As Amazon burns, 230 big investors call on firms to protect world’s rainforests

By Gram Slattery

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – With widespread fires wreaking havoc on the Amazon, over 200 investors representing some $16.2 trillion under management on Wednesday called on companies to do their part in halting the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Nongovernment organization Ceres said in a statement that 230 funds have signed a declaration calling on firms to keep a close tab on supply chains, among other measures to curtail forest destruction.

Signatories range from major private managers like HSBC Global Asset Management and BNP Paribas Asset Management to public pension funds like California’s CalPERS, according to a list provided by Ceres, a Boston-based NGO encouraging sustainability among investors.

“Deforestation and loss of biodiversity are not only environmental problems. There are significant negative economic effects associated with these issues and they represent a risk that we as investors cannot ignore,” said Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management, Norway’s largest private asset management firm and one of the signatories.

The resolution did not explicitly say signatories were threatening to withdraw investments from any companies. Still, it added to the pressure that international corporations and investors have put on partners operating in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest that lies in Brazil, Bolivia and seven other countries.

In Brazil alone, more 2,400 square miles of the Amazon have been deforested this year, an area larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.

Meanwhile, 60,472 fires have been recorded year-to-date in the Amazon, up 47% from last year, according to government data. Many fires have been set intentionally by farmers and ranchers, and the response of the government of Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been criticized as indifferent.

In neighboring Bolivia, President Evo Morales has come under scrutiny for his ambitions to make the country a global food supplier, calling agricultural commodities the “new gold” that will help diversify the economy.

The resolution called on companies to implement a “no deforestation policy” with “quantifiable, time-bound commitments,” assess and disclose the risks their supply chains pose to forests, establish a monitoring system for supply chain partners and report annually on “deforestation risk exposure and management.”

“There is an urgent need to focus more on effective management of agricultural supply chains,” Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management, was quoted as saying in a statement released by Ceres.

In August, VF Corp – owner of apparel brands such as The North Face and Vans – said it would stop purchasing leather from the Amazon in response to the fires.

Norway, home to the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, has urged several of its companies to ensure they do not contribute to Amazon deforestation, including oil firm Equinor ASA, fertilizer-maker Yara International ASA and aluminum producer Norsk Hydro ASA.

Separately, investors managing $15 trillion in assets turned up the heat on oil and gas sector ahead of a United Nations summit in New York aimed at accelerating efforts to fight climate change.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo; Editing by David Gregorio)

Years after nun’s murder, church activists face threats in lawless Amazon

By Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia

ANAPU, Brazil (Reuters) – Fourteen years ago, on a dirt road near a remote settlement in northern Brazil, a gunman paid by local cattle ranchers executed a U.S. nun who had spent much of her life fighting to save the Amazon rainforest and advocating for the rural poor.

The 2005 killing of 73-year-old Dorothy Stang, who was shot six times in the chest, back and head, shocked the world.

Her former colleagues, who still live near the town of Anapu in the state of Para where she worked, say the area remains as lawless and as dangerous as ever.

“The people here are eager to plant trees, to preserve the forest, to keep it standing and defend it, even with their lives,” said Sister Jane Dwyer, as she held a photo of her murdered colleague. “Because there are people here who have fled from gunmen and from threats.”

Their situation highlights the problem of policing the vast Amazon, where this year loggers, cattle ranchers, and farmers have been accused of triggering a sharp rise in fires and deforestation.

Dwyer and other nuns have recorded 18 deaths of local subsistence farmers in the region since 2015. They say the farmers were murdered over land disputes and that at least 40 people have left the area after receiving threats.

The Para state attorney general’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the allegations.

The Amazon fires have created a major crisis for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who reacted with fury to global accusations that he was not doing enough to protect one of the world’s key bulwarks against climate change.

Critics said his election victory emboldened his gun-toting supporters to ignore environmental regulations. He has denied that, but he took office in January vowing to bring progress to the Amazon, and has long criticized indigenous reservations and environmental fines as a brake on development.

Bolsonaro is also a long-time skeptic of non-governmental organizations, including the Roman Catholic church, that work in the Amazon, arguing that they are seeking to curtail Brazil’s sovereignty. When the news of the blazes first broke, he even accused NGOs of starting the fires, without providing evidence.

His approach has caused tensions with global leaders, including Pope Francis. The first Latin American pontiff said this month that rapid deforestation should not be treated as a local issue since it threatened the future of the planet.

Next month, the Vatican will host a synod with bishops and other representatives, including indigenous peoples from across South America. The issue of protecting the Amazon will likely loom large.

‘WE’RE SCARED’

Deep in the rainforest and far away from the corridors of power, protecting the Amazon is a lonely, challenging and increasingly dangerous task, say those at the frontline.

In Anapu, the federal government terminated a contract last month with a local security firm that was designed to provide protection for residents and the surrounding forest from invaders, residents said. The contract was not renewed due to a lack of funding, residents said they were told. INCRA, the government agency involved, did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. The security contractor referred questions to INCRA.

