Monthly Archives: January 2017

For Debt and Coal: the China-Mongolia Deal

Tavan Tolgoi coal mine in Ömnögovi Province., Mongolia. Image from wikipedia

Mongolia recently reached a new deal to sell coal to China, helping it boost its faltering economy and start repaying billions of dollars it owes Wall Street lenders.  Under the landmark agreement completed late 2016, Mongolia’s state-owned mining company will sell coal to China at roughly double the previously agreed-upon rate.  The deal follows a devastating four-year period when Mongolian miners exported coal to China at deeply-discounted prices, sometimes for as little as 11% of the global benchmark price, undercutting Mongolia’s economic growth. Mongolia agreed to those punitive terms to get the loan from China and has been struggling to repay it.

The new export agreement will help Mongolia pay its mounting debt, including bonds held by BlackRock Inc., Fidelity Investments, UBS Global Asset Management and other global investors that bought the debt for its double-digit yields, according to bond investors.

But the export deal has a downside for Mongolia: It effectively transfers much coal production from China, which is bent on cleaning up its environment, to its poorer neighbor…  Trucks carrying coal are backed up for nearly 40 miles at Mongolia’s southern border with China, in what some analysts call the world’s largest traffic jam…Yet Mongolia seems willing to make that trade-off, with coal prices soaring since China has begun cutting production, analysts say. Market prices for the type of coal produced in Mongolia, which is used in steel- and iron-making operations, skyrocketed 200% in 2016 to $225 a ton.

Mongolia is also in talks with some Asian firms to develop its Tavan Tolgoi coal reserves, analysts say. The Gobi desert site is one of the world’s largest untapped coal mines, with more than six billion tons of coal deposits.

Excerpts from the New China-Mongolia Mining Deal: Economic Windfall or Environmental Threat?, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 21, 2017

Supply Chains Live: combating deforestation

366 companies, worth $2.9 trillion, have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains, according to the organization Supply Change. Groups such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, the Consumer Goods Forum and Banking Environment Initiative aim to help them achieve these goals.  Around 70 percent of the world’s deforestation still occurs as a result of production of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa and other agricultural commodities. These are complex supply chains.  A global company like Cargill, for example, sources tropical palm, soy and cocoa from almost 2,000 mills and silos, relying on hundreds of thousands of farmers. Also, many products are traded on spot markets, so supply chains can change on a daily basis. Such scale and complexity make it difficult for global corporations to trace individual suppliers and root out bad actors from supply chains.

Global Forest Watch (GFW), a WRI-convened partnership that uses satellites and algorithms to track tree cover loss in near-real time, is one example. Any individual with a cell phone and internet connection can now check if an area of forest as small as a soccer penalty box was cleared anywhere in the world since 2001. GFW is already working with companies like Mars, Unilever, Cargill and Mondelēz in order to assess deforestation risks in an area of land the size of Mexico.

Other companies are also employing technological advances to track and reduce deforestation. Walmart, Carrefour and McDonalds have been working together with their main beef suppliers to map forests around farms in the Amazon in order to identify risks and implement and monitor changes. Banco do Brasil and Rabobank are mapping the locations of their clients with a mobile-based application in order to comply with local legal requirements and corporate commitments. And Trase, a web tool, publicizes companies’ soy-sourcing areas by analyzing enormous amounts of available datasets, exposing the deforestation risks in those supply chains…

[C]ompanies need to incorporate the issue into their core business strategies by monitoring deforestation consistently – the same way they would track stock markets.

With those challenges in mind, WRI and a partnership of major traders, retailers, food processors, financial institutions and NGOs are building the go-to global decision-support system for monitoring and managing land-related sustainability performance, with a focus on deforestation commitments. Early partners include Bunge, Cargill, Walmart, Carrefour, Mars, Mondelēz, the Inter-American Investment Corporation, the Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance and more.  Using the platform, a company will be able to plot the location of thousands of mills, farms or municipalities; access alerts and dashboards to track issues such as tree cover loss and fires occurring in those areas; and then take action. Similarly, a bank will be able to map the evolution of deforestation risk across its whole portfolio. This is information that investors are increasingly demanding.

Excerpt from Save the Forests? There’s Now an App for That, World Resources Institute, Jan. 18, 2017

For Sale Elephant Skin 4 dollars per square inch

“Elephant’s skin can cure skin diseases like eczema,” said one shop owner, who requested anonymity, alongside a counter brimming with porcupine quills and snake skins. “You burn pieces of skin by putting them in a clay pot. Then you get the ash and mix it with coconut oil to apply on the eczema.”  He broke off to talk to a potential buyer, who balked at the price tag of 5,000 kyat (US$3.65) per square inch (6.5 square centimetres) of elephant skin.

