Newsletter 2020-07-02



Gold priced at $1,700 per ounce brings new gold rush to Brazilian Amazon by Fabio Nascimento (photos) and Gustavo Faleiros (text) [07/01/2020]

– Global instability brought on by the Coronavirus and the meltdown of the world economy has sent gold prices soaring to US$1,700 per ounce, their highest value in 10 years. That surge has triggered a new, intensified gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon as entrepreneurs invest in expensive equipment and cheap labor.
– While some Amazon gold mining is legally permitted, much isn’t. The lucrative, unpoliced industry is causing deforestation, river destruction, mercury contamination (the element used in gold ore processing), and an invasion by hundreds of thousands of miners who could spread COVID-19 to the region.
– Despite being an illegal activity, large gold mining dredges operate openly in Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia state. Our Mongabay reporting team followed the daily lives of a dredge-owning entrepreneur and his crew of garimpeiros as they searched for the precious metal in the waters of the Madeira River.

‘They took it over by force’: Corruption and palm oil in Sierra Leone by Victoria Schneider [06/30/2020]

– 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 Inter-national 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 2011, Socfin entered into a 50-year land lease agreement with the Sierra Leonean government and local authorities, which was soon followed by two more agreements. In less than 10 years, the forest and farmland around the chiefdom of Sahn Malen was transformed into thousands of hectares of monoculture oil palm fields.
– Reception to the plantation has been divided. Some area residents say they welcome the jobs and income the company provides. But others allege the deal with Socfin was exploitative and corrupt.
– A leaked government report from 2019 found several irregularities surrounding Socfin’s Sahn Malen operations, including a concession area on the ground that’s larger than what is stipulated in the lease agreements and evidence of financial mismanagement by local authorities.

‘If they take our lands, we’ll be dead’: Cameroon village battles palm oil giant by Victoria Schneider [06/26/2020]

– Mbonjo sits in the heart of Cameroon’s country’s largest oil palm and rubber-producing region. In 2000, state-owned oil palm plantations around the village were acquired by 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. Today, the company owns some 58,000 hectares of oil palm and rubber plantations in the region, which are managed Socfin’s local subsidiary Socapalm.
– In 2012, Socapalm attempted to expand the plantation into new areas. However, efforts to do so were met with opposition from the community, according to local residents who said they were living in the places the company wanted to take over.
– Socapalm ultimately withdrew from the area. But the fear that someday the company will return and try again to take their land persists in Mbonjo as issues surrounding the concession boundaries have remained unresolved. NGOs who have visited Mbonjo have documented several problems with the plantation operations, including unresolved issues surrounding land rights, poor housing conditions for workers and a low integration of the local population into the workforce.
– Socfin CEO Luc Boedt refutes claims that Socfin has harmed communities, saying instead that the company has helped them by training residents in modern agriculture practices, supplying nutrients to improve soil fertility, ensuring the availability of water and electricity, providing opportunities for education and jobs, and creating a market for smallholder crops.

How the legacy of colonialism built a palm oil empire by Victoria Schneider [06/26/2020]

– 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. Several lawsuits and complaints have been submitted over alleged misconduct including irregularities in land acquisition processes, poor working and housing conditions and the absence of the sustainable inclusion of local farmers.
– Socfin, meanwhile, refutes criticism of its operations, saying its aim is to further development in Africa and ensure that local communities and their workers are the beneficiaries of their operations.

Court forces Ecuador government to protect Indigenous Waorani during COVID-19 by Kimberley Brown [06/26/2020]

– A provincial court ruled that the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Inclusion must better communicate and coordinate with Waorani leaders to get more COVID-19 tests, food and other necessities to communities.
– It also ordered the Ministry of Environment and Water to send a report detailing how it is monitoring illegal mining, logging and drug trafficking activities in the region, and to provide information on COVID-19 protocols for oil companies operating there.
– The lawyer for the Waorani called these industries “vectors of contagion” in the Amazon, as they never stopped during quarantine.



