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Amazon gold rush: Brazil grapples with illegal mining in the rainforest

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When Brazilian military helicopters swooped over the Maicuru Biological Reserve in the Amazonian state of Pará in October, they discovered an illegal mining operation that was surprising in its sophistication. 

There was a system of motors to heave gold out of deep caverns where it had been found and landing strips carved out of the surrounding rainforest to take the cargo away. 

“This location is only accessible via plane, there’s no other way. So to structure an operation there, first you need to build an airstrip, and then have aeroplanes,” says Gecivaldo Vasconcelos, the federal police chief of Santarém, a sweltering port town along the banks of the river. “This demands an investment, it is not small scale.”

In the 1980s, towards the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the Amazon witnessed a ferocious gold rush that attracted thousands of poor people who dug for the metal with shovels in a vast open pit. The medieval scenes of brutality from the wildcat mining and the wanton destruction left in their wake shocked the world at a time when the fate of the Amazon rainforest was first becoming a global issue of concern. 

Chart showing Amazon deforestation is approaching levels last seen in 2008, with over 10,000 sq km cleared in 2019

Three decades later, illegal miners are once again flocking to the Amazon with the same get-rich-quick culture. But this time they are also bringing new heavy machinery and financial knowhow.

As the price of the precious metal has soared during the coronavirus crisis, so too has production in the Amazon. Much of the gold is exported, mostly to western nations, including the UK, US and Canada.

Large swaths of supposedly protected lands are being razed to make way for modern equipment to extract the metal. An area of rainforest equivalent to the size of more than 10,000 football pitches was destroyed last year by illegal wildcat miners alone, according to Ibama, the federal environmental protection group, an increase of 23 per cent over 2018. This is part of a broader surge in deforestation in the Amazon region.

Brazilian armed forces raid an illegal gold mine . . . 
Brazilian armed forces raid an illegal gold mine . . .  © Brazilian Federal Police

... in the Maicuru Biological Reserve in Pará last month
… in the Maicuru Biological Reserve in Pará last month © Brazilian Federal Police

To process the gold, the miners use mercury, which then seeps into the air and rivers, contaminating local produce and affecting local communities, some of whom complain about a spate of frightening illnesses, including an increase in women miscarrying, according to federal prosecutors.

With illegal mining also comes violence. Several indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, including the Munduruku and Yanomami, are under constant threat from miners that are often armed and sometimes working for organised crime rings. Murders are common, say the police.

Nor is the violence contained by national borders. The federal police say that the criminal groups at work in Brazil have close connections with Venezuela, where a mining region in the south of the country is dominated by organised crime and forced labour is common, according to the UN and several non-governmental agencies.

Map showing Amazon rainforest, state of Para and Maicuru Biological Reserve

Much of this “conflict gold” is spirited out of Venezuela via Colombia, but a lot is also smuggled into the Brazilian Amazon, where it can be easily laundered, sold and eventually exported globally from São Paulo.

“The risk from illegal gold is that the proceeds can be used to promote more illegalities, including drug and arms trafficking and even terrorism. If we don’t address this problem, we will lose this war,” says Eduardo Leão, director of the National Mining Agency.

Brazilian police have in recent weeks launched a string of operations, aimed at rooting out illegal miners, the cross-border smuggling routes and the laundering services that allow illegal gold to enter the global financial system.

The raid in the Maicuru reserve, a joint military-police operation which concluded with the police blowing up the airstrip, was one of a string by authorities in the Amazon. Days earlier, 60 federal police served 18 warrants against members of a cross-border “criminal organisation”, which the authorities allege was smuggling tens of millions of dollars in gold and cash between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. 

But as the police battle begins to heat up, a victory for law enforcement looks far from certain. “There is an absence of law, of regulation,” says Paulo de Tarso, a federal prosecutor in Santarém. “Our work is like trying to stop ice from melting.”

