CORRECTIV is working around the clock to provide accurate and relevant information about the impact of coronavirus. We want to understand where there are problems affecting your profession and what we can learn from them. So we’re asking for your input.
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CORRECTIV.Faktencheck has evaluated more than 1,800 reader submissions on possible disinformation about the coronavirus. The analysis shows that Whatsapp is the most common dissemination channel for questionable information – and Youtube is the place where it can be found. What are social media companies doing about it?
The stream of false and manipulative claims about Covid-19 hasn’t decreased for weeks. Various participants are spreading false information on platforms such as Youtube and Facebook. A data analysis conducted by CORRECTIV.Faktencheck shows that Youtube is the platform most frequently reported by users for spreading questionable information. Around 46 percent of the links sent to us requesting a fact check lead to the video platform.
At the same time, Whatsapp is the most important distribution channel: 34 percent of users declared that Whatsapp is where they had seen the potentially false information for the first time. You could say that Whatsapp is the motorway for fake news related to the coronavirus, with Youtube videos being the racing cars.
The result: the dissemination of false information can be huge within the shortest of timeframes. According to a recent survey conducted by Forsa and commissioned by the regional media office of North Rhine-Westphalia, 81 percent of people in Germany believe that they have already come across disinformation about the coronavirus on the internet.
The source of the evaluated data is CORRECTIV’s CrowdNewsroom, and they are not representative. Readers have been able to submit content that they consider to require a fact- check to the site that to require since mid-March. We have evaluated more than 1,800 reports over all. They are based on users’ subjective assessments which pieces of information could be false. Thus, not all of them are necessarily fake.
However, what the submissions clearly show is which posts about the coronavirus have made people uncertain or aroused their mistrust, and the way in which this information reaches them.
The platform: around 46 percent of the links lead to Youtube
Youtube’s particular importance becomes clear when you take a look at the platforms that appear most frequently in our data: An analysis of more than 1,400 links submitted to the CrowdNewsroom shows that 45.8 percent lead to videos on Youtube.
Second place goes to websites with 30.6 percent, followed by Facebook with 16.6 percent. As there is no way to create links to Whatsapp, the instant messenger cannot be included in this evaluation.
This means that by far the most frequent source of potentially false information reported to us by readers are Youtube videos.
The dissemination method: 34 percent state that they received the information via Whatsapp
When asked where they came across the information for the first time, 34 percent of users answered that it was Whatsapp. Facebook follows in second place with 28.8 percent. 14.2 percent of users indicated Youtube as their first contact, while 7.6 percent said it was websites.
Whatsapp is the way most people first come into contact with potentially false information – for example, because it was sent to them by family or friends.
Thus, Whatsapp is the most common dissemination channel for questionable information – and Youtube is the place where it can be found.
The result of our data analysis reflects the great importance of these two platforms on the German market. According to an ARD-ZDF online survey (2019), 40 percent of the population as a whole access Youtube at least once a week. The video platform is particularly popular with younger internet users: 82 percent of people aged 14 to 29 visit it at least once a week.
But Whatsapp is even more widespread in Germany: In 2019, 75 percent used the instant messenger at least once a week. In the case of people aged between 14 and 49, this figure even increases to more than 90 percent. Facebook is used by 31 percent of all people at least once a week.
False information on health subjects is dangerous
The fact that false information on health issues is being disseminated over social networks is not new – but the corona crisis has aggravated the problem.
False reports about Covid-19 spread internationally. For example, Whatsapp messages claiming that you should always take your shoes off at your front door because the coronavirus adheres to them, were sent in Germany, Ireland, and Croatia. And the false claim that drinking a sip of water every 15 minutes prevents infection, circulated on Whatsapp in Germany and Spain and on Facebook in Lithuania, Croatia, and the Philippines.
Numerous doctors, including virologist Christian Drosten, recently asked large technology companies in an open letter to act against the “infodemic”. The operators of the platforms should “take immediate systemic action to stem the flow of health misinformation, and the public health crisis it has triggered”. The doctors also refer to cheap propaganda targeting the vaccinations against measles as an example of this.
“Once a piece of fake news gets into someone’s mind, it is anchored there in a relatively stable manner”
Sabrina Heike Kessler, of the Department of Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich is a communication scientist specializing in science communication. She says: “The fact that people believe in fake news concerning health issues can also be explained by the human desire to be healthy, stay healthy, or to get well, and the fear of illness and death.” When it comes to health, human beings are evolutionarily designed to rely on the thinking, recommending, and actions of others.
This is partly the reason of why false information about Covid-19 is spreading so swiftly, Kessler explains to CORRECTIV. “If the information that you read about the coronavirus is also plausible and fits into your own world view, it is stored directly in your mind. Once a piece of fake news gets into someone’s mind, it is anchored there in a relatively stable manner and it is exceedingly difficult to remove.”
What are technology companies doing about this?
Youtube, Whatsapp, and Facebook don’t remain idle when faced with these issues. They are already taking measures to limit the spread of false reports.
Thus, Whatsapp has, since early April, restricted the forwarding of messages, which can now only be re-sent to a maximum of five chats. In addition, messages that have previously been forwarded five times can only be sent to one further chat. Upon request, Whatsapp informed us that this has reduced the amount of heavily forwarded messages by 70 percent.
Whatsapp also emphasizes that they support the work of fact checkers worldwide, as well as working with public authorities. In fact, users have recently been able to communicate with the WHO or the German Federal Ministry of Health on the subject of Covid-19 via a Whatsapp chatbot.
The Facebook company, which owns Whatsapp, has been cooperating with independent fact checkers like CORRECTIV for several years. As a result, people who have shared incorrect information on the social network are, also retrospectively, informed about this fact. In addition, Facebook states that posts about the coronavirus “that could pose an imminent threat to physical harm” are deleted on Facebook and Instagram.
Youtube: “We are working at full blast”
Youtube has no fact-checking program yet. The company removes videos with false medical information about Covid-19. Youtube spokesman Georg Nolte informed us by email that an example for this would be videos that claim that the coronavirus doesn’t exist. Or that recommend “medically unsubstantiated methods” to avoid infection and prevent people from getting treatment. He also states that videos “explicitly denying the effectiveness of the guidelines of the WHO or the respective health authority, which could lead to people violating these guidelines” are deleted.
“We are working at full blast to protect our users from misinformation and want to connect them to reliable and helpful messages,” says Nolte. In consultation with the German Federal Ministry of Health, info boxes were installed under the relevant videos, on the homepage, and in the search feature on Youtube. “We want to draw the attention of as many people as possible to the information panels of the Ministry and the related institutes. From a global perspective, we have already generated 14 billion impressions on the information pages of the various health organizations.”
In Germany, Youtube has, for some time now, actually displayed a link to the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA) in videos on Covid-19.
But is this enough? Some videos are not deleted because it isn’t evident that they meet the criteria mentioned. They usually have a lot of opinion content – and they are often misleading. An example of this is a 30-minute post by blogger Ken Jebsen, in which he makes several false claims and speculates that Bill Gates has taken control of healthcare in order to push through a forced administration of vaccines. Numerous readers have referred us to this KenFM Youtube video, with, by now, more than three million views.
A video interview with Stefan Homburg, in which he claims that the government’s lockdown was unnecessary and ineffective, is also still online, although in the introduction moderator Milena Preradovic urges all viewers to please adhere to regulations regarding the coronavirus. On the other hand, it is, for example, no longer possible to find a video that places the statements of an Italian doctor on the coronavirus into the wrong context.
Chain letters on Whatsapp or videos on Youtube often reach extremely wide coverage before the first fact checks or media reports on them are published. And Youtube’s reference to the Federal Centre for Health Education, which is also displayed below Ken Jebsen‘s video, can be misleading under certain circumstances. Users who don’t know the background might actually consider it an indication of the seriousness of the claims therein.
According to an assessment by communication scientist Kessler, Youtube tries to counter false reports and agitation, but: “Youtube will only be able to chase the fake news disseminators unless fundamentally new measures are taken.”
Another problem is that big companies release few data for scientific studies. “Both Youtube and Whatsapp are difficult to study for the field of social science research,” says Kessler. Nobody knows exactly what the extent of the false reports about the coronavirus look like on there.
In her view, companies need to do more. They should “invest more money, hire more people to track down fake news, cooperate more with independent fact checkers and work more with independent social science researchers to effectively and adequately combat the spread of fake news.”
