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Surveillance forces journalists to think and act like spies



Once upon a time, a journalist never gave up a confidential source. When someone comes forward, anonymously, to inform the public, it’s better to risk time incarcerated than give them up. This ethical responsibility was also a practical and professional necessity. If you promise anonymity, you’re obliged to deliver. If you can’t keep your word, who will trust you in the future? Sources go elsewhere and stories pass you by.

Grizzled correspondents might recall this time with nostalgia. For many young journalists, it’s more like historical fiction–a time when reporters could choose not to give up a source, gruff editors chain-smoked cigars, and you could spot a press hack by the telltale notebook and card in the brim of a hat.

The experience of a new generation of news writers tells a different story. Whether you choose to yield a source’s name is secondary. Can you even protect your source to begin with? Call records, email archives, phone tapping, cell-site location information, smart transit passes, roving bugs, and surveillance cameras–our world defaults to being watched. You can perhaps achieve privacy for a few fleeting moments, but, even then, only with a great deal of effort.

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Attacks on the Press book cover

Yet this is journalism’s brave new world. In the United States, the National Security Agency, otherwise known as the NSA, seeks to listen to every electronic communication sent or received. In the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, has succeeded in intercepting and storing every peep that passes over the wires. Commercial spy software FinFisher (also called FinSpy) monitors citizens in at least 20 other countries, according to a report by The Citizen Lab, a research group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Global Information Society Watch’s global report details the state of communications surveillance in plenty more. Even Canada’s spy agency may be watching Canadians illegally, though the GISWatch report could not say so conclusively.

If journalists can protect the identity of their sources at all, it’s only with the application of incredible expertise and practice, along with expensive tools. Journalists now compete with spooks and spies, and the spooks have the home-field advantage.

Shadowy worlds of subterfuge and surveillance should not be a journalist’s habitat. The time journalists spend learning to play Spy-vs.-Spy could be better spent honing their craft. Every hour spent wrangling complex security tools could be an hour spent researching and writing. All the staff on a newsroom’s security team could be writers and editors instead. Each geeky gizmo and air-gapped computer (a computer that is never connected to a network) could be another camera or microphone, or the cost could be spent on payroll. All the extra labor and logistics dedicated to evading espionage is a loss.

This poses sometimes-steep financial costs on newsrooms. If journalists and media organizations are to protect themselves, they must buy more tools and adopt practices that limit their efficiency. Robust security practices are complex and time-consuming, imposing logistical costs. The psychological toll of constant surveillance leads to exhaustion and burnout. Few journalists do their best work when they know that government thugs could break down the door at any moment–as they did at the home of independent New Zealand reporter Nicky Hager in October 2014, according to The Intercept.

Many have worked to slow the swing of the pendulum from privacy to panopticon, increasing development of anti-surveillance tools and advice for journalists. The response to widespread knowledge of the long arm of the surveillance state has been gradual but impressive. Developers have increased work on surveillanceresistance projects and anonymous tip lines. Experts have put together numerousdigital security guides and training programs, all intended to help reporters from falling under the focused gaze of government surveillance.

Perhaps the flagship of this proliferation is SecureDrop, a secure and anonymous submission system for journalists. First pioneered by the former hacker and current digital security journalist Kevin Poulsen and the late programmer and political activist Aaron Swartz under the moniker DeadDrop, SecureDrop is intended to allow potential sources or whistleblowers to get in touch with journalists without leaving any dangerous records of their identity.

SecureDrop combines several pieces of security and privacy software into an integrated system, ensuring that only the journalists can read anonymous tips. Messages are protected with PGP, the tried-and-true gold standard for this task. Sources’ anonymity is provided by Tor, the anonymity network that underpins private communications for everyone from the U.S. Navy and CIA to large businesses and survivors of domestic abuse. The result is safely encrypted messages and no metadata trail. With SecureDrop, journalists don’t just choosenot to reveal a source’s identity. Unless sources choose to reveal their identity, the reporters could not unmask sources even if they tried.

Initially just an idea and some prototype code, SecureDrop was mostly theoretical until early 2013. The first major deployment was at The New Yorker. The project was soon adopted by the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation, which was founded with the specific mission of facilitating journalism that governments oppose. FPF, as the foundation is known, soon took over SecureDrop’s development and maintenance, as well as outreach and fundingMore than a dozen other news organizations and prominent journalists have now deployed SecureDrop. With an ongoing crowdfunding campaign, FPF plans to bring it to many more.

SecureDrop works hard to evade even targeted attacks and surveillance. Making use of cutting-edge technology and contemporary security best practices, SecureDrop separates different tasks onto different computers. Each machine only performs part of the puzzle, so it’s very difficult to compromise the whole system at once.

This makes SecureDrop quite expensive to deploy. FPF estimates that a single SecureDrop installation would set a newsroom back around $3,000, which is a lot to ask for a tool designed to protect the most important of tips from the most advanced of snoops.

Other organizations have developed and distributed best practices and training materials. Universities have deepened their research into the threats journalists face. The Citizen Lab, already discussed in this piece, is dedicated to deep research about how technology and security affect human rights and is the source of some of the most detailed and comprehensive technical reports of recent years. If you want to know about the threats facing journalists and human rights groups, Citizen Lab is the place to go.

Yet, as deep as Citizen Lab’s work goes, it is as likely to induce security nihilism as it is to produce savvy security practices. An August 2014 report tells of terrifying new tools for state attacks on the media. Called “network injection appliances,” these devices insert malicious software into otherwise innocuous traffic. Used right, one can modify an online video, adding malware that takes over a journalist’s computer. If a journalist is using a service such as YouTube or Vimeo, session cookies allow the journalist to be targeted precisely. This makes these attacks very difficult to detect and prevent.

