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Outlook Weak for Projected Pandemic Labor Market Recovery

A new assessment of the global labor market finds that recovery from the employment crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic will be fragile and will worsen inequalities between rich and poor countries.  The projection comes in a new report from the United Nations’ International Labor Organization.

ILO economists say labor markets are recovering from the pandemic-induced crisis much more slowly than previously expected. They project the number of global working hours this year will be 1.8% below the numbers of pre-pandemic hours worked in the last quarter of 2019.

That deficit, they say, is equivalent to a loss of 52 million full time jobs, twice as large as the number predicted in last year’s global market survey. ILO director general, Guy Ryder, says this shortfall in the labor supply comes on top of persistently high pre-crisis levels of unemployment.

“In 2022, we project that global unemployment will stand at 207 million and that is 20 million above the pre-pandemic level in 2019.  Put in percentage terms, we expect the 2022 unemployment rate to be 5.9%,” Ryder said. 

The report finds a great divergence in recovery between regions.  It says the European and North American regions are showing encouraging signs of recovery. The worst affected regions are Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  

Ryder says the richer countries are expected to emerge from this crisis in better shape than the poorer countries. He says a big gap exists between the labor market prospects of countries depending on their level of income and development.

“Many low-and-middle-income economies are struggling to get back to pre-pandemic levels of employment and to job quality. An insufficient access to vaccines is putting pressure on their health care systems with tight fiscal space limiting the ability of their governments to use stimulus measures to support their labor markets,” he said.  

Ryder says the International Labor Organization has not taken a policy position on the legitimacy or otherwise of vaccination mandates in the workplace. He says a fundamental problem facing worksites is the unequal access to vaccines.  

For him, he says, the bottom line is to ensure that people are able to work in healthy, safe environments.

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У Києві зафіксували рекорд швидкості вітру – метеорологи

«14 січня у столиці максимальна швидкість вітру досягла рекордних 23 м/с (83 км/год), що на 3 м/с перевищило попереднє максимальне значення, зареєстроване у 1966 році»

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Somber MLK Remembrances Expected as Voting Rights Effort Dies in US Senate

As the U.S. approaches the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., modern-day civil rights advocates are facing the reality that despite years of increasing public focus on racial injustice, they appear likely to fall short of their goal of improving minorities’ access to the vote.

Last week King’s family requested that celebrations of civil rights leader’s legacy be suspended this year, unless Congress passes legislation to expand voting rights in America.

Democrats have championed legislation that would give Washington a stronger say in how federal elections are administered in each of the 50 U.S. states. While the federal government does not control state-level elections, new federal requirements could affect them, because they are often conducted in tandem. Among other provisions, the two Democratic-sponsored bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, aim to undo laws passed by Republican-led states that limit methods and opportunities to cast ballots.

Democrats and many civil rights activists say the state laws will disadvantage minority voters, and they accuse Republicans of thinly veiled voter suppression. Republicans reject the charge, insisting their goal is to protect the integrity of elections and prevent voter fraud.

Stalled in the U.S. Senate for months, hopes for passing the Freedom to Vote Act appeared to be extinguished last week. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, both Democrats, said that even though they support reforming election laws, they will not vote to change Senate rules in order to pass those reforms with Democrat-only backing.

A change in Senate rules would be necessary because no Republicans support the voting law bill. Under the chamber’s rules, Republicans can block most legislation even if a Democratic majority supports it.

On Friday, during a livestreamed interview with The Washington Post, Martin Luther King III bitterly criticized Sinema’s and Manchin’s position.

“History is not going to be judging … them in the way that perhaps they would want to be remembered. History is looking [them] dead in the face to say, ‘When it was time to make sure the democracy was preserved, what did you do?’” he said.

How did we get here?

Voting rights did not return to the top of the Democratic priority list overnight. The journey of civil rights issues to the forefront of public discourse in the U.S. has been years in the making.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement after multiple highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black men between 2014 and 2019 galvanized many Americans behind the idea that the U.S. still had a long way to go to reach racial equality.