Special Evaluation: Below we list the five Youtube channels that were most frequently reported to CORRECTIV
Schwindelambulanz Sinsheim / Dr. Bodo Schiffmann
Videos by Bodo Schiffmann, a doctor who operates a clinic for diseases like vertigo in Sinsheim, were submitted to us 131 times. He opposes the government’s coronavirus measures and recently even founded a party: „Widerstand2020” (“Resistance 2020”). As if by assembly line, Schiffmann has been producing videos on the coronavirus for weeks. His videos are full of speculation – something reflected by the frequency with which readers submitted them to the CrowdNewsroom.
Videos from the Youtube channel “eingeSCHENKt.tv” were reported 73 times. Journalist Thomas Schenk is behind this channel, with 85,000 subscribers, and posts that are more political than scientific in nature. Previous to the coronavirus crisis, videos with titles such as “CO2 und Klima(lüge)?” (“CO2 and climate [lie]?”) were published there, as well as interviews with Max Otte from the Values Union of the CDU, or the right-wing Youtuber Heiko Schrang. Currently, the channel frequently reports on the so-called hygiene demos.
Prof. Dr. med. Sucharit Bhakdi
Sucharit Bhakdi is Professor Emeritus of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene at the University of Mainz. Links to his videos were sent to us by users 43 times. His Youtube channel was created just a few weeks ago and has around 71,000 subscribers – but some of his videos record one to two million views.
“KenFM” is the Youtube channel of blogger Ken Jebsen and counts 466,000 subscribers. In his videos, he generally downplays the dangerousness of the coronavirus and expresses suspicion about a big conspiracy behind the pandemic, including, among others, Bill Gates as puppet master. KenFM’s posts were sent to the CrowdNewsroom 34 times.
Videos from “PUNKT.Preradovic”, the Youtube channel of the former RTL presenter Milena Preradovic, with 37,000 subscribers, were reported 33 times. Among others, she interviewed Sucharit Bhakdi, who claimed that vaccinations against the coronavirus are “senseless”; economist Stefan Homburg, who considered the lockdown as unnecessary and superfluous; and physician Wolfgang Wodarg, who questioned the dangerousness of the coronavirus.
Text: Alice Echtermann
Data Analysis: Michel Penke, Max Donheiser
Graphics: Benjamin Schubert
Cooperation with the CrowdNewsroom: Till Eckert, Bianca Hoffmann, Matthias Bau, Steffen Kutzner
The CumEx Files, an investigation led by CORRECTIV, revealed €55bn in international tax fraud. After publication, the EU Parliament demanded that the European Banking Authority investigate how the so-called dividend arbitrage trades had been possible and what supervisors and regulators had done to prevent them. Now the EBA has released its report and action plan.
It has taken the European Banking Authority (EBA) a year and a half to realise what CORRECTIV and its partners exposed through the CumEx Files investigation: There is no cooperation between national authorities in the EU, which gave criminals leeway to carry out illegal dividend arbitrage trades across the Union for decades.
The EBA published a report Tuesday in response to a request by the EU Parliament after the publication of the CumEx Files. Sven Giegold, financial and economic policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group, described the report as “embarrassing”. Giegold said that the banking supervisor “does not respond in the slightest to Parliament’s questions”. Shortly after the CumEx Files came to light in October 2018, the EU Parliament demanded a detailed investigation and a plan to prevent such schemes in the future.
Through the so called cum-ex trades, bankers, lawyers and traders executed dividend arbitrage deals in different tax jurisdictions with the aim of filing multiple tax claims of the same withholding tax. The business model was based on plundering the public treasury. According to CORRECTIV’s investigation, they could have robbed over €55bn since the beginning of the 2000s. The first trial has just finished in Bonn (Germany), where two traders have been granted suspended sentences.
Since May 2019, the EBA has carried out two surveys among the national banking supervisors on the risk the cum-ex trades could pose in terms of money laundering and financing of terrorism, and in connection with the governance of financial institutions.
The findings are devastating: each country has a different understanding of which activities are considered tax crime, which means not every country considers cum-ex trades as a criminal activity, and even in those member states where some kind of criminal investigation was going on, the supervisors did not take action because “they were waiting for the outcome of criminal investigations before considering the impact on their sector”, according to the report. What is more, most of the surveyed supervising bodies did not cooperate with other public authorities in their jurisdiction (such as tax authorities) or in other member states because they thought their country had not been a target of these schemes.
CORRECTIV’s investigation exposed the key role that financial institutions played in facilitating the cum-ex trades. However, according to the EBA’s surveys, most national supervising authorities (namely, each country’s central bank) did not take any action against the banks involved in the dividend arbitrage schemes.
As a result of its analysis, the EBA admits that cooperation and information exchange between public authorities “appear to have been attempted in a minority of cases and only where risks had crystallised”. The institution also recognises that the complexity of EU laws is another hurdle for cooperation: “This may make the exchange of information between competent authorities and tax authorities difficult”, writes the EBA.
After gathering the responses to its survey among national supervisors, the EBA laid out a 10 point action plan to boost the “future” regulation applicable to such schemes, which consists on amending a series of guidelines on the internal governance of banks, the suitability of their managers and anti money laundering supervision. Most of these updates will not be published until the first half of 2021. The EBA also plans a further inquiry “into the actions taken by financial institutions and national authorities within their competencies to supervise compliance with requirements applicable to” cum-ex trades. They have not yet set a date.
In Giegold’s opinion, “the patchwork of national supervisors together with a weak European Banking Authority is dysfunctional”, and called for a complete overhaul of EBA’s decision-making structures.
In response to CORRECTIV’s questions, the EBA wrote that its report “identified a number of issues with regard to the role of national authorities in fighting dividend arbitrage trading schemes”. However, it also admits that “some of these issues are beyond the remit and powers of national supervisory authorities or the EBA”.
The New Right is putting a lot of effort into building up a network of media outlets and influencers, very often used to spread disinformation. Young YouTubers like Niklas Lotz, with his channel “Neverforgetniki”, or Naomi Seibt benefit from this. We reveal who lent a hand in their ascent.
A slightly faded poster with a map of the world on a white wall, a silver desk lamp in the background – this is the setting seen in the videos of the YouTube channel “Neverforgetniki”. Its owner is Niklas Lotz, age 20, and he has 133,000 subscribers.
He likes to describe himself as conservative or bourgeois and vehemently resists the accusation of being “right-wing” or even a member of the “extreme right”. In his videos, in which he looks fixedly at the camera while speaking, Lotz rants against “mass migration” and the media, against the Greens, the SPD (the Social Democratic Party of Germany), the climate movement or sea rescues. From time to time, the CDU (the Christian Democratic Union, the conservative party of Chancellor Angela Merkel) also gets a dose of his attention.
However, you won’t find any criticism of the AfD (the Alternative for Germany, a right-wing to far-right party). On his official Instagram channel, Lotz follows the AfD, the FPÖ (the Freedom Party of Austria, a right-wing populist party) and right-wing YouTubers like Timm Kellner and Lisa Licentia.
Our investigations show that Niklas Lotz is supported by a network of bloggers, YouTubers and authors. They have given him a platform – and not just him. Nineteen-year-old YouTuber Naomi Seibt has also benefited. The supporters of the young influencers have a lot in common: they are part of the sphere of the New Right, which is building up its own public media and is raising its own offspring in order to reach a young audience. They spread disinformation. And they know each other.
Niklas Lotz and Naomi Seibt did not respond to our questions and requests for comments.
Scroll down to see the highlights in the careers of Niklas Lotz (blue) and Naomi Seibt (red).
One man helped both Naomi Seibt and Niklas Lotz to take their first step into the public sphere: David Berger, who runs the right-wing blog Philosophia Perennis. After “Neverforgetniki” published a few videos with Lotz’ own poems in 2016, there was a gap on his channel until early 2019. Then, a guest contribution of his appeared on Philosophia Perennis, and a short time later he published his first political video.
Thus, the path followed by Lotz was essentially already outlined beforehand. David Berger is one of the New Right publicists who joined together in the “Vereinigung der Freien Medien“ (Association of the Free Media). In May 2019, the AfD invited them to a conference at the Bundestag. CORRECTIV has already exposed some of the posts on Philosophia Perennis as false reports. For example, a video allegedly showing that footage of drowning migrants was faked. Berger, too, did not respond to our questions sent to him by email.
When PP introduced the young author Naomi Seibt with a guest contribution some time ago, it caused a sensation and was the beginning of a great career – and not only within the scope of the free media. With this contribution, we are establishing the tradition of introducing young authors who are still unknown in the free media. The young man who writes under the pseudonym Neverforgetniki is already known to a larger public through his comments on Facebook and some YouTube videos (see at the bottom). We are posting a guest contribution written by him for the first time (David Berger).
