-driven and others relying on on-the-ground interviews, to hold companies and governments accountable.
  • The investigations ranged from Brazil to China to Nigeria, covering a wide range of issues, from deforestation to workers’ rights and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.
  • In this article, Mongabay looks at some of the most impactful investigations from 2021.

In 2021, Mongabay’s investigative journalism set out to hold powerful figures accountable for deforestation and pollution, and the mistreatment of vulnerable communities trying to protect local ecosystems. Using data-driven analysis and video, its reporters found new and interesting ways to attract readers all over the world. They analyzed census data to better understand how Indigenous people live in Brazilian cities, and compiled workers’ complaints from a fleet of fishing vessels in China. They uncovered the inner-workings of land grabbing campaigns pushed by corrupt Cambodian bureaucrats and mapped protected areas of Nigeria under threat from international food producers.

Nevertheless, investigative journalism continued to be a challenging endeavor this year. The Covid-19 pandemic dragged on throughout 2021, with new variants sparking curfews, border closures and other travel restrictions in numerous countries where Mongabay reporters were working. Often, difficult discussions had to be held not only about whether it was safe for reporters to travel during spikes in cases, but if on-the-ground interviews might unnecessarily expose vulnerable communities to the virus.

Even from a desk, Mongabay investigative reporters were able to track down hundreds if not thousands of pages of documents and conduct countless phone interviews with sources willing to help expose corrupt practices all over the world. The result of that hard work shows in the details of the investigative reports highlighted below.

Worked to death: How a Chinese tuna juggernaut crushed its Indonesian workers

This joint investigation by Mongabay, Tansa and the Environmental Reporting Collective took a closer look at allegations that workers on one of China’s largest tuna fishing firms, Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), were falling sick for mysterious, unexplained reasons, including developing “distended body parts” and swelling in the legs, neck and face. The reporting team tracked down and spoke with deckhands on 40% of DOF’s known fleet of some 35 longliners, finding that the sickness was stemming from poor working conditions. It was common for deckhands to be beaten, fed expired food and given dirty drinking water. Many workers were also having their pay withheld by DOF.

The reporting team identified a pattern of deceit by the fishing company, which posted lucrative job adverts on social media. Despite seeming too good to be true, the ads continue to attract groups of young people without other economic opportunities. They are still being exploited on fishing boats throughout the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Facebook photos posted at Lakemba Perkasa Bahari show, clockwise from top left, men training with fishing lines; a sign outside Lakemba’s office in Bekasi, a satellite city of Jakarta; Lakemba recruits; and coffee and cigarettes.

Investigation: Dutch, Japanese pension funds pay for Amazon deforestation

Despite its public stance against increasing rates of deforestation in the Amazon, the Netherlands has two large pension funds that continue to invest in meatpackers, an industry that is responsible for around 80% of tree cover loss in Brazil, an investigation by Mongabay and ((o))eco found.

The pension fund for Dutch government workers and educators had invested $219 million in JBS, one of the largest meatpackers in the world. The investigation found a similar trend in Japan, where the world’s largest pension fund, GPIF, has put over $180 million into three different meatpacking firms in Brazil.

In total, the amount invested was more than the entire 2021 budget for Brazil’s environment ministry.

Red flag: Predatory European ships help push Indian Ocean tuna to the brink

The Indian Ocean is one of the most productive tuna fisheries in the world, but exploitive European Union fishing practices there have pushed the yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) population close to collapse. Mongabay’s investigation looked at how large EU countries like Spain and France have contributed to overfishing by manipulating local regulations. Many of their boats sail under the flag of small island nations like the Seychelles to maximize profits and minimize government oversight, allowing them to operate in the Indian Ocean without reporting their exact locations.

Mongabay reporters also highlighted that a yellowfin rebuilding plan implemented in 2016, which aimed to reduce catches by 15% from their 2014 levels, had completely failed. EU-flagged vessels were still overfishing in the years following the implementation of the plan.

Tuna fisheries in Seychellois waters. Image courtesy of Joe Laurence/Seychelles News Agency.

The great Koh Kong land rush: Areas stripped of protection by Cambodian gov’t being bought up

Mongabay’s investigation found that a government land distribution plan in Cambodia, which was meant to grant territory to local communities living in natural reserves, was being abused by the country’s wealthy elite to buy up property. The story tells of how eight protected areas in Koh Kong province lost nearly 127,000 hectares (314,000 acres), or around twice the land area of the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, through coercion and bribery by some of the country’s most powerful figures.

The purchase of land by shady brokers appears to have been orchestrated with the help of National Defense Minister Tea Banh and his brother, Tea Vinh, the head of the Royal Cambodian Navy, highlighting how endemic corruption in the country has led to the destruction of important ecosystems.

