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Cowboy Capitalism: Chinese Companies in Africa

Posted by Amelia Hight on October 10th, 2007

Transit riders switching trains at the Montgomery BART subway station in downtown San Francisco will find it difficult to miss the new ads covering the walls, the floor and even the stairs with pictures of Sudanese refugees. The advertisements' message is attention catching: "Are you invested in genocide?" As part of the Save Darfur Coalition's Divest for Darfur campaign, the ads urge transit users to visit their website, where they are asked to demand that investment firms - specifically JP Morgan, Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Investments, Capital Group (American Funds), and Vanguard - withdraw investments from companies like the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which are, according to the website, "filling the coffers of the Sudanese government and helping fund the government's actions in Darfur." (As a side note, the use of the term "genocide" by groups like Save Darfur to describe the conflict in Sudan is highly controversial. For more information, read the transcript of Professor Mahmood Mandani's June 4th interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, titled "The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency."

­ The CNPC has been heavily censured for continuing to do business in Sudan, despite the ongoing conflict there. Attempting to place pressure on firms invested in the state-owned CNPC, rather than on the CNPC itself, is a way for activists to circumvent the "no strings attached" stance of the Chinese government toward investment in Africa and other parts of the world. China prides itself on having a different approach to investment than western lending organizations like the World Bank or IMF, which have numerous development and human rights stipulations attached to investments. In Sudan, this means that the government doesn't have to bend to international pressure to, say, allow UN troops into Darfur. Many African governments welcome Chinese investment specifically because of this hands-off approach. In a recent article in the New York Times, Lydia Polgreen comments on the increasing presence of Chinese companies in Africa, especially in the rich natural resources and mining sector. Manganese mines in South Africa, uranium pits in Nigeria and cobalt mines in the Congo are all areas of investment for state-owned Chinese companies, like the Nonferrous Metals Corporation.

African citizens view Chinese investment with ambivalence. Some see economic relationships with China as a source of much needed income and a step up from paternalistic relationships with the West. "Let the Chinese come," said Mahamat Hassan Abakar, a lawyer in Chad. "What Africa needs is investment. It needs partners. All of these years we have been tied to France. Look what it has brought us." Others are more critical, seeing China as just another country robbing Africa of its resources and in the process enriching local elites, bolstering repressive governments and perpetuating Africa's secondary economic status. Cheap Chinese goods flooding Africa inhibit local manufacturing and the jobs that accompany it. Unsafe working conditions lead to industrial accidents like the 2005 blast at a Chinese-owned explosives factory in Chambishi, Zambia, which killed 51 people.

The investment of Chinese state-owned companies in Africa is hardly a win-win situation, but it is easy to recognize the attraction for African governments doing business with Chinese companies. In judging if China is a partner or colonizer in Africa, the answer is probably, a little of both.

Will the Pope tell Gucci and Prada to please pay their taxes? (Mick Jagger and Microsoft too!)

Posted by Tonya Hennessey on August 14th, 2007

In the next few days Pope Benedict plans to issue his second encyclical – the most authoritative statement a pope can issue – which apparently will focus on social and economic inequity in a globalized economy. In the statement, he is expected to denounce the use of tax havens as socially-unjust and immoral in cheating the greater well-being of society.

According to the Times (UK) newspaper, the statement may have been inspired by a recent request to the Vatican by Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, who urged church leaders to speak out on tax evasion.

Prodi’s government plans to seek taxes on undeclared earnings of €60 million ($84 million) by Valentino Rossi, the world motorcycling champion. How about also asking Gucci and Prada, some of Italy’s best known fashion designers, to move their tax headquarters back to home turf (from the tax-saving Netherlands, see below) and contribute to Italy’s budget deficit?

As global capital has progressively unbound itself from traditional national constraints, excessive off-shore wealth seemingly knows no shame, with wealthy individuals and corporations setting up front companies abroad to avoid paying taxes, supported by a new class of financial services specialists.

While Caribbean island resorts are often assumed to be the places where the wealthy stash their money away for retirement, some European countries (and I don't mean Lichtenstein) have also newly seen the light.

A favored location is the Netherlands -- check out the November 2006 report by Dutch-based SOMO, "The Netherlands: A Tax Haven?" The report is the first comprehensive analysis of the complex system of double tax treaties, tax incentives, the relationship with the Netherlands Antilles and the now 20,000 and counting mailbox corporations operating within the borders of this small European nation. According to SOMO, "examples of companies with tax-induced headquarters in the Netherlands are Volkswagen, IKEA, Gucci, Pirelli, Prada, Fujitsu-Siemens, Mittal Steel, and Trafigura."

