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Behind the fanfare of James Cleverly’s visit to Sierra Leone, the need to restore aid is starkly apparent | Global development

In the lush garden of the British High Commission in Sierra Leone, the UK foreign secretary James Cleverly addressed a gathering of mostly female politicians, campaigners and entrepreneurs: “You cannot have a successful country without successful women. The future of this country rests on the shoulders of strong, powerful women. You are the future of this country.”

It was International Women’s Day and Cleverly’s speech last week was the culmination of a whistlestop tour of his late mother’s birthplace. Earlier that day he had been welcomed to the southern city of Bo, the second largest in the country, by hundreds of people riding motorbikes and wearing T-shirts bearing the message: “The people of Bo Town warmly welcome Rt Hon James Cleverly.” Car horns were honked, schoolchildren and brass bands lined the road, and anxious radio exchanges were going on between the official cars as Foreign Office staff worried about the delay to the tight schedule.

“It’s not often I’m lost for words but this has been an unbelievable honour and wonderful to be back home,” said Cleverly when he finally arrived at Bo government hospital, before being whisked off to tour the neonatal unit.

The family connection was one reason Cleverly chose Sierra Leone to launch a new global gender equality strategy, the first since the Foreign Office merged with the Department for International Development in 2020. “I think of her [his mother] all the time in the work we do which is why I took the decision to do it in the country of her birth,” he said.

The other reason was that Sierra Leone looks like a poster child for bilateral aid. As the climate crisis and conflict worsen inequalities around the world, and extremist governments brutally suppress women fighting for the most basic rights, here is a country making great strides, transitioning from having one of the worst records globally on women’s health, education and equality to taking widely praised steps to improve the lives of 52% of its population.

The foreign secretary meeting with local chiefs in his mother’s home town of Bo.
The foreign secretary meeting with local chiefs in his mother’s home town of Bo. Photograph: Michael Duff/The Guardian

In partnership with Saving Lives in Sierra Leone, the FCDO’s leading health programme, the country has reduced maternal mortality rates from 1,165 per 100,000 in 2013 – the world’s highest – to 717 per 100,000 in 2019. Health minister Dr Austin Demby said the ambition is “to be like Finland” – where the rate is among the world’s lowest.

In November president Julius Maada Bio announced that a quarter of the national budget would be allocated to education. That same month Bio told the UK House of Lords of his vision to “nurture the talents and … mine the full potential of every child in Sierra Leone”, especially girls.

The safe motherhood bill, which overturns colonial-era laws to extend access to abortion, was hailed by rights groups as a “landmark moment”.

In January, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act was seen as another groundbreaking step for rights in these areas. The law stipulates that women must make up 30% of employees in public and private organisations, and that 30% of candidates put forward by any political party for parliamentary and local elections must be female; it also enshrines improvements in women’s access to finance, employment opportunities, equal pay and maternity leave.

Glimpses of this progress were visible as Cleverly – whose mother trained as a midwife in the UK after leaving Sierra Leone – was ushered from the hospital to an Islamic school and later to a sustainable forestry company called Miro – all projects funded by UK aid. At the Islamic Call secondary school, in one of the poorest areas of the city, the pupils were eager to tell him about the school’s trailblazing zero-tolerance policy on gender-based violence, and how they have been encouraged to report any abuse they experienced. “I didn’t know flogging was violence,” said one teenager.

James Cleverly talking to staff at the Bo government hospital in Sierra Leone.
James Cleverly talking to staff at the Bo government hospital in Sierra Leone. Photograph: Michael Duff/The Guardian

Filming himself surrounded by excited kids calling out the jobs they aspired to, Cleverly told his Twitter followers: “The UK, your money, supports projects like this, helping these young people develop, helping to educate … the future leaders – this makes such a difference.”

When the UK government circus comes to a place such as Bo, the mission is to capture these soundbites for social media, but casting a shadow over events is aid cuts. Even the projects selected to demonstrate the difference aid makes are not immune.

Saving Lives lost about 50% of its funding in 2022, according to Flaviour Nhawu, a public health specialist for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), forcing the group to scale back their work – including a reduction in family planning outreach teams and community engagement work.

As Cleverly stood in the playground highlighting the benefits of UK aid, the juniors principal of the school, Janet Howafai, said the support only extends to learning materials and transport for teachers to attend training sessions. The school has nowhere near enough money to build on the work it has started. “We are happy to receive him”, Howafai said of the visit, “but we want to ask him to provide funding.

“There are a lot of constraints, even the building isn’t enough for us. We need a room for mentors to talk to girls in private. We need a fence to improve security. Even sanitary towels – girls are using native pads.”