At the same time, the release of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, an effort to retell the history of the U.S. with more of a focus on the role of slavery, highlighted centuries-old racial inequalities in the U.S. So did a movement to tear down many monuments to the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery during the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65.

Pushback, sometimes violent

The increasing focus on racial justice in the U.S. has not come without a virulent reaction. White supremacist groups have become more active and vocal across the country. In 2017, a group of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. During related protests, one white supremacist activist drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a young woman.

It was also difficult for many to disentangle the presidency of Donald Trump from the battle over racial inequality. Trump came to political power by pushing the falsehood that President Barack Obama, the first Black president, was not an American by birth, and that his presidency was therefore illegitimate. (By law, the president must be a natural-born U.S. citizen.)

Watch related video by Laurel Bowman:

Trump also called for the violent suppression of the Black Lives Matter movement, at one point sending in federal agents to break up a peaceful but boisterous protest near the White House. He also reportedly demeaned African and Black-led countries, asserting that the U.S. should not accept immigrants from them.

At the same time, a movement arose on the political right to restrict the teaching of racially sensitive topics in public schools. The themes protesters object to were short-handed as “critical race theory,” even though that subject is a relatively obscure area of legal scholarship that is never taught in elementary or high schools.

2020 election

The focus on voting rights has always been a major element of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, but it became especially acute in 2021, after minority voters played a major role in electing Joe Biden as president in the 2020 election and helped give Democrats control of the House and Senate.

Across the country, minority voters turned out in record numbers. This was especially true in states like Georgia, a Republican stronghold, where a campaign to register new minority voters and get them to the polls resulted in the state voting for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992, and sent two Democrats to the Senate for the first time in a generation, giving the party control of that chamber.

After the election, the defeated President Trump insisted the election had been “rigged,” a falsehood that he has continued to repeat, and which many of his supporters, including many state legislators, have echoed.

In the months that followed, many Republican-controlled states passed restrictive new voting legislation that will make it more difficult for minority groups, including the non-English speakers and individuals with disabilities, to vote in future elections than it was in 2020, when measures to ease voting during the coronavirus pandemic helped drive record turnout.

In some cases, states did more than roll back pandemic-related voting accommodations. Some created new provisions allowing state legislatures to intervene in the certification of vote counts, established new rules allowing poll watchers to challenge individual voters, and put volunteer poll workers in danger of criminal prosecution for providing what, in years past, would have been routine voter assistance.

A common reaction

According to Carol Anderson, a historian and professor of African American Studies at Emory University, there is a long history in the United States of laws being changed after Black Americans exercise their freedom in a way that challenges power structures.

“What is happening is what always happens in America,” Anderson, the author of the New York Times bestselling White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, told VOA. “When we look at the 2020 election, where you had black folk coming out and voting, willing to stand in line for 11 hours to vote to fight for this democracy, the result of that was that Trump got removed from the White House and the Senate flipped. The response to that was a white rage policy of a series of voter suppression laws, and a series of laws that were about how to handle certification of elections.”

Not so, according to Republicans, who say they are fighting against federal overreach and accuse Democrats of attempting to tip the electoral scales in their favor.

“This effort by liberal Democrats to take power away from states to run elections is not about enfranchising voters – it’s about shifting power to the advantage of the liberal Democratic agenda,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently tweeted.

Amid the acrimony and on the eve of what seems sure to be a more somber Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, Anderson said she is sure the fight for voting rights — and civil rights more broadly — will continue.

“We have an incredibly engaged civil society that is fighting for this democracy,” she said. “We have folks who are litigating against these voter suppression laws. We have folks who are registering folks to vote jumping through all of the hurdles. We have folks who are providing citizenship training school. … It is that civil society that has been just absolutely instrumental in fighting for American democracy.” 

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Oxfam: World’s 10 Richest Men Doubled Wealth During COVID Pandemic

The world’s 10 wealthiest men doubled their fortunes during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic as poverty and inequality soared, a report said on Monday.