The issue has been in the news, mostly because big name musical artists (like Bono and Mick Jagger) and famous athletes (think David Beckham) have also been getting in on the act. When it comes to evading taxes on lucrative licensing and royalties, the Netherlands is fast emerging as the hip tax haven of choice because Holland levies no tax on earnings royalties.

In an article titled “Gimme Tax Shelter”, the New York Times reported on this in February 2007 as newly public documentation surrounding the assets and wealth-transfer plans of the Rolling Stones demonstrated that the wily rockers have paid a mere 1.5% (as opposed to the British tax rate of 40%), or $7.2. million, on $450 million in earnings routed through the land of tulips with the help of their company Promogroup.

"The Caribbeans are thinking about trading profits, not royalties, so the smaller European countries like Holland have had to be creative, tax-wise,'' David Pullman, an investment banker in New York who caters to entertainers and athletes told the New York Times. ''They are going for the high-end stuff and don't want to be seen as shady like some Caribbean haven.''

More scandalous was the 2006 revelation that super-rockers U2 had transferred their song-publishing catalog from Ireland to Holland's Promogroup, in order to avoid a change in Irish tax law introducing taxes on royalties earned in excess of 250,000 Euros per year. Much ado was made of Bono's unwillingness to pony up his share of the tax obligation in service of the global debt relief and poverty eradication for which he so famously advocates.

Another European country that has figured they can make money out of tax evasion is Ireland -- whose “Celtic Tiger” growth is largely the product of charming huge corporations like Dell, Google, Microsoft and Sun Systems to move much of their intellectual property patents over to subsidiaries in the land of Eire -- where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%, but no taxes are charged on royalties.

Microsoft has been a major beneficiary of this scheme for the last four or so years -- it slashed billions in tax receipts to the U.S. Treasury -- by setting up subsidiaries Round Island One and Flat Island Company in Dublin. Recently Microsoft took things a step further by re-registering the two patent-holding entities as unlimited liability companies which have no obligation to file their accounts publicly.

Indeed, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) reports that Ireland was the most profitable location for U.S. multinationals between 1998-2002, during which the “the profits of US companies with Irish facilities doubled.”

The Irish law exempting patent income from taxes also provides a sweet loophole for corporate executive pay. In November 2005 it was reported that Dell Ireland’s top executives were reaping the fruits of sumptuous pay, and saving the company taxes: between them the senior management shared nearly $3.8 million in tax-free dividends since 2003.

These corporate tax breaks have earned Ireland the distinction of being hailed “the world’s 7th freest economy” in 2007 by the conservative, DC-based Heritage Foundation, which says that “Ireland’s economy is 81.3 percent free.”

Most of this tax evasion, is sadly, quite legal. But ordinary citizens around the world who think that Microsoft and Mick Jagger should pay taxes, can take heart from the fact that some members of the global elite have been punished -- take the recent conviction of media mogul Conrad Black of Hollinger International. In July, Canadian and U.S. press reported on the lawsuits, corporate and civil, that are following his conviction for obstruction of justice and mail fraud, seeking remuneration from assets, including purported millions stashed in the Caribbean:

…"Not satisfied with receiving $20 to $40 million a year in excessive management fees, Black and the Ravelston insiders then directed significant portions of those fees to Moffat Management and Black-Amiel Management, which were empty shell companies registered in Barbados," a special report from Hollinger’s board stated.

"Even though these entities did nothing to earn fees, and did not have either employees or real operations, paying management fees to them on the pretense that they performed services allowed the recipients the prospect of transforming a portion of the enormous management fees that would otherwise most likely have been taxable in Canada (where the payments were received), or possibly the U.S. (where services were largely performed), into dividends received in Barbados (where nothing occurred)," the report stated.

NOTE: For more good examples of what tax journalist Lucy Komisar calls the “corporate bag of tricks called profit laundering,” check out the Tax Justice Network, and the Komisar Scoop -- who just revealed where did Rupert Murdoch get $5 billion to buy up the Wall St. Journal?  (Answer: A collection of 800 offshore companies that helped him cut corporate taxes to 6%!)

The Curse of Gold

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 28th, 2007


This week's CorpWatch feature
highlights the plight of indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, where landowners feel that they are cheated out of their resources, livelihoods, and just compensation by the world's largest gold producer, Barrick Gold.

Papua New Guinea represents a case study in how resource extraction just might be the worst possible way to develop a country, especially where 85 percent of the population depends on the environment for their subsistence livelihood. Here, the pollution caused by open-pit mining and cyanide leaching creates an especially vulnerable situation for the indigenous people. In our recent feature, we attached testimonies from the landowners, mine workers, women, and human right activists who are affected by the mine. A principal landowner, Nelson Akiko, describes his disillusionment with the mine:

We depend on our land. You depend on money. Money is not need, it is only a want, but it is need in western society. I live on land, which is my stomach. I grow food from this land and then I survive. But now, where can I get food?