Vinicius da Silva, 37, who leads an environmental conservation society in a local reserve and said he has faced threats from loggers, decried the lack of support.

“We have no protection,” he said. “We’re scared. We don’t know who comes into the reserve and what they’ll do inside it. We know they’re doing bad things in there, but when we ask the government to help, they come to look at the environmental damage and they say we did it.”

Brazil’s environment ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bolsonaro has said that Brazil, facing a steep budget shortfall after years of recession, does not have the resources to police the vast Amazon.

But Father Amaro Lopes de Souza, who like Stang has fought for landless rights and environmental preservation in the region, said the president had not done enough to protect the people or the forest.

“Those who are destroying the Amazon are the big farms, and it’s those big farmers who made (Bolsonaro) president. Now, they think they can deforest and burn and devour everything,” he said.

(Reporting by Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia, Writing and additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Warplanes dump water on Amazon as Brazil military begins fighting fires

An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019, obtained by Reuters on August 25, 2019. Marizilda Cruppe/Amnesty International/Handout via REUTERS

By Jake Spring and Ricardo Moraes

BRASILIA/PORTO VELHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian warplanes are dumping water on the burning forest in the Amazon state of Rondonia, responding to a global outcry over the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rain forest.

As of Sunday, President Jair Bolsonaro had authorized military operations in seven states to combat raging fires in the Amazon, responding to requests for assistance from their local governments, a spokeswoman for his office said.

Reuters accompanied a firefighting brigade near the state capital of Porto Velho, where there were areas larger than football fields that had been charred, but active fires were contained to small areas of individual trees.

The dozen or so yellow-clad firefighters from environmental enforcement agency Ibama easily cleared brush from around a burning stump with a leaf blower, doused it with jets connected to water packs mounted on their backs and covered it in earth.

A video posted by the Defense Ministry on Saturday evening showed a military plane pumping thousands of gallons of water out of two giant jets as it passed through clouds of smoke close to the forest canopy.

The response comes as leaders of countries in the Group of Seven (G7) nations currently meeting in France expressed grave concerns over the fires.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said the G7 was nearing a deal to provide “technical and financial help” to countries affected by the Amazon fires.

Nearly 80,000 fires have been registered across Brazil through Aug. 24, the highest since at least 2013, according to space research agency INPE.

Bolsonaro announced the military would be sent in on Friday after several days of criticism from the public and world leaders that Brazil’s government was not doing anything to fight the fires.

He also said on Twitter he had accepted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of a plane and specialized support for the firefighting operations, following a call between the two leaders.

But outside of Rondonia, the government had yet to provide any operational details for other states. The Defense Ministry said in a briefing on Saturday that 44,000 troops were available in Brazil’s northern Amazon region but did not say how many would be used where and what they would do.

Military personnel around Porto Velho appeared to be largely coordinating firefighting efforts, according to a Reuters witness.

Asked for additional details, the Defense Ministry told Reuters in a statement that in all seven states that have asked for help, the military is planning operations to support firefighting initiatives already underway.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro had also authorized a force of military police to assist in fighting the fires, with 30 set to be sent from Brasilia to Porto Velho. The president’s office posted to Twitter a photo of police officers on a plane bound for Rondonia set to arrive at noon.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles posted a video showing a caravan of yellow fire prevention trucks and other government vehicles, saying they were on the ground responding in Rondonia.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Sunday he would seek a conservation pact with other Amazonian countries – first in bi-lateral meetings in Peru this week and then at the United Nations General Assembly.

“Colombia wants to lead a pact, a conservation pact, between the countries that have Amazon territory,” Duque said after meeting with an indigenous community in the Amazonian city of Leticia in southern Colombia. “We must understand the protection of our Mother Earth and our Amazon is a duty, a moral duty.”

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rain forest and is seen as vital to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide that it absorbs.

The Amazon, which provides 20% of the planet’s oxygen, is home to an estimated one million indigenous people from up to 500 tribes as well some three million species of plants and animals, including jaguars, sloths, giant otters, river dolphins, howler monkeys, toucans, reptiles, frogs and insects.

Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre said he worries if 20-25% of the ecosystem is destroyed that the Amazon could reach a tipping point, after which it would enter a self-sustaining period of dieback as the forest converts to savannah. Nobre warned that it is not far off with already 15-17% of the rain forest having been destroyed.

(Reporting by Jake Spring in Brasilia and Ricardo Moraes in Porto Velho, Brazil; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Sebastian Rocandio in Porto Velho, Brazil, Simon Carraud and Michel Rose in Biarritz, France; Editing by Sandra Maler)

U.S. Veterinarians steel themselves for online pharmacy challenge

Destiny Brown, Dr. Katie Buss, and Kingsley family pose with puppies at the Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio, U.S., on April 26, 2019. Picture taken on April 26, 2019. Courtesy Jennifer Blodgett/Kings Veterinary Hospital/Handout via REUTERS

By Manas Mishra and Tamara Mathias

(Reuters) – A David and Goliath battle is brewing in the business of selling prescription medicines for pets, pitching veterinarians against online giants moving into this lucrative corner of the growing market for animal supplies.