Oxfam said the men’s wealth jumped from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, at an average rate of $1.3 billion per day, in a briefing published before a virtual mini summit of world leaders being held under the auspices of the World Economic Forum.

A confederation of charities that focus on alleviating global poverty, Oxfam said the billionaires’ wealth rose more during the pandemic more than it did the previous 14 years, when the world economy was suffering the worst recession since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

It called this inequality “economic violence” and said inequality is contributing to the death of 21,000 people every day due to a lack of access to health care, gender-based violence, hunger and climate change.

The pandemic has plunged 160 million people into poverty, the charity added, with non-white ethnic minorities and women bearing the brunt of the impact as inequality soared.

The report follows a December 2021 study by the group that found the share of global wealth of the world’s richest people soared at a record pace during the pandemic.

Oxfam urged tax reforms to fund worldwide vaccine production as well as healthcare, climate adaptation and gender-based violence reduction to help save lives.

The group said it based its wealth calculations on the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sources available and used the 2021 Billionaires List compiled by the U.S. business magazine Forbes.

Forbes listed the world’s 10 richest men as: Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, former Microsoft CEOs Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, U.S. investor Warren Buffet and the head of the French luxury group LVMH, Bernard Arnault.

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Third Blow for Millions in India’s Vast Informal Sector as Cities Impose Curbs

On a cold winter afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a group of auto rickshaw drivers huddled outside a metro station hoping to pick up passengers. Since the city shut schools, colleges, restaurants and offices to cope with a third wave of the pandemic fueled by the omicron variant, though, they know their wait could be long and probably futile.

“We work on the streets and depend on people being out,” Shivraj Verma said.

“Now I will not be able to earn enough to even buy food in the city. We get crushed when the city closes.”

This is the third consecutive year that tens of millions of workers in India’s vast informal economy are confronting a loss of livelihoods and incomes as megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, which are the epicenter of the new wave, partially shutter.

 

While India has not enforced a stringent nationwide lockdown as it did in 2020, Delhi has closed offices, imposed a weekend and night curfew and restricted large gatherings. In the business hub of Gurugram, markets shut early as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.

For those that work on the street, though, contracting the virus is of little concern — their masks hang loosely on their faces, only to be pulled up when a policeman, who might impose a fine, passes by. Their pressing problem is to earn enough money to feed families, send children to school and pay rent for their tiny tenements.

In the lives-versus-livelihoods debate that has posed one of the pandemic’s greatest dilemmas, their vote is squarely with the latter.

“We don’t worry about the virus, we worry about how to take care of our families. I will have to return again to my village if the situation stays the same,” auto rickshaw operator Mohammad Amjad Khan said.

Khan was among millions of migrants returned to their villages when India witnessed a mass exodus in 2020. He only picked up the courage to return to Delhi after a year and a half in September. At that time India had recovered from its devastating second wave.

Its cities were humming, restaurants and markets were packed, and businesses saw a revival. As India’s economy picked up pace briskly, Khan made a decent living from the auto rickshaw he took on hire to ferry customers and could send some money home. The pandemic appeared to have become a distant memory.

 

The good times lasted for four months. From less than 7,000 new cases a day in mid-December, India has been counting more than a quarter million in recent days. As cities like Delhi hunker indoors, earnings have again plummeted.

“Now I don’t even make enough money to pay for the daily hire of this vehicle. It’s really tough,” Khan said with a despondent shrug.

Indian policymakers have underlined the need to protect jobs.

At a meeting with chief ministers this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there should be minimal loss to the ordinary people’s livelihoods and related economic activity as the country battles the latest wave.

“We have to keep this in mind, whenever we are making a strategy for COVID-19 containment,” he said.

Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has reassured migrant labor that a lockdown will not be imposed.

On the ground however, even partial curbs hit hard the tens of thousands of vendors who line Indian streets – vegetable and fruit sellers, small kiosks selling chips, soft drinks and cigarettes, and food carts.

Anita Singh is allowed to operate her street cart that sells hot meals and snacks till 8 p.m., but in the last two weeks, there have been very few customers to serve.