Also, the fact that mineral deposits, including oil, copper, and gold, account for two-thirds of PNG's export earnings leaves them susceptible to the Dutch Disease, or the phenomenon wherein resource exports raise the exchange rate for a country's currency, thereby making their labor less desirable. While this only accounts for a tiny part of the negative consequences of mining, it does illustrate that even within an economic paradigm, mining carries negative consequences for 'development', especially open pit mines because they require less human labor. Large mineral exports also make countries more susceptible to corruption because of the negotiating power held with government gatekeepers.

This is similar to Mali, where gold makes up 65 percent of its exports, dwarfing its former economic bedrock cotton. Some 64 mining companies have active mining and exploration projects in this landlocked African country, but despite a surge in gold prices, Mali's development indicators have stagnated. A recent Oxfam report 'Hidden treasure: in search of Mali's gold mining revenues', concluded that:

"There is not sufficient disclosure in an understandable form for citizens or civic groups to determine whether they are indeed benefiting as they should according to current law in Mali."


The fact that gold is a largely useless metal (that is already hoarded and unused in large quantities) makes the destruction caused by it's extraction all the more tragic. According the No Dirty Gold Campaign, 80% of the gold is used by the jewelry industry. On average, the production of one gold wedding ring produces 20 tons of waste.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea is not an isolated example of how gold mines can destroy communities. Mining Watch Canada summed their view of the mining industry in Canada, where 60% of the world's mining companies reside:

Metal prices are booming, and Canadian mining companies are taking advantage of the same prejudicial conditions to expand into all corners of the globe, manipulating, slandering, abusing, and even killing those who dare to oppose them, displacing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike, supporting repressive governments and taking advantage of weak ones, and contaminating and destroying sensitive ecosystems. 
CorpWatch has been tracking Barrick elsewhere in the world, most recently at its Pascua Lama project in Argentina.
Barrick's plans to "relocate" three glaciers - 816,000 cubic meters of ice - by means of bulldozers and controlled blasting, is seen by mine-opponents as symbolic of the company's utter insensitivity to the environment. As headwaters for a water basin in an arid region receiving very little rainfall, many opponents are gravely concerned for the ice. They say the mechanical action involved in moving the glaciers will irreversibly melt much of it, jeopardizing a delicate ecological balance further downstream.

While Barrick originally planned to "relocate" three glaciers to another area, since being denied their original plan, the project now aims to build an open-pit mine next to the glaciers. However, most alarmingly, since construction has started on the mine, the glaciers have been depleted an estimated 50-70 percent, according to Chilean General Office of Waters (DGA). Barrick attempted to blame global warming for the melting, but those claims have been disproven.


Mining in the U.S.

In the U.S., Western Shoshone lands now account for the majority of gold produced within the United States and almost 10 percent of world production. The scale of development is unprecedented and will leave a legacy of environmental impacts for centuries into the future.

An excellent article on the boom in gold mining from the Las Vegas Mercury News explains the predicament that Shoshone face. 

Remembering Oil Spills, Old and New

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 13th, 2007

The week opened with the start of a four month trial against France's oil giant, Total, by groups like Friends of the Earth France.

The Paris tribunal will examine the 1999 Erika tanker disaster that poured 20,000 tonnes of oil into the sea, polluted 250 miles of coastline and caused $1.3 billion in damage. At least 150,000 seabirds were found dead on the coast and up to 10 times as many were probably lost in the oil-blackened seas. Observers say this may also turn into a trial of the "globalized" international shipping system as the Erika was crewed by Indians, sailing under a Maltese flag, chartered by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas for a French oil company.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit between the state of New York against Exxon and four other companies has recently been announced. This suit addresses an oil spill from the 1950's that was several times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil leak in Alaska, but lay undiscovered until 1978. According to New York state attorney Andrew Cuomo, Exxon has been slow to clean up, with an estimated eight million gallons of oil and petroleum byproducts still underground and toxic vapors from the ground threatening neighborhood health.

A Bloomberg article quotes local residents:

"There are people who live above this that still don't know about it,'' said Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental group that sued in 2004 to try to force Exxon Mobil to clean up the creek. Others in Greenpoint have become spill experts, according to Seggos, and they say the fumes that rise from basements and sewers are especially bad when the barometer drops before a storm. "The locals tell you they know when it's going to rain because they can smell the oil.''


In other oil spill news, Lagos' Vanguard newspaper reported today that ten Ijaw communities had been displaced and 500 made homeless by a Chevron Nigeria oil spill.

The report quotes Gbabor Okrika, the councilor representing the affected communities:

"Chevron is not bothered about the health of the people they are only concerned about their operations and they have now started a process that can only divide the people and create further division among them."

