Al Jazeera: BlackRock in Amazon: ‘World’s largest investor in deforestation’

Report by Friends of the Earth faults asset manager for investing in companies that contribute to Brazil’s fire risk.

by
An aerial view of a burning tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]
An aerial view of a burning tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

As Amazon fires spark unprecedented deforestation, a report released on Friday shows that BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, holds extensive investments in the sectors deemed responsible for the devastation of forests in Brazil.

With $6.5 trillion of assets under management, BlackRock was labeled the “world’s largest investor in deforestation” by the report’s authors – Friends of the Earth US, Amazon Watch, and Dutch research firm Profundo.

The report, BlackRock’s Big Deforestation Problem, looks at financial data from 2014 to 2018 showing the global investment management firm to be among the top three shareholders in 25 of the planet’s largest publicly traded companies with “deforestation risk”.

The data reveal that BlackRock’s holdings in six sectors – soy, beef, palm oil, rubber, timber and pulp/paper – have increased by more than $500m in the last five years.

Jeff Conant, the report’s lead author and senior international forest programme manager with Friends of the Earth US, said that “BlackRock’s investments are directly causing the forest fires in the Amazon and deforestation around the globe”.

“I don’t believe that BlackRock and their providers are even looking at deforestation risk,” he told Al Jazeera. “There are not a lot of worse companies out there than the companies on [our] list.”

Of the 167 deforestation-risk companies identified by the researchers, BlackRock held shares in 61 of them – valued at $1.5bn by the end of last year.

“Sound corporate governance practices, including how companies manage the material environmental and social factors inherent to their business models, have the potential to impact the long-term value of our clients’ assets,” BlackRock said in a statement provided to Al Jazeera.

“Our obligation as an asset manager and a fiduciary is to manage our clients’ assets consistent with their investment priorities,” the company added.

“Absent the option to divest from these companies, we engage with them to evaluate how they manage the material sustainability-related risks and opportunities within their businesses, and encourage them to adopt the robust business practices consistent with sustainable long-term performance.”

ESG: ‘Do whatever they want’

Conant said that BlackRock makes money off of environmentally destructive agribusiness, particularly through commodity holdings in index funds that passively track global markets.

“[BlackRock] can get the ESG industry to do whatever they want,” Conant said, referring to environmental, social and governance factors that thus far appear unsuccessful at screening out companies with deforestation risk from such funds. “Passive investment is an active problem.”

“Most ESG funds are based on data from the ESG industry, which is really not necessarily looking at the whole picture and scanning the right sources for information,” he added. “They are not thinking extremely deeply about what environmental impacts are – and their relative weights.”

Overuse of land, water and pesticides – when combined with the adverse effects of climate change – have contributed to fires raging in Brazil, as well as in the Arctic, Indonesia and Central Africa.

Conant said, however, that these blazes are “to be expected and we will see more of them”.

He also suggested that the problems were exacerbated by the “authoritarian regime of [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro, which is being backed by global finance”.

High-risk holdings and conflict-linked securities could pose a dilemma for BlackRock that is financial, environmental and moral.

Earlier in August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that deforestation and other land-use practices account for almost one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

“BlackRock can follow the lead of other global asset managers and make change for the good of the rainforest, the climate, and its customers by shifting investments out of companies wrecking the planet, and applying maximum pressure to change company behaviour,” said Moira Birss of Amazon Watch.

The report cited the Norwegian Government Pension Fund for having blacklisted many companies in BlackRock’s portfolios. In addition, CalPERS – which provides benefits for public employees in the US state of California – has recognised deforestation as a “material investment risk”.

“Responsible stewardship is about more than just public statements,” said Ward Warmerdam of Profundo, which performed much of the research for the report. “It is about aligning your investment strategy with broadly accepted environmental and social standards.”

Earlier this summer, a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis faulted BlackRock for losing $90bn through fossil fuel investments during the past decade.

The new report says that BlackRock could instruct companies active in the Amazon to audit their supply chains, and in turn remove investments at all linked to the current fires.

“It takes time to unwind those investments but a public statement is very easy,” Conant told Al Jazeera. “[BlackRock] should ask all index providers to develop default fossil-fuel and deforestation-free investment funds.”