 

“Most of my sales were to college students or in the late evening when people left offices. Now they are shut,” she said.

Employment has not returned to its pre-pandemic level since the Indian economy was battered by COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent report by the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy. The report said that there are fewer salaried jobs, whereas daily wage work and farm labor has increased – a sign of economic distress.

“There has been a drop in average wages and daily earnings across sectors because of COVID stipulations,” said Anhad Imaan, a communication specialist with several nonprofit organizations working with migrant labor.

“Even in the construction and manufacturing sectors which have remained open, there is less work available per worker.”

That means the quality of lives of those in the informal sector has taken a huge hit.

“They used to spend much of what they earned on food and a place to stay and sent home whatever they saved,” he said, “Now they are down to subsistence levels.”

Although estimates vary widely, studies say millions in India have slipped below the poverty line during the pandemic. A study by Pew Research Center in March pegged the number at 75 million. Another one by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in May after India experienced a second wave put it at 230 million due to “income shocks.”

Whatever the numbers, it is a reality that the group of auto rickshaw drivers waiting for passengers knows too well. As they talked to each other, their top concern was whether there will be a lockdown and whether they should be heading home for a third time.

 

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Tarnished Gold: Illegal Amazon Gold Seeps into Supply Chains

To match the festive spirit of South America’s first Olympics, officials from Brazil, the host country for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, boasted that the medals hung around the necks of athletes on the winners’ podium were also a victory for the environment: The gold was produced free of mercury and the silver recycled from thrown away X-ray plates and mirrors.

Five years on, the refiner that provided the gold for the medals, Marsam, is processing gold ultimately purchased by hundreds of well-known publicly traded U.S. companies — among them Microsoft, Tesla and Amazon — that are legally required to responsibly source metals in an industry long plagued by environmental and labor concerns.

But a comprehensive review of public records by The Associated Press found that the Sao Paulo-based company processes gold for, and shared ownership links to, an intermediary accused by Brazilian prosecutors of buying gold mined illegally on Indigenous lands and other areas deep in the Amazon rainforest.

 

The AP previously reported in this series that the scale of prospecting for gold on Indigenous lands has exploded in recent years and involves carving illegal landing strips in the forest for unauthorized airplanes to ferry in heavy equipment, fuel and backhoes to tear at the earth in search of the precious metal. Weak government oversight enabled by President Jair Bolsonaro, the son of a prospector himself, has only exacerbated the problem of illegal gold mining in protected areas. Critics also fault an international certification program used by manufacturers to show they aren’t using minerals that come from conflict zones, saying it is an exercise in greenwashing.

“There is no real traceability as long as the industry relies on self-regulation,” said Mark Pieth, a professor of criminal law at the University of Basel in Switzerland and author of the 2018 book “Gold Laundering.”

“People know where the gold comes from, but they don’t bother to go very far back into the supply chain because they know they will come into contact with all kinds of criminal activity.”

Much like brown and black tributaries that feed the Amazon River, gold illegally mined in the rainforest mixes into the supply chain and melds with clean gold to become almost indistinguishable.

Nuggets are spirited out of the jungle in prospectors’ dusty pockets to the nearest city where they are sold to financial brokers. All that’s required to transform the raw ore into a tradable asset regulated by the central bank is a handwritten document attesting to the specific point in the rainforest where the gold was extracted. The fewer questions asked, the better.

 

At many of those brokers’ Amazon outposts — the financial system’s front door — the gold becomes the property of Dirceu Frederico Sobrinho, known universally by just his first name.

For four decades, Dirceu has embodied the up-by-your-bootstraps myth of the Brazilian garimpeiro, or prospector. The son of a vegetable grocer who sold his produce near an infamous open-pit mine so packed with prospectors — among them Bolsonaro’s father — they looked like swarming ants, he caught the gold bug in the mid-1980s and began dispatching planeloads of raw ore from a remote Amazon town. He secured his first concession in 1990, one year after the nation rolled out a permitting regime to regulate prospecting.