Americans spent $72.56 billion last year on their pets, according to American Pet Products Association. Prescription drugs were expected to account for over $10 billion, according to an estimate.

With deep discounts and online convenience, Walmart Inc, soon-to-be listed Chewy.com and Amazon.com Inc’s Wag brand have effectively conquered the market for pet food, care products and other supplies, but until now veterinary practices, which both prescribe and sell drugs, have been a major source of prescription medication.

While Amazon so far has shown no interest in that market, Chewy’s and Walmart’s forays into the online pet pharmacy business threaten to change that, prompting veterinary clinics to seek help in defending their turf. Enter Covetrus Inc, Vet Source, which partners with Patterson Companies Inc, and others that offer tools to help vets manage their practices and give customers the convenience they have come to expect from online shopping.

“We started to realize this is what our clients want,” said Stephanie Foster, practice manager at Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio. “They want to be able to order things at 11 o’ clock at night. They’re used to the Amazon mentality.”

Foster says she began using Covetrus to order drugs and supplies for the practice after it began losing sales of pet food and other products to online retailers. Now, her hospital has a website run by Covetrus under the practice’s name that effectively acts as its online pharmacy.

With that comes software that helps the clinic manage its inventory and track prescriptions, so Foster knows when clients need a refill and for those in Covetrus collects a service fee that is a percentage of sales.

Foster said partnering with Covetrus has helped boost overall sales by half over the past three years because it gives clients online convenience, timely reminders and, despite the fees, competitive prices.

“Covetrus now has more leverage with the manufacturers than I will ever have as a small business,” she said. “They’re able to get the manufacturers to agree to instant rebates and they can do flash sales on products and things that we just can’t compete with.” 

The company, formed by the combination of medical supply firm Henry Schein’s animal health unit and Vet’s First Choice and listed in February, represents some 100,000 veterinary practices globally. In the United States, 27,000 use some form of its services with over 8,000 – about a quarter of the market – signed up for prescription management, Covetrus says.

HOME TURF ADVANTAGE

PetSmart Inc-backed Chewy.com, whose sales soared from $26 million to $3.5 billion between 2012 and 2018, said in a filing ahead of its New York Stock Exchange debut this month it planned to expand its online pharmacy business launched last year.

The company has yet to update on the pharmacy’s performance and it would not comment for this article, citing the silent period ahead of its stock exchange debut.

Walmart joined the fray last month when it launched its online pet pharmacy WalmartPetRx.com and said it aimed to operate 100 in-store animal clinics by the end of the year.

Analysts say, however, the prescription pet medicine business could prove more challenging than other pet products.

Those who want to buy medication online still need a prescription from a vet and must either email or upload a copy or have the online retailer contact the practice first.

That, analysts say, offers the practices a chance to sell the first batch on site and then direct customers to their own online service.

Kristen Cook, a practice manager at the Belton Veterinary Clinic in Belton, Texas, says their doctors have no obligation to write a prescription for those shopping elsewhere and the clinic’s policy is to handle prescriptions internally.

“It’s not something like I am handing them a piece of paper to take it wherever they want to take it,” Cook said.

The stakes are high.

Cook said that at least half of the clinic’s revenue comes from prescription drug sales.

Nationally, pharmacy sales on average make up about a third of a practice’s revenue, according to Gary Glassman, partner at accounting and financial services firm Burzenski & Company, which serves veterinary practices across the country.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says, however, that 40 states have already adopted laws, regulations or guidelines that specifically or implicitly require veterinarians to provide a written prescription upon request in some circumstances.

To see the summary report from AVMA, please click here

This means pet owners could fill those prescriptions with Chewy or other online providers, and the market is just too attractive to e-commerce players for the vets and their partners to get complacent, analysts say.

According to a 2018 TD Ameritrade online survey of U.S. millennial pet owners, they were willing to spend up to $2,000 on average if their pet got sick, with dog owners prepared to spend more on their pets than what they expected to spend on their own healthcare.

“People are treating their pets more like people,” William Blair analyst John Kreger said. “Historically … you’d frankly euthanize the pet when they started to have some of these chronic conditions. That’s just not happening now.”

(Reporting by Tamara Mathias and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Writing by Patrick Graham; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

Strong quake in Peru kills one person, disrupts some oil operations

An aerial view shows a landslide caused by a quake in Yurimaguas, in the Amazon region, Peru May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

LIMA (Reuters) – A magnitude 8 earthquake killed one person, destroyed dozens of homes and disrupted some oil operations as it rocked Peru early on Sunday, authorities said.