With this new technology, journalists don’t have to make a mistake to be compromised. Gone are the phishing days of opening a malicious attachment or clicking a suspicious link. There’s no trap to notice and avoid. Just browsing the Web puts one at risk, and avoiding online video is an impractical ask of a journalist conducting research. Network injection appliances have likely already been deployed in Oman and Turkmenistan, according to Citizen Lab, and because they’re commercially developed by private companies, the price of these devices will only continue to drop as their capabilities expand.

Another Citizen Lab paper paints a disturbing picture of government cyberattacks. Journalists, among the principal victims of this sort of technological espionage, face state-level threats while lacking the funds and expertise to protect themselves. Attacks on computer systems can reach across borders into seemingly safe locations, allowing attackers to disrupt communications and impairing journalists’ ability to do their core work. Sometimes attacks are simply a nuisance or a resource drain; at other times they present major risks to individuals’ safety.

It’s all but impossible for journalists to learn the strategies of the state and appropriate countermeasures on a shoestring budget. Websites and service providers are often better positioned to protect journalists from these attacks. Securing the everyday tools of the trade works much better than does demanding that journalists jump through arcane hoops to stay safe. Simple measures can go a long way. Just enabling secure HTTPS rather than insecure HTTP can make a huge difference. The New York Times has called on all news sites to adopt this very measure by the end of 2015.

As noted security expert The Grugq puts it: “We can secure the things people actually do, or we can tell them to do things differently. Only one of these has any chance of working.”

Since we first saw Edward Snowden’s face, in 2013, computer-security guides for journalists have multiplied, but using computers safely is hard when a government is trying to get the drop on you. Many guides only scratch the surface, detailing basic–but important–steps. Turning on automatic software updates or using password managers and two-factor authentication for online accounts make a big difference. These first steps make journalists slightly harder to attack.

In fact, simple practices probably have a greater impact than do more complex ones. Esoteric security strategies are a lot of work and sometimes only inconvenience a savvy attacker. Simple measures completely stymie simple attacks and force advanced attackers to change their tactics. A sophisticated attacker will never use an advanced technique when a simple one will do. More sophisticated attempts require more work, cost more, and are more prone to detection. Changing the game by forcing attackers to use scarce resources helps everyone stay safe.

Other guides delve deeply into advanced principles of operational security. Abbreviated “OPSEC,” the term is military jargon for measures taken to keep critical information out of hostile hands. If the phrase sounds more at home in a spy thriller than in a journalism manual, that’s a hint at the problems posed by press surveillance. Mainstream journalists and press organizations openly acknowledge their need to learn spies’ tactics and techniques to stay a step ahead.

The adoption of military tactics and an espionage mindset has a substantial downside. The Grugq explains: “OPSEC comes at a cost, and a significant part of that cost is efficiency. Maintaining a strong security posture … for long periods of time is very stressful, even for professionally trained espionage officers.”

Yet even in apparently free democratic societies, compromising a free press is the day-to-day work of the security services.
Intelligence services sometimes target journalists for surveillance, even when the missions of the agencies involved are ostensibly centered around foreign intelligence. Iranian spies orchestrate elaborate campaigns to bamboozle journalists; they even pose as journalists when targeting think tanks and lawmakers, Wired has reported. The FBI has also admitted using the latter tactic and actually defended it publicly when criticized. In the U.K., security services have abandoned restraint when it comes to surveillance of journalists and civil society, Ryan Gallagher wrote in The Intercept, summarizing: “An investigative journalist working on a case or story involving state secrets could be targeted on the basis that they are perceived to be working against the vaguely defined national security interests of the government.”


Some journalists have risen to this challenge. After meeting with Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald realized that traditional newspapers and media groups were not well suited to this world of watchers. They needed a new sort of organization–one ready to play spy games with professional spies from the very start.

They founded the First Look Media group with help from fellow investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and funding from eBay mogul Pierre Omidyar. First Look’s flagship online magazine, The Intercept, is dedicated to exposing the abuses of the surveillance state. Choosing such powerful foes meant that The Intercept had to stay one step ahead from the start.

Micah Lee is The Intercept‘s resident security expert. Formerly a staff technologist at technology civil rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Lee was on The Intercept team from the beginning. He designed and implemented the security measures that Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill–and now a team of 20–use to stay safe. When asked about the infrastructure needed to protect the publication, he frankly admitted: “When we think it’ll make us safer, we normally just buy another computer or device. We’re willing to spend money on these things when there’s a clear security benefit.”

Lee was referring to security practices typically only needed when one is facing adversaries with the sophistication of governments. Protecting important information on separate air-gapped computers is a common practice at The Intercept. Lee and other technologists are fond of a security principle called “defense in depth,” an approach that assumes that some security measures will fail and calls for systems that remain secure even when that happens. In the planning for defense in depth, a process should become insecure not when onesecurity measure fails but instead when dozens do.

Systems built this way demand more hardware than do those where security is more brittle. Several computers ensure that the compromise of one will leave the others safe. Smartcards protect cryptographic keys even when other things go wrong. All of this tech costs money and requires experienced technologists like Lee to design and operate.

In keeping with this level of prudent paranoia, Lee and his colleagues often eschew regular smartphones in favor of the CryptoPhone. These $3,500 devices, made by German manufacturer GSMK, don’t just provide encrypted calls; they’re heavily customized and locked-down Android devices loaded with a whole host of custom software. They even try to detect anomalies in cellular networks that might be indicative of an attack or targeted surveillance.