The Esperanca IV informal gold mining camp, near the Menkragnoti indigenous territory, in Altamira, Pará, last year
The Esperanca IV informal gold mining camp, near the Menkragnoti indigenous territory, in Altamira, Pará, last year © Joao Laet/AFP/Getty

Members of the indigenous Munduruku tribe, on a trek to a mining camp, take a break in front of equipment used to illegally mine their land, in the Amazon rainforest in 2018
Members of the indigenous Munduruku tribe, on a trek to a mining camp, take a break in front of equipment used to illegally mine their land, in the Amazon rainforest in 2018 © Meredith Kohut/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Part of a small team of investigators struggling to keep a lid on soaring levels of environmental crime, Mr de Tarso and his colleagues are isolated. The enforcement capabilities of the few local police are subsumed by the vast, inhospitable terrain, while Brazil’s environmental protection agencies — historically a bulwark against the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest — have been starved of funding and gutted of staff since Jair Bolsonaro took over as president last year.

An armed agent with Ibama, which every day plays a cat-and-mouse game with the gold miners deep in the forest, is more stark: “The destroyers of the Amazon have been empowered,” he says.

“It is becoming increasingly dangerous,” he adds, “we see imminent major conflicts.”

The Covid effect on prices

Since the coronavirus pandemic sent gold prices surging, Brazil’s production and exports of the metal have increased. Between January and September this year, the country exported almost $3.4bn of gold, roughly equivalent to its entire gold exports last year, according to the economy ministry. Exports from January to September this year are 60 per cent higher than in the same period in 2018.

Every year Brazil produces around 100 tonnes of gold, of which about 35 tonnes comes from small-scale miners, known as garimpeiros, who have licences to prospect in limited parts of the Amazon.

But gold mined illegally in the Amazon is often laundered and ends up in this officially sanctioned output or smuggled across the borders with Venezuela and Guyana, meaning investigators have no clear total figure for illegal gold production. However, Larissa Rodrigues from the Escolhas Institute, a non-profit group which has been investigating the issue, estimates about 15 tonnes of Brazil’s gold comes from illegal sources.

Larissa Rodrigues of the Escolhas Institute
Larissa Rodrigues © Escolhas Institute

“Part of it is entering the financial system. In Brazil we have a lot of international attention on the traceability of beef linked to deforestation because we export a lot for Europe. But for gold, it just doesn’t happen at all,” she says.

The operation that uncovered and destroyed the clandestine airstrip was dubbed “Cold Gold” — a subtle riposte to the slang of miners, who “heat up” gold when they succeed in laundering it in the financial system or jewellery market.

The process is a simple one. “A guy has gold in his hand but he has no documentation — because many have extracted gold from places that aren’t legal,” says Mr Vasconcelos. “When he comes to sell that gold, either he presents a false document, or the purchasing shop itself produces the document.

“In that moment the gold is bought by an official business, which declares that it came from a legitimate mine,” he adds. “Then the gold enters the system as if it is legal. It has been ‘heated up’.”

The process is often conducted entirely using pen and paper, meaning there is no digital database to track offenders or build evidence against the purchasers, which are theoretically regulated by the central bank and the CVM — Brazil’s Securities and Exchange Commission.

Gold is melted to be sold off to bigger companies, at Ouro Prime, last year in Itaituba, Pará . . .  © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

… Miners, legal and illegal, are paid in gold and often use small gold shops to get quick cash for their earnings © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

Federal prosecutors have for years been pushing the central bank and Brazil’s mining agency to devise a new system, but there is little political motivation. Mr Bolsonaro regularly voices public support for the opening of the Amazon to mining and is a critic of the vast protected lands afforded to indigenous tribes. The central bank and the National Mining Agency did not respond to questions on this subject.

The CVM said it was “permanently modernising” regulations in line with their supervisory experience and “demands from market participants and society as a whole.”

Ms Rodrigues says that the government “has been completely unhelpful”. “They’ve been launching proposals to liberalise mining and talking with miners on the ground,” she says. “It acts like a signal for the illegality to continue.”

The Ibama agent sums up the situation ruefully: “Where does all the gold come from?” he asks. “If you just take legal gold mines, you will not be able to supply all the gold traded in the world today. Nobody cares about the origins of gold.”

