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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

Amazon Fires

  • Brazil’s Pres. Bolsonaro said that wildfires destroying the Amazon rainforest “may have been initiated” by NGOs trying “to bring problems to Brazil,” but then—when pressed—he conceded that was just an unfounded hunch. Analysts think the fires were probably started by farmers trying to clear land during a drier spell than usual.
  • Bolsonaro also sent some mixed messages by warning other concerned countries not to interfere in Brazil’s “sovereignty” over the fires, but then complaining that Brazil can’t fight them on its own: “”The Amazon is bigger than Europe, how will you fight criminal fires in such an area? We do not have the resources for that.” So who’s supposed to fight them?
  • It’s true that the Amazon has frequent fires, but there are 84% more of them this year than last. Environmentalists say the fires are a global concern because they kill off the “earth’s lungs” (the Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen).
  • The Economist had a great briefing a few weeks ago on what’s going on in the Amazon and why it’s a big deal. Pasted below.


  • The Pentagon identified the two U.S. soldiers KIA in Afghanistan on Wednesday as Green Berets of the 7th SFG out of Eglin AFB in Florida, and said they were killed by small arms fire in Faryab. IS has a small pocket of activity in Darzab, Jowzjan—near Faryab—so it could have been behind the assault, but Faryab is generally Taliban territory.
  • This is now the deadliest year since 2014 for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with 14 KIA.

Iran & Iraq

  • Pres. Rouhani unveiled a new long-range surface-to-air missile system, and further provoked the U.S. by saying that “talks are useless,” since the U.S. and other critics “do not accept logic.”
  • Meanwhile, the Houthis in Yemen shot down an unmanned U.S. MQ-9 drone over Dhamar, and the U.S. blamed Iran for arming them.
  • It sounds like last week’s new flight notice requirements in Iraq may have been partially motivated by suspicion that Israel was behind four recent explosions at Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) military bases ferrying supplies from Iran to Syria and Lebanon. That’s somewhat credible, since Israel has good reason to try to cut off the Iran-linked PMF’s “land bridge.”
  • The PMF is apparently internally divided over the issue: while the deputy PMF leader directly blamed Israel and the U.S. for the strikes, his boss walked the accusation back to blame an ambiguous “foreign side,” and seemed less agitated about it.

DRC & Mozambique

  • VOA printed a good article suggesting that the IS affiliates in North Kivu, DRC and Cabo Delgado, Mozambique are really more like arms-length franchises of IS just using the brand name (and not IS weapons or know-how) to win attention for their own local grievances. Pasted below.
  • The DRC’s biggest copper miner, China Molybdenum’s Tenke Fungurume, told its employees it was operating at a loss. Most of that is probably due to rising input prices and taxes, but another factor is the increasing prevalence of artisanal mining, which adds a security burden and floods the market with cheap product.


  • South Sudan’s oil minister jubilantly announced a new oil discovery—the first since independence—in Adar, Upper Nile State. However, it’s a small one: just 5.3 million barrels of recoverable oil (a drop in RSS’s oil bucket of 3.5 billion recoverable barrels).

Mexico & Migration

  • Mexico’s Foreign Minister Ebrard endorsed the Senate’s rejection of the “Safe Third Country” proposal that would force asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico, rather than apply for asylum in the U.S. Ebrard’s stance is that Mexico has already shown progress reducing through-migration, so the “Safe Third Country” plan is no longer necessary. We’ll see if SecState Pompeo agrees next week, when the two meet in Washington.


  • Foreign Policy thinks that foreign (French, Italian, Russian, Chinese) competition for lucrative reconstruction contracts in Libya is actually perpetuating the conflict, as firms embolden whichever leader they’re cozying up to.

South Africa

  • A court in South Africa banned the “gratuitous” display of the apartheid-era South African flag—which has lately become a symbol for white nationalist groups—as hate speech.


  • Pres. Trump gave up on asking foreign aid agencies (State Dept. and USAID) to justify their plans for $4 billion in unspent 2019 funding, after intense criticism from opponents and Congress—which had already approved the funding, and resents being second-guessed.