These practices and this technology are the best that media organizations can buy. It’s a far cry from the James Bond-esque gadgetry that one might see at MI6 or the CIA, but, used correctly, it can keep the spooks at bay long enough for you to meet with sources and write the stories that need to be written.

Staff at The Intercept use PGP for email encryption by default. Lee estimates that more than 80 percent of the emails he sent in the last six months were encrypted in this way. For most people who aren’t security experts, PGP is a niche tool with a notoriously steep learning curve. Getting started requires hours of training and practice to wrap one’s head around complex and unintuitive principles of public-key cryptography. The process takes even longer if one doesn’t have an experienced guide.

Between building sustainable long-term security strategies and jetting around protecting the magazine’s VIP writers, Lee quickly ran out of the time needed to show each new hire how to use PGP. But he noticed that he wasn’t always needed: “Folks learn PGP the same way they do any other tricky technical thing–they Google it, or they ask their nerd friends, and sometimes they get bad advice,” he said. At The Intercept, new hires were learning PGP from folks already there–journalists and editors as well as technologists.

The Intercept had developed what Lee calls a “security culture,” an operational security term that has its roots in activism. In a “security culture,” a community adopts customs and norms that protect its members. It’s a wholesale adoption of operational security practices into the everyday work and activities of the group. The Intercept team considers security a core value, so people there are willing to work together to protect one another, even when that’s outside their usual work.

“Of course, having Erinn in New York helps, too,” Lee joked, referring to Erinn Clark, the most recent member of First Look’s security team. Clark came to First Look from the Tor Project, the nonprofit group responsible for developing Tor. Another security virtuoso, Clark is more than familiar not only with the nitty-gritty of security tools but also with the adoption of secure practices across an organization. In technology circles, the Tor Project is famous both for the exotic ways in which states have tried to infiltrate and attack it and for the extreme security measures its members have adopted to protect themselves.

Leading the incredible heavy hitters of First Look’s security team is Morgan “Mayhem” Marquis-Boire. A security superstar, Marquis-Boire worked on Google’s security incident-response team, and he is a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab. This incredible brain trust isn’t just there to keep just First Look safe. Once First Look’s basic security needs are met, the group plans to branch out. “We want the security team to start developing tools and hardware and doing bigger research.” Lee said. The team members plan to use their skills and expertise to help other organizations that can’t afford their own elite security teams.

The challenge is always resources. First Look has a billionaire on call to pay for the latest technology and fancy technologists. This is a rarity. Other journalists may face a stark choice between hard-hitting stories and staying safe.

What does information security look like at publications that don’t have First Look’s billionaire funding? FPF regularly sends technical experts to help newsrooms install, set up, and upgrade SecureDrop. Every time they set foot in a newsroom, FPF techs find themselves flooded with security questions from reporters and editors. Questions aren’t just about SecureDrop or FPF; news teams want to know about everything from the ins and out of other tools, such as OTRand Tails, to the sort of advanced operational security measures that can help them keep their heads above water when spies come snooping.
Runa A. Sandvik, a member of FPF’s technical team, said, “Even if you wanted to use these tools and had all the patience to learn them, there’s still so much conflicting information–it’s very confusing, very intimidating.” And though few media organizations have the ability to hire technologists to work with their reporting staffs, Sandvik notes that the situation for journalists not affiliated with a major organization is even bleaker: “If you have a technologist, someone to help you, that’s one thing. If you’re freelance and not overly technical, I don’t know how you’re going to work this stuff out.” She added, “Many feel overwhelmed; they don’t know who to ask for help.”

Just having a technologist to help with analysis and security may not be enough. The newsroom has to commit to understanding the issues and taking good advice. Barton Gellman, who currently writes for The Washington Post, was one of the recipients of the document cache Snowden assembled, and he knew that he didn’t have the technical skills to work on the documents alone. He brought prominent security researcher Ashkan Soltani (now chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission) on board to help. Soltani bolstered Gellman’s security practices and helped Gellman analyze and understand the more technical material in the collection.

To make matters worse, intelligence agencies encourage confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to secure tools and practices. They try to associate a need for privacy with wrongdoing. This association makes it even harder for journalists to protect themselves and their sources. Persuading sources to protect themselves is harder when the tools of safety are associated with suspicion. In some cases, making secure tools seem suspicious actively endangers sources who live in less tolerant environs, such as dissidents in mainland China who use Tor. This doublethink is a strange flip side to the surveillance state: First, watch everyone, always, then vilify any attempt to recover some privacy. This is especially disruptive to journalists and their ability to serve as watchdogs.

Even without state propaganda and unforced errors, covert action takes a substantial toll on the press’s ability to hold leaders accountable. Espionage targeting journalists and their sources impairs the healthy function of the states where it occurs. And these practices are not just a feature of regimes known to be restrictive or autocratic.

In 2013, David Miranda was detained for most of a day while making a connection between flights at Heathrow Airport in London. Miranda was changing planes on a journey from Germany to Brazil on which he was transporting documents and video footage between Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. British police held him under measures designed to combat terrorism. Their reasoning? Miranda was promoting a “political or ideological cause.”

In July 2013, surveillance agency GCHQ destroyed computers at the Guardiannewspaper in London. The security agency had already threatened the newspaper’s editors, demanding that the Guardian stop reporting on government surveillance. A security service literally knocked on the doors of a prominent and critical newspaper in Western Europe. They ground a computer into pieces with the use of power tools. All of this was done in a vain attempt to prevent the publication of more articles on a topic that discomfited the government.

These are the tools the state has at its disposal to discourage dissent. It is understandable that, for some, the risk of challenging this authority is simply too great. When these are the consequences of hard-hitting reporting, sticking to “safe” topics and innocuous pieces is a reasonable response.