Pro-mining lobby

In his quest for the precious metal, José Antônio Pereira dos Santos spent almost 50 years evading law enforcement, until February this year when he received an official licence from the government to dig in the Amazon.

At the forefront of the region’s new gold boom, Mr dos Santos employs a team of labourers as well as heavy equipment and maintains a dirt airstrip that he uses to transport the 5kg of legal gold he mines every month to the region’s cities.

Such businesses are increasingly the backbone of many poor Amazonian communities, where rudimentary resource extraction, including mining and logging, are often the only way to survive.

Serra Pelada Gold Mine in Pará State, Brazil, in the 1980s . . . 
Serra Pelada Gold Mine in Pará State, Brazil, in the 1980s . . .  © Christopher Pillitz/Getty

... where thousands of workers prospected for gold in an open pit mine which became synonymous with gold rush fever
… where thousands of workers prospected for gold in an open pit mine which became synonymous with gold rush fever © In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty

“Seventy per cent of our region’s economic activity depends on gold. Those who don’t depend on it directly, depend on it indirectly. It fuels our economy,” says Wescley Tomaz, a local council member for Itaituba, a mining municipality in Para state known as “Nugget Town.”

“Everyone talks about preserving the Amazon, but only those who live here can take care of the Amazon. Those from Brasília, from São Paulo, from Europe, they don’t know how it works here.”

Valmir Climaco, the town’s mayor, believes it is a question of animal spirits: “When gold is discovered in an area, there is nothing in the world that will stop miners from extracting it.”

Both men support the liberalisation of the mining industry in the Amazon and Mr Tomaz in particular is at the forefront of lobbying Mr Bolsonaro and Congress to push through legislation. In October, pro-mining groups blocked an important grain-trading highway in the region to promote their cause.

This campaign, however, has sparked opposition from local indigenous groups as well as environmentalists, who say the legalisation of more mining would further spur the destruction of the rainforest, where deforestation has soared under Mr Bolsonaro.

Yanomami indians follow agents of Brazil’s environmental agency in a gold mine during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, in 2016
Yanomami indians follow agents of Brazil’s environmental agency in a gold mine during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, in 2016 © Bruno Kelly/Reuters

An activist wearing a mask depicting Jair Bolsonaro takes part in a demonstration against the president’s environmental policies last year
An activist wearing a mask depicting Jair Bolsonaro takes part in a demonstration against the president’s environmental policies last year © Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty

“There is a great impact when miners come into contact with indigenous populations. They bring violence and produce conflicts within the communities,” says Luiz Jardim Wanderley, a professor of geography at the Fluminense Federal University.

He adds that some indigenous people have embraced mining as a means to earn income, creating a split within the traditionally environmentalist communities. “Right now we are seeing a split in the Munduruku tribe between those who want to mine and those who don’t,” he says.

The miners’ methods are also typically rough and ready and do not include proper surveying of deposits. As a result, large areas of forest are needlessly razed in the search for just few nuggets, Prof Wanderley adds.

For Mr de Tarso, the federal prosecutor, the miners — and the moneyed investors behind them — already benefit from “favourable and lenient legislation” that allows them to make “profit at society’s expense.”

“We take the burden of polluted rivers, of mercury in the rivers, of local populations threatened with violence,” he says.

Venezuela’s ‘mining arc’

For international investigators, Brazil’s gold trade has an even more controversial side: its close connections with Venezuela.

With Venezuela’s economy collapsing and revenue from its chief export, oil, drying up, the government of Nicolás Maduro established a “mining arc” on the southern banks of the River Orinoco in 2016. The idea was to exploit the area’s gold, diamonds and coltan.

This arc covers 12 per cent of Venezuela’s territory — an area the size of Portugal — and as it is in the south, Brazil is a natural exit point for smuggled gold.

The area is notoriously violent. The UN has recorded cases of a miner beaten in public for stealing a gas cylinder; a young man shot in both hands for stealing a gramme of gold and a miner having a hand cut off for not declaring a gold nugget. Some campaigners say resources extracted from the region should be prefixed with “blood” or “conflict”.