(Translation of the foreword by David Berger to the article by Niklas Lotz.)
Naomi Seibt was even younger than Niklas Lotz when she made her debut on Philosophia Perennis – she was just 16 years old. In 2017 Berger published an essay on nationalism written by her. The young woman has her own YouTube channel since May 2019. Her first video: a poem with which she took part in a competition organized by the AfD. Today, she has more than 46,000 subscribers and the number is likely to grow as international climate change deniers attempt to establish her as the “anti-Greta”.
If Seibt is supposed to be an “anti-Greta”, blaring “how dare you” at the media, then maybe Niklas Lotz wants to be the “anti-Rezo”. After all, based on Rezo’s viral video about “Die Zerstörung der CDU“ (“The Destruction of the CDU”), Lotz produced items with similar titles for a period of time. His channel has displayed pieces such as “Die Zerstörung von ARD und ZDF“ (“The Destruction of the ARD and the ZDF”, Germany’s public broadcasting institutions), “Die Zerstörung von Fridays for Future“ (“The Destruction of Fridays for Future”) or “Die Zerstörung von #wirsindmehr“ (“The Destruction of #wearemore”).
The most common topic in his videos is the alleged restricted freedom of expression in Germany. In contrast, the videos in which he voices his own opinion are quite successful: they reach several hundred thousand clicks. By advertising on YouTube, “Neverforgetniki” makes money – and he recently published a book. However, he is not exactly scrupulous about providing evidence for his theses. In August 2019, he hinted that a CO2 tax was actually nothing more than a “refugee tax in disguise”. And there was absolutely no evidence of this, as our fact check proved.
The strategy of building up new talent like Lotz or Naomi Seibt reveals a pattern: they are interviewed and made to benefit from their own reach. This automatically integrates them into a network that has already taken a certain direction.
For example, Lotz receives support from former N-TV presenter Michael Mross,. He runs the news portal MMNews, which, for instance, reported falsely in 2015 that the EU intended to abolish hard cash as of 2018.
Niklas Lotz’s biggest supporter is currently Heiko Schrang. His book was published at the end of 2019 by Schrang’s publishing house “Macht steuert Wissen” (“Power Drives Knowledge”). Schrang promoted “Neverforgetniki” on his own YouTube channel as early as April 2019 (“Remember this name!”). He interviews well-known figures with great familiarity: Michael Mross, David Berger and Martin Sellner from the Identitarian Movement. He speaks of the “vaccine lie” or “5G zombies” – also popular topics of disinformation – or a “GEZ mafia”.
The rejection of public-service broadcasters is a common link shared by Niklas Lotz and his environment. He is part of “Hallo Meinung” (“Hello Opinion”), the still young initiative set up by the Bavarian entrepreneur Peter Weber, which calls for a boycott of public-service radio broadcasters. “We’re pooling our strengths at last,” said Lotz in a greeting video in October. “We’ll take action against the left-wing dictation of opinion in Germany; we’ll fight for change, democratically and under the rule of law, and we’ll strive to make Germany a beautiful and livable country again.”
Amateur videos shot by citizens – including several by a woman named Brigitta Gerecke – are published on the YouTube channel “Hallo Meinung”. She had already appeared at a neo-Nazi parade of “Patrioten Niedersachsen“ (“Patriots of Lower Saxony”) in Peine in 2018, as documented by photos in media reports (here and here).
It is possible that Niklas Lotz and the Bürgerforum (Citizens’ Forum) don’t know anything about the background of the people expressing their opinions in “Hallo Meinung”. We didn’t get a reply on contacting Lotz and Peter Weber. But the network of the young YouTuber, who calls himself bourgeois and conservative, is clearly right-wing. Neither he nor Naomi Seibt differentiate themselves from the so-called Identitarian Movement, which in Germany is considered a “case of suspected right-wing extremism” by theBundesamt für Verfassungsschutz(Federal Agency for Constitutional Protection).
Shortly after her contribution to Philosophia Perennis in 2017, the Identitarian Movement placed a link to an interview with Naomi Seibt on their blog. And in July 2019, Seibt was interviewed by Sellner’s wife, Brittany Sellner (whose surname at that time was still Pettibone).
No direct contact between Niklas Lotz and the Identitarian Movement is known. But references are made to him within the environment of the movement. His videos are also advertised by Journalistenwatch (Journalist’s Watch); the right-wing blog regularly includes links to his posts.
When the channel “Neverforgetniki” was blocked by YouTube in August 2019, Martin Sellner, the head of the Identitarian Movement in Austria, showed solidarity with “Niki” on his own website. He placed himself on the same level with him because his own channel had also been blocked: “From James Allsup [a right-wing extremist in the US] to Neverforgetniki to my own channel, those who are inconvenient because they do not fit the picture are silenced,” wrote Sellner. Just as a reminder: Martin Sellner is the person to whom the right-wing extremist killer from Christchurch transferred money in January 2018, according to the German Federal Criminal Office.
It is this network of relationships that has helped YouTubers like Naomi Seibt and Niklas Lotz in their ascent. The young woman who recently made the following claim about her commitment to climate issues: “We have no agenda, there is no ideology behind us.” And the young man who said in one of his most recent videos: “… that allegedly I am having exchanges with the New Right in Germany. I actually don’t even know what form the New Right takes in Germany. Who am I talking to on a regular basis? I really don’t know what they mean by that.”
Welcome to our Grand Theft Europe newsgame! Every year criminals steal 50 billion euro from European taxpayers with the so-called VAT carousel fraud. The scam is still going on today. Slip into the role of notorious VAT fraudsters with the online game we developed together with the interactive storytelling-platform NewsGamer. Do you have what it takes to build a VAT carousel? Do you know how to get rich with VAT fraud? Will you be busted by the tax man or eliminated by your competitors? Test the newsgame and learn the tricks of the trade!
Rod Stone is one of the leading experts on VAT carousel fraud worldwide. For 40 years, he battled fraud at the HMRC, the UK’s tax administration, and developed a comprehensive counter strategy. In 2015, he formed his own crime advisory company.
CORRECTIV: The UK managed to reduce the annual loss to the treasury through VAT carousels from £3 billion (€3.4 billion) to roughly £500 million. How was that possible?
Stone: In 2005, a number of VAT fraud prosecutions by the tax authorities failed. As a result, I developed something called the ‘abusive right’ principle, which allowed the customs service to disallow import tax claims with respect to people involved in carousel fraud. I was given about three months to see if I could come up with a civil law remedy. We first started using it in January 2006, and by June we had disallowed £3.2 billion worth of import tax claims associated with carousel fraud.
CORRECTIV: So that was it – stop the tax claims, and the fraud just stops?
Stone: Not quite. In the UK, we used a holistic strategy to combat the fraud. We had a tool box. We looked at all the ways of freezing money, because that also made the environment hostile for them. We would look at insolvency. With insolvency you would identify the missing trader, that’s the importer, and raise a debt against him with the amount of tax that was due. The insolvency practitioner would then take over the running of the missing trader and seek to recover the missing money from everyone else in the ‘supply chain’. The supply chain, of course, was totally contrived and the only person who had any money was the person at the top, the exporter. So most of the insolvency practitioner’s investigations would end up at that point and they would then seek to recover the money. They could also recover the money from the directors personally and they could use worldwide freezing orders to target bank accounts abroad, and that was quite a successful approach. We could obviously also use criminal investigations and prosecutions.
CORRECTIV: How were they different in the UK?
Stone: The attraction of carousel fraud in most countries is that it doesn’t carry the same penalties as drug trafficking or bank robbery. Criminals are looking at no more than five years in prison, and by half of that they’ll be out. In the UK, we charge people or indict them with cheating the public revenue, and that carries a life prison sentence. In fact, the longest prison sentence that has been handed out has been 17 years, but it has been quite common for people to be sentenced to between 12 and 14 years for carousel fraud. And if they don’t pay back the stolen money, they’re brought back before the court, and their sentence is increased.
CORRECTIV: How would you and your colleagues chase the fraudsters?
Stone: If I suspected that a company was involved in carousel fraud I could send in an officer the same day. That’s part of our UK legislation and doesn’t exist in many EU states. We would get all the sales and purchase records, and from those records we could see who they’ve been buying from. If it’s the first intermediary company above the missing trader, by going to that trader we will identify the missing trader. And at that point, we can go and visit the missing trader. Of course, there won’t be anyone there. It’s just a brass plate on an office block. But by establishing that it’s not a legitimate trading company, we would cancel the VAT registration. We had officers out visiting traders on a daily basis.