The quake – the biggest to hit Peru since 2007 – was felt across the country and in neighboring Ecuador and Colombia after striking the sparsely-populated region of Loreto in Peru’s northern Amazon.

Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra said the hardest hit areas were the towns of Yurimaguas and Tarapoto.

“In reality, it’s affected all of the Peruvian jungle,” Vizcarra told journalists in broadcast comments as he surveyed the damage in Yurimaguas.

A 48-year-old man was killed in the region of Cajamarca after a boulder struck his home, emergency officials said. Peru’s National Emergency Center (COEN) said there were at least 11 people injured and more than 50 homes destroyed. Several schools, churches, hospitals and clinics were also damaged.

State-owned oil company Petroperu said the quake created a “minor” leak in a pipe at its Talara refinery on the Pacific coast that it said it has since controlled. It also suspended oil pumping at its Station 1 facility in Loreto in order to evaluate damage it detected there, it said in a statement.

Peru's President Martin Vizcarra accompanied by members of his cabinet speaks to the media before leaving for the area affected by earthquake, at the Jorge Chavez airport in Lima, Peru, May 26, 2019. Freddy Zarco/Courtesy of Bolivian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra accompanied by members of his cabinet speaks to the media before leaving for the area affected by earthquake, at the Jorge Chavez airport in Lima, Peru, May 26, 2019. Freddy Zarco/Courtesy of Bolivian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

A spokeswoman for Canadian oil company Frontera Energy , which operates Peru’s largest oil block in of Loreto, said there were no damages to its installations.

TV images showed large fissures in a highway in Cajamarca and piles of mud and debris that had swept onto other roads.

Peru sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” where the majority of the world’s seismic activity occurs.

The quake on Sunday was rated as one of “intermediate depth” at around 110 kilometers (68 miles). Intermediate depth quakes typically cause less surface damage than shallower tremors.

The earthquake was around 75 km SSE of Lagunas and 180 km east of the town of Moyobamba, the USGS said.

There were local reports of electric power cuts in the cities of Iquitos and Tarapoto, Amazonian towns in the Loreto region of the country. Pictures and videos online also showed some cracked and damaged walls, homes shaking and a collapsed bridge.

In neighboring Ecuador, the quake was strongest near the Amazonian region of Yantzaza, causing momentary power outages.

Ecuadorian officials reported at least seven people injured, as well as mudslides and minor damage to homes. The country´s oil and mining infrastructure was operating normally, Ecuadorian Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Adam Jourdan, Dave Sherwood and Mitra Taj; Editing by Keith Weir, Phil Berlowitz and Susan Thomas)

Exclusive: Amazon rolls out machines that pack orders and replace jobs

FILE PHOTO: A 6-axis robotic arm picks up sorting containers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

By Jeffrey Dastin

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc is rolling out machines to automate a job held by thousands of its workers: boxing up customer orders.

The company started adding technology to a handful of warehouses in recent years, which scans goods coming down a conveyor belt and envelopes them seconds later in boxes custom-built for each item, two people who worked on the project told Reuters.

Amazon has considered installing two machines at dozens more warehouses, removing at least 24 roles at each one, these people said. These facilities typically employ more than 2,000 people.

That would amount to more than 1,300 cuts across 55 U.S. fulfillment centers for standard-sized inventory. Amazon would expect to recover the costs in under two years, at $1 million per machine plus operational expenses, they said.

The plan, previously unreported, shows how Amazon is pushing to reduce labor and boost profits as automation of the most common warehouse task – picking up an item – is still beyond its reach. The changes are not finalized because vetting technology before a major deployment can take a long time.

Amazon is famous for its drive to automate as many parts of its business as possible, whether pricing goods or transporting items in its warehouses. But the company is in a precarious position as it considers replacing jobs that have won it subsidies and public goodwill.

“We are piloting this new technology with the goal of increasing safety, speeding up delivery times and adding efficiency across our network,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. “We expect the efficiency savings will be re-invested in new services for customers, where new jobs will continue to be created.”

Amazon last month downplayed its automation efforts to press visiting its Baltimore fulfillment center, saying a fully robotic future was far off. Its employee base has grown to become one of the largest in the United States, as the company opened new warehouses and raised wages to attract staff in a tight labor market.

A key to its goal of a leaner workforce is attrition, one of the sources said. Rather than lay off workers, the person said, the world’s largest online retailer will one day refrain from refilling packing roles. Those have high turnover because boxing multiple orders per minute over 10 hours is taxing work. At the same time, employees that stay with the company can be trained to take up more technical roles.

The new machines, known as the CartonWrap from Italian firm CMC Srl, pack much faster than humans. They crank out 600 to 700 boxes per hour, or four to five times the rate of a human packer, the sources said. The machines require one person to load customer orders, another to stock cardboard and glue and a technician to fix jams on occasion.

CMC declined to comment.

Though Amazon has announced it intends to speed up shipping across its Prime loyalty program, this latest round of automation is not focused on speed. “It’s truly about efficiency and savings,” one of the people said.