“Much of mining in the arc is controlled by organised criminal groups or armed elements,” according to a UN report published in July. “They determine who enters and leaves the area, impose rules, inflict harsh physical punishment on those who break them, and gain economic benefit from all activity within the mining area, including through extortion in exchange for protection.”

The report details brutal punishment meted out by the gangs who run the mines, including amputations for alleged theft and death for alleged espionage. “The bodies of miners are often thrown into old mining pits used as clandestine graves,” the report said.

Cristina Burelli, an adviser at non-governmental group SOS Orinoco, says the “natural exit route for some of that gold is through Brazil. We know that garimpeiros are coming over from Brazil. It’s a very porous border.”

A ‘garimpeiro’ holds a machete at a wildcat gold mine at a deforested area . . . 
A ‘garimpeiro’ holds a machete at a wildcat gold mine at a deforested area . . . © Nacho Doce/Reuters

... of the Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, in 2017
… of the Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, in 2017 © Nacho Doce/Reuters

Once in the Brazilian Amazon, the gold can be washed of its origins using the same methods as the wildcat miners before seeping into the global market. The profits, meanwhile, are shuttled back across the border, typically by young recruits.

“Between 70 and 90 per cent of mined gold in Venezuela leaves the country illegally. It doesn’t even touch the central bank of Venezuela,” says Alexandra Pinna, senior programme manager for Latin America at Freedom House, who estimates that the value of gold smuggled out of the country in 2018 at $2.7bn.

For prosecutors, police and activists, the solution to the entire equation lies in the creation of a reliable tracing system, starting with the basic digitisation of gold sales in cities such as Brazil’s Itaituba. This, however, would require concerted economic, political and public pressure — none of which appears to be forthcoming.

“If we created a traceability system, we could demand that companies prove the origin of gold,” says one federal agent. “But nobody is doing that. And we consumers end up helping indirectly.”



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Analysis

Covid paralyses Asia as western economies prepare for blast-off

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Throughout 2020, Asia’s success in controlling Covid-19 made it the champion of the world economy. While Europe and the US were mired in deep recessions, much of Asia escaped with a shallower downturn or even kept growing.

But as western economies gear up for a vaccine-induced rebound which is set to take their output back to its pre-pandemic scale by the end of this year, parts of Asia are still paralysed by coronavirus. As a result, although the region’s output is already above its pre-pandemic level, slower growth is expected in the coming months.

As it launched its new regional outlook last week, the Asian Development Bank said that the region’s economies were diverging and that more Covid-19 waves were a big risk.

“New outbreaks continue, in part due to new variants, and many Asian economies face challenges in procuring and administering vaccines,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, the ADB’s chief economist.

The ADB projected growth of 5.6 per cent across developing Asian economies in 2021, led by growth of 8.1 per cent in China and 11 per cent in India. But the continued threat of coronavirus means risks to that outlook are skewed to the downside.

“Six months ago, or eight months ago, I would have said Asia is going to be ahead of the game because Asia can control Covid,” said Steve Cochrane, chief Apac economist at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore.

But the picture has changed, with India suffering a severe wave of the virus, and cases still high in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Thailand is unable to reopen its crucial tourist industry.

More subtly, countries such as Japan are only controlling the virus with restrictions that keep parts of the economy in hibernation. “Some countries need vaccines to control Covid,” said Cochrane. “Others need it so they can open up to international travel and tourism.”

The promise of more than 6 per cent growth in the US this year, as a result of President Joe Biden’s fiscal stimulus, would normally have Asian exporters licking their lips.

Line chart of GDP rebased (2019 = 100) showing Asian economies were less affected by the early stages of the pandemic

The outlook, however, is more subdued than record US growth would usually imply: Americans already bought plenty of goods during the pandemic, while higher US interest rates would mean tighter financial conditions in Asia.

“Adding stimulus at this stage, from the goods perspective, is a real test of whether wants are insatiable,” said Freya Beamish, chief Asia economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. As the economy opens up, US consumers will probably pay for the services they were denied during lockdown — such as meals out and haircuts — rather than replacing their television again.