A lack of money is hardly surprising. A £4.2bn cut in British aid in 2021 – including slashing its contribution to the UN population fund, UNFPA, by 85% (providing 40% of the world’s contraception) – has had a devastating impact globally, bringing accusations the government is abandoning women.

The overall budget has been further diminished by the decision to allow the Home Office to raid the overseas aid pot to support refugees in the UK, shortchanging the world’s poorest people, according to a report by the international development committee (IDC) earlier this month. “The haemorrhaging of funds from the FCDO’s budget to the Home Office is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Sarah Champion, the committee chair.

James Cleverly with pupils at the Islamic Call Secondary School in Bo.
Cleverly visiting the Islamic Call secondary school in Bo to see how FCDO-funded projects are helping pupils. Photograph: Michael Duff/The Guardian

On the same day Cleverly was promoting his plan in Sierra Leone to “put women and girls at the heart of our international work”, the IDC was launching another inquiry, this time into how cuts have affected sexual and reproductive health programmes in lower-income countries.

The IRC also launched a report – Why Wait? – calling on the government to restore funding. “The lack of funding to women’s rights and women-led organisations is an alarming oversight that disenfranchises women’s voices, capacities, leadership, and agency,” said Inah Kaloga, the senior director of violence response and protection at the IRC.

All of which raises the question: how will the new strategy, launched with such fanfare, be funded?

Cleverly doesn’t like that query. Speaking exclusively to the Guardian in Freetown, he declined to put a figure on the plan.

“It’s the wrong question,” he said. “The point is, it’s not about inputs, it’s about outputs. The hospital facility [in Bo] we were at, we’ve had to reduce our direct bilateral funding, but we are working to ensure that project continues by leveraging in money from the World Bank and US Aid. It’s making sure the outputs continue – and one key output was the reduction in child mortality. It’s not about our bilateral input, it’s about their ability to deliver.”

He went on to say the fact that the reduction in overseas development aid (ODA) expenditure had had an impact was proof that aid could make a difference. “If we were saying that we could reduce ODA expenditure without having any detrimental impact, by definition it would mean much of that expenditure wasn’t making a difference.”

“Diplomacy” and “creative” approaches were also key to plugging development gaps, he said.

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“I can’t make more money. We’ve got the constraints we’ve got … until that economic envelope gives me more money, we’ve got to box clever. What I’m saying to people across the [government’s development] network – slightly unfairly I know – is that I’m asking them to work even smarter still, be really innovative and really creative.”

ODA will return to the UN-recommended 0.7% – the Conservatives controversially slashed it to 0.5% in 2021 – he said, though not when, “and the best practice we’re baking into the system will mean that when that money does come back on stream we can use it even more effectively”.

Someone wearing a T-shirt with "The people of Bo Town warmly welcome Rt Hon James Cleverly" written on it.
Hundreds of people, some wearing T-shirts like the above, came out to greet Cleverly on his visit to Bo. Photograph: Courtesy of Sierra Leone High Commission UK

A second round of sanctions against individuals who perpetuate sexual violence, announced at the same time, are another tool in the fight against growing threats against women, Cleverly said. “The message I want to send to people who abuse women around the world is we’re watching and we’re going to come after you.”

The FCDO also launched a new £38m programme to support women’s rights organisations globally, with about £650,000 to be spent in Sierra Leone.

The death of a two-year-old during Cleverly’s visit was a stark reminder of the desperate need to fund grassroots activism. While the cause of death has not been confirmed, campaigners against female genital mutilation believe the girl bled to death after being cut. FGM is often performed by secret female societies. According to reports the police intercepted one of the societies as they buried the child.

Rugiatu Turay, an anti-FGM campaigner and founder of the Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM), was among those present at the British High Commission reception. She said any strategy seeking to address violence against women must include ending FGM: “FGM is the missing link. FGM links to wider violence against women such as early marriage and maternal deaths.”

Decades of campaigning in Sierra Leone have had some impact: awareness is higher and some communities have agreed to alternative, non-harmful ceremonies, but the rate of FGM is still 86% – and the proposed child rights law stops short of banning the practice. Instead it will introduce 18 as the age of consent for FGM, a controversial notion.

“Their argument is that women have the right to make decisions over their bodies, but how can I consent to hurt my body?” said Turay.

Also at the event were others who challenged the idea that Sierra Leone is making progress.

Dr Nemata Majeks-Walker founded the 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone, which encourages women’s participation in politics, and is scathing about the gender equality bill: “I’m so angry about it. We have been fighting about [fair representation] for years. The new law does not capture most of what we wanted. It’s lip service. By now we should be 50% but they don’t want us to have their seats; they feel intimidated; they feel women will take their place.”