He criticised the Brazilian government’s efforts to “wipe out one of the world’s most precious ecosystems for short-term profit”, adding that BlackRock should “take an active stance in rejecting that offer to destroy the Amazon for business“.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

Burning retail market lights up Canada’s cannabis vape race!

Canada’s major tobacco companies are aiming high in the cannabis e-cigarette market.

by Kristine Owram • Bloomberg
With declining cigarette sales, many tobacco companies are turning to cannabis and vape markets [David Mercado/Reuters]
With declining cigarette sales, many tobacco companies are turning to cannabis and vape markets [David Mercado/Reuters]

Ontario will triple its pot-store count beginning in October, just two months before the introduction of new product formats that are expected to significantly boost sales in Canada’s most-populous province.

While chatter about the next wave of legalization in Canada tends to focus on products like edibles and beverages, many of the biggest players entering the space say consumers will opt for the more conventional format of vapes.

The Canadian market for vapes could be as big as C$600 million ($451 million) by 2021, according to Tim Pellerin, Pax Labs Inc.’s general manager of Canada.

San Francisco-based Pax, which split from e-cigarette company Juul Labs Inc. in 2017 to focus on cannabis, captures about 17% of the U.S. market for pot vape devices. It’s the top seller in the extremely fragmented market, and hopes to capture at least as much share in Canada. Pax has partnered with Aphria Inc., Aurora Cannabis Inc., Organigram Holdings Inc. and Supreme Cannabis Co. to sell their oils in its devices.

“We’ll be disappointed if we’re not able to match or exceed our performance in the U.S. market” in Canada, Pellerin said in an interview.

It’s shaping up to be a fierce fight, with two tobacco giants joining the fray via investments in Canadian pot companies.

Marlboro-maker Altria Group Inc. bought a 45% stake in Cronos Group Inc. via a C$2.4 billion investment that closed in March, while Imperial Brands Plc announced last month that it will invest C$123 million in Auxly Cannabis Group Inc. by way of a convertible debenture.

Imperial decided to invest in cannabis after conducting a strategic review to identify new opportunities to offset declining tobacco sales, according to Chief Financial Officer Oliver Tant.

“It’s relatively obvious to most that the tobacco sector is ex-growth and over the longer term that inevitably presents some challenges,” Tant said in a phone interview. “We looked at caffeine, we looked at high-energy drinks, it wasn’t limited to cannabis, but cannabis seemed like the one we had the most obvious overlap and connectivity with.”

Oxford deal

Imperial dipped its toe into the sector last year with an investment in closely held Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies Ltd. and decided to investigate the Canadian market after it legalized recreational pot in October.

“I think we probably talked to the majority of the larger listed entities” before settling on Auxly, Tant said.

Auxly will be Imperial’s exclusive global cannabis partner and will gain access to its vaping technology and Liverpool-based R&D lab Nerudia, which is already licensed to work with cannabis.

“The vape IP is a huge portion of the non-financial value in this transaction and ensures that Auxly is going to have best-in-class vape devices,” said Hugo Alves, who will replace Chuck Rifici as Auxly’s chief executive officer this week.

Imperial’s technology won’t show up in Auxly’s vape devices when they’re first released on Dec. 16, the day vapes, edibles and beverages will join dried flower and oils on legal Canadian store shelves.

Vape market

“We’ve been at it now for close to a year, so I’m happy to report that our vapes are designed, our oils are formulated, our pens are tuned to our specific oil and the hardware is ready,” Alves said. “Our collaboration with Nerudia is forward looking.”

Tant believes the Canadian market for derivative products like vapes will be worth about C$6 billion by 2025. Although Imperial is taking a go-slow approach for now, he sees future opportunities to expand its investments in cannabis.

“We’re taking a pretty cautious approach to investing in the space, we haven’t spent the $1.4 billion that Altria spent in Cronos,” he said.

Tant said he wishes Canada’s pot regulations were less fragmented across provinces, while Pellerin at Pax said he wishes advertising rules made it easier to communicate with the consumer.

“We continue to be in an environment which I’ll say is the worst it’ll ever be from a category standpoint,” Pellerin said. “It’s still very difficult to talk to the consumer through all the constraints and controls in place right now.”