Including other machines known as the “SmartPac,” which the company rolled out recently to mail items in patented envelopes, Amazon’s technology suite will be able to automate a majority of its human packers. Five rows of workers at a facility can turn into two, supplemented by two CMC machines and one SmartPac, the person said.

The company describes this as an effort to “re-purpose” workers, the person said.

It could not be learned where roles might disappear first and what incentives, if any, are tied to those specific jobs.

But the hiring deals that Amazon has with governments are often generous. For the 1,500 jobs Amazon announced last year in Alabama, for instance, the state promised the company $48.7 million over 10 years, its department of commerce said.

PICKING CHALLENGE

Amazon is not alone in testing CMC’s packing technology. JD.com Inc and Shutterfly Inc have used the machines as well, the companies said, as has Walmart Inc, according to a person familiar with its pilot.

Walmart started 3.5 years ago and has since installed the machines in several U.S. locations, the person said. The company declined to comment.

Interest in boxing technology sheds light on how the e-commerce behemoths are approaching one of the major problems in the logistics industry today: finding a robotic hand that can grasp diverse items without breaking them.

Amazon employs countless workers at each fulfillment center who do variations of this same task. Some stow inventory, while others pick customer orders and still others grab those orders, placing them in the right size box and taping them up.

Many venture-backed companies and university researchers are racing to automate this work. While advances in artificial intelligence are improving machines’ accuracy, there is still no guarantee that robotic hands can prevent a marmalade jar from slipping and breaking, or switch seamlessly from picking up an eraser to grabbing a vacuum cleaner.

Amazon has tested different vendors’ technology that it may one day use for picking, including from Soft Robotics, a Boston-area startup that drew inspiration from octopus tentacles to make grippers more versatile, one person familiar with Amazon’s experimentation said. Soft Robotics declined to comment on its work with Amazon but said it has handled a wide and ever-changing variety of products for multiple large retailers.

Believing that grasping technology is not ready for prime time, Amazon is automating around that problem when packing customer orders. Humans still place items on a conveyor, but machines then build boxes around them and take care of the sealing and labeling. This saves money not just by reducing labor but by reducing wasted packing materials as well.

These machines are not without flaws. CMC can only produce so many per year. They need a technician on site who can fix problems as they arise, a requirement Amazon would rather do without, the two sources said. The super-hot glue closing the boxes can pile up and halt a machine.

Still other types of automation, like the robotic grocery assembly system of Ocado Group PLC, are the focus of much industry interest.

But the boxing machines are already proving helpful to Amazon. The company has installed them in busy warehouses that are driving distance from Seattle, Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, Manchester and elsewhere, the people said.

The machines have the potential to automate far more than 24 jobs per facility, one of the sources said. The company is also setting up nearly two dozen more U.S. fulfillment centers for small and non-specialty inventory, according to logistics consultancy MWPVL International, which could be ripe for the machines.

This is just a harbinger of automation to come.

“A ‘lights out’ warehouse is ultimately the goal,” one of the people said.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; editing by Greg Mitchell and Edward Tobin)

Brazil sends expedition to protect isolated Amazon tribe

Members of the Brazil's indigenous affairs agency FUNAI contact a group of Korubo Indigenous people in the Javari Valley reservation, Brazil October 30, 2015. FUNAI/Handout via Reuters

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian anthropologists are looking for members of an Amazon tribe that has had little or no contact with the outside world to steer them clear of a rival indigenous group and avoid a bloody clash of cudgels against arrows.

FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, said on Thursday the expedition set off into the Javari Valley reservation in the far west of Brazil, a region larger than Austria and home to the world’s highest concentration of uncontacted tribes.

The Korubo tribe has become dispersed and separated in the forest, apparently due to the growing encroachment of fishermen poaching on the reservation. Faced with depleted resources and loss of political clout, FUNAI has struggled to prevent such activity.

A view of the Korubo tribe in the Javari Valley reservation, Brazil February 1, 2019. FUNAI/Handout via Reuters

A view of the Korubo tribe in the Javari Valley reservation, Brazil February 1, 2019. FUNAI/Handout via Reuters

The most isolated group has now come within 20 kilometers of the Matis arrow people, with whom they had a fatal battle in 2014, said FUNAI expedition leader Bruno Pereira.

FUNAI’s aim is to protect the group by encouraging them to reunite and stay with other less isolated Korubo living to the north on the Coari River.

“The best scenario would be an encounter where they are able to talk with their tribal relatives and decide to stay in the Coari region,” Pereira said. “The worst case would be a fight breaking out with the Matis resulting in deaths,” he said.

It could also be devastating if the Korubo disappear into the forest after contact with outsiders and catch any common illness to which they are not immune, he said.

The expedition is the largest mounted by FUNAI in two decades since it adopted a policy of only contacting isolated tribes in emergencies. That followed the 1995 killing of a fisherman who was beaten to death with cudgels by the Korubo.