But even for those who choose to continue the hard work of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, evading the panopticon comes at a tremendous cost. There are the costs incurred in avoiding simple tools in favor of secure ones. The costs of using extra hardware to protect sensitive materials. The costs of hiring elite security teams instead of extra editors. The costs of worrying that you’ve made a mistake in your security measures. The costs of wondering whether your hotel room will be undisturbed when you get back. The costs of hoping that today isn’t the day that a government agent knocks at the door and asks to destroy your work, or worse.

When journalists must compete with spies and surveillance, even when they win, society loses.

DISCLOSURE: The author previously worked at the Tor Project, the non-profit organization responsible for developing and maintaining the Tor software and network

Tom Lowenthal is CPJ’s resident expert in operational security and surveillance self-defense. He is also a freelance journalist on security and tech policy matters.

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Statement: The Energy Sector Strategy 2024–2028 Must Mark the End of the EBRD’s Support to Fossil Fuels



The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is due to publish a new Energy Sector Strategy before the end of 2023. A total of 130 civil society organizations from over 40 countries have released a statement calling on the EBRD to end finance for all fossil fuels, including gas.

From 2018 to 2021, the EBRD invested EUR 2.9 billion in the fossil energy sector, with the majority of this support going to gas. This makes it the third biggest funder of fossil fuels among all multilateral development banks, behind the World Bank Group and the Islamic Development Bank.

The EBRD has already excluded coal and upstream oil and gas fields from its financing. The draft Energy Sector Strategy further excludes oil transportation and oil-fired electricity generation. However, the draft strategy would continue to allow some investment in new fossil gas pipelines and other transportation infrastructure, as well as gas power generation and heating.

In the statement, the civil society organizations point out that any new support to gas risks locking in outdated energy infrastructure in places that need investments in clean energy the most. At the same time, they highlight, ending support to fossil gas is necessary, not only for climate security, but also for ensuring energy security, since continued investment in gas exposes countries of operation to high and volatile energy prices that can have a severe impact on their ability to reach development targets. Moreover, they underscore that supporting new gas transportation infrastructure is not a solution to the current energy crisis, given that new infrastructure would not come online for several years, well after the crisis has passed.

The signatories of the statement call on the EBRD to amend the Energy Sector Strategy to

  • fully exclude new investments in midstream and downstream gas projects;
  • avoid loopholes involving the use of unproven or uneconomic technologies, as well as aspirational but meaningless mitigation measures such as “CCS-readiness”; and
  • strengthen the requirements for financial intermediaries where the intended nature of the sub-transactions is not known to exclude fossil fuel finance across the entire value chain.


Download the statement:

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Will more sovereign wealth funds mean less food sovereignty?