But you knew that as soon as you took out one company and cancelled the VAT registration, within three or four days another company would be registered in its place and ready to go. So you had to continually monitor new company registrations, and who was behind them. We set up a system where every company we suspected of being involved in VAT carousel fraud was asked to clear the details of their suppliers and customers with a special unit in the tax administration. I would come to your office and say, ”I’m instructing you to phone up this office, and tell them every time you’re going to buy from someone new or sell to someone new.” In that way, the tax administration built up a profile of all the companies that were involved — or probably involved — in carousel fraud.
In addition, if a VAT refund claim was submitted,it was submitted on a monthly basis, and those refund claims would be selected for verification. A verification meant that every transaction on which VAT was being claimed would be tracked down to the missing trader, and nobody got any money until we were satisfied that it wasn’t part of a missing trader scheme.
I have to say there were a lot of legal challenges and we had to go to court frequently to hold our ground, and the courts again were very supportive, because they were aware of the problem, they were aware of the complexities of the fraud and that the tax administration was putting a lot of resources into stopping illegal or illegitimate business without impacting on honest traders.
CORRECTIV: Why don’t other EU member states act the same way?
Stone: The problem is that some of the legislation that countries are using is antiquated. It’s designed to deal with tax evaders, perhaps a man on the street corner who evades a small amount of tax, and the law has never been updated to deal with organized crime. Most of Europe hasn’t kept up with the times. You have to put it through parliament, you have to get people to agree, and many European countries seem to have great difficulty in getting this process through.
Likewise, the courts have to understand what they’re dealing with. In our early prosecutions and our early civil cases, a lot of the judges had difficulty in understanding the issue. We actually had to devise a strategy for delivering the trial to the court case so that everybody understood how the fraud worked. We tried to simplify it. There were large tax companies that were trying to sell VAT carousel fraud as a tax avoidance scheme. Which of course it wasn’t. The tax authorities contacted all the large accountancy firms and re-educated them into what they were dealing with.
CORRECTIV: How can we imagine the prosecution process?
Stone: From the time you first become suspicious of the fraud to the date of conviction, you’re looking at between three and five years. In the UK, we have an exemplary prosecution process or strategy. We would only prosecute the cases that had the biggest impact. Some of the major fraud chains were never prosecuted. But they lost their money because we used civil law strategies. There’s only a limited number of investigators. When you conduct a raid and arrest everybody, you need 250 or 500 officers. So there is a big resource implication.
The prosecution – criminal law — strategy meant that the tax administration had a say in which ones it wanted to prosecute. Some EU member states insist that every identified case of carousel fraud is forwarded to the prosecutor. For that reason, the cases that have been investigated and prosecuted in some EU member countries are more than 10 years old before they come to the court. In the UK we didn’t want stale cases. You probably won’t get much money out of it and it doesn’t send a message to the people currently involved in the fraud. You want to try and do it in real time. As much in real time as you can.
After the UK introduced its strategy, the fraudsters looked at other countries in the EU. The VAT carousel fraud became so minimal in comparison with what it had been that we were able to move on to other things. That was until 2009, when the fraudsters moved into the carbon credit market.
CORRECTIV: What happened?
Stone: The fraudsters started forming companies in France, and in the last quarter of 2007 they started trading large amounts of carbon credits through the BlueNext exchange in Paris. In January 2009, we became aware of a particular company in the UK selling tens of millions of euros of carbon credits to companies in France. We notified our French colleagues of the trader in France who received the carbon credits. We know from the audit that was carried out by the French audit office that the information wasn’t acted on. In fact, I don’t think the French visited the missing trader for about 5 months. This was largely because French legislation didn’t allow the tax administration to make a visit to a trader until after that trader’s tax return is due. It allowed the fraud to grow and continue in France.
Once we became aware of the carbon credit fraud in France, it was only a matter of time before it moved to the UK. These things are like the sea. They go across Europe in waves. So we were ready for when the fraud moved. On the day after the French introduced a measure that stopped the carousel, our officers went out and visited something like 30 or 40 traders and cancelled their VAT registration. That doesn’t mean we stopped it. The UK lost about £250 million between May and July 2009, but I suspect we recovered at least half of that through insolvency law and tax law.
CORRECTIV: From the UK, the carbon credit fraud then moved on to Germany where it was only stopped in July 2010. Was the German government not aware of the problem?
Stone: In 2009, every EU member state knew about the carbon fraud, certainly by July 2009. There were discussions on it in the Eurofisc and the Europol networks, and there were bilateral exchanges of information. It then became the responsibility of individual member states to take steps to stop it in their country.
CORRECTIV: Why do some member states have so much more difficulty in combatting the fraud than others?
Stone: I worked with tax administration throughout Europe, and everybody at the workface was determined to stop the fraud. But they were hampered by the processes and the legislation. Most of it seemed to be antiquated and disjointed, quite frankly. They were unable to act in real time, they lacked the resources in terms of the number of staff with the skills, and it appeared that most EU member states had great difficulty in introducing new legislation.
Take for example the ‘abuse of rights’ principle. It requires the tax administration to demonstrate that the businesses knew or should have known about the fraudulent schemes they were involved in. In the UK, this is an accepted principle. You argue that there is an abuse of the VAT system, and that’s not what the system’s set up for. The UK civil courts do not require that to be written into legislation. In France, there was a requirement for that same argument to be written into the tax code, and that takes time. [In in the UK] I didn’t have to wait for it to go through parliament. As soon as I thought of that as a method of stopping the fraud, we could implement it the next day.
CORRECTIV: Is there a way to stop this kind of fraud entirely?
Stone: The only thing that would probably stop it would be to have the same rate of tax throughout Europe on the same commodities. And that wouldn’t be accepted nationally by each individual member state. I suppose that if you end up with a federal Europe, where Brussels has the central European bank and then decides what money is going to be divided up to each individual country and organizes all the collection of the taxes, that would work. But many countries don’t want to be part of a federal Europe.
CORRECTIV: The EU Commission has proposed a new VAT tax scheme, the so-called definitive VAT system. Under the new rules, commodities traded between member states would be taxed in the country where they were sold, and the tax administrations would transfer the taxes between each other. Would that at least reduce the fraud?
Stone: Not really. Again, you go back to different tax rates on different goods [as the basis of] carousel fraud. I also know that it doesn’t stop at cross-border trade in the EU. Let’s assume the UK leaves the EU and we become a third country. We, and other countries within the EU, have suddenly introduced postponed accounting on imports from third countries. So what that basically means is that VAT is not collected at the border, it’s going to be deferred. That means that missing trader fraud can start up with countries outside the European Union. So you will get the fraud still operating, potentially, from EU member states to the UK, back into the EU member states. In an effort to ease the burden on business, they’ve actually created other opportunities for carousel fraud.
CORRECTIV: You are saying that the door for fraud will always remain open?
Stone: Yes. All you can do is deter people from becoming involved. If people are going to be locked up for 15, 16 years and lose all their revenue, they soon stop doing it. So, to my mind, strengthening the ability to collect the money at the earliest opportunity, taking away the assets that the fraudsters have purchased with the money they’ve stolen, and sending them to prison for a very long time, are the only deterrents that exists at the moment.
CORRECTIV: So every member state should create this hostile environment?
Stone: There is a responsibility on the European tax directorate to encourage member states to do so and change their legislation. But you’re coming up against cultural barriers. Countries will say, ”But we’ve done it this way for the last hundred years. This is the way our taxpayers expect it to be.” You have to re-educate the taxpayers and say ”the legislation that’s been introduced isn’t targeted at you, the taxpayer, it’s targeted at organized crime”. So, again, it’s all about re-education. You have to re-educate your taxpayers, so that they understand why things are changing, you have to re-educate the judiciary, you need politicians that will change the legislation.
One of the things the UK did was try to be more proactive to people who don’t put in their tax returns or their VAT returns. We’re now moving to making tax digital in the UK. People will have to start to use the tax digital. That in turn might highlight missing traders more quickly. But you only need to be a missing trader for a day to make £10 million.
In 2000, Hutu leaders who had fled Rwanda to eastern Congo after the 1994 genocide created a new militia: the Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation (FDLR). Their ultimate goal: to return to Rwanda. In 2009, under increased military pressure from Rwandan and Congolese troops, FDLR committed a number of massacres in remote villages in eastern Congo.