Persistence of slave labor exposes lawlessness of Amazon gold mines

Gold mining operations run by magnate Raimunda Nunes and her family in Brazil’s Pará state consistently subject workers to slave-labor conditions, including “improvised housing with no bathrooms, contaminated drinking water, no protective gear and arbitrary fees that result in debt bondage with no work contracts,” Mongabay’s Brazil team found. The story also revealed how the family uses mining applications to disguise their criminal activity, and creates sham gold miners’ cooperatives to hide the real working conditions in mining camps.

The Nunes family’s mining operations are backed by significant amounts of money, enough to afford four backhoes worth 1 million reales ($177,000) each, the investigation found. The equipment helped accelerate environmental damage in the Amana National Forest in the Solimões River Basin.

Mining camp workers were kept in degrading work conditions: improvised housing with no bathrooms, contaminated water, a lack of protective gear, and arbitrary fees that resulted in debt bondage with no work contracts. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Ministry of Labor.

At a ‘certified’ palm oil plantation in Nigeria, soldiers and conflict over land

The Okomu Oil Palm Company operates a palm oil plantation on a land concession inside of Nigeria’s Okomu Forest Reserve, but Mongabay found that local land has been stolen by the company, which uses government security forces to bully residents. Some of them complained of being beaten and threatened, as well as having their fish nets taken away as punishment for suspected theft of palm fruit. In one shocking instance, Nigerian security forces burned down a village over palm oil disputes and then questioned whether the village had ever really existed.

The investigation revealed that the company’s activities were able to continue in part because of a flawed audit system, which is supposed to ensure a company’s operations are responsible and environmentally friendly. In reality, consultancy firms are hired and fired by the companies that the firms are supposed to be auditing, creating a conflict of interest that, in the case of Okomu Oil Palm, ended up facilitating human rights violations and environmental destruction.

Residents of communities living inside and near Okomu’s concession protesting the company’s operations on January 28, 2021. Photo courtesy of Ajele Sunday.

Déjà vu as palm oil industry brings deforestation, pollution to Amazon

A Mongabay reporting team traveled to Brazil’s Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Reserve to investigate claims that palm oil plantations were not only accelerating deforestation and pollution, but also getting local communities sick.

It witnessed unmarked trucks dumping insecticides and herbicides from local palm oil mills into rivers. The team also spoke with locals who had fallen sick after having bathed in or drunk the water. Other residents complained of coughing, shortness of breath, nausea and headaches after inhaling fumes from palm trees sprayed with pesticides.

Brazil’s palm oil industry still only produces about 1% of the world’s demand but appears to be growing, the investigation revealed, thanks to a combination of influential figures in the private sector and lax regulations creating loopholes for dumping waste.

In Rio de Janeiro, Indigenous people fight to undo centuries of erasure

This piece is part of Mongabay’s seven-part series on Indigenous people in Brazilian cities, an attempt to challenge the belief that Indigenous communities are confined to the Amazon. In fact, more than a third of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples live in urban areas throughout the country, where they face a unique set of challenges. The story documents how one of Brazil’s most famous and historic cities, Rio de Janeiro, was partly built by enslaved Indigenous people, who today struggle with being erased from the fabric of life there.

The 127 Indigenous ethnic groups present in the city suffer from stereotyping, the “silencing” of their traditions and systemic racism that makes it difficult to access basic utilities and to enroll in universities. However, some Indigenous people continue to organize social movements to raise awareness of Indigenous culture in Rio de Janeiro, while others are searching for documents that explain why Indigenous people have been left out of the history books.

‘I am Indigenous, not pardo’: Push for self-declaration in Brazil’s census

Also a part of Mongabay’s series on Indigenous people in Brazilian cities, this piece digs into the racial and ethnic politics baked into Brazil’s census, which still includes the term “pardo” or “brown” to identify partly Indigenous peoples. The term has been used as a way of hiding Indigenous culture in Brazil for centuries, and has added to the ambiguity that comes with living as an Indigenous person in an urban context.

The most recent census, taken in 2010, counted 900,000 Indigenous people in Brazil but is very likely an undercount due to the number of people who identify as pardo, which totaled 82.28 million. As a result, resources are not always adequately distributed to disadvantaged areas of cities where Indigenous people often live.

Indigenous in São Paulo: Erased by a colonial education curriculum

Mongabay looked into the Brazilian education system and how curriculums often erase Indigenous identity by glorifying colonization. Another part of Mongabay’s series on Indigenous people in Brazilian cities, it documents the history of several communities in Sao Paolo, the country’s largest urban center, and how they must continually fight to prove that they “exist.”

The story explains how the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory in northern São Paulo, where 700 Guarani live in six villages, has for years been threatened by urban expansion, including highways named after colonizers famous for massacring their people. The communities existed long before the city reached them but, due in part to an education that omits Indigenous history, Jaraguá residents must fight to prove the value of their ancestral land.

Illustration by Yunroo & Lim Wei.

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