Today, from a high rise on Sao Paulo’s busiest avenue, he is a major player in Brazil’s gold rush, with 173 prospecting areas either registered to his name or with pending requests, according to Brazil’s mining regulator’s registry. In the same building is the headquarters of the nation’s gold association, Anoro, which he leads. Dirceu, until last year, was also a partner in Marsam.

But even with gold jewelry dangling from his fingers and wrist, Dirceu still proudly boasts his everyman garimpeiro roots.

“You don’t motivate someone to go into the forest if they’re not chasing after a dream,” he said in a rare interview from his corner office studded with a giant jade eagle. “Whoever deals in gold has that: They dream, they believe, they like it.”

“We have a saying among the garimpeiros: ‘I’m a pawn, but I’m a pawn for gold,'” he adds.

At the center of Dirceu’s empire is F.D’Gold, Brazil’s largest buyer of gold from prospecting sites, with purchases last year totaling more than 2 billion reais ($361 million) from 252 wildcat sites, according to data from the mining regulator. Only two international firms that run industrial-sized gold mines paid more in royalties in 2021, a sign of how once artisanal prospecting has become big business in Brazil — at least for some.

In August, federal prosecutors filed a civil suit against F.D’Gold and two other brokers seeking the immediate suspension of all activities and payment of 10 billion reais ($1.8 billion) in social and environmental damages.

The complaint alleges the companies failed to take actions that would have prevented the illegal extraction of a combined 4.3 metric tons from protected areas and Indigenous territories, where mining is not allowed. Dirceu said his company complies with all laws and has implemented extra controls, but he acknowledged that determining the exact origin of the gold it obtains is “impossible” at present. He has proposed an industry-wide digital registry to improve transparency.

The ongoing suit is the result of a study published in July by the Federal University of Minas Gerais which found that as much as 28% of Brazil’s gold produced in 2019 and 2020 was potentially mined illegally. To reach that conclusion, researchers combed through 17,400 government-registered transactions by F.D’Gold and other buyers to pinpoint the location where the gold was purportedly mined. In many cases, the given location wasn’t an authorized site or, when cross-checked with satellite images, showed none of the hallmarks of mining activity — deforestation, stagnant ponds of waste — meaning the gold originated elsewhere.

 

Dirceu’s name and those of F.D’Gold and his mining company Ouro Roxo have popped up repeatedly over the years in numerous criminal investigations. He has been charged but never convicted.

A decade ago, federal prosecutors in Amazon’s Amapa state accused his company of knowingly purchasing illegal gold from a national park that was later transformed into gold bars. The charges were dismissed in 2017 after a federal judge in Brasilia ruled that F.D’Gold made the purchases legally, as evidenced by the invoices. Separate money laundering charges against Dirceu were also dismissed, due to lack of evidence. Dirceu has denied wrongdoing.

Whatever its origin, all the raw ore purchased by F.D’Gold ends up at Marsam.

F.D’Gold accounts for more than one-third of the gold Marsam processes, according to André Nunes, an external consultant for Marsam.

After almost two years as a partner in the Sao Paulo-based refiner, Dirceu stepped down last year and his daughter, Sarah Almeida Westphal, assumed management responsibilities. It was part of an effort to put different family members in charge of their own businesses, which function as separate legal entities, said Nunes, who previously worked for F.D’Gold.

“As much as it’s the same family, it’s important that each monkey has its own branch,” he said.

But the federal tax authority’s corporate registry shows Dirceu and Westphal remain partners in a machine rental and air cargo venture based in the Amazonian city of Itaituba, the national epicenter of prospecting. And Westphal could be seen working on a computer at F.D’Gold’s office on the day the AP interviewed Dirceu.

From Marsam, the gold travels far and wide. More than 300 publicly traded companies list Marsam as a refiner in responsible mining disclosures they are required to file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The refiner has been virtually the only supplier to Brazil’s mint over the past decade, according to data provided to the AP through a freedom of information request.