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown. Photograph: Ole Jensen/Getty Images

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown, who announced on 6 March her intention to run for a second term, agreed. “This is a government that says and doesn’t do. There is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality – they are very good at making announcements. [But it is] a cynical exercise to meet international indexes and to check all the boxes.”

Aki-Sawyerr’s progressive policies, particularly on the climate crisis, have won her plaudits internationally, but in Sierra Leone she has been harassed, intimidated, falsely accused of inciting deadly protests last August and arrested. “They are obsessed with removing me from the political space. You could say I pose a threat – which is rooted in the fact that women are more development oriented and less likely to be involved in corruption.”

Femi Claudius Cole, the founder of the Unity party and the only female leader of a political party in Sierra Leone, has also been arrested over orchestrating protests and had her passport confiscated – she has yet to get it back.

Perhaps it was this disconnect, between Cleverly’s warm words and the reality of being a “strong, powerful woman” in Sierra Leone, that riled Cole as she listened to his speech. “It’s makeup on a disfigurement,” she said of the event.

“We have these functions where we dress up and attend and make polite conversation, when just beneath the surface things haven’t changed at all. At the end of such a lovely evening, what’s our takeaway?

“What are we doing to help the women who have no Facebook pages, no Twitter account, no access to a microphone, no media outlets to engage them … what are we doing?”

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India’s deadly train crash renews questions over safety as government pushes railway upgrade | International

India’s prime minister had been scheduled to inaugurate an electrical semi-high-speed train equipped with a safety feature — another step in the modernization of an antiquated railway that is the lifeline of the world’s most populous nation.

Instead on Saturday, Narendra Modi traveled to eastern Odisha state to deal with one of the country’s worst train disasters that left over 280 dead and hundreds injured. The massive derailment on Friday night involving two passenger trains is a stark reminder of safety issues that continue to challenge the vast railway system that transports nearly 22 million passengers each day.

India, a country of 1.42 billion people, has one of the world’s most extensive and complicated railways built during the British colonial era: more than 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) of tracks, 14,000 passenger trains and 8,000 stations. Spread across the country from the Himalayas in the north to the beaches in the south, it is also a system that is weakened by decades of mismanagement and neglect. Despite efforts to improve safety, several hundred accidents happen every year.

From 2017 to 2021, there were more than 100,000 train-related deaths in India, according to a 2022 report published by the National Crime Records Bureau. That figure includes cases in which passengers fell from the trains, collisions, and people being mowed by speeding trains on the tracks.

Official data also suggests derailments are the most common form of rail accidents in India, but have been on a decline in recent years.

According to India’s Comptroller and Auditor General, Indian Railways recorded 2,017 accidents from 2017 to 2021. Derailments accounted for 69% of the accidents, resulting in 293 deaths.

The report found multiple factors including track defects, maintenance issues, outdated signaling equipment, and human errors as main causes of the derailments. It also said lack of money or non-utilization of available funds for track restorations led to 26% of the accidents.

Even though the railway safety in India has improved compared to earlier years when serious crashes and accidents near unmanned crossings were more frequent, scores have still died and hundreds have been injured.

In 2016, a passenger train slid off the tracks between the cities of Indore and Patna, killing 146 people. A year later, a derailment in southern India killed at least 36 passengers.

The Modi government, in power for nine years, has invested tens of billions of dollars in the railways. The money has been spent on renovating or replacing the old tracks laid by the British in the 19th century, introducing new trains and removing thousands of unmanned railway crossings.

The train Modi was supposed to inaugurate Saturday was India’s 19th Vande Bharat Express, connecting the western city of Mumbai and the southern state of Goa.

The modern trains are designed to help reduce the risk of crashes and derailments. They will be paired with a countrywide automatic train collision protection system, a technology that will make travel safe, according to Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

But the system was not yet installed on the track where Friday’s crash took place. It wasn’t clear what caused the trains to derail and an investigation has started.

Experts suggest that the country’s railway system needs to prioritize safe tracks and collision protection.

“India has achieved some success in making train journeys safer over the years, but a lot more needs to be done. The entire system needs a realignment and distributed development. We can’t just focus on modern trains and have tracks that aren’t safe,” said Swapnil Garg, a former officer of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers.

Garg said the crash should “shake up the whole railway system” and prompt authorities to look at the “lax safety culture.”

“I don’t expect authorities to turn the key and fix things quickly. The Indian railway system is huge and it will take time to make it more safer. But there needs to be a will,” he said.