Are DRC, Mozambique Insurgencies a Real IS Threat? (VOA)

Experts are warning that a focus on alleged Islamist militant ties is hindering efforts to respond to insurgencies in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Local insurgent groups have claimed ties to Islamic State to increase their clout, but the groups operate autonomously, experts who study the regions say.

On April 18, a strike on an army base near the Congo’s border with Uganda left several Congolese soldiers dead and others injured.

It was the first attack credited to Wilayat Central Africa, previously known as the Allied Democratic Forces, a group that has pledged allegiance to IS.

A month later, an IS group took responsibility for attacks in northeastern Mozambique, part of a growing insurgency in the country led by several groups, including Ahlu Sunnah wa-Jama and al-Shabab. The latter group, consisting of about 1,000 fighters who operate in decentralized units, shares its name but no known connection with the Somali terrorist organization.

On July 24, IS released a video featuring a man named “Sheikh Abu Abdul Rahman” who called for an end to division and infighting among Muslims in Central Africa. He also called for the creation of a caliphate. The video features heavily armed fighters in a forested area pledging allegiance to IS.

Some saw the proclamation as a sign of solidarity between the Mozambican and Congolese extremist groups. But experts are unsure whether links to IS signal a new threat or simply reflect the groups’ attempts to raise their profile.

Ryan O’Farrell, an extremism researcher studying at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said experts have found virtually no evidence that IS has trained, funded or equipped its African affiliates.

“It also doesn’t necessarily fit Islamic State’s model. They have affiliates all over the continent, and most of them haven’t received training or weapons from Islamic State Central,” O’Farrell told VOA.

“Pretty much all of its affiliates are local groups that have local recruitment networks and local financial capacity and local weapons procurement channels. And so, they affiliate themselves with Islamic State as a brand.”

Nearly daily attacks in the Cabo Delgado region have made the insurgency in Mozambique one of Africa’s deadliest. The group in the DRC has pulled off high-profile attacks, killing U.N. peacekeepers.

But at their core, they remain local insurgencies, O’Farrell said.

“Their targets are primarily local,” O’Farrell said. “That’s very rarely the MO for some of the more peripheral Islamic State affiliates. But within those zones or within any territory in North Kivu (DRC) and within Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, they’re very active.”

Yussuf Adam, an associate professor of contemporary history at the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique, said that rather than receiving arms or provisions from IS, insurgent groups in Mozambique are capturing them from the Mozambican Armed Forces.

“They kill two persons here, three persons there. They take ammunition, and so on. And it seems that they … feed themselves or, you know, feed their operations from guns they collect,” he told VOA.

Adam said the only international component to the insurgency is that some of the local fighters traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Russians in the 1980s. Unconfirmed reports suggest fighters received training in Somalia.

In a discussion on VOA’s radio interview program “Encounter,” experts said the insurgency in Mozambique is hard to understand because they have not made any public pronouncements. They are decentralized and likely include former street hawkers with links to organized crime.

Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the insurgency in Mozambique may have Islamist roots, but other factors fuel it. These include resentment over natural gas discoveries, which have not benefited the local population, and heavy-handed operations by security forces, resulting in civilian deaths.

“This is what I would call an incipient insurgency,” Devermont said. “That’s important because it means that there are opportunities here in the embryonic stage to address its concerns, snuff it out and bring back some of these individuals as part of society.”

Oil and gas companies hiring locals who might otherwise become frustrated and join the insurgency would help a lot, Devermont said.

Adam believes the insurgency cannot be addressed by looking at it internationally. Instead, he urged policymakers to look at the local grievances of northern Mozambique, which has long been cut off from the economic hubs of the country and underserved by the central government.

“Violence breeds violence,” Adam said. “What we need is to start working readily to see what are the problems, what is the political and economy of northern Mozambique.”

The Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point (The Economist)

The results would be disastrous, for Brazil and for the world

The amazon basin, most of which sits within the borders of Brazil, contains 40% of the world’s tropical forests and accounts for 10-15% of the biodiversity of Earth’s continents. Since the 1970s nearly 800,000km² of Brazil’s original 4m km² (1.5m square miles) of Amazon forest has been lost to logging, farming, mining, roads, dams and other forms of development—an area equivalent to that of Turkey, and bigger than that of Texas. Over the same period, the average temperature in the basin has risen by about 0.6°C. This century, the region has suffered a series of severe droughts.