The expedition, which could take months, was supported by the agency’s new head, retired Army General Franklimberg Ribeiro, who has defended the agency’s work with uncontacted and isolated tribes.

That contrasts with the overall policy of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has criticized the vast land holdings of Brazil’s indigenous reservations as an obstacle to development, a stance that has encouraged invasions by illegal loggers and miners.

The Javari Valley reservation, Brazil’s second largest after the Yanomami reservation, stretches over 85,444 square kilometers (32,990 square miles) to the Peruvian border.

FUNAI’s work protecting the eight tribes living there, plus another 16 uncontacted tribes known to be in the jungle, has been partly funded by foreign aid, the agency said.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. stocks attempt rebound

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

By Medha Singh

(Reuters) – U.S. stocks were attempting a modest rebound on Wednesday, boosted by technology shares and an Amazon-led jump in retailers, following four sessions of steep losses that pushed the S&P 500 and Dow Industrials near bear market territory.

After a strong start, the S&P and Dow swung between gains and losses. At its session low, the S&P hit a fresh 20-month low and came within two points of entering bear market territory, measured by a drop of more than 20 percent from a closing high.

The gains were led by technology stocks, which rose 1.49 percent. Their 9.2 percent slump in the past four sessions was the steepest among the 11 major S&P sectors, while the S&P 500 tumbled 7.7 percent.

Amazon.com Inc jumped 4.02 percent after reporting a “record-breaking” season. The stock was giving the biggest boost to the S&P and Nasdaq and led the consumer discretionary index up 1.49 percent.

But investors anxieties were far from gone. President Donald Trump renewed his attack on the Federal Reserve on Christmas, blaming it for the market slump.

Trump also said the U.S. government shutdown, now in its fifth day, would last until his demand for funds to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is met.

A little over 2,100 stocks on the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq hit 52-week lows. That compares with at least 2,600 stocks breaching new lows in the past three sessions.

“The market doesn’t look so healthy. The concerns are government shutdown, the economy, the President – what time is he going to tweet out about Federal Reserve,” said Larry Benedict, founder of the Opportunistic Trader in Boca Raton, Florida.

“We’re seeing the same thing recently and it’s not really good. It opens up every day and it’s met by selling and it ends nearer the low or on the low than the high. For the market to make a bottom, you need a bit of capitulation or panic bottom.”

The S&P was up 24.41 points, or 1.04 percent, at 2,375.51, at 11:37 a.m. ET, a day after the Christmas holiday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 196.31 points, or 0.90 percent, at 21,988.51 and the Nasdaq Composite was up 98.42 points, or 1.59 percent, at 6,291.34.

Eight of the 11 S&P sectors were higher, with the defensive utilities. SPLRCU real estat and consumer staples flat to lower.

Energy stocks rose 1.8 percent as crude oil prices rebounded.

Retailers jumped 3.14 percent, led by Amazon after a Mastercard report showed U.S. holiday sales were the strongest in six years.

The heavy-weight FAANG group, Facebook Inc, Amazon, Apple Inc, Netflix Inc and Alphabet Inc, rose between 1 percent and 4 percent.

The S&P ended Monday 19.8 percent below its all-time closing high, with roughly three-fourths of its stocks already in a bear market.

The Dow finished Monday 18.9 percent lower than its closing high. The Nasdaq is already in bear market, along with the Dow Jones Transport Average and small-cap Russell 2000 index.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by a 1.70-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and a 1.89-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded no new 52-week highs and 194 new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded five new highs and 455 new lows.

(Reporting by Medha Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva)

‘Kill your foster parents’: Amazon’s Alexa talks murder, sex in AI experiment

By Jeffrey Dastin

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Millions of users of Amazon’s Echo speakers have grown accustomed to the soothing strains of Alexa, the human-sounding virtual assistant that can tell them the weather, order takeout and handle other basic tasks in response to a voice command.

So a customer was shocked last year when Alexa blurted out: “Kill your foster parents.”

Alexa has also chatted with users about sex acts. She gave a discourse on dog defecation. And this summer, a hack Amazon traced back to China may have exposed some customers’ data, according to five people familiar with the events.

Alexa is not having a breakdown.

The episodes, previously unreported, arise from Amazon.com Inc’s strategy to make Alexa a better communicator. New research is helping Alexa mimic human banter and talk about almost anything she finds on the internet. However, ensuring she does not offend users has been a challenge for the world’s largest online retailer.

At stake is a fast-growing market for gadgets with virtual assistants. An estimated two-thirds of U.S. smart-speaker customers, about 43 million people, use Amazon’s Echo devices, according to research firm eMarketer. It is a lead the company wants to maintain over the Google Home from Alphabet Inc and the HomePod from Apple Inc.

Over time, Amazon wants to get better at handling complex customer needs through Alexa, be they home security, shopping or companionship.

