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Data is new weapon in battle to protect Amazon rainforest



For decades the battle to protect the Amazon has been fought inside the rainforest, with armed enforcement officers squaring off against illegal loggers, gold miners and land grabbers. But the latest flashpoint in Brazil’s environmental tussle is over the data used by scientists to highlight the extent of the devastation.

Since Jair Bolsonaro came to power, scientists monitoring the destruction of the Amazon — typically using satellite imagery — have faced pressure from his rightwing government, which has poured scorn on their findings.

The populist president has questioned the reliability of monthly data from the National Institute for Space Research, or INPE, that showed a surge in deforestation, saying it did “not match reality”. He later fired the institute’s director.

“We have reached a state where baseless accusations have become acceptable common practice,” Gilberto Camara, a former director of the INPE, said last month, as he accused the government of trying to undermine science.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro © Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg
Demonstrators in Brasília protest against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest © Andre Coelho/Bloomberg

In recent months the row has gained an international dimension as Norway — which has long been a keen observer of events in the Amazon — has started to publish its own satellite imagery, which it says will limit the room for disputes over deforestation.

The dispute and the government’s questioning of scientists’ data on deforestation has far-reaching consequences for Brazil and the rest of the world.

The Amazon’s destruction is approaching what scientists believe to be a “tipping point”, where the rainforest’s complex ecosystem will be unable to support itself, leading to the rapid death of forest and severe climate fluctuations across the world. For scientists, accurate monitoring of these developments is crucial.

“We would have no control without monitoring. We wouldn’t be able to deploy task forces to stop deforestation. The images are also crucial for Brazil to meet its international commitments on carbon emissions,” said Claudio Almeida, of the INPE.

Nina Soleng, from Kongsberg Satellite Services, an imagery and data provider working with the Norwegian government, said it was important to support the need for transparency.

“When everyone sees the same, there can be no question about the facts, but rather questions about what can we do about it — how can we stop deforestation and climate change and conserve biodiversity,” she said.

Brazilian soldiers unload equipment in the Amazon rainforest © Leonardo Carrato/Bloomberg
Rescue workers stand next to trees scorched by wildfires © Leonardo Carrato/Bloomberg

Brazil’s vice-president Hamilton Mourão, a former army general, has fuelled the dispute with the INPE in recent comments, accusing the institute of political motivation.

“There is someone inside INPE that opposes the government. When the data is negative for us, [INPE] discloses it. When it is positive, it does not disclose anything,” said Mr Mourão, the head of Brazil’s Amazon Council.

Mr Camara, the former INPE director, said the vice-president “only understood tanks and not satellites”. He added: “The INPE’s soul is science. Its work is done by people who believe in the value of science and they are more difficult to intimidate.”

The vice-president later had a change of heart and praised the INPE for its “extraordinary work”.

The Norwegian move is part of a broader push by European nations and companies to put pressure on Brazil over the destruction of the Amazon, where deforestation between August last year and July this year reached a 12-year high of 11,000 square kilometres.

The Brazilian president is also likely to face increasing pressure from the US administration of president-elect Joe Biden, who highlighted the destruction of the Amazon in a TV debate before he was elected.

Mr Biden said he would support the creation of a multibillion dollar fund to protect the rainforest, but threatened economic sanctions if Mr Bolsonaro did not reply. Mr Bolsonaro responded with typical bluster, threatening the use of “gunpowder” against the US, in comments that were widely mocked. 

Fields scorched by wildfires in the Amazon rainforest © Leonardo Carrato/Bloomberg

Global financial groups are also increasingly preoccupied with Brazil’s environmental standards and are making decisions to invest — or divest — based on deforestation data.

In June investors from more than two dozen financial institutions around the world warned that deforestation had created “widespread uncertainty about the conditions for investing in or providing financial services to Brazil”. Many investment groups say they are now facing pressure to divest.

The campaign spurred the Brazilian government to adopt a more proactive stance on enforcing environmental rules and communicating with the rest of the world, although in December Mr Bolsonaro attempted to change the narrative by blaming European nations for buying illegal wood from the Amazon.

Carlos Souza Junior, a researcher at Imazon, an NGO that also uses satellites, said monitoring was a crucial preventive tool as “you are able to look ahead and see where you have the most susceptible areas for deforestation”.