Facebook Hired Hundreds to Listen In on Users’ Audio Messages (I know you don’t care, or u don’t get it.)

H5 facebook contractors transcribe audio private messages artificial intelligence data privacy

Facebook secretly paid hundreds of contractors to transcribe audio clips shared by users in private messages. That’s according to Bloomberg News, which reports the practice rattled the contract workers, who were often subjected to vulgar and intrusive recordings and were not told whose conversations they were transcribing or why. In a statement, Facebook said the practice was aimed at improving its artificial intelligence transcription service, but that the company had “paused human review of audio more than a week ago.” An Irish data privacy commission said Wednesday it’s investigating whether Facebook violated European Union privacy laws. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that Amazon, Apple and Google similarly hired thousands of workers to listen to users’ recorded audio.

US: Feds launch investigation into Jeffrey Epstein’s death

US attorney general says financier’s apparent suicide while in federal custody raises ‘serious concerns’.

US Attorney General William Barr has launched an investigation into Jeffrey Epstein's death [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]
US Attorney General William Barr has launched an investigation into Jeffrey Epstein’s death [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

Federal authorities will investigate how Jeffrey Epstein, a well-connected financier accused of orchestrating a sex trafficking ring that preyed on underage girls, was able to apparently commit suicide in federal custody, the United States attorney general has said.

The FBI and the Department of Justice’s inspector general’s office will conduct the investigation, US Attorney General William Barr said, hours after Epstein was found unresponsive in the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan on Saturday.

Barr said he was “appalled” that the apparent suicide happened while Epstein was in federal custody on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy.

“Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered,” he said in a statement.

The investigation into the sex trafficking and conspiracy charges against the 66-year-old will continue despite his death, the federal attorney in charge of the probe also said on Saturday.

The inquiry could still ensnare others involved in the alleged crime, the official said.

Death in custody

The suicide has raised questions over prison authorities’ oversight of Epstein, who had been kept in a special area reserved for high-profile inmates.

Epstein had been placed on suicide watch and given daily psychiatric evaluations after an incident in July in which he was found with bruising on his neck, according to local media. It had not been confirmed whether the injury was self-inflicted or the result of an assault.

He was taken off the watch at the end of July and was not being monitored at the time of his death, the reports said.

Authorities took Epstein into custody on July 6 and he pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking that allegedly ensnared dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14.

The alleged offences took place in his homes in Manhattan, New York and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005, according to prosecutors. If convicted, he faced up to 45 years in prison.

Epstein had previously lived a lavish lifestyle, often socialising with powerful people, including princes and US presidents. His arrest had put a spotlight on those relationships.

His most recent arrest also drew scrutiny to a 2008 deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida, while avoiding more serious federal charges.

The outcry led Alex Acosta, the then-US labour secretary who as a federal prosecutor helped Epstein negotiate the deal, to resign.

‘Heads must roll’

Accusers and elected officials expressed dismay that Epstein’s suicide allowed him to escape justice. They hoped the investigation would capture others involved in the alleged crimes.

Virginia Giuffre, an Epstein accuser who had filed a since-settled lawsuit against the financier’s former girlfriend, told the New York Times she was grateful Epstein will never harm anyone again, but was angry that there would be no chance to see him answer for his conduct.

“We’ve worked so hard to get here, and he stole that from us,” she told the newspaper.

Accuser Jennifer Araoz, in a statement, said that Epstein’s alleged victims will “have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives”.

Brad Edwards, a Florida lawyer for nearly two dozen other accusers, said that “this is not the ending anyone was looking for”.

“The victims deserved to see Epstein held accountable, and he owed it to everyone he hurt to accept responsibility for all of the pain he caused,” Edwards said in a statement.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a letter to Barr on Saturday, said that “heads must roll” after the incident.

“Every single person in the Justice Department … knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him,” Sasse wrote.

SOURCE: NEWS AGENCIES

Trump renews attacks on Omar, praises ‘send her back’ crowd

After attempting to distance himself, Trump calls crowd that chanted ‘send her back’ at a campaign rally ‘incredible’.Trump answers a question from the news media about Ilhan Omar [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Trump answers a question from the news media about Ilhan Omar

A day after Donald Trump tried to distance himself from racist chants heard at one of his campaign rallies, the US president praised the crowd as one full of “incredible patriots”.

