Category Archives: Development

More environmental woes in Latin America

From Brazil, the first our three stories today, starting with an ongoing problem, reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Latin America’s largest country is still losing tropical forests the size of two football fields every minute, despite attempts to tackle illegal logging and improve local land rights, a former head of Brazil’s forestry service has said.

Deforestation rates in Brazil, home to the world’s biggest expanse of tropical forests, slowed significantly between 2004 and 2010, but have picked up again in recent years due to a lack of innovation and government planning, Tasso Azevedo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Preserving forests is a key way to reduce emissions of planet-warming gases and combat climate change, as trees suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Forests are also home to hundreds of thousands of people who depend on them for their livelihood.

“In some cases, we are walking backwards,” warned Azevedo, citing poor cooperation between competing government departments and civil society in Brazil.

And from Brazil and the Thomson Reuters Foundation again, more devastation, this time human, as activists fighting to preserve lands and forests continue to die at the hands of developers:

Land rights campaigners and environmentalists are facing growing violence and intimidation in Brazil, with at least six activists killed so far this year, a human rights group said.

The killings, tracked between January and February 2016, happened in three largely rural Brazilian states with a history of land conflicts: Rondônia, Maranhão, and Alagoas, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported this week.

South America’s largest country has some of the world’s widest inequality in land distribution, according to a U.S. government report, with one percent of the population owning nearly half of the country’s land.

A growing number of activists demanding land reform and rights for indigenous people are facing “an increase in acts of violence, repression and criminalization”, the IACHR, that monitors human rights across the Americas, said in a statement.

And for our third story, we move closer to home, via teleSUR English:

The southern Mexican state of Chiapas has been hard hit by the El Niño climate phenomenon causing such an intensive drought that 13 rivers have been completely dried up, Mexican newspaper Reforma said Friday.

State Director of Civil Protection Luis Manuel Garcia told Reforma that 40 Chiapan municipalities have been affected, of which four are experiencing extreme drought.

“All of the biggest rivers in the coastal area of Chiapas have been practically dried up,” Garcia said.

In light of the extreme circumstances, Garcia said they would send a petition to the federal government requesting that they issue a state of emergency decree for three of Chiapas’ municipalities in order to get financial resources from the National Disaster Fund.

Democratic Republic of Congo, a story of tragedy

For five centuries, Western nations and empires viewed the Congo as the source of vital raw materials: First slaves, then rubber, and now minerals, including those needed to keep the American war machine running.

Before the mass murders of European Jews, the 20th Century witnessed another genocide, the slaughter of slaves under Belgian King Leopold II, who held the country as his personal property and whose regime as estimated 10 million Congolese perished in a ruthless drive to produce rubber at the dawn of the automobile age — a story told with brilliant and compassionate precision in King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, a scholar now on the faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism here in Berkeley.

The West has maintained its oppressive grasp on the Congo, though now through puppets who make deals with the new empires of the age, multinational corporations back by American military might and the dark doings of its intelligence agencies.

The tragic plight of the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] is the subject of the latest episode of The Empire Files, the superb series on teleSUR English hosted by Abby Martin, a fine journalist who began her television journalism on Berkeley Community Cable.

Her interview subject is Kambale Musavuli, a native of the DRC who studied engineering at North Carolina A&T University and now serves as a human rights advocate and  Student Coordinator and National Spokesperson for the Friends of the Congo.

From teleSUR English:

The Empire Files: Empires Feed on Congo’s Treasure

Program notes:

Every drone flown by the U.S. military has inside a piece of the Democratic Republic of the Congo–a valuable mineral, of which the DRC has trillions of dollars worth buried underground.

For five centuries, the continent of Africa has been ravaged by the world’s Empires for its vast untapped treasure. Today, the U.S. Empire is increasing it’s military role through their massive command network, AFRICOM, carrying out several missions a day.

With the Congo being arguably the biggest prize for imperialist powers, Abby Martin is joined by Kambale Musavuli, spokesperson for Friends of the Congo, to look at Empire’s role in their history and current catastrophe.

Mossack Fonseca: A case of business as usual

We’re somewhat amused at the revelations coming out of the Mossack Fonseca leak, given that for the last four decades or so we’ve been following the world of offshore banks and secret tax havens.

Any journalist looking into real estate development quickly discovers that the source of money pouring into major projects often traces back to the opaque world of offshore funding.

Back when we entered the world of daily newspaper journalism, the city where we launched our career, Las Vegas, was the center of a major offshore banking operation, with the mafia running illegal cash skimmed off the casinos of the Strip and Glitter Gulch into the black world of Caribbean banks — a money machine created by Meyer Lanksy, the “little Man,” whose late partner, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, had built the Flamingo, the first great star-studded Strip gambling palace.

