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George Mason Students Sue University for Records on Koch Donations

Politics

By Samantha Parsons

George Mason University (GMU) students filed a lawsuit Thursday against George Mason University and fundraising arm, the George Mason University Foundation, in hopes of obtaining grant and gift agreements between private donors and the foundation.

Transparent GMU, the student organization that filed the suit, is concerned about the potential for private donors to influence students' education.

In 2014, Mason students began raising concerns about the school's close relationship to the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF), citing fears that CKF might have gained influence over their faculty, curriculum and research in exchange for large financial contributions.

Students filed their first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that year, seeking grant and gift agreements between the university and CKF. They were told that the documents were controlled by the GMU Foundation, which claimed to be exempt from Virginia's Freedom of Information Act. In response, students launched a grassroots campaign asking for the university to release the documents. For over two years their requests went ignored despite having collected over a thousand signatures from alumni, students, faculty and other concerned community members.

The lawsuit demonstrates these students' unwavering commitment to enforcing appropriate checks and balances over the public institution they call home. The students' legal argument asserts that their university is breaking the law by refusing to respond to their FOIA request, as a public university cannot simply conceal its records by outsourcing its public business to a private company like the foundation.

This is the first time students have sued their own university to force disclosure of agreements with the Charles Koch Foundation.

Koch and Higher Education

In the last few years, Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries have gained considerable attention for their large financial contributions to conservative political candidates and libertarian political organizations. However, through further investigation, students learned that the ability of the Koch brothers to exert long-term political influence does not actually depend on individual election outcomes. Instead, the Kochs rely on an integrated strategy penned by Richard Fink, President of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, in an essay called the Structure of Social Change.

As explained by Fink, Structure of Social Change begins with corporate-funded academic research or "raw intellectual materials." These ideas are then transformed into policy recommendations at Koch-funded think tanks, which often rely on the talent of other professors on Kochs' payroll. Koch-forged policies are then championed by Kochs' advocacy groups to lobby elected officials to enact the policies. Usually, the politicians themselves are beneficiaries of political cash from Koch Industries, Koch executives and Kochs' network of dark money nonprofits.

In a self-reinforcing cycle, Koch and his donor partners contract universities to bring students into their "talent pipeline," which produces staff for the Koch network's think tanks and political groups.

The ways in which Koch gains influence over universities in order to successfully incorporate them into this integrated strategy was first exposed at Florida State University. In a 2007 grant agreement, the Charles Koch Foundation required the university to provide it with input over hiring decisions, curriculum and research.

Just last month, a new report reviewing the agreement revealed that Kochs' "Undergraduate Program" involved donor creation of several new courses, donor influence over at least nine courses and donor control over introductory "principles" courses. Today, a Koch advisory board still has control over graduate fellowship selection and dissertation topics in Kochs' graduate and Ph.D fellowship program.

George Mason University in Virginia is ground zero for Koch influence in higher education. The school has received $95.5 million from the Charles Koch Foundation since 2005, earning it the title of "Koch U" from Center for Public Integrity investigative reporter Dave Levinthal.

Students wonder: If Koch could buy that type of influence at Florida State University for $2.3 million, how much has $95.5 million bought at George Mason?

Koch and GMU

In addition to providing massive donations through the GMU Foundation, Charles Koch plays a governing role at two think tanks on GMU's campus that receive his financial support.

The Mercatus Center conducts economics research that is used by Koch-funded political groups to advocate against taxes on the wealthy, on corporations and regulations that may affect corporate profitability. Mercatus is the model program which Koch has attempted to replicate at dozens of other schools hoping to exert a deregulatory influence in their respective state capitals.

The Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) coordinates networking and professional development opportunities for students interested in working at Koch-funded political groups. The curriculum taught during IHS fellowship seminars was recently criticized for being "designed more to help corporations fight regulations than to advance scholarly inquiry and understandings of political freedom" by a former student fellow.

Charles Koch sits on the Board of Directors of the Mercatus Center, which he founded and IHS, where he is the chairman. Fink, the longtime advisor who was nicknamed "Charles Koch's brain" by Koch biographer Daniel Schulman, helped Charles Koch establish the Mercatus Center and remains a member of its board.

Blazing the Trail

It is no secret that state investment in higher education continues to decrease, causing public universities to seek private donations to make up the difference. Most scholarships, professorships and new programs on campuses around the country would not be possible without contributions from private donors. However, academia's growing reliance on this private support brings with it a new set of challenges.

The ways in which the Charles Koch Foundation has been able to buy influence over higher education through "philanthropic" donations is a perfect example of such a challenge and demonstrates why the activities of public institutions, such as universities, should never be veiled in secrecy.

While there are still many questions to be raised and solutions to be debated regarding this changing landscape of higher education, the public must first be given the opportunity to participate in that debate. That requires transparency and students at George Mason are leading the charge to demand that they get to have their say.

Samantha Parsons is a 2016 graduate of George Mason University where she majored in Conflict Analysis and Resolution and focused her studies on structures of violence and social movements. She co-founded UnKoch My Campus.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

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The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

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Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

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