There will still be some spillover from the US stimulus, said Beamish, noting that service providers needed equipment, too. “We suspect that people will find new goods to buy and that Asia will benefit from that.” But she added: “We suspect that China will benefit proportionately less from the services recovery than from the manufacturing recovery.”

Whether the extra US demand for goods turns out to be large or small, it is clearly positive. By contrast, higher US interest rates and a stronger dollar would threaten many emerging Asian economies with a repeat of the 2013 “taper tantrum”.

Increased financial integration and foreign currency borrowing mean that the pain of rising US interest rates is quickly felt on the other side of the Pacific.

“A stronger dollar is no longer an unalloyed blessing for Asia,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asia economics at HSBC in Hong Kong. “It helps exports but tightens financial conditions.”

However, inflation is subdued across most of emerging Asia, and the ADB said the risk of a US-induced shock to financial conditions “remains manageable at present”. It said economies such as Sri Lanka and Laos would be vulnerable if such a shock occurred.

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Some Asian economies are well-placed for the next few years, especially Taiwan and South Korea, which are exposed to the semiconductor cycle. “Judging from semiconductor shortages, it doesn’t look like the electronics cycle will break down in the next two or three quarters. That tides them over this rough patch,” said Neumann.

But other Asian economies will find themselves in the less familiar position of relying on domestic demand to grow. One of the biggest question marks is China itself, where first quarter numbers suggest the economy has lost a little momentum.

“Chinese domestic demand still has a way to go,” said Cochrane. “Our forecast right now is for 8 per cent growth in China in 2021, but it depends a lot on policymakers and how quickly they pull back on stimulus and introduce frictions in areas like construction.”



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Analysis

Has Venezuela’s economy bottomed out?

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After one of the biggest economic meltdowns in Latin American history, there are signs that Venezuela may finally be turning a corner.

According to some economists, the socialist government’s decisions to loosen currency controls, relax import restrictions and encourage informal dollarisation have breathed a modicum of life into an economy that has shrunk by about 75 per cent since 2013.

The change of government in the White House has also raised hopes that a solution might be found to the country’s long-running political stalemate, which might lead to an easing of US sanctions and in turn fuel a further rebound.

Credit Suisse recently predicted the Venezuelan economy would expand by 4 per cent this year, which would be its first year of growth since 2013. The bank acknowledged this was in part due to the resumption of economic activity after last year’s hit from the coronavirus pandemic, but this was “not the whole story”.

“The revival in domestic demand, which we have long been noting, is becoming more apparent in the data,” Alberto Rojas, the bank’s chief economist for Venezuela, wrote in a note to clients.

“The easing of controls and widespread use of foreign currencies in everyday transactions has rekindled economic activity — even if just slightly.”

Rojas forecasts further growth of 3 per cent in 2022. “In our view, the growth this year is not just a dead cat bounce,” he wrote.

In Caracas, people were sceptical that this amounted to any sort of meaningful recovery. According to the IMF, per capita gross domestic product in Venezuela has dropped a staggering 87 per cent over the past decade, from $12,200 a year in 2011 to $1,540 now. For the first time, the average Venezuelan is poorer than the average Haitian.

“When you’ve fallen so low, eventually you’re bound to see some sort of correction,” said Adán Celis, president of Venezuela’s manufacturers’ association Conindustria. “The government has introduced some anarchic measures of economic flexibility and that’s provided us with a little bit of oxygen but the structural problems remain.”

But a handful of other banks and consultancies also expect output to increase. Two Venezuelan consultancies, AGPV and Dinámica Venezuela, predict growth this year of 1.9 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively.

UK-based Oxford Economics forecasts growth of 0.2 per cent this year followed by a jump of 13.1 per cent next year, although it stresses this recovery needs to be seen in context.

“This follows two years in a row [2019 and 2020] when GDP fell by a third or more,” said Marcos Casarin, OE’s chief Latin American economist. “Given the magnitude of the collapse seen since 2014, Venezuela could grow at double-digit rates for several years in a row and still not recover its pre-crisis GDP level.”