Both the reduction in tree coverage and the change in climate were endangering the forest’s future well before Brazil’s general elections of October 2018. But after that the forest faced another threat: Jair Bolsonaro, the new president, and arguably the most environmentally dangerous head of state in the world.

From 2004 to 2012 the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed. The government’s environmental protection agency, Ibama, was strengthened. Other countries, and global ngos, nagged and encouraged; in 2008 an international Amazon Fund was created to help pay for protection. Not a moment too soon, said rainforest scientists. They had begun to suspect that, if tree loss passed a certain threshold, the deforestation would start to feed on itself. Beyond this tipping-point, forest cover would keep shrinking whatever humans might try to do to stop it. Eventually much of the basin would be drier savannah, known as cerrado. As well as spelling extinction for tens of thousands of species, that devastation would change weather patterns over much of South America and release into the atmosphere tens of billions of tonnes of carbon, worsening global warming.

This hopeful period of slower deforestation was not to last. Even before Mr Bolsonaro, deforestation began to tick up (see chart 1). In 2012, under then-president Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s congress passed a new forest code that gave amnesty to those who had taken part in illegal deforestation before 2008. In 2017 Michel Temer, the next president, signed a law that streamlined the privatisation of occupied public lands, which spurred land grabs in the Amazon. During the deep recession of 2014-16 the environment ministry’s budget was slashed. Between August 2017 and July 2018 Brazil lost 7,900km² of Amazon forest—nearly a billion trees—the highest rate of deforestation for a decade.

Heaven’s high canopy

According to preliminary satellite data, since Mr Bolsonaro took office in January, the Amazon has lost roughly 4,300km² of forest, which means this year’s total will surely outstrip last year’s. This is not a fluke. The president appears to want the country to return to the time of Brazil’s military dictatorship, when big infrastructure projects prompted widespread destruction in the name of development.

A few of Mr Bolsonaro’s plans have been curbed. Pressure from Tereza Cristina, the agriculture minister, and the farm lobby led him to withdraw his threat to leave the Paris climate agreement and from abolishing the environment ministry—mostly because deals with disapproving European firms would be at risk. A bill introduced by Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s eldest son and a senator in his own right, to eliminate a requirement for farmers to preserve some natural vegetation on land they clear has not yet passed. The supreme court blocked a decree to transfer powers over the demarcation of indigenous reserves from the justice ministry to Ms Cristina’s—which would have “put the fox in charge of the chicken coop,” argues Randolfe Rodrigues, an opposition senator.

But even without the biggest changes, Mr Bolsonaro’s government can still encourage, directly or indirectly, a large amount of deforestation, by not enforcing the laws that prohibit it. On February 28th the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, fired 21 of Ibama’s 27 state heads, following the president’s orders to “clean out” the agency. Most have yet to be replaced, including all but one in the Amazon states. The environment ministry has started to flag up in advance where and when anti-logging operations will take place. Between January and May, Ibama imposed the lowest number of fines for illegal deforestation in a decade.

Mr Salles says that “the role of the state is to protect landowners’ property rights”. He wants to use donations from Norway and Germany to the 3.6bn reais ($950m) Amazon Fund to compensate landowners for land that had been turned into conservation areas, even though most of it was occupied illegally.

Deforesters appear emboldened. According to the Indigenist Missionary Council, a Catholic group, the number of illegal invasions in indigenous areas has jumped. On July 24th miners with guns invaded a village in the northern state of Amapá, killed one of its leaders and expelled the residents. Satellite data show a drastic rise in the year-on-year deforestation rate starting in May, the beginning of the dry season. In July, more than 1,800km² was cleared, three times more than last year.

These statistics tell only part of the story. The Amazon matters to the global climate because it is a sink of carbon, mitigating warming. If the rainforest were to die back, the large amount of greenhouse gases this would release would speed up that process. But the climate matters to the Amazon, too. It is sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall, as well as to atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels.