“Why do they want our bars? Because they’re accepted all over the world,” said Nunes, who is also a member of Marsam’s six-person compliance committee.

Enabling such robust sales around the world is a seal of approval from the Responsible Minerals Initiative, or RMI.

The certification program, run by a Virginia-based coalition of manufacturers, emerged with the passage a decade ago of legislation in the U.S. requiring companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals fueling civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Later, its standards were supplemented by tougher guidelines developed by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD

Marsam is one of just two refiners in Brazil certified as compliant with RMI’s standards for responsible sourcing of gold, having successfully completed two independent audits. The last one was performed in 2018 by UL Responsible Sourcing, an Illinois-based consultancy.

But its ties to Dirceu’s family and its strategic positioning at the pinch point between the Amazon rainforest and global commerce raises questions about its previously unexamined role in the processing and sale of gold allegedly sourced from off-limit areas.

Marsam hasn’t been accused by prosecutors of any wrongdoing and insists that it only refines gold, not sell it, on behalf of third-party exporters and domestic vendors.

 

The company in 2016 introduced a supply chain policy, which it has updated over the years, requiring it to seek out information from suppliers whenever they are publicly linked to illicit activities. They are also expected to analyze a mandatory declaration of origin form submitted by each client. No such risks were identified in the most recent RMI report and Marsam was moved to a lower risk category requiring an audit once every three years.

Critics say one problem is that the OECD’s guidelines that RMI measures companies against pay scant attention to environmental crimes or the rights of Indigenous communities. Instead, they are geared toward risks stemming from civil wars and criminal networks. In Latin America, only Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela — where drug cartels or guerrilla insurgencies are active — are classified as conflict-affected and high-risk areas deserving greater scrutiny for sourcing practices.

But the influx of illegal miners into Indigenous territories has been on the rise in recent years in Brazil — sometimes ending in bloodshed.

In May, hundreds of prospectors raided a Munduruku village, setting houses on fire, including one that belonged to a prominent anti-mining activist. The attack followed clashes farther north in Roraima state, where miners in motorboats and carrying automatic weapons repeatedly threatened a riverside Yanomami settlement. In one incident, two children, ages 1 and 5, drowned when a shooting sent people scattering into the woods.

In their suits against F.D’Gold and the two other brokers, prosecutors blame expanding mining activity for the illegal clearing in 2019 and 2020 of some 5,000 hectares of once pristine rainforest located on Indigenous territories as well as exacerbating “internal rifts that may be irreconcilable.”

 

Experts say these kinds of activities barely register in corporate boardrooms where sourcing decisions are made and given the seal of approval by international certification programs.

“Certification connotes a degree of certitude that isn’t at all possible in the gold industry, especially in Brazil,” said David Soud, an analyst at I.R. Consilium, which recently prepared a report for the OECD on illegal gold flows from neighboring Venezuela. “The result is a lot of blind spots that can easily be exploited by bad actors.”

Some of those blind spots are created by Brazil’s own weak oversight.

Under Brazilian law, securities brokers like F.D’Gold can’t be held responsible if the prospector whose ore they buy lies about its provenance. Nor is there any effective way to track the information provided at the point of sale.

It’s a system that inhibits tracking and accountability at best, and at worst enables willful ignorance as a means to launder illegal gold, according to wildcat mining experts including Larissa Rodrigues of the environmental think tank Choices Institute. For starters, experts say there need to be electronic invoices feeding a database that allows information to be verified.

“The supply chain is absorbing gold that doesn’t come from that chain. We know this happens,” said Rodrigues. “It’s a fact that fraud exists, but you can’t prosecute because you can’t prove it.”

Dirceu didn’t deny the possibility that F.D’Gold has unwittingly bought dirty gold. But he insists F.D’Gold, as an entity regulated by Brazil’s powerful central bank, follows the law and goes beyond what is required — such as hiring in 2020 two companies to monitor through satellite imagery the sources of its gold.

“The moment we had knowledge this could be happening, we hired them,” he said.