Also, last month's massive leak in the Chad Cameroon Pipeline caused a storm of criticism regarding the environmental safety of this project. This Exxon-managed pipeline extends from landlocked Chad through Cameroon and extends 11 kilometers off the coast into the Atlantic. This project, which is overseen by the World Bank, has already received much criticism due to money from this project fueling conflict in Chad.

IRIN News quoted Kribi Mayor Gregoire Mba Mba:

"Our town lives on fishing and tourism. If more incidents like this or worse occur it is the economic future of the town that is threatened."

Environmental groups are warning that a similar spill could happen in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline operated by BP that transports crude 1750 kilometers from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. On Monday, a coalition of Azeri, British and US watchdog groups leaked a report from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which says that cracks and leakages in the coating of the pipeline will need to be monitored closely.

How We Got Here: Post-Doctoral Division

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 16th, 2006

The New Left Review will either excite or exhaust your brain. But if you want to see the rise of capitalism on a global scale through the eyes of an economist who speaks economese, this is your guy: Robin Blackburn. I'm not saying I understood the whole thing (I wonder if many outside the ivy-clad ivory towers could), but the whole issue of how corporations came to be the driving force in almost everything in the world, and how money became both the ends and the means to all things, is somewhere here between the lines.

The NLR summarizes the piece thusly: "The concept of alternative futures, banished from postmodernity’s eternal present, flourishes on the financial summits of the global economy. Robin Blackburn argues against a neo-Luddite dismissal of the new financial engineering techniques by the Left, while coolly assessing the economic and social costs of their current configurations."

Uh-huh. I almost said that.

The gist is, once you see everything - people, the environment, cultures - as commodities, it all makes perfect sense. Of course, money doesn't have a soul.

Therefore, this begins to appear to be a genius corporate philosophy:

In the years 2001–03 about three million jobs were lost in the United States. By the turn of the century Enron’s managers had become famous for a regime in which each employee knew that one tenth of the staff, those who failed to reach trading targets, would be sacked each year, no matter how good or bad the overall performance. Many of the most powerful corporations today do their best to avoid having a workforce; instead they out-source and sub-contract.

We've seen see how well that works.

Ultimately, the soveriegnty of financial institutions that make this entire "financialization" thing work, actually causes corporations and the system they have creates, self-destruct (see Enron, WorldCom, Delphi et al):

[F[inancial profits over the last decade have mainly taken the form of the cancellation of promises made to employees—exploitation over time—the erosion of small capital holdings by large and unscrupulous money managers and the swallowing of shoals of tiny fish by a shark-like financial services industry. Few of the gains from the reallocation of capital through superior risk assessment have been channelled to production. Financial profits have instead prompted a surge in upscale real-estate prices and the turnover of the luxury goods sector. The mass of employees and consumers have sunk deeper into debt. Yawning domestic inequalities have been compounded by escalating international imbalances, with an inflow of foreign capital covering a deficit on the us current account. With a sagging dollar, an oil price shock and rising interest rates, American households—the consumers of first and last resort—are likely to find the strain of carrying the world on their shoulders ever more difficult. Financialization promotes such a skewed distribution of income that it ends by undermining its own credit-driven momentum.

Took the words right out of my mouth.


Ports Deal is Not (Only) About Race; It's About Globalization

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on February 22nd, 2006

We were getting all ready to climb up on our soapbox to shout our revelation to the word: the scandal of the Dubai Ports deal is not the knee-jerk reaction that exposes a deep-seated anti-Arab xenophobia among average Americans and Congress alike. No, it's about the little-known fact that major operations of ports in America are sold off in the global marketplace. How would we feel if JFK International was run by a Venezuelan company? Or if our interstate railways were run by Pakistan, or China, or Canada for that matter? We assume too easily that certain basic infrastructure matters are of such national importance that we keep their care in American hands. That's our own naivete. In the global economy, everything's for sale.

Well, that's what we were going to say, but it turns out Joshua Holland over at AlterNet beat us to it:

This deal is about government procurement, one of the hottest controversies in the trade debate, but one of which the general public is largely unaware.

The U.S., E.U. and Japan -- the dominant service economies -- have been pushing hard to get a deal done on government procurement that would bring public purchasing of goods and services into the WTO framework. Their goal is to give foreign-based multinationals "national status," meaning that governments couldn't favor domestic firms over foreign firms for any reason (except for security issues, and this case wouldn't be likely to qualify as such).

Let's assume that this UAE port deal was the best one out there -- that they offered the lowest bid among highly-qualified firms. Under the framework that we've been pushing, it would be a sanction-able violation of WTO rules to discriminate against the company because it's based in the Middle East.

Tell it, Joshua.

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