Elephant poaching in Myanmar has jumped tenfold in recent years, the government said this week, driven by growing demand for ivory, hide and body parts.Increasingly carcasses are being found stripped of their skin, the hide used for traditional medicine or reportedly turned into beads for jewellery. Some of it is sold in local markets but the vast majority goes to feed neighbouring China’s inexhaustible taste for exotic animals.  Myanmar’s wild elephant population is thought to have almost halved over the past decade to around 2,000-3,000. The animals are killed or smuggled alive to be used in the tourist industry in neighbouring Thailand.

“”Elephants are one of dozens of endangered species being trafficked through Myanmar, which has become a key hub in the US$20 billion a year global wildlife trade.  Watchdog TRAFFIC claims the country has “the largest unregulated open markets for tiger parts” in Southeast Asia, which experts say also sell everything from African rhino horn and clouded leopard skins to pangolins.  Much of the trade runs through the country’s lawless eastern periphery, controlled by a sophisticated network of criminals who are thought to be armed and funded by powerful “kingpins” in China.  It is lucrative business: in Mong La, on Myanmar’s eastern border, sales of ivory alone are thought to rake in tens of millions of dollars a year.

Excerpts from Skin care fad threatens Myanmar’s endangered elephants as demand from China drives trade in animal products, South China Morning Post, Jan. 21, 2016

 

On Slaughtering and Shooting to Death: the conservation of wildlife

Poachers killed image from http://www.nelive.in/assam/news/poachers-killed-kaziranga-while-trying-sneak-rhino-habitats

A South African, 31 Zambians and seven Mozambicans were among 443 people arrested in Zimbabwe in 2016 for poaching, the national parks authority has said. [According to] the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo said there was an increase on arrests last year compared to 2015 when 317 were arrested.
Washaya-Moyo said locals, who constitute a majority of those arrested for poaching, are working mainly with colleagues from Zambia as well as Mozambique, targeting wildlife sanctuaries in the north-west and south-east of the country.  “Mozambican poaching groups target Gonarezhou National Park and Save Valley Conservancy, where they poach elephants. It has now emerged that most of the poaching taking place inland is being perpetrated by syndicate members of different groups, who are hired to form one larger organised gang,” Washaya-Moyo said.

However, the introduction of modern anti-poaching strategies, such as sniffer and tracker dogs as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) she said, is likely to help boost anti-poaching activities. In September 2016 South Africa’s UAV and Drone Solutions (UDS) provided UAVs to Zimbabwe. The technology was deployed to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game park, to fight elephant and other wildlife poaching. Between 2013 and last year, poaching syndicates killed at least 300 elephants through cyanide poisoning in the park. “This silent poaching method has serious effects to the eco-system and is a potential threat to human life,” she said.

ZimParks released the 2016 report in a week it also announced the shooting to death of three suspected poachers in Hwange National Park and Hurungwe near Lake Kariba. Two were killed on 10 January in Hwange while one, believed to be a Zambian, was shot dead in Hurungwe on 11 January….

A Zimbabwean safari operator, Langton Masunda, blamed recurrent droughts, a difficult local economy and global restrictions in lion and elephant hunting for the high poaching cases in the country.  “Without money coming from hunting, communities derive little value from wildlife and when that happens they are tempted to poach. The economic conditions are pushing some to poach as well. So poaching at those low levels then escalate into wider scale and more organised poaching activities,” he said

Excerpts from Ian Nyathi,  Increase in number of poachers arrested in Zimbabwe as slaughter continues, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/, Jan. 16, 2017

An Undersea Network for Emergencies: DARPA Tuna

DARPA’s Tactical Undersea Network Architecture (TUNA) program completed its initial phase, successfully developing concepts and technologies aimed at restoring connectivity for U.S. forces when traditional tactical networks are knocked offline or otherwise unavailable. The program now enters the next phase, which calls for the demonstration of a prototype of the system at sea.

TUNA seeks to develop and demonstrate novel, optical-fiber-based technology options and designs to temporarily restore radio frequency (RF) tactical data networks in a contested environment via an undersea optical fiber backbone. The concept involves deploying RF network node buoys—dropped from aircraft or ships, for example—that would be connected via thin underwater fiber-optic cables. The very-small-diameter fiber-optic cables being developed are designed to last 30 days in the rough ocean environment—long enough to provide essential connectivity until primary methods of communications are restored.