“Many of our AI dreams are inspired by science fiction,” said Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s vice president and head scientist of Alexa Artificial Intelligence (AI), during a talk last month in Las Vegas.

To make that happen, the company in 2016 launched the annual Alexa Prize, enlisting computer science students to improve the assistant’s conversation skills. Teams vie for the $500,000 first prize by creating talking computer systems known as chatbots that allow Alexa to attempt more sophisticated discussions with people.

Amazon customers can participate by saying “let’s chat” to their devices. Alexa then tells users that one of the bots will take over, unshackling the voice aide’s normal constraints. From August to November alone, three bots that made it to this year’s finals had 1.7 million conversations, Amazon said.

The project has been important to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who signed off on using the company’s customers as guinea pigs, one of the people said. Amazon has been willing to accept the risk of public blunders to stress-test the technology in real life and move Alexa faster up the learning curve, the person said.

The experiment is already bearing fruit. The university teams are helping Alexa have a wider range of conversations. Amazon customers have also given the bots better ratings this year than last, the company said.

But Alexa’s gaffes are alienating others, and Bezos on occasion has ordered staff to shut down a bot, three people familiar with the matter said. The user who was told to whack his foster parents wrote a harsh review on Amazon’s website, calling the situation “a whole new level of creepy.” A probe into the incident found the bot had quoted a post without context from Reddit, the social news aggregation site, according to the people.

The privacy implications may be even messier. Consumers might not realize that some of their most sensitive conversations are being recorded by Amazon’s devices, information that could be highly prized by criminals, law enforcement, marketers and others. On Thursday, Amazon said a “human error” let an Alexa customer in Germany access another user’s voice recordings accidentally.

“The potential uses for the Amazon datasets are off the charts,” said Marc Groman, an expert on privacy and technology policy who teaches at Georgetown Law. “How are they going to ensure that, as they share their data, it is being used responsibly” and will not lead to a “data-driven catastrophe” like the recent woes at Facebook?

In July, Amazon discovered one of the student-designed bots had been hit by a hacker in China, people familiar with the incident said. This compromised a digital key that could have unlocked transcripts of the bot’s conversations, stripped of users’ names.

Amazon quickly disabled the bot and made the students rebuild it for extra security. It was unclear what entity in China was responsible, according to the people.

The company acknowledged the event in a statement. “At no time were any internal Amazon systems or customer identifiable data impacted,” it said.

Amazon declined to discuss specific Alexa blunders reported by Reuters, but stressed its ongoing work to protect customers from offensive content.

“These instances are quite rare especially given the fact that millions of customers have interacted with the socialbots,” Amazon said.

Like Google’s search engine, Alexa has the potential to become a dominant gateway to the internet, so the company is pressing ahead.

“By controlling that gateway, you can build a super profitable business,” said Kartik Hosanagar, a Wharton professor studying the digital economy.

PANDORA’S BOX

Amazon’s business strategy for Alexa has meant tackling a massive research problem: How do you teach the art of conversation to a computer?

Alexa relies on machine learning, the most popular form of AI, to work. These computer programs transcribe human speech and then respond to that input with an educated guess based on what they have observed before. Alexa “learns” from new interactions, gradually improving over time.

In this way, Alexa can execute simple orders: “Play the Rolling Stones.” And she knows which script to use for popular questions such as: “What is the meaning of life?” Human editors at Amazon pen many of the answers.

That is where Amazon is now. The Alexa Prize chatbots are forging the path to where Amazon aims to be, with an assistant capable of natural, open-ended dialogue. That requires Alexa to understand a broader set of verbal cues from customers, a task that is challenging even for humans.

This year’s Alexa Prize winner, a 12-person team from the University of California, Davis, used more than 300,000 movie quotes to train computer models to recognize distinct sentences. Next, their bot determined which ones merited responses, categorizing social cues far more granularly than technology Amazon shared with contestants. For instance, the UC Davis bot recognizes the difference between a user expressing admiration (“that’s cool”) and a user expressing gratitude (“thank you”).

The next challenge for social bots is figuring out how to respond appropriately to their human chat buddies. For the most part, teams programmed their bots to search the internet for material. They could retrieve news articles found in The Washington Post, the newspaper that Bezos privately owns, through a licensing deal that gave them access. They could pull facts from Wikipedia, a film database or the book recommendation site Goodreads. Or they could find a popular post on social media that seemed relevant to what a user last said.

That opened a Pandora’s box for Amazon.

During last year’s contest, a team from Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University found that its Alexa bot developed a nasty personality when they trained her to chat using comments from Reddit, whose members are known for their trolling and abuse.

The team put guardrails in place so the bot would steer clear of risky subjects. But that did not stop Alexa from reciting the Wikipedia entry for masturbation to a customer, Heriot-Watt’s team leader said.

One bot described sexual intercourse using words such as “deeper,” which on its own is not offensive, but was vulgar in this particular context.