In November 2022, word got out that Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the freshly minted president of the Philippines, wanted to set up a sovereign wealth fund. People scratched their heads. What wealth? The Philippines is mired in debt! It was quickly understood that this was a kind of vanity project, meant to improve the image of a man who came to power because of his family name.
Marcos’ father ruled the Philippines from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s with an iron fist. Known more for kleptocracy and the brutality of martial law, the Marcos name needed a face-lift, local media put it. Marcos boasted that a sovereign wealth fund would boost investor confidence and attract resources to fund big projects in infrastructure or agriculture. He even dubbed it “Maharlika Fund”, a nod to the mythical warrior figure that his father claimed to personify during World War II.
Vanity aside, Marcos’ proposal raised fears of graft and corruption. After all, not long ago, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund (known as 1MDB) was exposed as a multi-billion dollar money laundering scheme for the personal benefit of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who now sits in jail. Yet, Marcos managed to get his proposal onto his country’s legislative agenda in a matter of weeks, and brought it to international investors in Davos and Tokyo for their approval as well.
What are these “sovereign wealth funds”? How are they being used? What link, if any, do they have with people’s struggles around food sovereignty, land grabbing and today’s deepening climate crisis?
Rise of sovereign wealth funds
The first sovereign wealth funds were set up in the 19th century, and grew slowly throughout the 20th. The idea, at first, was rather simple. If a state has excess resources – perhaps mineral wealth or a sudden boom in foreign exchange from exports – these should be tucked away for future use for the benefit of society.
Norway is the classic example. In the late 1960s, oil was discovered off its coast. Overnight, the country become unfathomably rich. After much debate, the government decided to set up a wealth fund – basically a piggy-bank belonging to all Norwegians. It is fed by a tax levied on the oil and gas extracted from Norway’s seabed, plus the revenues of Norway’s state-owned oil and gas companies.
This wealth is meant to be used “for present and future generations”. To ensure this, no one is allowed to touch the underlying pot of money itself, but the interest it earns each year goes into the national budget to pay for things like public health care, generous parental leaves, retirement pensions and public infrastructure. In concrete terms, Norway’s wealth fund contains $1.1 trillion. That money is invested in 9,000 publicly-listed companies across 70 countries around the world. The investments generate a return of about 3% a year, which is what goes into the national budget to provide everyone in Norway with those public services. It has become a source of national pride and unity across the political spectrum.
Many sovereign wealth funds were set up with a similar logic. The “wealth” may come from diamonds (Botswana) or copper (Chile), foreign currency reserves (China) or export earnings (Saudi Arabia). Even the state of Texas in the United States wrote into its constitution back in the 1850s that “available public lands” should be used to finance public schools. To do this, lands were either sold outright or were leased with the proceeds feeding a Permanent School Fund (a sovereign wealth fund) run by a trio of local civil servants. In all of these cases, the funds are created with resources that arguably belong to everyone and serve a public interest objective such as guaranteeing social rights (e.g. retirement for all in Norway) or covering national budget deficits in times of crisis (e.g. as happened with Covid-19 in Peru) or providing children with access to education (Texas).
Recently, however, governments have started diverging from this logic. Increasingly, sovereign wealth funds are being set up with no resources or wealth or sovereign character to speak of. Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund, which was set up in 2021, is more like a “development” fund. It aims to secure foreign investment from companies, banks and funds in order to build local infrastructure and energy projects. Not much different from what the government already does. The Philippines’ proposal is more like a “public-private partnership” fund, as foreign investors will be asked to do joint ventures with the state or with local businesses. At one point, the government was proposing that the fund should be handed over to the private sector and listed on the stock market! Quite a number of small countries with no surpluses to speak of have set up sovereign wealth funds by offering citizenship to wealthy individuals (leading to corruption scandals as well).
Over the past two decades, the number of sovereign wealth funds has surged (see graph) and there are now more than 100 sovereign wealth funds around the world.[1] Collectively, they hold $10 trillion – which makes them the third largest economy, after the US and China, if they were a country. That figure is expected to reach $17 trillion by 2030. While most sovereign funds are national in scope, some are sub-national. The state of Queensland, in Australia, has one. Palestine has one. Even the city of Milan has one.
Some of these funds invest only abroad, some invest only at home and some do both. Key sectors they put their money in, to capture earnings, include energy, technology, health, finance and real estate. All told, sovereign funds are so massive that most people have probably had some connection to them, as they own bits of Alibaba, Flipkart, Uber, Slack, Grab, major airports, the world’s top football teams and social media like Twitter. Anyone paying for these is actually helping sovereign wealth funds take money home.
And while it seems to be a trend among political elites these days to think that setting up such structures can bring funds into the global South, 80% of sovereign wealth fund assets is currently parked in Europe and North America. In fact, one-third is in the US alone.
Agriculture: a critical concern
In dollar terms, food and agriculture represent just 2-3% of all sovereign wealth fund investments. While that sounds small, it is a politically sensitive and strategic sector for many governments. Contributing to national food security has been a historic role for sovereign funds, and it is a vital one for those of Singapore and the Gulf states.
At least 42 sovereign funds are currently invested in food and agriculture (see table). Some are major players, but many are less visible (see box). Their investments may be in largescale farmland acquisitions and production, such as orange groves in Brazil, cattle ranches in Australia or vertical pig farms in China. Some take the form of ownership stakes in global food commodity traders that ship grains, oilseeds and coffee across our oceans, like Bunge, COFCO or Louis Dreyfus. Yet others are positions in food retail systems like supermarket chains or delivery services, and the digital technologies that these operations increasingly rely on.