As president of the nation’s gold association, he claims to have been pushing since at least 2017 a plan to create a digital profile of every participant in the supply chain, complete with the garimpeiro’s photo, fingerprints and ID number.

“Digitalization and automation is the start of traceability,” he said. “The more legality, the more security there will be for our activities.”

Yet for all the apparent industry goodwill, and the support of Brazil’s tax authority, the proposal remains just that — an idea that hasn’t even been taken up by Congress. In the past two decades, the central bank hasn’t revoked authorization for any company that purchases gold.

For its part, Marsam says it uses its “best efforts” to identify the origin of the metals it refines. That includes requiring clients to sign affidavits attesting to the metal’s legality, demanding original invoices and conducting client visits to verify they have systems in place to prevent fraud.

But it doesn’t visit the mines themselves — something that RMI requires of refiners operating only in high-risk jurisdictions.

“We have to be diligent, but not do work that isn’t ours,” Nunes said. Asked when was the last time Marsam suspended a client it suspects of trading in dirty gold he shook his head, struggling to recall.

“I don’t remember it ever happening,” Nunes said before finally harkening back to one instance more than a decade ago.

RMI wouldn’t discuss prosecutors’ allegations against F.D’Gold, despite its close affiliation with Marsam, citing confidentiality agreements to encourage refiners to participate in its grievance process.

In a statement, it said that it takes all allegations “very seriously” and works with companies to address concerns. As part of that process, refiners are expected to trace activities all the way back to the mine whenever red flags are detected. If they don’t then address the concerns, they will be removed from the conformant list.

A 2018 report by the OECD found that while RMI’s standards are aligned with its guidelines there are significant gaps in the way RMI and other industry initiatives carry out audits, relying more on a refiner’s policies and procedures than its due diligence efforts. RMI-approved auditors also demonstrated a lack of basic technical skills and familiarity with the OECD guidelines, the study found.

“There was also an observed absence of curiosity, professional skepticism and critical analysis,” according to the report. RMI said it has since strengthened implementation efforts and is awaiting the outcome of a new assessment being conducted for the European Union.

Additional analysis in 2017 by Kumi, a London-based consulting firm that advises the OECD, found that only 5% of 314 end-user companies then registered with RMI, most of them U.S. based, had policies on sourcing conflict materials that were in line with the OECD guidelines.

“End-user companies set the tone for what happens in their supply chains,” said Andrew Britton, managing director of Kumi, which is conducting a new assessment of certifiers now for the European Commission. “It’s really important that companies’ due diligence on their supply chains really probes into potential risks and is not simply a box-ticking exercise.”

 

While land grabbing by ranchers, loggers and prospectors is hardly new in the Amazon, never before has Brazil had a president as outspokenly favorable to such interests.

Bolsonaro campaigned for the nation’s top job with promises of unearthing the Amazon’s vast mineral wealth, and his support for prospectors has encouraged a modern-day gold rush.

Bolsonaro’s father prospected for gold at Serra Pelada, where Dirceu first saw gold mining, and the president sometimes draws on his upbringing to rally support from prospectors. While campaigning, he aired videos in the Amazon region in which he boasted of sometimes pulling over at jungle stream and pulling a pan from a car to try his luck.

“Interest in the Amazon isn’t about the Indians or the damn trees; it’s the ore,” he told a group of prospectors at the presidential palace in 2019, vowing to deploy the armed forces to allow their operations to continue unfettered.

Then in May 2021, he attacked environmentalists for trying to criminalize prospecting.

“It’s really cool how people in suits and ties guess about everything that happens in the countryside,” he said sarcastically.

Beyond the rhetoric, Bolsonaro’s administration recently introduced legislation that would open up Indigenous territories to mining — something federal prosecutors have called unconstitutional and activists warn would wreak vast social and environmental damages.

Dirceu said he opposes allowing mining of Indigenous lands unless local people support the activity and are given first priority to pursue it themselves. But even as he fashions himself a reformer from the inside, he’s also benefitted from the current free-for-all. For one, he doesn’t even consider prospectors working without a permit to be illegal — just irregular.