Column chart of GDP change (%) showing Venezuela's economy has been shrinking for years

For every economist predicting growth, there are plenty who say Venezuela will suffer more pain before things finally improve.

FocusEconomics, a provider of economic consensus forecasts, recently polled 21 banks and consultancies for their views on Venezuela. The consensus was for a fall in GDP of 3.1 per cent this year followed by a rebound of 2.7 per cent next year. The IMF predicts a contraction of 10 per cent this year and 5 per cent next.

The huge differences between forecasts reflect uncertainty over the consequences of the pandemic, the impact and timing of the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and the future of the sanctions regime.

“The evolution of US sanctions under the Biden administration remains the key determinant of the outlook,” wrote Stephen Vogado, economist at FocusEconomics.

The sanctions prohibit Venezuela from selling oil to the US and make it difficult for it to export elsewhere, although the government has found ways to get round the measures. Venezuela’s oil exports have risen slightly in each of the past five months, hitting a 10-month high in March — although they are still feeble compared with historical highs.

While oil has been the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy for the past century, the country also used to produce cacao, coffee and rice in significant quantities. It boasted a textile industry and produced chemicals, cement, steel and aluminium. Most of those industries have been decimated in the past two decades of revolutionary socialist rule.

At an outlet selling car accessories in a petrol station in the Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas, store manager Alfredo Barrera said informal dollarisation had brought some degree of price stability after years of hyperinflation.

“The economy has adapted to the country’s problems,” he said. “Right now, it’s fair to talk about relative stability in terms of the currency but we’re a long way from seeing real improvement.”

At La Alicantina, a bakery that has been in business for more than 30 years, manager Douglas Palencia said sales had been hit hard by the pandemic. The shop’s windows, usually full of cakes and pastries, were empty. “I don’t have great expectations for this year,” he said.



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Analysis

Sturgeon taps Scottish resentment over Johnson and Brexit

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Kenny Paton, the postman in Dumbarton, has been criss-crossing the west coast town near Glasgow, delivering flyers for all the parties contesting Scotland’s parliamentary elections this Thursday. But he is only listening to one.

For all the shortcomings of the Scottish National party’s 14 years in power, the recent turmoil surrounding its handling of sexual harassment claims against former leader Alex Salmond and the destructive nature of its cherished goal of breaking the 314 year union, the party is on course for victory once again.

That is in large part because the SNP, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon at its helm, has been speaking to the heart, tapping into the deep resentment many Scottish people feel at being ruled from Westminster by Conservatives whose leader Boris Johnson and policies, notably Brexit, they did not vote for.

Dumbarton, Scotland map

For some Scots, the economic arguments against independence — and these have only grown with the sharp deterioration in Scotland’s fiscal position since Brexit and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — are no longer cutting through. 

“You can get into all the intricacies about the border and the currency but at the end of the day who do you want to run the country Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon?” said Paton, who once supported Labour, but is now rooting for the SNP.

Nicola Sturgeon campaigns in Dumbarton © Jeff J Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

If opinion polls in the run-up to Thursday’s vote are correct, the party is sure to remain the largest in the devolved Holyrood parliament and will possibly gain the slender majority it wants to continue pressing Westminster, for its second chance in seven years of winning independence in a referendum.

There is also the probability that with the Scottish Green party, and Salmond’s newly launched Alba party, the SNP will form part of a bigger block in favour of Scotland going its own way.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the constituency vote in the Scottish Parliament election

But to get across the line to an SNP majority, Sturgeon may need to win marginals such as Dumbarton, where Jackie Baillie, the deputy leader of Scottish Labour and a popular constituency MSP is defending a majority of just 109, the most vulnerable in Scotland.

As well as her appeal to Scottish identity, Sturgeon has a number of other things in her favour. One is Labour’s weakness, and the perception that it could be long before the party Scotland once voted for en masse returns to power.

“I have been an advocate for Scottish independence since the Conservatives won a majority in Westminster. They do not reflect our views — Scotland is a progressive place,” said Ross Crawford, a 28-year-old IT consultant. “It will be a while before Labour can collect themselves — that’s what makes it so discouraging. It means yet more Conservative rule,” he said.