A handful of actors form the centre of gravity of global agricultural investing by sovereign funds. They are Temasek and GIC in Singapore; PIF in Saudi Arabia; Mubadala and ADQ in UAE; QIA in Qatar; RDIF in Russia; and COFIDES in Spain (see map). The Singaporeans and the Gulf states invest with their own food needs as a priority. RDIF brings big investors into Russia to help finance its export-oriented agribusiness sector. And COFIDES funds food projects around the world with one catch: a Spanish company must be directly involved in and profit from it, such as Borges with almond production in Europe or Pescanova with fish farming in Latin America. (Actually, there is a second catch: all of COFIDES’ overseas food and agriculture investments are loans.[2])
Quite a number of sovereign wealth fund ventures in agriculture are linked to concerns about land and water grabbing, whether directly and indirectly. In December 2022, Abu Dhabi’s government-owned ADQ, which has $110 billion in assets, got hold of 167,00 hectares of farmland in northeast Sudan.[3] It plans to grow sesame, wheat, cotton and alfalfa there, while it builds a massive new port nearby to ship the goods out. ADQ already owns:
  • 45% of Louis Dreyfus Company, with its massive land holdings in Latin America, growing sugarcane, citrus, rice and coffee;
  • a majority stake in Unifrutti, with 15,000 ha of fruit farms in Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Philippines, Spain, Italy and South Africa; and
  • Al Dahra, a large agribusiness conglomerate controlling and cultivating 118,315 ha of farmland in Romania, Spain, Serbia, Morocco, Egypt, Namibia and the US.
Therefore, the concerns are quite serious. Al Dahra stands accused of draining aquifers in Arizona, just so that it can produce hay to transport back to UAE to feed local dairy herds.[4]
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), one of the world’s top ten sovereign wealth funds in terms of assets, has $13.7 billion invested in agriculture. It owns several massive agribusiness conglomerates focused on livestock, dairy and fisheries. In 2021, it took 100% control of the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Company (SALIC) which is engaged in meat and cereal production in Canada, Ukraine, India, Brazil, Australia and the UK.[5] The scale is enormous. In India, PIF produces its staple, basmati rice.
From Brazil, it gets its beef. In Australia, it operates 200,000 ha for sheep grazing and also buys lamb and mutton directly from producers. In Ukraine, it has 195,000 ha growing wheat, barley, maize and rice. PIF also owns 35% of Olam Agri, a major palm oil producer, and is building the largest vertical farm in the entire Middle East and North Africa region.[6] It is very strange, then, to learn that PIF’s new green financing instrument will explicitly exclude funding for any projects or expenditures associated with industrial agriculture or livestock![7] It shows the doublespeak of investors that expand intensive industrial food systems while needing to flash climate credentials.
Another very big player is Qatar. Its sovereign wealth fund has massive land holdings in Australia, through a stake in the 4.4 million ha Paraway Pastoral Company dedicated to livestock production. The fund allows Qatar to source its organic food supplies through Canada’s Sunrise Foods, which operates in Turkey, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine and US. It owns poultry and seafood companies in Oman, and is now developing agriculture supply chains in East Africa. The Qatari wealth fund is connected to a Russian oil company which owns 50% of Agrokultura, which operates 200,000 ha of farmland in Russia. It also owns 14% of AdecoAgro with its 472,862 ha hectares under production in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. It is now going into Kazakhstan for the same purposes – and in direct competition with the UAE.[8]
It is important to note that many of these arrangements between sovereign wealth funds and global agribusiness involve political guarantees. Qatar is one of the biggest investors in Glencore, with whom it has a deal to ensure its access to grains and shipping services in case of need. The same is true with Qatar and Turkey’s Tiryaki Agro Group. The fund’s agricultural arm, Hassad Food, has its own agreement with Sunrise Foods which ensures that in the event of any shortage in the Qatari market, the country’s need for grain, oilseeds and wheat will be met on a priority basis.[9] Similarly, when Abu Dhabi’s ADQ bought 45% of Louis Dreyfus – the world’s third largest commodity trader – it signed a side deal giving it priority access to food shipments in times of global crisis, as the world experienced recently during both Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.[10]
It is fair to say that the political strategy of leveraging sovereign wealth to get access to global food supplies works. What is never mentioned is at what cost. For many of these big investment projects expand and entrench largescale corporate agribusiness, with its contingent slew of land conflicts, water pollution, indigenous rights abuses, labour violations and spiralling climate emissions. And when it comes to the Gulf states or Singapore, these are very small populations draining the resources of much bigger ones. With sovereign funds, scale is baked in. Even when they do try to reckon with social and environmental contingencies, as in the case of PIF, their attempts at making investments green or socially responsible are shallow at best. Only Norway’s stands out as making strong commitments to scrutinise and withdraw from agribusiness companies associated with social and ecological crimes, as it has done with meat packers and soy producers in Brazil (Minerva, Marfrig, SLC Agricola and JBS) as well as rubber giant Halcyon Agri.[11]
So, to answer the question: what do these funds have to do with food sovereignty? The answer is: it’s twisted. They do provide food security for a few countries. And political elites increasingly like to use the term food sovereignty to characterise these missions, as it serves their nationalist, territorial and militarist frameworks.[12] But sovereign wealth funds crush real visions of food sovereignty as they take resources away from local communities and push a capitalist, industrialist food system – be it green or not.
Putting the public interest first
Sovereign wealth funds can be a good idea if they really are sovereign (run by the people), if the resources they harness are democratically sourced and organised, and if they have a genuine public welfare mandate. We actually need more commitment to public approaches to reverse the growing inequality and privatisation that is undermining people’s rights to healthcare, housing, transportation, food, education and retirement in most countries around the world.