The president on Friday again ramped up his attacks against US Representative Ilhan Omar, saying he was “unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country”.

He also said the people at the North Carolina rally, many of whom chanted “Send her back” while Trump paused, are “incredible people” and “incredible patriots”.

On Thursday, however, Trump attempted to distance himself from the same crowd, saying he wasn’t “happy with” the chant and he disagreed with it. He falsely said he tried to stop the crowd.

His comments came just days after he attacked Omar and three other minority congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – in a series of racist tweets in which he told the four women to go back to where they came from. All four are United States citizens and all but Omar were born in the US. Omar came to the country as a Somali refugee when she was 12 years old.

On Thursday, Omar called Trump “fascist” and said she was “not deterred” and “not frightened”.

“We are going to continue to be a nightmare to this president because his policies are a nightmare to us. We are not deterred. We are not frightened,” she told a crowd of supporters who greeted her as she arrived in her home state of Minnesota.

After the tweets, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives condemned Trump’s “racist comments that have legitimised and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of colour”.

‘Not deterred’: A defiant Ilhan Omar vows to fight Trump

Trump maintains his comments were “not racist”. He said that those who are not happy in the US can leave, despite Trump himself having repeatedly spoken out against past US policies and administrations.

Many have come to Omar’s defence under #IStandWithIlhan.

‘Millions of American in danger’

Responding to Trump’s racist tweets earlier this week, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley said they “will not be silenced“. They also said that as “the squad” they would continue to put the focus back on the issues they feel need attention, including immigration, healthcare and education.

“This is simply a disruption, a distraction from the callous, chaotic and corrupt culture of this administration,” Pressley said on Tuesday. “We want to get to the business of the American people and why were sent here: reducing the costs of prescription drugs, addressing the public health crisis and epidemic that is gun violence, addressing the racial wealth gap and yes, making sure that families stay together.

U.S. Reps Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a news conference after Democrats in the U.S. Congress moved to formally condemn Pres
US Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib hold a news conference after Democrats in the US Congress moved to formally condemn President Donald Trump’s racist attacks [Erin Scott/Reuters]

Ocasio-Cortez warned on Thursday that Trump’s attacks “put millions of Americans in danger”.

“This is not just about threats to individual members of Congress, but it is about creating a volatile environment in this country through violent rhetoric that puts anyone, like Ilhan, anyone who believes in the rights of all people in danger and I think that he has a responsibility for that environment,” she said.

After Trump tweeted an edited video to suggest Omar was dismissive of the September 11, 2001, attacks earlier this year, the congresswoman reported an increase in death threats.

In April, a US man was arrested on suspicion of leaving racist, homophobic and Islamophobic messages filled with death threats on the voicemails of several Democratic members of Congress, including Tlaib.

 

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

Amash first Republican legislator to call for Trump’s impeachment

In a series of tweets, legislator Justin Amash says the US president has engaged in ‘impeachable conduct’.

Amash first Republican legislator to call for Trump's impeachment
Amash sent a series of tweets, faulting Trump and Attorney General William Barr over Mueller’s report 

Republican legislator Justin Amash has said he believes Donald Trump has engaged in “impeachable conduct”, becoming the first politician from his party to call for removing the US president.

The Michigan representative on Saturday also accused Attorney General William Barr of “deliberately” misleading the public over the actual content and tenor of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference aimed at tipping the election to Trump.

WATCH

The Mueller report: Can Trump be impeached?

In a series of tweets, Amash – a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus – said “few members of Congress even read Mueller’s report,” which identified “multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice”.

“Undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence,” he posted.

“Contrary to Barr’s portrayal, Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behaviour that met the threshold for impeachment.”

Justin Amash

@justinamash

Here are my principal conclusions:
1. Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report.
2. President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.
3. Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances.
4. Few members of Congress have read the report.

Amash’s comments went even further than those by most Democratic leaders in Congress.

Fellow Michigan legislator Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat, urged Amash to co-sponsor her impeachment resolution.

“@justinamash come find me in 1628 Longworth. I’ve got an impeachment investigation resolution you’re going to want to cosponsor,” she wrote in response to Amash’s thread.