As Chris Eshelman wrote back in 2012 in a review in the Journal of International Affairs:

For decades, criminals of all stripes—from gunrunners to money launderers—have stashed their accounting books in a murky, global, offshore library. For example, mob boss Meyer Lansky used banks in Switzerland, Cuba, and the Bahamas to hide mafia money. The Colombian Medellin cartel used the Cayman Islands’ confidentiality rules to protect its cocaine trade. Such offshore sandboxes are preferred by wealthy elites and even some too-big-to-fail banks for similar reasons: low taxes and strong secrecy rights.

Thanks the reporting of the late Jonathan Kwitny, we followed the mysterious doings of Nugan Hand, the bank used by arms merchants, the CIA, and a host of other players to enshroud their financial deeds/misdeeds.

And as veteran journalist Don Bauder wrote in San Diego Reader in that same year, offshore banking also benefitted a certain President of the United States:

According to reliable reports — not widely publicized — Nixon had a bundle of money in a now-defunct Swiss bank with smelly clients, particularly in San Diego.

The bank, which closed in 1974, was based in Zurich, but it had a branch in Nassau, the Bahamas, and its law firm and some operations were in New York City. It was named the Cosmos Bank. (Full disclosure: I began investigating Cosmos in 1970 and provided much information on it to Business Week magazine and Forbes magazine.)

Researchers have found that Cosmos was deeply involved with mobbed-up casino operations in the Bahamas and so was Nixon, often with his friend Bebe Rebozo. After Fidel Castro drove the Mafia out of Cuba, mob moneybags Meyer Lansky looked to the Bahamas for a casino haven.

Huntington Hartford, heir to a grocery fortune, set up a casino in the Bahamas and initially wanted it free of mob influence. But that was not to be, and Hartford eventually sold most of his holdings. Hartford told Dan E. Moldea, author of several organized-crime books, that Nixon made three deposits totaling $35,883,070 in the Cosmos Bank between October 21, 1971, and June 11, 1972.

What the Mossack Fonseca scandal has made apparent is the vast scale of the offshore banking and corporate tax evasion industries.

But let’s also not forget that the U.S. itself offers a wide range of virtual offshoring in the form of a growing number of states that, thanks often to Republican legislatures, have created their own laws to shroud actual corporate ownership and control.

Let us quote from an article that we wrote for the Berkeley Daily Planet, published 6 May 2005:

When is the sale of a building not a sale, at least for property tax reasons?

The question arose during last week’s heated discussion at the Zoning Adjustments Board over The Old Grove—the massive new housing-over-commercial project planned for University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

At one point during the discussion, Tom Hunt, a neighbor of the project, complained that the building would never be reassessed if sold in the future because it’s owned by a limited liability corporation (LLC).

If true, an LLC would be an effective tool for avoiding any future reassessments.

In an era when cash-starved local governments are laying off workers and cutting back services, cities and counties desperately need the increased revenues that come when property is reevaluated at the time of sale.

When a reporter posed the question of whether a LLC provides an escape from reassessment to a representative of the State Board of Equalization (BOE), the answer was: “Depends.”

Read the rest for a look at a relatively new form of American tax dodge, one controlling ever larger blocs of property and businesses in California and other states.

All of which is by way of a preface to this 26-minute Al Jazeera English report on the unfolding scandal, including a look at the U.S.’s own laws:

Counting the Cost – Panama Papers: Inside the shady world of tax havens

Program notes:

The Panama Papers shocked the world this week when a massive leak of 11.5 million tax documents exposed the secret dealings of hundreds of thousands of people, including world leaders and celebrities, and how they use shady financial mechanisms to avoid paying taxes and hide their wealth.Linking at least 12 current and former heads of state and 143 politicians to illicit financial transactions, the documents revealed how Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm, allegedly used banks, law firms and offshore shell companies, from 1977 to the end of 2015, to help hide its clients assets.

While the disclosures have since led to the resignation of one world leader, Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson, the Icelandic prime minister; the problem goes beyond mere individuals.

The Panama Papers have exposed that most of the work Mossack Fonseca and the rest of the wealth-management industry do is perfectly legal.On this special edition of Counting the Cost, we take a closer look at tax havens and the legality behind them.

Alex Cobham, a director of research at the Tax Justice Network, joins the programme to discuss the loopholes that allow tax-dodging.

Stewart Patton, a US tax attorney based in Belize City, discusses the possible fallout for tax havens following the release of the Panama Papers.

We also speak to James S Henry, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Investment, about the absence of American billionaires and companies on the leaked list and how the US, the world’s biggest economy, is surprisingly a top tax haven.

And now for a touch of the absurd from Wall Street On Parade, prompted bny a joint letter from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown asking for the country’s Secretary of the Treasury to look into the scandal:

Senators Warren and Brown appear to have short memories. Otherwise, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew would be the last person that comes to mind to conduct an investigation to protect “the integrity of the U.S. financial system.” How Lew was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for U.S. Treasury Secretary remains an open mystery at Wall Street On Parade.

Lew had previously worked as an executive for the very division of Citigroup that blew up the bank during the 2008 financial crisis and cost taxpayers the largest bank bailout in U.S. history.