In Madagascar’s capital, pollution threatens an oasis for birds by Valisoa Rasolofomboahangy [Thu, 02 Jul 2020]
– Tsarasaotra Park, located in the center of Antananarivo, is one of the few remaining refuges for the waterbirds of Madagascar’s highlands.
– The park is the first private site to be classified as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention.
– The fast pace of urbanization in the capital is degrading the park’s biodiversity and putting the birds at risk.

Podcast: International task force unites North America to protect salamander diversity by [Wed, 01 Jul 2020]
– The U.S. is home to the world’s greatest diversity of salamanders, so experts are worried about another pandemic that is headed for the country, one that has salamanders in its sights.
– Researchers think that about half of these species may be susceptible to the deadly fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (or ‘Bsal’), and believe it is only a matter of time before it gets to North America.
– On this bonus episode of the podcast we speak with Dr. Jake Kerby who is the former chair of the task force, and details how the group works with federal entities in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico to manage and mitigate the damage of the potential pandemic.
– Dr. Kerby also describes what citizens can do to help.

Indonesia lavishes $195m subsidy on palm biodiesel producers over smallholders by Hans Nicholas Jong [Wed, 01 Jul 2020]
– The Indonesian government is allocating $195 million from the state budget to subsidize producers of palm oil biodiesel, justifying the move as necessary to boosting the economy out of a pandemic-induced slump.
– Campaigners have blasted the move, noting that the fund through which the money will be channeled is meant to empower small oil palm farmers and not subsidize the giant multinationals that produce biodiesel.
– Since 2015, the government has used the fund to both subsidize producers and artificially lower the price of biodiesel at the pump to keep it competitive with regular diesel.
– Studies have shown that the deforestation inherent in the production of palm biodiesel means it emits up to three times as much CO2 as fossil fuels, making crop-based biofuels counterproductive to efforts to cut emissions.

From New Guinea to Florida, one of these crocs is not like the others by Francesca Edralin [Wed, 01 Jul 2020]
– Scientists have described the newest crocodilian species known to science, the Hall’s New Guinea crocodile, previously considered a population of the already known New Guinea crocodile.
– The discovery was nearly 40 years in the making, sparked by the late herpetologist Philip Hall, who, in the 1980s, began questioning the differences between the southern and northern populations of crocodiles on the island of New Guinea.
– To describe the new species, named in honor of Hall, scientists studied and compared New Guinea crocodile skulls held at museums across the U.S.
– They also found some members of this new species hiding in plain sight: at an alligator farm in Florida that’s famous for having specimens of all known crocodilians.

COVID-19 halts matchmaking attempt for female Sumatran rhino in Borneo by Yovanda [Wed, 01 Jul 2020]
– Conservationists searching for a wild male Sumatran orangutan to join a lone female as part of a captive-breeding program have had to call off the search for the rest of the year.
– The field work by conservationists in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province has been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with other activities.
– The captive breeding programs is believed by experts to be the most viable means left to save the global population of the nearly extinct species.
– Indonesia is now the last refuge for Sumatran rhinos, with a population of fewer than 80 individuals.

Indonesia reopens national parks to tourists as COVID-19 cases rise by [Wed, 01 Jul 2020]
– Indonesia is reopening 29 national and nature parks to local and foreign tourists despite a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the country.
– The parks were closed earlier this year to prevent the possible spread of the novel coronavirus to wildlife populations.
– Authorities say the parks will be allowed to open with strict health protocols, including limiting visitors to half capacity.
– Some of the parks allowed for reopening are home to rare and threatened species such as orangutans, proboscis monkeys, Javan hawk-eagles, and silvery gibbons.

For investors concerned about deforestation, there’s a guide for that by Liz Kimbrough [Tue, 30 Jun 2020]
– The sustainability nonprofit Ceres has released a new Investor Guide to Deforestation and Climate Change intended for institutional investors who want to engage with the companies in their portfolios to address deforestation.
– Agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, and pulp and paper are major drivers of deforestation. Identifying investments in these sectors is a first step for investors looking to address deforestation risks in their investment portfolios.
– The guide outlines key expectations for investors to look for in companies’ deforestation and climate commitments, provides investors with example questions for companies and gives action items to address deforestation risks.