But he added that the monitoring efforts must be matched by enforcement on the ground: “What do we want to do with the data? There has to be a complementary strategy. We have to punish the illegal deforestation.”

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Emerging Markets

Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown




Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.

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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan




Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.

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Australia’s treasurer warns global stimulus threatens financial stability




Australia has warned that unprecedented global stimulus efforts during the coronavirus pandemic are creating financial stability risks that will only intensify when interest rates inevitably rise.

Canberra has also defended tough new foreign investment rules that have led to a collapse in Chinese investment, arguing the number of proposed deals motivated by strategic, rather than purely commercial gain, was increasing.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said the Pacific nation was in a strong economic position as its net debt to gross domestic product was about half that of other advanced economies, even as it begins unwinding fiscal stimulus.

“There is no doubt elevated debt levels will create challenges for many countries. While global interest rates are low those debt levels can be serviceable — but there will be a time when the monetary policy settings change,” he told the Financial Times.

Frydenberg’s comments on the risks posed by global stimulus followed a similar warning delivered last week by Peter Costello, a close political ally and former Australia treasurer.

Australia will be among the first advanced economies to taper off Covid-19 fiscal stimulus with the closure of its A$90bn (US$70bn) JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme this month.

Canberra has argued that the recovery is already under way, citing a fall in unemployment to 6.4 per cent in January and a 3.3 per cent economic expansion in the three months to September last year.

Frydenberg, who counts Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan among his role models, said the government’s A$250bn stimulus was required to stabilise the economy during the pandemic. But he said JobKeeper, which supported 3.6m workers at its peak, was no longer needed as the recovery could be supported by tax cuts, which were announced last year.

Asked if he thought the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan were still relevant, he said: “[Reagan and Thatcher] achieved a lot when they were in office and they were committed to lower taxes. They were committed to cutting regulation and that’s certainly what I’ve been committed to as well.”

But trade unions and businesses that are still suffering as a result of border closures and restrictions, particularly in the tourism and entertainment sectors, have warned that the scheme’s closure will dent the economy.

“JobKeeper should be extended for those businesses that are still affected by coronavirus. [Through] no fault of their own, they are suffering that downturn,” said Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, last week. “And we say that because that will save jobs.”

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, is a rising star in the country’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister © AP

Frydenberg, who was the architect of foreign investment rules aimed at countering rising Chinese influence, said he made no apologies for putting “national interest” at the heart of Australia’s investment policies.

Chinese investment fell 61 per cent last year to A$1bn, down from A$2.6bn in 2019 and a peak in 2016 of A$16.5bn, data showed. Frydenberg was instrumental in blocking two potential deals: China Mengniu’s A$600m bid for Japan-owned Lion Dairy and China State Construction Engineering Corp’s A$300m bid for Probuild, a South Africa-owned construction company.

“We absolutely reserve the right to make decisions around foreign investment based on national interest and having put in place an explicit national security test allows us to do that,” he said.

“Increasingly we’ve seen foreign investment proposals that have been motivated not by purely commercial gains but more strategic ones. When those foreign investment proposals potentially compromise the national interest, then we reserve the right to say no.”

Frydenberg said Australia was not alone in tightening its rules, noting that other countries shared Canberra’s views on national sovereignty and foreign investment.

“Obviously we have had some challenges with China,” he said when asked about Beijing’s imposition of trade sanctions on a range of Australia’s exports following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Frydenberg insisted that Australian ministers were prepared to sit down with their Chinese counterparts to discuss the bilateral relationship but only on a “no conditions attached” basis.

“It is a mutually beneficial trading relationship — we supply the bulk of their iron ore and that iron ore has helped underpin their economic growth,” he said.

Frydenberg is a rising star in Australia’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister.

Last week, he shot to global attention following several days of negotiation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg over the social media company’s decision to block news on its platforms in Australia in response to a law forcing it to pay news publishers.

On Friday, Facebook “refriended Australia” and returned news to its Australian platform following amendments that may make it easier for the company to avoid the toughest elements of the law.

“Trying to negotiate with these guys is a bit like playing chess against a chess master,” said Frydenberg, who joked that he spoke to Zuckerberg more than his own wife last week.

“The reality is they are massive companies with huge balance sheets and global reach. If this was easy other countries would have done it [made Big Tech pay for news] long ago.” 

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