But there is a danger. There are increasing calls to set up sovereign wealth funds to solve government problems – from building a new capital city in Indonesia to plugging an alleged deficit in France’s pension system. But these newer funds are just tools to channel money into government coffers or private enterprises. They are not built on any collective resource or aimed at protecting a public wealth for the benefit of future generations. They seem to have little to do with traditional sovereign wealth funds, apart from the name. For that reason, they should be scrutinised and if they don’t genuinely serve the public interest they should be stopped. Similarly, those that contribute to land or water grabbing should be challenged and stopped, too.
Agriculture may not be the number one sector that these funds gravitate towards to generate wealth. But politically, geopolitically and strategically, food security is a core concern of theirs and will continue to be, requiring our critical scrutiny as well.
We need good public services that provide for public well-being. Sovereign wealth funds – despite their name – need to be put to a more scrupulous test to see if they have a role to play in that agenda.
Less visible players: Big players aside, many sovereign wealth funds participate in financing the direction of food and agriculture.[13]
• Angola’s sovereign wealth fund is investing in food and agriculture in Africa through a private equity fund that is targetting the production of maize, beans, soybeans, rice and cattle.
• Australia’s sovereign wealth fund has a Future Drought Fund since 2019. Currently holding A$4.5 billion, its sole aim is to “provide secure, continuous funding to support initiatives that enhance the drought resilience of Australian farms and communities.” Its investments must deliver returns of 2-3% above the consumer price index.
• Bolivia has a sovereign wealth fund that was set up in 2012 with state surplus funds and a loan from the central bank. It invests domestically in both public and private enterprises involved in honey production, fruit processing, aquaculture, dairy, quinoa and stevia.
• Brunei’s new sovereign wealth fund is considering investing in agriculture, in partnership with the Malaysian Investment Development Authority.
• Not much is known about how China’s sovereign wealth funds invest. The China Investment Corporation has $1.3 trillion, making it the largest in the world. It invests in agriculture overseas and reported a remarkable return of 14.27% on its overseas holdings in 2021. Equally remarkable, alternative investments, which include private equity and farmland, are said to account for 47% of its overseas portfolio. China’s National Social Security Fund is also a sovereign wealth fund and is invested domestically in agriculture through its private equity portfolio.
• France’s sovereign fund is known to be a big investor in agriculture and food, both domestically and abroad. One very controversial foreign project it is connected to is led by Arise IIP, a subsidiary of Olam, in Chad.[14]
• Gabon’s sovereign wealth fund, built from oil revenues, runs a private equity fund that invests in the food and agriculture sector. It also invests directly in agriculture and farmland projects at home.
• The National Development Fund of Iran has some $24 billion, most of it from oil and gas revenues and all of it invested domestically. According to some sources, 1% is invested in water and agriculture, including farmland ownership, a sector the fund wants to invest more in.
• Ithmar Capital, a state investment company, serves as Morocco’s sovereign wealth fund. Details are lacking but their strategy is to co-invest in Moroccan agribusiness operations with foreigners such as Spain’s COFIDES or Gulf state investors.
• Nigeria, like Abu Dabhi and Spain, has its sovereign wealth fund investing in fertiliser production. This is a very strategic concern.
• Palestine’s sovereign wealth fund is a public company that does local impact investing. Its initial funds came from the Palestinian Authority. It is invested in a 50 hectares seedless grape farm, looking into investing in animal feed production and helping set up a National Agriculture Investment Company.
• Türkiye Wealth Fund has 2% of its investments in food and agriculture, as of 2019.
• In the US, the states of Texas, New Mexico and Alaska have sovereign wealth funds that are heavily invested in farmland, whether directly or through private equity funds. The agribusiness operations they fund are in some cases domestic and in others overseas (usually in the Southern Cone of Latin America or Australia).
• Vietnam’s State Capital Investment Corporation is invested in agriculture/farmland through a joint venture with the State General Reserve Fund of Oman, showing how co-investing is a common strategy of sovereign funds.
Sovereign wealth funds invested in farmland/food/agriculture (2023)
AUM (US$bn)
UAE – Abu Dhabi
Saudi Arabia
UAE – Dubai
UAE – Abu Dhabi
UAE – Abu Dhabi
Future Fund
Alaska PFC
Australia – QLD
Texas PSF
UAE – Dubai
Dubai World
New Mexico SIC
Canada – SK
CDP Equity
Ithmar Capital
AUM (assets under management) figures from Global SWF, January 2023
Engagement in food/farmland/agriculture assessed by GRAIN
[1] Important sources used for this report include: Javier Capapé (ed), “Sovereign wealth funds 2021”, IE University, Madrid, Oct 2022,; Global SWF, “2023 Annual report”, New York, Jan 2023,; the websites of Global SWF ( and SWF Institute ( as well as Preqin Ltd.
[3] Reuters, “Sudan to develop Red Sea port in $6-bln initial pact with Emirati group”, 13 Dec 2022,
[4] Ella Nilsen, “Wells are running dry in drought-weary Southwest as foreign-owned farms guzzle water to feed cattle overseas“, CNN, 27 Nov 2022,
[5] See SALIC website:
[6] AeroFarms, “PIF and AeroFarms sign joint venture agreement to build indoor vertical farms in Saudi Arabia and the wider MENA region”, 1 Feb 2023,
[7] Public Investment Fund, “Public Investment Fund Green Finance Framework”, February 2022,
[8] See Hassad Food, “Hassad signs MoU with Baiterek to discuss investment projects that supports food security”, 12 Oct 2022, and Global Sovereign Wealth Fund, “Gulf funds drawn into soft power battle over Kazakhstan”, 25 Aug 2021,
[9] See Hassad Food, “Strategic local and international investments along with global partnerships to satisfy the market needs from grains and wheat”, 28 Mar 2022,
[10] Reuters, “Commodity group Louis Dreyfus completes stake sale to ADQ”, 10 Sep 2021,
[11] See Fabiano Maisonnave, “Norway oil fund omits meatpacker JBS from deforestation watch list “, Climate Fund News, 4 Apr 2018,, Earthsight, “World’s largest pension fund dumps shares in beef firm in wake of corruption scandal”, 24 July 2018, and Paulina Pielichata, “Norway sovereign wealth fund divests Halcyon over environmental concerns”, Pensions & Investments, 27 Mar 2019,
[12] “L’Afrique sur le chemin de l’autosuffisance alimentaire”, Seneplus, 27 Feb 2023,
[13] Main sources for this box are each fund’s respective website, news clippings and Preqin Ltd.
[14] Arise, “Bpifrance and Arise IIP establish a partnership to foster agricultural materials processing and co-industrialisation projects on a pan-African scale”, 15 February 2023, , and Benjamin König, “Arise IIP, la firme qui dépouille les paysans africains”, L’Humanité, 4 April 2023,
Source: Grain