An intrusive killer scorpion points the way to six new species in Sri Lanka by Malaka Rodrigo [Tue, 30 Jun 2020]
– Getting out of their vehicle in the middle of the night, armed with small digging tools, UV lights and headlamps, the members of the research team looked like a group of treasure hunters. But they were out looking for scorpions, checking on the insects as they came out of their hiding spots at […]

What are the secrets of spotted hyenas? Candid Animal Cam meets the mammal with bone-breaking jaws by [Tue, 30 Jun 2020]
– Every Tuesday, Mongabay brings you a new episode of Candid Animal Cam, our show featuring animals caught on camera traps around the world and hosted by Romi Castagnino, our writer and conservation scientist.

Using technology, indigenous monitors in the Amazon combat environmental crime by Vanessa Romo [Tue, 30 Jun 2020]
– For more than 10 years, Amazonian indigenous communities in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have used technology to record environmental crimes, gather evidence, and file complaints with authorities in their countries.
– Prosecutors in these countries attempt to verify complaints, but without coordinated logistics, monitoring work done by communities is not always accepted by government entities.
– Despite this, a number of communities have used technology to win important verdicts against oil companies, while others have successfully compelled governments to evict invaders from their territories.

Tigers caught on camera lounging in a Jacuzzi-sized watering hole by Elizabeth Claire Alberts [Mon, 29 Jun 2020]
– Camera traps in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex captured an array of animals, including tigers, a banteng, elephants, sambar and muntjac deer, a wild boar, a long-tailed macaque, a crab-eating mongoose, a crested serpent eagle, a blue magpie, and a jungle fowl.
– The Western Forest Complex, or WEFCOM, is Thailand’s largest block of intact forest, and home to at least 150 species of mammals, 490 birds, 90 reptiles, 40 amphibians, and 108 fish, many of which are threatened and endangered species.
– Poaching and habitat encroachment have placed many species living in WEFCOM under duress, but populations are slowly recovering in response to increased conservation efforts.

Ikea using illegally sourced wood from Ukraine, campaigners say by Ashoka Mukpo [Mon, 29 Jun 2020]
– The report provides evidence that some of the beech wood used in Ikea’s flagship Terje chair and other products came from a state-run forestry enterprise in Ukraine that was violating the law.
– Ikea’s suppliers in Ukraine harvested logs from the Velkyy Bychkiv state forestry enterprise during a “silence period” when the type of logging they were carrying out was legally prohibited.
– Campaigners say the Forest Stewardship Council, one of the world’s largest and most influential timber certification organizations, failed to note or take action on the illegalities.

‘Saving sun bears’: Q&A with book author Sarah Pye by John C. Cannon [Mon, 29 Jun 2020]
– A new book, “Saving Sun Bears,” chronicles the efforts of Malaysian wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te to protect sun bears in Borneo.
– Author Sarah Pye tells Wong’s story, from his boyhood in peninsular Malaysia, to his studies of animal husbandry and wildlife around the world.
– Wong’s journey led him to return to Malaysia and start the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, the only facility of its kind in the world, in 2008.

How we calculated Korindo’s revenues from clearing Papuan rainforest by The Gecko Project and Mongabay [Mon, 29 Jun 2020]
– A panel convened by the Forest Stewardship Council calculated that Korindo had deprived indigenous communities in Indonesia’s Papua province of $300 million by underpaying for the timber harvested from their lands in the decade from 2007.
– Korindo dismissed the figure as “pure fantasy” on the grounds that the panel had based its calculations on global market prices, when Korindo actually sold the timber locally. Korindo claimed it had made a loss on the logging operations as it cleared land for plantations.
– Based on our own calculation, we estimate that since the turn of the century, Korindo exported products worth $320 million using timber harvested as it cleared the rainforest for plantations in Papua.