The Amazon is unique among tropical rainforests in that it produces a lot of its own rainfall. As moisture travels from the Atlantic to Peru, the Amazon’s trees recycle some of it; around half the forest’s rain is reused this way. Rainwater is pulled up from the roots to the canopy, where it is released back to the atmosphere to fall as rain again. Not only does this provide moisture to the region, the evaporation off the leaves also has a local cooling effect.

This is what has led to worries about tipping-points. In an influential paper in 2007 Gilvan Sampaio and Carlos Nobre of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research forecast that, were 40% of the forest to perish, the loss of water-recycling capacity would mean very little of the rest would have enough rainfall to survive.

Trees rudely hollowed

Alongside the threat from deforestation, the forest’s capacity to water itself can be weakened by rising temperatures. Beatriz Marimon and Ben Hur Marimon, at the University of Mato Grosso in Nova Xavantina, have kept tabs for decades on dozens of plots in the transição, the margin between the wet Amazon and the drier cerrado. Today, Mr Marimon says, they are seeing “two warmings in one”. On top of global warming are changes that result from deforestation, which removes the air-conditioning effect provided by water evaporating from the trees’ leaves.

A study by Divino Silvério and colleagues at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, published in 2015, found that converting forest to pasture increased land temperatures by 4.3°C; if pasture was then turned over to arable crops, things warmed a little more. The transição is already hotter and drier than most of the rainforest. Clearing more of its patchwork of forest, farms and savannah makes the remaining woodland even hotter.

Ms Marimon has also observed that temperatures above 40°C dry out trees, making them more likely to fall in strong winds. The fragmentation brought about by farming creates isolated patches of forest. If they lose access to seed banks in the soil and water sources, such disconnected fragments are less able to recover.

How plants respond to carbon-dioxide levels probably exacerbates matters. The more carbon dioxide in the air, the less air plants need to process in order to photosynthesise. The less air they take in, the less water vapour they let out. As a consequence, the plants both do less to cool their immediate environment (because less water evaporates) and also make the atmosphere less moist. This has been shown to be happening in other watersheds, though there is not yet conclusive evidence from the Amazon.

Clearances also lead to local drying. Satellite data show that air which passes over primary rainforest produces twice as much rain a few days later than that which passes over farmland. In 2012 scientists at the University of Leeds predicted that continued deforestation would cause rainfall in the Amazon to drop by 12% in the wet season and by 21% in the dry season by 2050.

The forest’s dry season started to lengthen in the 1970s; the rains which used to come in October now come in November. This might have been an effect of deforestation; there is some evidence that water returned to the atmosphere by trees is particularly important in getting the rainy season going. The most dramatic effect of drying seen by scientists, though, is not a shorter wet season. It is the disproportionate impact of the years in which rainfall is particularly low.

This century has already seen three unusually harsh droughts, in 2005, 2010 and 2015. That of 2015 corresponds to an El Niño event—a see-saw effect in Earth’s climate whereby a shift in the flow of energy between the atmosphere and the ocean in the central Pacific produces a predictable pattern of climate anomalies all through the tropics and beyond (see chart 2). The correlation between El Niño events and droughts in the Amazon, most notably in the south-eastern part, predates human activities. But those activities may, at a global level, increase the frequency and intensity of El Niño events. At the local level they worsen the damage that droughts do.

The El Niño drought in 2015 was particularly severe. In Nova Xavantina more than a third of the trees in some of the Marimons’ study plots died in its aftermath. The region around the city of Santarém, farther north and deep in the Amazon, saw flames as tall as buildings tear through the forest, enveloping the canopy in thick black smoke that stretched for miles and turned the sunlight red. For months after the fires died down, the forest floor smouldered. Hundred-year-old trees dried out and died.

Nearly four years later, the forest is still recovering. At one part of the Tapajós National Forest reserve, where 580km² (11% of the total area) burned, saplings have shot up among the ashes of their giant forebears, but it will be years before they form a canopy. A second round of fires in 2017 burned nearly a quarter of another reserve, where 75 communities of river-dwellers make their living fishing and hunting.