Trump has proclaimed he was fully exonerated by Mueller’s report.

But some Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate who has called for impeachment proceedings, argue that the document lays out multiple occasions in which the president may have obstructed justice.

What is US impeachment? Six things to know

Other senior Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have cautioned against such a move, stressing it could deeply divide the nation of about 325 million people.

These Democrats warn it could backfire politically in the run-up to the 2020 election, especially with the Republican-controlled Senate likely to acquit the president in the event of impeachment by the House of Representatives.

Putin tells Pompeo he wants to ‘fully restore’ US-Russian ties

US secretary of state met Russian president and foreign minister to discuss Iran, Ukraine, Venezuela and Syria.

The Russian President Putin told Pompeo his country had not interfered in US elections [Pavel Golovkin/Pool via Reuters]
The Russian President Putin told Pompeo his country had not interfered in US elections

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would like to “fully restore” relations with the United States and believes that his US counterpart Donald Trump wants to do the same.

Putin on Tuesday told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo he came to that conclusion after a phone call with Trump a few days ago.

The Russian president, speaking ahead of  a meeting with Pompeo, also said that his country had not interfered in US elections.

Earlier, Pompeo met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi in hopes of finding common grounds in strategic issues over Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.

At a joint news conference following the meeting, Pompeo urged Russia to end support for President Nicolas Maduro, but his call was flatly rejected by Moscow.

“The time has come for Nicolas Maduro to go, he has brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people, and we hope that Russian support for Maduro will end,” Pompeo said. The US along with about 50 other countries, backs the opposition movement led by Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president in January.

For his part, Lavrov said Maduro’s future should be decided by the Venezuelan people and called US pressure on him undemocratic.

‘Many differences’ on Iran

Speaking on Iran, Russia’s ally, Lavrov said that Russia and the US “have many differences” and criticized the US decision to unilaterally withdraw from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement meant to rein in the country’s nuclear programme.

US air carrier in the Gulf a target not a threat: Iran commander

Pompeo said that the US will respond appropriately to any Iranian attacks on US interests, in an apparent reference to the Iranian military’s threat to shut the strategic strait of Hormuz in the Gulf. The US secretary, however, added that his country did not “seek war with Iran”.

The US recently tightened restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme by revoking key sanctions waivers, a move staunchly opposed by Moscow, over a year after Washington withdrew from a landmark deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme. It also imposed new sanctions on the country’s metal sector.

On the Ukrainian crisis, an issue the sides are also loggerheads, the Pompeo said the US would not recognize Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and would keep in place economic sanctions imposed on Russia over that move.

Mike Pompeo met Sergey Lavrov in Sochi to discuss a range of issues including Iran, Venezuela and Ukraine [Pavel Golovkin, Pool/AP]

Pompeo said he asked Moscow to free a group of Ukrainian sailors, seized by Russia last November, and to work with Ukraine‘s new president to bring peace to eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Lavrov said that the Kremlin would welcome an official request by Washington for a meeting between the US and Russian presidents at a G20 summit scheduled for June.

US warning on 2020 polls

Pompeo also said he had made it clear to Lavrov that there could be no repeat of election interference of the kind Washington accuses Moscow of undertaking in the 2016 United States presidential election.

If Russia interferes in the 2020 presidential election, “it would put our relationship in an even worse place,” Pompeo said.

Ties between the two countries have been damaged by allegations that Russia tried to influence the results of the election in favour of Trump, a claim denied by Moscow.

Putin tells Pompeo he wants to ‘fully restore’ US-Russian ties

“It’s clear that such insinuations are absolute fiction,” Lavrov said at the joint press conference.

Pompeo’s visit represents the first high-level contact between Moscow and Washington since US Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted a report examining the nature of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.

His inquiry had cast a pall over US-Russian relations, and Russian officials had expressed hope that Washington would have more scope to build friendlier relations with Moscow once it was out of the way.

Before his meeting with Pompeo, Putin praised the report.

“Despite the exotic nature of Mr Mueller’s commission, on the whole he conducted quite an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any collusion between the US administration and Russia.”

The Mueller report called Russia’s efforts to influence the election “the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations”.