On paper, the FDLR claimed to be a full-blown state structure complete with its own political branch. In reality, it was little more than a rag-tag militia deep in the remote borderlands of Eastern Congo. With one exception: the FDLR had a political leadership, boasting a president and a vice-president.
But these two officials were living far away: in the safety and comfort of southern Germany. From here, they spread the group’s propaganda, and helped military commanders on the ground, for example by buying credit for their satellite phones, including at the time of the massacres.
In 2014, a Stuttgart court sentenced FDLR president Ignace Murwanashyaka to 13 years in prison on charges of being a member of a foreign terror organization and abetting war crimes. In December 2018, the highest court in Germany overturned the verdict and returned it to the Stuttgart court.
In a project funded by the Open Society Foundations, CORRECTIV has turned this story connecting Africa and Europe, Congo and Germany into a graphic novel. The English version is now available for free download.
One of CORRECTIV’s key ideas is to support and strengthen journalism by finding new ways of story-telling, thereby attracting new audiences. Besides graphic novels, CORRECTIV has turned its investigations into theatre performances.
CORRECTIV sometimes adds the journalist conducting an investigation to the list of characters of the story to allow greater insight into how journalists work.
In ‘Made in Germany – A Massacre in Congo’, the illustrator Gregory Dabilougou takes the reader on a journey from his home in Burkina Faso and later his travels through Germany where he follows in the footsteps of Ignace Murwanashyaka who originally came to Germany in the 1980s. The narrative of the graphic novel is divided into three layers: Greg’s research in Germany, the life of Ignace Murwanashyaka and the history of the FDLR leading up to the 2009 massacres.
The graphic novel also sheds light on the legacy of Germany’s colonial past in today’s violent conflicts in Africa. A public debate about Germany’s colonial history has only recently begun.
Funded by the Open Society Foundations, CORRECTIV has awarded two fellowships, one to an illustrator from sub-Saharan Africa and the other to an artist from the Arab world. Greg, who is based in Burkina Faso’s capital, won one of the fellowships and teamed up with CORRECTIV journalist Frederik Richter. The graphic novel on the Arab world is in production.
Please find your free PDF download of ‘Made in Germany – A Massacre in Congo’ here.
The Story: A group of bankers and lawyers have robbed Europe’s taxpayers of €55 billion. The #CumExFiles is a joint investigation by 19 European media from twelve countries, coordinated by the German non-profit newsroom CORRECTIV.
Two reporters pose as billionaires looking for investment opportunities and thereby prove: Europe’s largest tax scam goes on. This is how they prepared for the undercover meeting with an investment banker, brought together journalists from twelve European countries and made an insider talk on camera. Plus: Deep insights into the workings of the cum ex machinery and other perspectives on the cum-ex-complex.
Eine Gruppe von Superreichen hat mindestens 55 Milliarden Euro aus europäischen Steuerkassen entwendet. Die #CumEXFiles sind eine gemeinsame Recherche 19 europäischer Medien aus zwölf Ländern, koordiniert…
Western Africa is an important hub for cocaine shipments from Latin America to Europe. The Ivory Coast could be a new knot in the smuggling network of the Italian ‘ndrangheta. The country is home to a mafia boss’ daughter who took refuge in the country after a doomed love affair forced her to leave Italy. But once you’re family, you’re never out of the reach of the ‘ndrangheta, as this investigation shows.
On a typical day in early October 2015, more than 27.000 containers would move through the port of Antwerp, Belgium. The second largest entry point for goods shipped to Europe, the port is full of giant cranes. They make 40 moves an hour, constantly picking up containers, one indistinguishable from the other,. In the highly automated port, only a fraction of containers are inspected by customs or police. That’s why on a day in October 2015, a special load passed through unnoticed.
Later that month in Siderno, a small coastal city deep in southern Italy, a man would walk across a field in the hills above the town pushing a wheelbarrow filled with broken bricks. The man would make his way towards a small warehouse used to store old tires at the other end of the field, before placing a white plastic bag inside the warehouse. A little later he would hand the bag over to the driver of a jeep, who would depart to town. Unbeknownst to them, police were watching the hand-over. Officers would stop the jeep not long after the transaction, search it and find a white brick: about one kilo of pure cocaine.
Thanks to this bust, the police would later piece together the route these drugs took to reach Calabria, the home to the powerful ‘ndrangheta mafia group. The brick was part of a larger batch, likely tens of kilos of pure cocaine from Latin America that entered Europe in a container passing through Antwerp a few weeks before the seizure, arriving from the Western African port of Abidjan.
Cocaine trafficking is the primary source of the power of the ‘ndrangheta. The group is at home in the Southern Italian region of Calabria while other mafia groups, such as the Camorra, operate from the area around Naples and the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.
The ‘ndrangheta is estimated to control 40 percent of global cocaine shipments and is the main importer of cocaine into Europe. The group launders its proceeds, which are estimated by some to be more than 25 billion euros per year, through companies it owns in construction, tourism and trading. They are thought to use Germany and Switzerland in particular, two countries in which anti-money laundering and anti-mafia laws are lax.
So many ‘ndrangheta members come from the Calabrian city Siderno that an important subgroup of the ‘ndrangheta has been named after the town: the Siderno group of crime. The rugged town is richer than Beverly Hills thanks to the narco-dollars. Some of the richest men of Italy meet here in a laundry shop or in the garage of a wretched building, their decisions moving global cocaine prices and, impacting cocaine growers as far away as Latin America.
The Siderno syndicate has a global reach and consists of four major families: the Commisso, the Aquino-Coluccio, the Crupi and the Figliomeni. Which of these families is up and coming, and which sees its fortune decline depends heavily on how many of its members are in jail. Often, the women of the families have to keep the criminal family business going while their men are jailed.
Juliana and her „Romeo“
Women born to ‘ndrangheta families have few rights and are subjected to the decision-making of the paternal rulers. Marriages are directed by dynastic rules and a woman who wants to chose her love will either have to escape or raise a scandal.
It’s precisely a scandal within the most powerful crime group of the world that Juliana (name changed) caused in 2009. An attractive woman in her mid 30s, Juliana studied at university in Milano and is fluent in English and French.
She’s also the daughter of a former top official in the government of Siderno and from one of the most powerful ‘ndrangheta families of the city. In 2009, she fell in love with, from a ‘ndrangheta point of view, the wrong man: a relative of the boss of the Siderno syndicate who goes by the alias U’Mastru (the master). U’Mastru was furious and blamed Juliana’s father for not exercising control over his daughter to stop the relationship.
Juliana’s love affair would end far less tragically than Shakespeare’s star-crossed Romeo and Juliette. But still, investigators believe the affair and its subsequent end seriously burdened the relationships between the families. But in the end, their common business interests trumped emotions.
A coincidence also helped defuse the tensions. In December of 2010, Antimafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri ordered the arrest of Juliana’s father over corruption and mafia membership charges. According to Gratteri, police arrested him just as he was attempting to escape to Australia, where Juliana was living at the time. Juliana briefly returned to Italy, but only to pack her bags and make a final move out of the country. In April 2011, Juliana moved to Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, where she she is still living today. A court in Italy sentenced her father to 12 years in prison, though the verdict is still not final.
The syndicate in West Africa
On February 12, 2014, having landed in Abidjan just three days earlier, Claudio Spataro called one of his associates in Italy.
“How is the girl? Is she taking your around?“ his contact asks him according to transcripts of police wiretaps seen by CORRECTIV: „Yes, yes. She is working hard“, Spataro answers, seemingly glad he has help in a foreign country he struggles to navigate on his own. „If it wasn’t for her, we would be ruined. Here, I don’t understand the language. I know nothing.“
Prosecutors allege that Spataro, in his mid-50s, was a lieutenant to U Mastro in Siderno, in charge of the logistics of smuggling cocaine through Europe and the subsequent distribution to buyers in Siderno. Investigators also believe that U Mastru sent Spataro on trips abroad to strike drug deals and set up smuggling logistics. His cover in Siderno was a gas station that he owned and a business that traded old tires. It was Spataro who had stored the kilo of cocaine at the end of a field near Siderno that had come via container from Abidjan, passing through Antwerp. The girl helping him around Abidjan was Juliana.
She might have liked it or loathed it, but her family had requested her help and it appears she was unable to divorce herself from the family business. She wasn’t the only one. Court records show Spataro used her brother’s phone number to register his plane ticket, court records show.