Fires are not new to the Amazon, but recently they seem to have been more frequent and intense. This kicks off a vicious cycle. Dead trees open gaps in the canopy, allowing more light and wind to reach the forest floor, which becomes hotter, drier and more prone to burn again. This year is expected to be a mild El Niño year, which means higher temperatures and less rain for the area around Santarém. Fires could rage again. If that happens, says Joice Ferreira, a biologist at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, the debris left over from the previous fires will serve as fuel for the flames. “After that,” she says, “there won’t be many trees left.”

Over the past 50 years 17% of the rainforest has been lost, some way from the 40% tipping-point proposed in 2007. But last year Mr Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University, after taking account of climate change and fire as well as deforestation, revised the estimate of the threshold to 20-25%. That is uncomfortably close to today’s figure. Mr Nobre says the recent droughts and floods could be the “first flickers” of permanent change. Carlos Rittl of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a consortium of research outfits, expects Mr Bolsonaro’s tenure to see deforestation pass 20%. If Mr Lovejoy and Mr Nobre are right, that could be disastrous—once the tipping-point is transgressed, much of the rest of the forest could follow in just a matter of decades.

To shade the barren wild

Even now, the service that the Amazon provides the rest of the world as a sink for carbon dioxide appears to be declining. Simon Lewis of University College London, and colleagues, analysed observations of 321 plots across the Amazon basin. They found that in primary forests plants absorb, on average, a third less carbon dioxide than they did in the 1990s, owing to increasing tree mortality. In a paper published in 2011 Mr Lewis argued that carbon lost to the atmosphere through tree death and fire in the droughts of 2005 and 2010 might offset as much as a decade’s worth of carbon-dioxide absorption by the forest.

Not everyone is so gloomy. Forests that are diverse, like the Amazon, are likely to have drought-resistant species that can fill the niche left by drought-prone ones without a loss of biomass, points out Kirsten Thonicke of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a German think-tank. Secondary forests store significant amounts of carbon, though far less than primary ones. One study found that as a secondary forest grows, it recovers 1.2% carbon storage per year, so a 20-year-old secondary forest would store roughly 25% of the carbon stored by a primary forest. There are ways to mitigate the biomass loss from logging and ranching, by being careful about which trees to cut and reforesting afterwards. In Paris Brazil pledged not just to halt illegal deforestation by 2030 but also to reforest 120,000km².

Such attempts at mitigation look increasingly unlikely. In June Mr Bolsonaro published a decree which indefinitely extends the 2019 deadline for farmers to begin replanting illegally deforested land. This not only reduces the chances of reforestation. It reinforces the message: the government will turn a blind eye to more. Similarly, if his son’s bill were to pass it would legalise the deforestation of some 1.5m km². Clearing that would emit nearly 65bn tonnes of carbon dioxide—equivalent to Brazil’s emissions over the past 27 years.

In July President Bolsonaro called deforestation data “lies” and said he wanted to review them before they were released to the public. Hamilton Mourão, the vice-president, says that other countries’ professed concern for the Amazon masks “covetousness” for precious minerals in the region. Mr Salles, the environment minister, likes to point out that many rich countries cut down their own forests but have not fulfilled promises to pay Brazil not to do the same. “You can’t give Brazil the onus of being the world’s lungs without any benefits,” he argues.

The trees stood bare

Mr Salles is right that the countries responsible for the bulk of emissions should compensate Brazil for its role in absorbing them. In return Brazil must protect, rather than destroy, the rainforest. In June a trade deal between the eu and Mercosur—Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay—was announced at the g20 summit, which includes a commitment to implement the Paris climate agreement. It has yet to be approved; it is also unclear how much it will sway the president to curb his infrastructure plans, or indeed his rhetoric.

Concerns about what Brazil’s climate policies might do to the country’s reputation could spur local resistance to Mr Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental turn. Fears for the climate itself may yet do more. “We have no doubt that the forest has a direct effect on the rain cycle,” says Artemizia Moita, the sustainability director of a farming group that has 530km² of soyabean and cattle farms. “If we keep deforesting,” she asks, “how will we keep producing?” Unlike other farmers she admits she is worried about climate change.

For many, any shift in attitudes will already come too late. Magdalena is an elderly woman who has spent her life as a river-dweller in one of the rainforest’s reserves. She used to hunt deer and armadillo to make her living. Now she treks 13km to buy beef from a local village. “All the game is gone,” she laments.