Supplying power to floating buoy nodes on the open sea presents a particular challenge. During the first phase of the program, the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab (APL) developed a unique concept called the Wave Energy Buoy that Self-deploys (WEBS), which generates electricity from wave movement. The WEBS system is designed to fit into a cylinder that could be deployed from a ship or aircraft.

Excerpt from Networks of the Sea Enter Next Stage, DARPA website, Jan. 5, 2017

The Ghosts of 1904: the first genocide of the 20th century

image from wikipedia

Germany was sued for damages in the United States on January 6, 2017 by descendants of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia, for what they called a genocide campaign by German colonial troops in the early 1900s that led to more than 100,000 deaths .

See Herero v. Germany (pdf)

According to a complaint filed with the US District Court in Manhattan, Germany has excluded the plaintiffs from talks with Namibia regarding what occurred and has publicly said any settlement will not include reparations to victims, even if compensation is awarded to Namibia itself.

“There is no assurance that any of the proposed foreign aid by Germany will actually reach or assist the minority indigenous communities that were directly harmed,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer Ken McCallion said in an email. “There can be no negotiations or settlement about them that is made without them.”  The proposed class-action lawsuit seeks unspecified sums for thousands of descendants of the victims, for the “incalculable damages” caused.

The slaughter took place from roughly 1904 to 1908, when Namibia was a German colony known as South West Africa, after the Herero and Nama groups rebelled against German rule.According to published reports, victims were also subjected to harsh conditions in concentration camps and some had their skulls sent to Germany for scientific experiments.Some historians view what occurred as the 20th century’s first genocide, and a 1985 United Nations report said the “massacre” of Hereros qualified as genocide…

The plaintiffs…sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 US law often invoked in human rights cases.

The US Supreme Court narrowed the law’s reach in a 2013 decision, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, saying it was presumed not to cover foreign conduct unless the claims sufficiently “touch and concern” the United States.  McCallion said Kiobel and later rulings “leave the door open” for US courts to assert jurisdiction in genocide cases. The plaintiffs, including some from New York, also brought federal common law and New York state law claims.

Germany sued over early 1900s Namibia slaughter, Reuters, Jan. 6, 201

Who Owns the Internet Pipes

The ships that lay electronic cables across the ocean floor look like cargo vessels with a giant fishing reel on one end. They move ponderously across the open water, lowering insulated wire into shallow trenches in the seabed as they go. This low-tech process hasn’t changed much since 1866, when the SS Great Eastern laid the first reliable trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, capable of transmitting eight words per minute. These days, the cables are made of optical fiber, can carry 100 terabits of data or more in a second, and aren’t owned only by telephone companies.

Among the newcomers are a few of the world’s leading internet companies, which have concluded that, given the cost of renting bandwidth, they may as well make their own connections. Facebook and Microsoft have joined with Spanish broadband provider Telefónica to lay a private trans-Atlantic fiber cable known as Marea. The three companies will divide up the cable’s eight fiber strands, with Facebook and Microsoft each getting two. The project, slated to be completed by the end of 2017, marks the first time Facebook has taken an active role in building a cable, rather than investing in existing projects or routing data through pipes controlled by traditional carriers. Marea will be Microsoft’s second private cable; a trans-Pacific one is scheduled to come online in 2017.

In June 2016, Google said it had finished a data pipeline running from Oregon to Taiwan, and it has at least two more coming: one from the U.S. to Brazil; the other, a joint project with Facebook, will connect Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Amazon.com made its first cable investment in May, announcing plans for a link between Australia and New Zealand and the U.S. Worldwide, 33 cable projects worth an estimated $8.1 billion are scheduled to be online by 2018, according to TeleGeography. That’s up from $1.6 billion worth of cables in the previous three years. And bandwidth demand is expected to double every two years. ..

Cables are just one way to increase the supply of bandwidth and cut costs, says Chetan Sharma, an analyst and telecom consultant. Facebook is also working on satellites, lasers, and drones to deliver internet access to remote places, and Google has experimented with hot air balloons. So far, undersea cables remain the best option for crossing oceans—they’re cheaper, far more reliable, and largely unregulated. The United Nations treats ocean cables in much the same manner as boat traffic, meaning companies can lay and repair cables in international waters pretty much wherever they please, provided they don’t damage existing ones.So Silicon Valley will continue to pour money into technology pioneered in the telegraph era. “It’s about taking control of our destiny,” says Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s cloud services division, Azure. “We’re nowhere near being built out.”