Labour’s Jackie Baillie in Dumbarton © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Most of all Sturgeon has Brexit and the indifference shown by first Theresa May, the former prime minister, and then Johnson to the majority in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU and who wanted to retain close relations.

“In 2019, the polls began consistently showing higher levels of support for the SNP. The rise occurs entirely among Remain voters,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Whatever the preferences of Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove [Cabinet Office minister], the brutal reality is that their pursuit of Brexit has undermined support for the union,” he said. 

Julie Reece: ‘We felt safe with her [Nicola Sturgeon] during Covid’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

For most of last year backing for independence in Scotland polled at 50 per cent or higher when undecided voters are excluded. But while it has slipped back since then, support for Sturgeon in Dumbarton remains high. This has much to do with her more assured performance during the pandemic, which has helped the SNP avoid an awkward reckoning for its less than stellar longer term record in areas such as education and health. 

“We felt safe with her during Covid,” said Julie Reece, a bus company manager and former Labour supporter now backing the SNP.

Like many people strawpolled in the constituency, Reece was unfazed by Sturgeon’s alleged mishandling of sexual harassment claims against her former ally. “They have tried to make her a scapegoat for Alex Salmond’s affairs,” she said, adding, with a nod to how the first minister has brought women like her behind the SNP cause: “She has engaged women better — it switches you on that bit more,” she said.

But the stakes are high and the tightness of the contest is also galvanising Scots who support the union and are passionately against the rupture it would cause. This has led to unlikely alliances in Dumbarton, with some staunch supporters of the Conservative party even promising to vote tactically for Labour — a rare occurrence in UK politics.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the regional vote in the Scottish Parliament election

“Anything that keeps the SNP out,” said Carl Vickers, who works at the Faslane naval base further up the Clyde estuary, where thousands of jobs could be lost if Scotland breaks away. The SNP opposes the use of Faslane to store the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Vickers described himself as a Conservative by nature but said he would be voting for Baillie on the day.

“It’s all about stopping them [the SNP] getting another referendum,” said Trish Collins, a headhunter and Tory who was also planning to vote for the Labour candidate in the constituency vote, which the Conservatives have little chance of winning.

In Scotland, members of the parliament in Edinburgh are elected using a hybrid voting system: constituency representatives elected using the first past the post voting system while additional representatives are elected according to the proportion of votes a party secures in a region comprising several constituencies.

On the banks of the river Leven, Baillie herself remained defiant. “My seat on paper should go to the SNP but I am a seasoned campaigner so I am not stopping until polls are closed,” she said.

A pro-Scottish independence rally in Glasgow last Saturday © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

“Our number one priority should be recovery and then we can argue about the constitution,” she added, warning that when Westminster pulls the plug on the job protection scheme, there could be a surge in unemployment.

“Brexit has been a mess,” said Baillie. “Leaving the UK could be 10 times worse.” 

That need to focus on recovering from the pandemic — the core of Labour’s campaign — does appear to have resonance, even among some SNP supporters. But for those already convinced about the risks involved in breaking up the UK union, the feelings were even more emphatic.

“We’d just got over one independence vote then Brexit was thrown at us. Now the SNP have got a good chance of coming out with a majority — the whole of Scottish politics is a joke,” said Bryan Burn, a wholesaler for fishing tackle.

He was speaking an hour south by car from Dumbarton in the relatively prosperous town of Ayr, where Conservative MSP and former farmer John Scott is defending another slender majority. A life-long Labour supporter, Burn was visibly distressed at the way things are headed. “If I were younger I would be looking to move elsewhere,” he said.

But Sturgeon is picking up votes in Ayr too.

“I like what she stands for. She’s great at what she does,” said Chris Hughes, a self-employed software engineer, who hoped an independent Scotland could rejoin Europe, and who along with his wife was voting SNP.

Scott, the Conservative incumbent who is defending a majority of just 700 votes, acknowledged that the odds were even. “It will be very, very close,” he said. “The independence issue has become an issue of the heart. Many people don’t take into account the grim realities it might hold for Scotland.”



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