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During the past decade, West Africa has become an important logistics hub for the Italian ‘ndrangheta as shipments from South America arriving directly at European ports raise more suspicion than those arriving from Western African ports. In addition, there are few custom controls in the region and bribery is common.
A devastating effect
The presence of the Italian mafia has had a devastating effect on the region. It has increased the level of drug use in countries that previously had no market for cocaine. It also undermines the rule of law in countries where corrupt payments offered by the mafia by far exceed the salaries of state officials. In some cases, organized crime teams up with local guerrillas who then use the proceeds to fund their wars.
Guinea-Bissau and Ghana were the first countries to be identified as major cocaine hubs in the region. The Italian mafia is also thought to have a presence in Senegal as well as a stake in the Moroccan hashish trade. Now, cocaine smuggling through the Ivory Coast seems set to grow.
On the phone from Abidjan, Spataro explained to his associate at home that Juliana took three days off work to help him. The conversation continues with what investigators believe is a cryptical description of setting up a smuggling operation, including a reference to finding out the cost for a container. Spataro discussed trading old tires, but investigators believe it is a code for cocaine smuggling. The members of ‘ndrangheta know their phones are likely tapped by Italian police.
“The wiretaps seem to show Spataro was in Ivory Coast to organise drug trafficking“, it says in police records that are part of a police investigation into the Commisso clan of the Siderno syndicate. The records show that another phone call, this time between Spataro and Juliana, also is of interest to investigators. Once back in Italy, Spataro spoke to Juliana at length about the installment of a mysterious sand cleaning machine, seemingly unrelated to the tire business.
A mysterious Dutch man
When contacted for an interview, Juliana initially said she was „honoured“ and wished „to contribute to the fight against the ‘ndrangheta in her home country“, but then stopped replying. She did not respond to a list of questions submitted before publication of this article.
Spataro was arrested last year, charged with storing and selling cocaine in Siderno for U’Mastru. A lawyer for Spataro did not respond to a request for comment.
“Listening to them for over two years, we confirmed how U’Mastru was the leader of an extremely powerful drug ring based in the Locride“, remembers prosecutor Antonio De Bernardo, referring to a sub-region of Calabria. „He is a sort of feudal lord through whose hands the entire illicit traffic had to pass, including of course the drugs.“
Italian police believe Claudio Spataro was tasked by U’Mastru to set up a successful smuggling route connecting Abidjan to Siderno on behalf of the Commisso clan. The port of Antwerp and the surrounding Flanders region was a key hub in-between. Court records show the Siderno syndicate had helpers in the region who are still at large today. A close associate of U’Mastro often received phone calls from another associate whose last known residence is the Flanders city of As. The two would discuss different import-export businesses which are thought to be a cover up for drug trafficking. In one of the latest wiretapped conversations, his associate talks about a mysterious Dutch man who is „a big fish“, having a company that can be used „as a bridge“ for a „standard item“ that weighs „250 units“.
The news of that unidentified Dutch man on the wiretap is rather revealing. It demonstrates the number of helpers associated with the ‘ndrangheta extends far beyond West Africa. It underscores the power and vast network of individuals like Juliana who, under the control of the ‘ndrangheta, allow the criminal organization to move drugs worldwide.
This publication is a cooperation with the Italian journalist centre IRPI and the Occrp network. It has been funded by the Flanders Connecting Continents Grant.
Palavas-les-Flots is a popular seaside resort in southern France, one of several built in the 1960s as part of a government programme to develop tourism along the western Mediterranean seaboard. But the town, like others in the region, now faces disaster from the slow but sure rising sea levels and the coastal erosion exacerbated by mass tourism.
On a roundabout on the avenue lining the Mediterranean seafront at Palavas-les-Flots, a seaside holiday resort close to the town of Montpellier in southern France, a notice board sets out the local municipality’s rules for „better living together“.
These include the wearing of „correct“ clothing in town, and notably shoes, the exhortation to not ride mopeds or motorbikes on the pavement, and to not indulge in loud behaviour – because „noise is a form of pollution and aggression“. But it makes no recommendation that holidaymakers leave their cars behind in favour of walking or using public transport, nor does it urge property developers to stop building on the remaining plots of land between the apartment buildings standing just a few metres from the seafront.
This major resort of the Languedoc region lies on a narrow sandy strip of land about 30 kilometres long that stands as a barrier between small lagoons to the north and the open Mediterranean Sea on its south side. Once a small fishing port, the permanent population of just more than 6,000 is bloated by tens of thousands of tourists during the summer months, largely accommodated in sprawling modern apartment buildings that overlook the beaches and a marina with more than 1,000 berths.
Nowhere along the avenue Saint-Maurice, which is one of the principal residential arteries of Palavas-les-Flots, is there any attempt to draw public attention to coastal erosion, nor to the issue of climate change. But already, in 1982, during an exceptional storm, the sea swept inland for a distance of about 50 metres from the beach. Now, finding passers-by to talk about the threat of flooding appeared to be a vain hope. It might be off-season, but the only pedestrian to be met along the avenue, alive with vehicles and motorbikes, was a Yorkshire Terrier, scurrying along with its head bowed.
But out on the jetty was a woman who said she remembered that last winter the seawater reached the roundabout on the main avenue. She pointed at the low walls made of wood that surround the entrances to the houses along the sandy seafront, still showing the stains of water.
In 2012, the French public agency for the management of surface and sub-surface resources and risks, the BRGM (or „French geological survey“, in English), carried out a study of the vulnerability to sea flooding of the coastline around Palavas-les-Flots. In their modelling projection of the effects on the town of rising sea levels, they notably took into account the events of 1982. They found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate and, as a result, that global warming increases above a further 2°Celsius, the consequences for Palavas-les-Flots by 2100 will be considerable. These include saltwater pollution of coastal aquifers, land loss, the disappearance of the beaches (and the entire commercial activity dependent upon them), and a modification of the lagoons that lie behind the town.
“Palavas-les-Flots lies on a low-lying sandy base which has already encountered problems from coastal erosion, like a large part of the Languedoc region’s coast“, said Gonéri Le Cozannet, a BRGM engineer specialised in coastal erosion risks. „The vulnerability of these beaches to marine submersion is already high during storm conditions. Climate change will aggravate this.“
The rise in the sea level at Palavas-les-Flots currently averages three millimetres per year, a rate that is impossible to recognise with the naked eye. But it compares with an estimated average annual rise over the previous 6,000 years of one millimetre per year. This relative surge in sea levels accentuates the risk of erosion caused by heavy swells, notably during storms. The risk has become a major problem because of the recent artificial development of the natural coastline, and also the depletion of the amount of sediment that spills into the Mediterranean from the south-running Rhône river as a consequence of the construction of dams along its course.
“When one looks at the retreat of the Atlantic or Mediterranean coastlines, they suffer from the effects of erosion and storms“, said Éric Chaumillon, a researcher in coastal marine geology at the University of La Rochelle in south-west France. „The contribution made by the rise in the sea level is today very little with regard to the sedimentary dynamics. But in the long-term the effect is real. It is simply a question of timescale.“
The more global temperatures climb, the more the glaciers will melt into the oceans.Meanwhile, the more that beaches suffer from erosion, the lower they lie, and the more the sea rises the more the beaches erode. In Palavas-les-Flots, if the sea rises by 30 centimetres during a storm, the inland flooding will be significantly more extensive, while if the sea rises by a metre the whole of the town centre would be under water.
According to estimations produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body that works under the auspices of the United Nations, sea levels will rise by 60 centimetres between now and the year 2100 if global warming increases during that period by an extra 2°C.
In Palavas-les-Flots and the neighbouring coastline, a scientific programme involving dozens of engineers, researchers and administrative officials with the local authorities of the Hérault département (county) is underway to monitor and counter the very real effects of coastal erosion: cameras have been set up to track the erosion of beaches, which is regularly measured, studies have been launched into the effects of storms, prospecting for new sand reserves is underway, along with modelling of the effects locally of climate change. While Palavas-les-Flots is not the most threatened site, it is strategically important because of its location within the surrounding lagoon- and lake-dotted Aigues-Mortes gulf which has a fragile eco-system.