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Farmland values hit record highs, pricing out farmers



Joel Gindo thought he could finally own and operate the farm of his dreams when a neighbor put up 160 acres of cropland for sale in Brookings County, S.D., two years ago. Five thousand or six thousand dollars an acre should do the trick, Mr. Gindo estimated.
But at auction, Mr. Gindo watched helplessly as the price continued to climb until it hit $11,000 an acre, double what he had budgeted for.
“I just couldn’t compete with how much people are paying, with people paying 10 grand,” he said. “And for someone like me who doesn’t have an inheritance somewhere sitting around, a lump sum of money sitting around, everything has to be financed.”
What is happening in South Dakota is playing out in farming communities across the nation as the value of farmland soars, hitting record highs this year and often pricing out small or beginning farmers. In the state, farmland values surged by 18.7 percent from 2021 to 2022, one of the highest increases in the country, according to the most recent figures from the Agriculture Department. Nationwide, values increased by 12.4 percent and reached $3,800 an acre, the highest on record since 1970, with cropland at $5,050 an acre and pastureland at $1,650 an acre.
A series of economic forces — high prices for commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat; a robust housing market; low interest rates until recently; and an abundance of government subsidies — have converged to create a “perfect storm” for farmland values, said Jason Henderson, a dean at the College of Agriculture at Purdue University and a former official at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
As a result, small farmers like Mr. Gindo are now going up against deep-pocketed investors, including private equity firms and real estate developers, prompting some experts to warn of far-reaching consequences for the farming sector.
Young farmers named finding affordable land for purchase the top challenge in 2022 in a September survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit group.
Already, the supply of land is limited. About 40 percent of farmland in the United States is rented, most of it owned by landlords who are not actively involved in farming. And the amount of land available for purchase is extremely scant, with less than 1 percent of farmland sold on the open market annually.
The booming housing market, among a number of factors, has bolstered the value of farmland, particularly in areas close to growing city centers.
“What we have seen over the past year or two was, when housing starts to go up with new building construction, that puts pressure on farmland, especially on those urban fringes,” Professor Henderson explained. “And that leads to a cascading ripple effect into land values even farther and farther away.”
Government subsidies to farmers have also soared in recent years, amounting to nearly 39 percent of net farm income in 2020. On top of traditional programs like crop insurance payments, the Agriculture Department distributed $23 billion to farmers hurt by President Donald J. Trump’s trade war from 2018 to 2020 and $45.3 billion in pandemic-related assistance in 2020 and 2021. (The government’s contribution to farm income decreased to 20 percent in 2021 and is forecast to be about 8 percent in 2022.)
Those payments, or even the very promise of additional assistance, increase farmland values as they create a safety net and signal that agricultural land is a safe bet, research shows.
“There’s an expectation in the market that the government’s going to play a role when farm incomes drop, so that definitely affects investment behavior,” said Jennifer Ifft, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
Eager investors are increasingly turning to farmland in the face of volatility in the stock and real estate markets. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and a billionaire, is the biggest private farmland owner in the country and recently won approval to buy 2,100 acres in North Dakota for $13.5 million.
The number of private equity funds seeking to buy stakes in farmland has ticked higher, said Tim Koch, a vice president at an agricultural financial cooperative in the Midwest, Farm Credit Services of America. Pension funds also consider farmland a stable investment, Professor Ifft said.
Farmers, too, have witnessed an influx of outside interest. Nathaniel Bankhead, who runs a farm and garden consulting business in Chattanooga, Tenn., has banded with a group of other agricultural workers to save up to $500,000 to buy about 60 acres of land. For months, the collective has been repeatedly outbid by real estate developers, investors looking to diversify their portfolios and urban transplants with “delusional agrarian dreams,” he said.
“Places that I have looked at as potential farmland are being bought up in cash before I can even go through the process that a working-class person has to do to access land,” he said. “And the ironic thing is, those are my clients, like I get hired by them to do as a hobby what I’m trying to do as a livelihood. So it’s tough to watch.”
Mr. Bankhead characterized the current landscape as a form of “digital feudalism” for aspiring working farmers. Wealthy landowners drive up land prices, contract with agricultural designers like himself to enact their vision and then hire a caretaker to work the land — pricing out those very employees from becoming owners themselves.
“They kind of lock that person to this new flavor of serfdom where it’s, you might be decently paid, you’ve got access to it, but it will never be yours,” he said.
Unable to afford land in her native Florida, Tasha Trujillo recently moved her flower farm to South Carolina. Ms. Trujillo had grown cut flowers and kept bees on a parcel of her brother-in-law’s five-acre plant nursery in Redland, a historically agricultural region in the Miami area, about 20 miles south of downtown.
When she sought to expand her farm and buy her own land, she quickly found that prices were out of reach, with real estate developers driving up land values and pushing out agriculture producers.
A five-acre property in the Redlands now costs $500,000 to $700,000, Ms. Trujillo said. “So I essentially didn’t have a choice but to leave Miami and Florida as a whole.”
“Farming is a very stressful profession,” she added. “When you throw in land insecurity, it makes it 20 times worse. So there were many, many times where I thought: ‘Oh my God. I’m not going to be able to do this. This isn’t feasible.’”
As small and beginning farmers are shut out — the latest agricultural census said that the average age of farmers inched up to 57.5 — the prohibitively high land values may have ripple effects on the sector at large.
Brian Philpot, the chief executive of AgAmerica, an agricultural lending institution, said his firm’s average loan size had increased as farms consolidated, squeezing out family farms. This, he argued, could lead to a farm crisis.
“Do we have the skills and the next generation of people to farm it? And two, if the answer is going to be, we’re going to have passive owners own this land and lease it out, is that very sustainable?” he said.
Professor Henderson also warned that current farmers may face increased financial risk as they seek to leverage their high farmland values, essentially betting the farm to expand it.
“They’ll buy more land but they’ll use debt to do it,” he said. “They’ll stretch themselves out.”
Economists and lenders said farmland values appeared to have plateaued in recent months, as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and the cost of fertilizer and diesel soared. But with high commodity prices forecast for next year, some believe values will remain high.
A native of Tanzania who moved to South Dakota about a decade ago, Mr. Gindo bought seven acres of land to raise livestock in 2019 and currently rents an additional 40 acres to grow corn and soybeans — all the while working full time as a comptroller to make ends meet.
For now, he has cooled off his search for a farm of his own even as he dreams of passing on that land to his son. The more immediate concern, he said, was whether his landlord would raise his rent. So far, the landlord has refrained because Mr. Gindo helps him out around the farm.
“He really doesn’t have to lend me his land,” Mr. Gindo said. “He can make double that with someone else.”
In Florida, Ms. Trujillo said, the owner of the land where her brother-in-law’s nursery sits has spoken of selling the plot while prices remain high, so he too has begun looking for his own property.
“That’s a big fear for a lot of these farmers and nursery owners who are renting land, because you just never know when the owner’s just going to say: ‘You know what? This year, I’m selling and you’ve got to go,’” she said.
In Tennessee, Mr. Bankhead said he considered giving up on owning a farm “multiple times a day” as friends who have been longtime farmers leave the profession.
But so far, he remains committed to staying in the field and doing “the work of trying to keep land in families’ hands and showing there’s more to do with this land than to sell it to real estate developers,” he said. “But the pain of not having my own garden and not being able to have my animals where I live, it never stings any less.”
Original Source: Farmlandgrab

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