Given persistent efforts to deregulate gold extraction, calls by Dirceu and the gold association to increase accountability over the gold supply chain “ring hollow,” said Robert Muggah, who oversees an initiative on environmental crime in the Amazon at think tank Igarape Institute.

Soon, Dirceu may stand to profit even more. Recently, F.D’Gold received approval to begin exporting directly. Dirceu said the company is currently seeking clients abroad and hopes to begin shipments soon.

If he succeeds, it means that, for the first time, someone will have a hand in the entirety of Brazil’s gold supply chain: from the Amazon where the gold is mined, to the outposts where it is first sold, to the planes that bring the ore to his daughter’s refinery in Sao Paulo and, finally, into the hands of foreign buyers.

“It’s really important to understand that the nature of gold extraction in countries like Brazil is linked, ineluctably, to the global markets,” said Muggah.

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Ohio Supreme Court Rejects Second GOP-drawn Election Map

Ohio’s Republican-drawn congressional map was rejected by the state’s high court Friday, giving hope to national Democrats who had argued it unfairly delivered several potentially competitive seats in this year’s critical midterm elections to Republicans. 

In the 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court returned the map to the Ohio General Assembly, where Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, and then to the powerful Ohio Redistricting Commission. The two bodies have a combined 60 days to draw new lines that comply with a 2018 constitutional amendment against gerrymandering. 

The commission was in the process of reconstituting so it can redraw GOP-drawn legislative maps that the court also rejected this week as gerrymandered. That decision gave the panel 10 days to comply. 

With February 2 and March 4 looming as the filing dates for legislative and congressional candidates, respectively, the decisions have raised questions of whether the state’s May 3 primary may have to be extended. 

Ohio Republican Party Chair Bob Paduchik called the situation a mess, criticizing the Ohio Supreme Court for giving the commission less than two weeks to come up with new legislative maps. 

“That’s a lot to dump on a commission with a very short period of time,” he said during a forum at the City Club of Cleveland on Friday. “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.” 

Opinions

Justices chastised Republicans in both decisions for flouting the voters’ wishes and the Constitution and directed them to move with haste. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Michael Donnelly wrote, “(T)he evidence in these cases makes clear beyond all doubt that the General Assembly did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering.” 

Donnelly and the court’s other two Democrats were joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a moderate Republican set to depart the court because of age limits at the end of the year. 

The court’s three other Republicans — including Justice Pat DeWine, son of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, a named plaintiff in the cases — dissented. 

They said it was unclear how it should be determined that a map “unduly favors” one party over another. 

“When the majority says that the plan unduly favors the Republican Party, what it means is that the plan unduly favors the Republican Party as compared to the results that would be obtained if we followed a system of proportional representation,” the dissent said. 

They explained that the U.S. has never adopted a system that requires congressional seats to be proportionally distributed to match the popular vote, nor does Ohio’s Constitution require it. 

In her separate opinion, O’Connor said voting-rights and Democratic groups that challenge the maps never argued strict proportionality was required. 

“The dissenting opinion’s dismissive characterization of all the metrics used by petitioners’ experts as simply being measures of ‘proportional representation’ is sleight of hand,” she wrote. “No magician’s trick can hide what the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates: the map statistically presents such a partisan advantage that it unduly favors the Republican Party.” 

Lawsuits

Friday’s decision affects separate lawsuits brought by the National Democratic Redistricting Commission’s legal arm, as well as the Ohio offices of the League of Women Voters and the A. Philip Randolph Institute. The groups calculated that either 12 or 13 of the map’s 15 districts favor Republicans, despite the GOP garnering only about 54% of votes in statewide races over the past decade. 

Republicans had defended the map — which was pushed through the approval process in a flurry — as fair, constitutional and “highly competitive.” 

Voting rights advocates and Democrats praised the court’s ruling, their second victory this week. 

Ohio and other states were required to redraw their congressional maps to reflect results of the 2020 census, under which Ohio lost one of its current 16 districts because of lagging population. 

 

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