But the scientific programme concerns the whole of the beaches lining the small towns in the same zone. „It is extremely important“, said Alexandre Richard, appointed by the Hérault local authorities to coordinate the coastal study. „The scale of the management of the natural environment dominates that of administrative management.“
A mayor with his head in the sand
In 2008, the most eroded beaches of Palavas-les-Flots and those of nearby Carnon, about five kilometres further east along the strip and a favourite spot for day-trippers from Montpellier, about a 20-minute drive away, were recharged with a total of one million cubic metres of sand. The supplies were taken from the broad width of sands at the pointe de l’Espiguette, at the east-most point of the Aigues-Mortes gulf, where sediment continues to accumulate. The three-month operation cost 8 million euros, but the problems have since returned.
It took just seven years for the popular Petit-Travers beach in Carnon to find itself back to the same depleted level of sand from before the recharge. In Pavalas-les-Flots, about half of the new sand has already disappeared. „The recharge is the only solution that allows for gaining time to raise awareness among [local] populations about long-term strategies“, said Alexandre Richard. „But it’s no miracle solution, because sand reserves are not unlimited and it costs a lot.“
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Richard is among those who advocate a soft approach to restoring the beaches and dunes, which includes methods like erecting units of wooden fence protection against wind erosion, beach drainage, and armouring the sands with geotextile defences. Such procedures, and notably recharging eroded sites with new sand, were employed in a lengthy operation to restore the Sète lido, a regularly-eroded stretch of sandy coastline several kilometres long between the towns of Sête and Marseillan, west of Pavalas-les-Flots. The cost of the programme was 54 million euros.
Faced with its own problems of rising sea levels and coastal erosion, the Netherlands has access to significant undersea sand reserves in the North Sea and the Channel, above an ancient continental plateau. But the Mediterranean Sea, which during the glacial period 21,000 years ago was 120 metres lower than today, is marked by very deep areas of seabed. Meanwhile, if global warming increases by 6°C, the Mediterranean could eventually rise by about another 100 metres or more.
Like many coastal areas, Palavas-les-Flots must adapt to a rise in sea levels that cannot now be avoided. The problems facing the resort are not down to climate change alone, but arise in part from the construction of coastal resorts on the dune banks of the Gulf of Lion. „In this region, most of the coastline is especially vulnerable to climate change“, said Yann Balouin, a geologist and oceanographer with the BRGM. „One of the reasons for this situation is that the lines of dune were destroyed with the building of houses and roads beginning in the 1960s.“
Before the development of the coastal region, there were mostly only small fishing villages along the coast between Sète and Marseille to the east. But in 1963 the so-called „Mission Racine“ was launched, named after Pierre Racine, the senior French civil servant in charge of the government programme to develop the western French Mediterranean coastline, centred on that of the Languedoc-Rousillon region, with the building of tourist resorts and transport infrastructures where once were sands and swamps. Press reports at the time hailed the emergence of a „new Florida“, and the seaside resorts which sprung up are today among the best-known and most popular in France, including La Grande-Motte, Cap d’Agde, Port-Leucate and Port-Barcarès.
Before the construction programme began, Palavas-les-Flots was already a popular spot, but at a far more modest scale than today. For under the Mission Racine, the town’s seafront became lined with large modern buildings within just a few years. The name Palavas-les-Flots became synonymous with summertime seaside tourism, albeit much less chic than the French Riviera, with its facilities adapted to group tourism and children’s holiday camps.
Michel Houellebecq sings “Plein été”, his wry take on Palavas-les-Flots in summertime, when tens of thousands of tourists gather there every year.
French novelist Michel Houellebecq penned a song dedicated to the town in 2000, entitled Plein été(height of summer). The lines, translated here from the original French, went:
“Everything oozes flatness, whiteness, finiteness/An Algerian sweeps the floor of ‘The Dallas’/ Opens the sliding glass windows, his look is pensive/On the beach are a few condoms/A new day comes up over Palavas.“
Today, tourism is by far the major source of revenue for the town, which is developing a new additional line of business in hosting conferences for professional groups at its Phare de la Méditerranée, a 43-metre-tall observation tower (a converted water tower in service until 1997), complete with apartments, conference rooms, and a panoramic restaurant. The kitchens of the restaurant are run by a former winner of the French version of MasterChef, while one of the shareholders is former French footballer Vincent Candela.
After the mushrooming of resorts under the Mission Racine, the environmental consequences emerged, prompting misguided efforts to protect the beaches. These included artificial wave-breakers, and also the laying of lines of barriers made up of rocks which stretch into the sea, perpendicular to the beach, like dark fingers. But while such measures provided some local defences against the sea, they blocked the migration of sediment, aggravating the problems of erosion along the Gulf of Lion coastline.
Christian Jeanjean, the mayor of Pavalas-les-Flots since 1989, member of the conservative Les Républicains party and a former local Member of Parliament for the wider region, denies any existence of a threat from rising sea levels. „We’ve always had a bit of water when there have been storms“, he said, speaking to Mediapart in his vast office at the town hall. „The rise of water levels has been around for 70 years. I can’t say that it’s particularly evident.“ Holding up large-sized colour photos, he argued that the local beaches are in fact growing with sand to the point that it is now invading the town. „We don’t know where to put it anymore“, he said, adding that he would like to see a photo that demonstrates the reality of coastal erosion, jokingly comparing himself to being „like Thomas the Apostle“.
Asked whether he had read the scientific report on the projections of the possible submersion of the town due to the effects of climate change, Jeanjean replied, „I haven’t heard of it“. Did he agree that climate change will necessarily cause a rise in sea levels? „There have been periods of warming and cooling over the last thousands of years“, he answered. „I am a little sceptical if I’m told that over 50 years there’s a change in climate.“ Asked whether he contested the existence of climate change, he said: „No, but before the happening of what you talk about, there will be catastrophes everywhere.“
“We’re going to keep Pavalas natural, and without changes of a nature to hinder nature“, continued Jeanjean. „I am conscious of the problem of climate change, but concerning the rise of water levels Palavas is not for the moment affected.“ At the end of the interview, the mayor offered gifts of a bottle of ‘Pavalos-les-Flots’ perfume, a key ring, and stickers in the form of a fish, capping a somewhat surreal exchange.
While mayor Jeanjean appeared happy to adopt the proverbial position of sticking his head in the sand, a study published in the review Nature Climate Change in February 2016 and co-signed by 22 scientific researchers involved in climate change studies from seven different countries gave a stark warning, underlined by modelling graphics, of the urgency for political initiatives for the vast long-term future of the planet. „Here, we argue that the 20th and 21st centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context, including the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next 10 millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist“, they wrote in their introduction to the study, entitled Consequences of 21st-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change. „This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies – not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.“
That implies taking action now to counter problems that are not yet apparent, which is a disturbing prospect but also an exciting one – no less so than developing mass tourist resorts on strips of sand and swamps.
The Philippines is one of the countries most affected by sea level rise. This will be costly, yet no help is forthcoming from the big industrialised nations – who disproportionately contributed to the changing climate which is causing the sea to rise.
In the capital, Manila, the sea level has risen by more than 80 centimetres over the last few decades. In Legazpi City, the increase is 30 centimetres and in southern Davao Bay it’s 24 centimetres.
The rising seas affect almost the whole population, because most Filipinos live by the water: the country is made up of 7,000 islands, with a total coastline spanning some 36,000 kilometres. The islands are flat, and the bays reach far inland. This makes them more vulnerable to rising sea levels. “In addition, we get tropical typhoons. If we do not take fast-paced measures, our agriculture and our food are at risk“, says Analiza Solis, an expert on the Philippine climate.
According to a 2012 study by the Asian Development Bank, the Philippines is one of the five countries most affected by climate change in the world. The coastal inhabitants in the east are most affected, as the prevailing wind pushes water up into the island’s bays.
The fifth world climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea level rise will accelerate. This will have devastating consequences for the Philippines. Higher water levels in the bays will mean that typhoons do more damage, and already around 20 of the tropical storms rage across the country every year.
According to a study by the environmental protection organization WWF, more than 13 million Filipinos will have to be relocated from the coastal areas. Even now, the floodwaters are reaching areas that have never been flooded before. The most affected are poorer Filipinos, who often live in condominiums which collapse even in light storms.
Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record, struck the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan destroyed rice stocks. Boats and fishing facilities were devastated. Many people had no access to food, and an estimated 6 million people in the Visayas region were displaced.
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Major climatic changes also affect the animal world. The Tubbataha reef on the island of Palawan is a valuable habitat for seabirds. But the island is slowly disappearing – since it was first measured in 2004 it has shrunk from 1.5 to 1.1 hectares.