Excerpt from Bet you Own Broadband, Bloomberg, Oct. 20, 2016

Dams and Drought: the Amazon

The city of Itaituba on the banks of the Tapajós River. Image from wikipedia

The São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) project… would dam one of the last big unobstructed tributaries of the Amazon. The project would provide about a third of the hydropower that Brazil plans for the forthcoming decade, but it would also flood 376 square km (145 square miles) of land where the Munduruku hunt, fish and farm. “The Tapajós valley is our supermarket, our church, our office, our school, our home, our life,” explained Mr Kabá.

The tussle over the Tapajós dam is part of a bigger fight about Brazil’s energy future. SLT is an example of a new sort of hydropower project, which floods a smaller area than traditional dams and therefore ought to cause less disruption and environmental damage. The massive Itaipu dam on the border with Paraguay inundated an area nearly four times as large. But critics of hydropower say “run of river” projects like SLT, which use a river’s natural flow to turn turbines, do not work as well as advertised. Though less destructive than conventional dams, which require bigger reservoirs, they still provoke opposition from people like the Munduruku. Other energy sources, such as gas and wind, are becoming more competitive. Brazil has “an opportunity” to rethink its energy policies, says Paulo Pedrosa, an energy official.

Hydropower has long been Brazil’s main way of generating electricity. Most forecasts suggest it will remain so. The government intends to build more than 30 dams in the Amazon over the next three decades. 

Climate change may worsen the problem. Some climate models predict that river flows in large parts of the Amazon will fall by 30% in coming decades. Deforestation is delaying the onset of the rainy season in some areas by six days a decade, according to research published in Global Change Biology, a journal.   Drought can be expensive. In 2014 power from conventional dams dipped because of a dry spell, forcing electricity companies to buy from gas- and coal-powered generators at high spot prices. The risk of such fluctuations rises with run-of-river dams. Carlos Nobre, a former chief of research at the ministry of science, technology and innovation, thinks more frequent droughts will make future hydropower projects in the Amazon unprofitable.

Brazil’s potential for solar and wind energy is among the highest in the world. The government has promoted them with lavish tax breaks. In the blustery north-east, wind power overtook hydropower this year; wind turbines now generate 36% of the region’s electricity, up from 22% in 2015. The Energy Research Company, a firm linked to the energy ministry, expects renewable generating capacity apart from hydropower to double by 2024.

Generators fuelled by natural gas have been hurt by the subsidies lavished on renewable energy. But, though less climate-friendly than hydropower, they are beginning to compete with it as a source of steady baseload electricity. Brazil now produces gas in abundance as a by-product of pumping oil from its offshore wells. Its marginal cost of production is nearly zero. The future of baseload energy is “hydro-thermal”, rather than hydro alone, says Adriano Pires of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro.

Excerpts from Dams in the Amazon: Not in my valley, Economist,  Nov. 5, 2016

From Subversive to Submissive: the internet

The corridor where WWW was born. CERN, ground floor of building No.1

Free-Speech advocates were aghast—and data-privacy campaigners were delighted—when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) embraced the idea of a digital “right to be forgotten” in May 2014. It ruled that search engines such as Google must not display links to “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about people if they request that they be removed, even if the information is correct and was published legally.

The uproar will be even louder should France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État, soon decide against Google. The firm currently removes search results only for users in the European Union. But France’s data-protection authority, CNIL, says this is not enough: it wants Google to delete search links everywhere. Europe’s much-contested right to be forgotten would thus be given global reach. The court… may hand down a verdict by January.

The spread of the right to be forgotten is part of a wider trend towards the fragmentation of the internet. Courts and governments have embarked on what some call a “legal arms race” to impose a maze of national or regional rules, often conflicting, in the digital realm
The internet has always been something of a subversive undertaking. As a ubiquitous, cross-border commons, it often defies notions of state sovereignty. A country might decide to outlaw a certain kind of service—a porn site or digital currency, say—only to see it continue to operate from other, more tolerant jurisdictions.

As long as cyberspace was a sideshow, governments did not much care. But as it has penetrated every facet of life, they feel compelled to control it. The internet—and even more so cloud computing, ie, the storage of vast amounts of data and the supply of myriad services online—has become the world’s über-infrastructure. It is creating great riches: according to the Boston Consulting Group, the internet economy (e-commerce, online services and data networks, among other things) will make up 5.3% of GDP this year in G20 countries. But it also comes with costs beyond the erosion of sovereignty. These include such evils as copyright infringement, cybercrime, the invasion of privacy, hate speech, espionage—and perhaps cyberwar.

