Very Bad People is not a history of Global Witness, it’s a dramatic non-fiction journey into some of our most challenging and intriguing investigations: a catalogue of super crimes. It looks back over the past three decades, because everything we have done up until now turns out to have been a rehearsal for the biggest challenge we have ever embarked upon: tackling the climate crisis.
Global Witness is a globally influential organisation. When I look back to 1993 when I co-founded it with my friends Charmian Gooch & Simon Taylor, all equally inexperienced and broke, this comes as a surprise.
Global Witness came about through our coincidental interest in the tragically violent history of Cambodia; caught up in the Vietnam war, suffering the biggest genocide since WW2 at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, right through to the civil war that was still raging in the early 1990s. Which is where we came in. The Khmer Rouge, now fighting a guerrilla war from remote jungle bases bordering Thailand, were trading rainforest timber with Thai timber companies. Was this an environmental or a human rights issue? Of course it was both, but at the time no organisation focused on this nexus.
But we thought, if we stop this trade, maybe we can cut funding to the Khmer Rouge and end the war? Doing basic research from our front rooms, scrabbling to gather funds and finding our first laptop in a skip, eventually we armed ourselves with secret camera equipment, posed as timber buyers and launched ourselves onto the Thai-Cambodia border for our first undercover investigation. Rather surprisingly, we succeeded.
Our second campaign exposed the scourge of Blood Diamonds that funded one side in Angola’s civil war, and then we went on to expose the other side, including the Angolan ruling-family’s gargantuan corruption as it looted the country’s oil wealth. With these campaigns the stage was set: Global Witness had inadvertently become one of the first players tackling what’s now known as the Resource Curse, whereby poor but resource-rich countries are plundered by corrupt ruling elites, oligarchs and foreign corporations, enabled by a pinstripe army of bankers, lawyers and accountants, who help launder stolen billions into luxury real estate, super yachts and super cars in the most exclusive cities in the world.
When we started we were almost alone in this work, but as awareness of corruption grew, more people, organisations and governments came on board. Our speciality was exposing the super-crooks and how they carried out the looting of entire states – and then pushing for policies and laws to tackle these crimes. We were often asked how could a few people with scant resources take on warlords, presidents, governments and multinational corporations, and often (but certainly not always) succeed?
I’ve made a stab at trying to answer that question in my book Very Bad People, which is published by Monoray.
Part of the answer lies in the amazingly courageous, tenacious and talented
people that have worked for Global Witness over the years; part of it is a mix
of naivety and bloody-mindedness, with a little luck thrown in.
Very Bad People is not a history of Global Witness, it’s a dramatic non-fiction journey into some of our most challenging and intriguing investigations: a catalogue of super crimes. It takes the reader into some of the world’s most dangerous places; it introduces them to warlords and Mafia bosses; it gives them a fly on the wall view into the boardrooms of multinational companies whose bosses make criminal decisions that impact entire nations, and the reader will join our (sometimes maverick) investigators in unravelling the labyrinthine complexity of crooked deals.
The book looks back over the past three decades, but signposts our future too. Because everything we have done up until now turns out to have been a rehearsal for the biggest challenge we have ever embarked upon.
Everything we do now is targeted to tackling the climate crisis, from exposing the finance and supply chains that are destroying the world’s last tropical rainforests, putting a lie to the propaganda but out by the fossil fuel industry that they are part of the solution, working to ensure that the extraction of minerals central to the energy transition are not resulting in human rights and environmental abuses, and focusing attention on the terrible violence perpetrated on indigenous peoples and local communities, the very people who’re defending the rest of us on the frontline of the climate war.
I really enjoyed writing Very Bad People. It was good to remember where we came from and to reconnect with old friends; it was good to remember who some of the villains are (and I hope the book upsets them as much as our campaigns have done); and most of all it was good to remember our founding ethos that, as today’s climate youth activists have so brilliantly shown, everyone can make a difference. You just have to try.
And with that, I’ll move on to the next subject, which, God
Knows, can be a little problematic. It’s very odd having someone film you when
you’re typing away, but I shall persevere.