When Lew left his executive position at Citigroup at the end of 2008 and joined Hillary Clinton’s State Department as Deputy Secretary of State, he retained an investment in Citigroup Venture Capital International (CVCI), a $7 billion private equity fund which was housed in the Cayman Islands at the infamous Ugland House. According to a previous Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Ugland House is home to 18,857 corporations. In 2009, President Obama called it either “the largest building in the world or the largest tax scam in the world.”

According to Lew’s January 11, 2009 financial disclosure report, his CVCI account at that point had a value of between $100,000 and $250,000. During Lew’s confirmation hearing for U.S. Treasury Secretary, he said he had sold the position at a loss.

But Ugland House was not Lew’s only Citigroup problem during his confirmation hearing. Senators challenged Lew on the fact that he had accepted a $940,000 bonus from Citigroup in early 2009, even though the insolvent bank was subsisting solely on taxpayer bailout funds at that time.

Maybe they’re operating on the “takes one to know principle”?

Donald Trump opens war on the environment

We open with a clip from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

Department Of Environmental, You’re Fired

Program notes:

If he becomes president, Donald Trump will definitely get rid of the Department of Environmental, which is a thing that does not exist. Good job, President Trump!

Colbert’s funny and spot on, but there’s a darker meaning to the story.

Yes, Trump is willfully ignorant and a preening bully boy, but his hatred of the “Department of Environmental” is obviously focused on the Environmental Protection Agency, which is not a cabinet level department but rather an independent agency [though its director is traditionally accorded cabinet level ranking].

And the irony, of course, is that the EPA was created in 1970 by a Republican, one Richard Milhous Nixon of all people — the same guy who one proposed a minimum guaranteed income for all Americans.

We suspect Trump’s hatred of the EPA comes in its role as a frequent obstacle to the ambitions of developers like Trump, whose megalomaniacal schemes are occasionally derailed because their developments would damage sensitive environments or threaten imperiled species.

Ignorance, combined with wealth and narcissistic ambition [solid gold bathroom fixtures, anyone?] are a dangerous combination.

But if a President Donald Trump is allowed to demolish the EPA, then we’re all in danger.

Let us repeat: All developers hate regulations — as we’ve seen firsthand as a journalist covering land use and development for five decades — seeing them as obstacles to the unrestrained indulgence of their own ambitions, and Trump is a developer on a grand scale.

If he’s elected, fear for your children, their children, and all generations yet to come.

Headline of the day II: In hot water, coastally

From Public Radio International:

As many as 13.1 million US residents could be displaced this century by rising sea levels

“Living in a place like Florida … over the past, you know, 20 to 30 years, I’ve watched people move in to these areas along the coastlines — rapid growth,” says Jason Evans, an assistant professor of environmental science at Stetson University. “And what we realized is that this growth is ongoing. … If you factor in this growth, it’s basically on a collision course.”

Dissecting the rise of parasitic capitalism

Who is Michael Hudson?

Here’s what former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and Wall Street Journal Associate Editor Paul Craig Roberts says:

Michael Hudson is the best economist in the world. Indeed, I could almost say that he is the only economist in the world. Almost all of the rest are neoliberals, who are not economists but shills for financial interests.

In addition to his jobs as research professor of economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City and research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Hudson is a prolific writer.

His latest book, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy, dissects the rise of new form of capitalism in which. . .well, here’s a quote from the book:

The new breed of corporate raiders and “financial engineers” pay themselves interest and produce capital gains with the profits hitherto shared with federal, state and local tax collectors. The government budget deficits deepens, and the Treasury issues more bonds (and looks to raise taxes from labor and consumers). The entire economy becomes more debt-leveraged, paying income to creditors — headed by the One Percent — instead of investing it or spending to raise living standards.

What follows is the first two interviews of Hudson by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism and activist author Chris Hedges conducted for his weekly teleSUR English show, Days of Revolt.

From teleSUR English:

Days of Revolt: How We Got to Junk Economics

Program notes:

In this episode of Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges interviews Michael Hudson, UMKC economics professor and author of Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy. In the first half of their conversation, Hedges and Hudson trace the history of classical economics and explore Marx’s interpretation of capitalism as exploitation.

Headline of the day II: Private sector spookery

From IRIN:

Spies Sans Frontières?

  • How CIA-linked Palantir is gaining ground in the aid industry (and why some humanitarians are worried)
  • A months-long investigation by IRIN into the secretive intelligence-linked firm Palantir, reveals a cosying up to aid organisations large and small, including a bargain-basement contract with a sensitive UN agency, and a flirtation with the international response to the Ebola outbreak. But how close is too close? 

    • UN nuclear watchdog IAEA, dealing with Iran and North Korea, has contracted Palantir at rock-bottom rates
    • Palantir was close to a role in the UN’s Ebola response, but walked away
    • The UN’s humanitarian arm engaged Palantir on a proof-of-concept analysis in the Philippines
    • The Silicon Valley “unicorn” explored the non-profit sector as hedge against a decline in counter-terrorism opportunities
    • Political and confidentiality concerns limit its success, as well as a clash of organisational cultures