IIn response, governments are trying to impose their laws across the whole of cyberspace. The virtual and real worlds are not entirely separate. The term “cloud computing” is misleading: at its core are data centres the size of football fields which have to be based somewhere….

New laws often include clauses with extraterritorial reach. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation will apply from 2018 to all personal information on European citizens, even if the company holding it is based abroad.

In many cases, laws seek to keep data within, or without, national borders. China has pioneered the blocking of internet addresses with its Great Firewall, but the practice has spread to the likes of Iran and Russia. Another approach is “data localisation” requirements, which mandate that certain types of digital information must be stored locally or remain in the country. A new law in Russia, for instance, requires that the personal information of Russian citizens is kept in national databases…Elsewhere, though, data-localisation polices are meant to protect citizens from snooping by foreign powers. Germany has particularly stringent data-protection laws which hamper attempts by the European Commission, the EU’s civil service, to reduce regulatory barriers to the free flow of data between member-states.

Fragmentation caused by government action would be less of a concern if other factors were not also pushing in the same direction–new technologies, such as firewalls and a separate “dark web”, which is only accessible using a special browser. Commercial interests, too, are a dividing force. Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech giants try to keep users in their own “walled gardens”. Many online firms “geo-block” their services, so that they cannot be used abroad….

Internet experts distinguish between governance “of” the internet (all of the underlying technical rules that make it tick) and regulation “on” the internet (how it is used and by whom). The former has produced a collection of “multi-stakeholder” organisations, the best-known of which are ICANN, which oversees the internet’s address system, and the Internet Engineering Task Force, which comes up with technical standards…..

Finding consensus on technical problems, where one solution often is clearly better than another, is easier than on legal and political matters. One useful concept might be “interoperability”: the internet is a network of networks that follow the same communication protocols, even if the structure of each may differ markedly.

Excerpts from Online governance: Lost in the splinternet, Economist, Nov. 5, 2016

The Secrets of the Ocean Floor

Echo-sounding illustration. image from wikipedia

Three billion dollars sounds a lot to spend on a map. But if it is a map of two-thirds of Earth’s surface, then the cost per square kilometre, about $8.30, is not, perhaps, too bad. And making such a map at such a cost is just what an organisation called the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) is proposing to do. GEBCO, based in Monaco, has been around since 1903. Its remit, as its name suggests, is to chart the seabed completely. Until now, it has managed less than a fifth of that task in detail. But means of mapping the depths have improved by leaps and bounds over recent decades. So, with the aid of the Nippon Foundation, a large, Japanese philanthropic outfit, GEBCO now proposes to do the job properly. It plans to complete its mission by 2030….

Despite water’s apparent transparency, the sea absorbs light so well that anywhere below 200 metres is in pitch darkness. Radio waves (and thus radar) are similarly absorbed. Sound waves do not suffer from this problem, which is why sonar works for things like hunting submarines. But you cannot make sonic maps from a satellite. For that, you have to use the old-fashioned method of pinging sonar from a ship. Which is just what GEBCO plans to do.,,,

[The technique used to map the sea floor] is “echo sounding”, using sonar reflected from the seabed. Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen of Columbia University, in New York, pioneered the technique in the 1950s and 1960s by using technology developed during the second world war. With it, they mapped part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain chain…

Cable-laying companies, oil firms, academic oceanography laboratories, national hydrographic surveys and the world’s navies all have oodles of sounding data. One of GEBCO’s jobs is to gather this existing information together and sew it into a new database, to create a coherent portrayal of the known ocean floor.  The organisation is also keen to include data collected by helpful volunteers. A new digital platform overseen by America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration encourages the crowdsourcing of bathymetric data, letting mariners upload their findings easily. Recent political initiatives, such as a deal made in Galway in 2013 between America, Canada and the European Union to support transatlantic floor-mapping, will also boost efforts. National icebreakers are gathering information in parts of the ocean too frozen for other vessels to reach. And GEBCO is trying to persuade governments and companies with proprietary data on the sea floor to share them. One such firm, a cable-laying outfit called Quintillion, has already agreed to do so…

[A] accurate map of the seabed may help open this unknown two-thirds of Earth’s surface to economic activity. ..[T]he world’s navies (or, at least, those among them with submarine capability) will also take an interest—for an accurate seabed map will both show good places for their boats to hide and suggest where their rivals’ vessels might be secreted. Whether they will welcome GEBCO making this information public is a different question

Excerpt from Bathymetry: In an octopus’s garden, Economist,  Oct. 29, 2016