This Philippine butterfly had a mistaken identity for years, until its ‘rediscovery’ by Keith Anthony Fabro [Sun, 28 Jun 2020]
– A pair of scientists have discovered a new subspecies of butterfly whose only known habitat is at the peak of a potentially active volcano in the central Philippines.
– Specimens of the new subspecies, Appias phoebe nuydai, were first collected in 2012 by researcher Jade Badon, who initially misidentified them as belonging to a different phoebe subspecies.
– The researcher realized in 2019 that the species was different after comparing its forewings to existing cataloged species.
– Climate change is the biggest possible threat to high-elevation butterflies, with researchers calling for more studies into how the butterflies are adapting.

It’s time to rein in the industries devouring the world’s last standing forests (commentary) by Gaurav Madan [Fri, 26 Jun 2020]
– Gaurav Madan, Senior Forests and Lands Campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S., argues that industrial commodity producers are failing to rein in destruction of the world’s tropical forest, despite a raft of commitments to end deforestation.
– Accordingly, Madan argues, society should prioritize transitioning away from unaccountable production and unfettered consumption.
– “It’s time we end our addiction to endless consumption and realize our future is tied to the fate of the planet,” he writes.
– This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The first modern-day marine fish has officially gone extinct. More may follow by Elizabeth Claire Alberts [Fri, 26 Jun 2020]
– The smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis), an unusual species that could “walk” on its pectoral and pelvic fins, is the first marine bony fish to go extinct in modern times, likely due to habitat loss and destructive fishing practices.
– There was only ever one specimen of the smooth handfish known to scientists, which became the holotype for the entire species.
– The other 13 species of handfish are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, pollution, destructive fishing practices, and other human-linked causes, and conservationists are stepping up efforts to protect them.
– Only four species of handfish have been spotted in the past 20 years, which has raised serious concerns for the future survival of these species.

Brazil’s indigenous hit especially hard by COVID-19: why so vulnerable? by Sue Branford [Thu, 25 Jun 2020]
– At least 78 indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon are infected by COVID-19, with 3,662 individuals testing positive and 249 dead among 45 of those peoples. Detailed data is lacking for the other 33 peoples. Experts say poverty, poor resistance to Western diseases, and lack of medical facilities may explain high vulnerability.
– The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), which gathered and tallied this data, expects cases and deaths are underreported. Many leaders and elders continue dying among indigenous people, including elders of the Munduruku, Kayapó, Arara, Macuxi, and Tuyuka peoples.
– COVID-19 has now penetrated the Xingu river basin, a vast area south of the Amazon River in Pará and Mato Grosso states. The Arara people there were devastated by disease and violence in the 1980s. Now, of 121 remaining Arara, almost half have tested positive for the coronavirus.
– Of the 1,818 Xicrin in southwest Pará state, 270 (15%) have tested positive, with seven deaths. Analysts speculate this high infection and death rate (higher than Brazil’s general populace, and even many other indigenous groups), may be due to poor underlying health due to water allegedly polluted by a Vale nickel mine.

Animal crossing: A wild ass makes history by Liz Kimbrough [Thu, 25 Jun 2020]
– An Asiatic wild ass, or khulan, made history when it became the first of its species to cross into the eastern steppe in Mongolia in nearly seven decades.
– A photo released by WCS Mongolia shows the khulan crossing the Trans-Mongolian Railroad after modifications were made to the existing fence to allow for wildlife crossings.
– Habitat degradation, human development, and barriers to movement such as fences all threaten the khulan, which is globally assessed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List.



The Consultant: Why did a palm oil conglomerate pay $22m to an unnamed ‘expert’ in Papua? by The Gecko Project and Mongabay [06/25/2020]
‘Betting on impunity’: Brazilian Amazon under attack despite logging crackdown by Ana Ionova [06/23/2020]
Illegal farms on indigenous lands get whitewashed under Bolsonaro administration by Bruno Fonseca and Rafael Oliveira from Agência Pública [06/23/2020]
The fire prophet: Dolors Armenteras on saving the Amazon and fighting misogyny in science by Nicolas Bustamante Hernandez [06/23/2020]
World Rainforest Day: The world’s great rainforests by Rhett A. Butler [06/22/2020]
Mangrove collapse ‘inevitable’ unless emissions curbed by Lauren Crothers [06/18/2020]