The United Nations World Climate Council says that sea level rise could disrupt crop growth, and flood cornfields which could spread Dengue fever through the standing water. But to this day, the Philippines have no response against the threats to humans and animals. They have no resources to protect against these dangers. And the international community is doing little to help the first victims of climate change.
“We have not seen money from rich countries to help us adapt. We cannot go on. This is not life when we have to run away from storms, “says Naderev Saño, who represents the Philippines at the international UN conferences on climate change. Every destructive tropical storm costs his country two percent of the gross domestic product, and another two percent has to be put into reconstruction afterwards.
For a developing country like the Philippines, with almost 100 million citizens spread over thousands of islands, it is an unsolvable challenge to relocate those that will be worst affected. Storms are already transforming public schools into evacuation centers, which provide shelter to hundreds of displaced families. When the floodwaters subside, they return to the coasts to re-start their existence. They say they need to find food — and have no choice.
In the Philippines, sea level rise – relative to the height of the land – is greater than in any other region of the world, according to our data. This means that the frequent typhoons inflict even more damage, and threaten people like Pepe and Soledad Cabasag.
In the calm before a storm, fisherman Pepe Cabasag nailed boards to his old house. Made of wood and aluminium, he wanted to protect his house and himself from the approaching typhoon. Hours later, the storm arrived – whipping wind gusting through the village of Caroan. The village is in the northern Philippines, in the province of Cagayan.
Cabasag is deaf and visually impaired, so he could neither see nor hear the monstrous storm ravaging the village. But he could feel how strong the wind was when it knocked him off balance. His wife Soledad dragged him inside. The two crossed themselves and crawled into their bed, praying that the typhoon would not destroy their little house. They were praying all night. The typhoon raged for hours, with howling gusts and torrential rain smashing the picturesque village. Water leaked from the ceiling of their house, the roof in tatters.
It was windy in the morning. They crawled out of the remains of their hut, collected what they could still find, and set about repairing it.
Three typhoons hit their community every year, on average. “Sa awa ng Diyos, andito pa kami!” says Soledad: Because of the grace of God we have survived. Pepe is a fisherman in Gonzaga Cagayan, in the northeast of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. He catches oysters to sell at the local market. The sea feeds them; providing them with fish, crabs and prawns. But now it has become an enemy.
The majority of the 40 kilometre-long coastline of the region is located on the Babuyan Sea Ridge. Nature is heavenly here. There are 139 acres of beach, 69 acres of mangrove forests and 348 acres of coral reefs. The province of Cagayan is also one of the regions most affected by monsoon rain and storms. According to the Philippine Institute of Geology, these coastal residents are constantly threatened by floods, erosions and landslides. Sometimes one typhoon is followed immediately by another. In the summer of 2015 the north of the Philippines, including the province of Cagayan, was hit by three typhoons. They brought destruction and flooding.
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After every storm, the inhabitants have a Sisyphean task – they have to repair the damaged houses before another one strikes. Because they can’t relocate, they rebuild on the same bit of land where the storm tore up their house. At least, they do if the land is still there. More than ten hectares have been lost to the sea; around 100 concrete houses, nipa huts and small buildings that were standing ten years ago are no longer visible, sunk by the rising sea.
One of the lost buildings was the Brgy Caroan Elementary School, where teacher Roselyn Campano was once a student. She remembers that the school was more than a kilometre from the coast. Today its disappeared into the water. “The sea has eroded it,” says Campano. She is now teaching at another elementary school and is afraid for the youth in her village.
Campano takes pictures after every storm that hits the residential areas. She has watched an average of five houses every year get washed into the sea. “My favorite motif is the sunset. I have tears in my eyes when I think that our village will soon be eradicated from the map forever,” she says.
Gonzaga’s mayor, Marilyn Pentecostes, says, “We hope that Congress and the government will help protect our people, for example with a dam.” The rising sea level is one man-made threat. The other was shown by an American study in which scientists predicted that areas in the North of the Philippines, where magnetite and black sand are mined, will continue to sink and in 30 to 70 years will be totally submerged.
Rising seas and sinking land: The people of Cagayan face a double threat.
“We should be pretty safe for now“, says Martin Vermeer, a professor of geodesy at Aalto University in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, when talking about the effects of sea level rise in his home country. While global sea level is currently rising at an average of three millimeters per year Finland´s landmass is rising three to nine millimeters per year. In Scandinavia, the so called post-glacial uplift has been ongoing for ten thousand years or since the pressure from the huge weight of the glaciers was lifted off the land at the end of last glacial period.
“Globally sea level rises by about three millimeters per year in the last decade, whereas the land uplift, the post-glacial uplift in Scandinavia for example, reaches up to nine millimeters per year, so it is about three times faster than the sea level is rising at the maximum“, says Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University and Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. „That is why many places, especially around Scandinavia, experience relative sea level drop.“
The fact that the land in Finland is rising at the same rate as the sea or even faster means that sea level is dropping everywhere along the coastline. The same goes for Finlands neighboring country, Sweden, where land is rising at similar rates. This is causing problems along the coastlines of these countries such as for the shipping industries in the area. „The conditions for sea transportation in the area is getting more tricky“, says Sven Knutsson, professor of Soil Mechanics at Luleå University of Technology.
Fennoscandian land uplift (mm/yr) relative to the centre of the Earth. Land is rising 9 mm per year where the center of the glacier was but only 1-2 mm at the old margins, for example by the west coast of Norway. (Finnish Geospatial Resarch Institute.)
The port of the town of Luleå in northern Sweden is one of the biggest in the country when it comes to shipping goods and the biggest in terms of tons passing through. An easy and open access to the Baltic Sea is fundamental for the large iron ore industry and other industries in the area. But now it is being threatened.
“The land rise itself is creating a more shallow port“, says Henrik Vuorinen, the managing director for the port of Luleå in Sweden. Vuorinen describes how the port, which was built in the mid seventies, is getting to shallow for the larger ships that are coming into the port nowadays. „During these last forty years, the land has risen by approximately half a meter due to the post-glacial rebound.“
This is why the town of Luleå is working on a project to deepen its port so that bigger ships will be able to freight goods through there. „We plan to make a rather large dredging operation to deepen the fairway into Luleå“, says Vuorinen who hopes that the new and deeper harbor will be ready by 2023. The so called Iron Port Project, which is partly financed by the European Union, will cost about 1.7 billion Swedish crowns.
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Luleå is a town in northern Sweden highly affected by the post glacial uplift that has been ongoing for last ten thousand years.
But the shallowing sea water in the Baltic Sea is not the only thing worrying people in the area, says Sven Knutsson, professor of Soil Mechanics at Luleå University of Technology. Swedes are known for enjoying a swim in their fresh water lakes during the hot summer months but inhabitants of Luleå and surrounding areas are now worried about their lakes. As the the land rises they slowly become smaller and shallower. Knutsson describes how grass is already growing in these shallow lakes making them more dirty and less attractive than before.
“It becomes more of a muddied terrain instead of this open free space it used to be with its clear water“, Knutsson says adding that there is an ongoing discussion amongst the locals on what can be done about this. „There is a very strong debate in our city if the city should make some measures in order to keep the water surface free which is of course very expensive and they would be fighting against nature and loose anyway.“ Other things people are concerned with is the constant growth of the numerous small islands in the Baltic Sea. „Islands which were separated with water earlier are now connected“, says Knutsson.
Finland is gaining new land
Across the Baltic Sea people are facing different problems. Ostrobothnia makes up a land area in Western Finland where floods have become more common due to land rise. Martin Vermeer, a professor of geodesy at Aalto University in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, describes how land is rising faster by the coastline than further east which is causing rivers to tilt. „The big rivers flow from the east to the Gulf of Bothnia, and because of the land is rising more in the west than in the east, it is tilting“, he says adding that this can cause big river floods especially during spring time when the rivers are full of melting snow water.
Another more positive effect people in Finland are experiencing due to land rise is all the extra land that is being added to the coastline. „Finland is gaining seven hundred hectares every year due to this uplift“, says Vermeer, stressing that a very thin strip is added to the western coastline of Finland every year. „And after a generation or so it is noticeable that there is more land than on old pictures.“ Newly added land is by default owned by the state but people owning land adjoining it can claim it. This has sometimes caused a stir between neighbors claiming the same land with such issues ending up in courts.
Although the inhabitants of Finland and Sweden do not have to worry about the effects of sea level rise for now it is highly likely that will change in the near future. As the atmosphere warms the sea level will likely continue to rise at accelerating rates, says Vermeer. „As temperatures go up the sea level rise will increase further and even Finland won´t be safe after that.“