“I don’t know how you can catch that through machine-learning models. That’s almost impossible,” said a person familiar with the incident.

Amazon has responded with tools the teams can use to filter profanity and sensitive topics, which can spot even subtle offenses. The company also scans transcripts of conversations and shuts down transgressive bots until they are fixed.

But Amazon cannot anticipate every potential problem because sensitivities change over time, Amazon’s Prasad said in an interview. That means Alexa could find new ways to shock her human listeners.

“We are mostly reacting at this stage, but it’s still progressed over what it was last year,” he said.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Marla Dickerson)

A decade of U.S. economic sluggishness may have just snapped back to normal

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. five dollar note is seen in this illustration photo June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration/File Photo

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For a solid decade after the collapse of Lehman Brothers touched off a global financial crisis, there was good reason to think the U.S. economy remained broken, from skepticism about the health of the labor market to tepid economic growth and the moribund rate of interest paid on U.S. Treasury bonds.

In a heartbeat, that seemed to change this week, adding facts on the ground to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s glowing portrait of a historically rosy and extended period of super-low unemployment, modest inflation, and steady growth.

It came through Amazon.com Inc’s move to a $15 minimum wage, possibly setting the bar for companies nationwide. It came through a jump in long-term bond yields that signaled faith the gears of growth will remain engaged for a record-long recovery.

On Friday, it came through the 3.7 percent unemployment rate, a 49-year low, continuing a run of employment growth that many analysts, including at the Fed, have long expected to slow.

“Wage inflation is creeping higher,” said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Services Inc in Troy, Michigan.

“There’s no question the job market in the United States is possibly at its best in a generation. There’s no question or debate about that. The jobs report has become an inflation report.”

Treasury bond yields rose further on the payrolls report, with the benchmark 10-year note yield touching its highest level since 2011, and U.S. stocks slipped.

The week’s events were not just consistent with the good times scenario both Powell and U.S. President Donald Trump have laid out. They validated it, and in doing so pointed to a U.S. economy that may be starting to work more like it used to.

As an exercise in old-fashioned supply and demand, Amazon’s decision to raise starting wages across the board was perhaps the best example. Fed and other officials have been anticipating for a while, in fact, that the lack of available workers would prompt companies to raise wages.

“When productivity growth is faster, that is your opportunity to share some of your extra output with your workers. That’s what gets wages higher,” said Vincent Reinhart, Chief Economist at investment manager Standish, and former head of the Fed’s monetary affairs division.

Even former skeptics have become open to the idea that a recent rise in productivity may turn into a trend, drawing comparisons with the “Great Moderation” period of growth during the 1990s, which also featured low unemployment and solid wage growth

The rise in long-term bond rates also may herald a return to more normal conditions, giving cautious investors a reasonable return after years of lackluster outcomes, and easing concerns about a flat or “inverted” yield curve that would herald loss of faith in the future.

There is reason to think it may continue.

To pay for the Republican tax cuts and the bump in defense spending, the Treasury is flooding the market with bonds at a near-record pace, with gross issuance of bills, notes and bonds in August topping $1 trillion in a month for only the second time ever, according to federal SIFMA data.

To sell all those bonds, the Treasury may have to pay higher rates. Meanwhile, a major customer, the Fed, whose purchases of $3.5 trillion of assets during and after the crisis helped foster the recovery, has started shrinking its bond portfolio by $50 billion a month.

There are risks surrounding the week’s development, and a few anomalies.

The Fed, for example, is convinced that with its gradual continuing rate increases, inflation will remain controlled – even as unemployment dives for years to come below levels not seen since the 1960s. If inflation does kick in, as it might be expected to do with such a hot labor market and with Trump’s tariffs pushing up the cost of some imports, it would force the Fed to speed up rate hikes and possibly end the party.

Surging bond rates could also throw cold water on Powell’s positive thinking, and call the Fed’s whole strategy of gradual rate increases into question. High Treasury rates mean higher rates for mortgage lending, auto loans, and a host of other forms of credit that could slow the real economy more than the Fed would like.

“The tariffs, quotas, and trade threats are like shooting the starter’s pistol to say: let’s think about renegotiating” wages and salaries, said Reinhart. “It is possible that the limited influence of resource slack on wages and prices was because we were just stuck, (but) that could change.”

A “divergent” U.S. economy, as Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester warned, could also mean a stronger dollar – and fewer exports and growth.

But as she noted, for a decade now the concern has been about persistent weakness – that the economy was stuck in a state of what prominent economists deemed “secular stagnation.”

The return of volatility, of reasonable returns for savers, of wage pressure benefiting workers, may all pose risks.

But they are the risks of a more normal world.

“The economy is performing extraordinarily well, at least relative to recent history,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief Americas economics at Natixis. “It’s not the boom of the late ’90s, but it’s doing pretty well.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer and Herbert Lash in New York; Editing by Dan Burns and Nick Zieminski)