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‘You’re looking to die’: the Brazil river where illegal fishing threatens lives | Brazil

José Maria Batista Damasceno weeps as he describes his decades dodging death in the Brazilian Amazon.

There was the time, along the Japurá River, that an illegal fisherman threatened to butcher him if he didn’t get out of town. “You’d better leave or we’ll harpoon you,” Damasceno remembers being told.

A few years later he narrowly escaped being ambushed and murdered in another remote corner of the rainforest – just as Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips were last year.

“It was really, really heavy,” Damasceno says, breaking down as he describes how the failure of his boat’s engine saved him from running into a group of heavily armed assassins who were lying in wait.

Damasceno isn’t an Indigenous activist or journalist, like Pereira and Phillips, whose killings exposed the environmental battle raging deep in South America’s rainforests.

He is a fishing engineer who has dedicated his life to convincing small riverside communities that sustainable fishing programs will benefit them more than the quick, short-term profits offered by the illegal fishing mafias that pillage the region’s rivers and Indigenous lands.

Man in a pink shirt.
José Maria Batista Damasceno, the fisheries engineer in charge of the pirarucu fish management project in the São Rafael community, the last stop of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, before they were ambushed and killed in a deserted stretch of the Itaguaí River. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

Those efforts to encourage green living have put Damasceno on the wrong side of environmental criminals, yet he insists on fighting on.

“I’ve always relied on God to protect me from evil – and here I am carrying on with my mission,” says the softly spoken sustainable fishing evangelist, who recently travelled to the region where Pereira and Phillips were killed hoping to promote sustainable fishing there.

The world in which Damasceno operates is one of hidden dangers, cut-throat rules and huge illegal profits, where highly organized gangs of poachers with suspected ties to international drug trafficking groups prey on endangered Amazon species such as the pirarucu.

In the wake of last year’s killings, members of Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government portrayed the crime as the fruit of a local conflict unconnected to the devastation inflicted on the Amazon by his anti-environmental policies and dismantling of Indigenous protections.

But the killings exposed a far uglier reality: the rampant and highly lucrative illegal trade in fish and wildlife that plagues Brazil’s isolated and lawless tri-border with Colombia and Peru.

At the centre of that trade is Atalaia do Norte, the shabby, poverty-stricken river town where Pereira and Phillips began their final journey on 2 June last year.

Port with run down buildings and boats
The port of Atalaia do Norte, where Pereira and Phillips began their journey together last year. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

As the nearest town to the entrance of the Javari valley territory, Brazil’s second largest Indigenous reserve, Atalaia serves as a base for the Indigenous activists on whose work Phillips was reporting when he was killed. Its potholed streets offer an astonishing snapshot of the cultural and linguistic diversity of a region which is home to six Indigenous peoples, including the Matis and the Marubo, as well as 16 groups with little or no contact with the outside world.

But in recent years Atalaia has also become a key part of a transnational poaching network with suspected links to the drug factions who move vast quantities of Peruvian cocaine through what police now consider Brazil’s second most important drug smuggling route.

After visiting Atalaia last year, congressional investigators concluded that “heavily armed and wealthy criminal associations” and “highly dangerous criminals” had set up camp in the region, bankrolling groups of illegal fishermen who plunder the protected waters and forests of the Indigenous reserve where wildlife is more abundant.

“We are certain that illegal fishing in the Javari valley region isn’t about river-dwellers trying to make a living but actually much larger organizations, making sizable investments and outrageous profits,” the investigators wrote.

Quick Guide

What is the Bruno and Dom project?


What is the Bruno and Dom project?

Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian Indigenous expert and Dom Phillips, a British journalist and longtime Guardian contributor, were killed on the Amazon’s Itaquaí River last June while returning from a reporting trip to the remote Javari Valley region.

The attack prompted international outcry, and cast a spotlight on the growing threat to the Amazon posed by extractive industries, both legal and illegal, such as logging, poaching, mining and cattle ranching.

A year after their deaths, the Guardian has joined 15 other international news organisations in a collaborative investigation into organised crime and resource extraction in the Brazilian Amazon. The initiative has been coordinated by Forbidden Stories, the Paris-based non-profit whose mission is to continue the work of reporters who are threatened, censored or killed.

The goal of the project is to honour and pursue the work of Bruno and Dom, to foreground the importance of the Amazon and its people, and  to suggest possible ways to save the Amazon.

Who was Bruno Pereira?

Pereira, 41, was a former employee of the Indigenous agency Funai where he led efforts to protect the isolated and uncontacted tribes who live in the Brazilian Amazon. After being sidelined from his post soon after the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to power, Pereira went to work with the Javari Valley Indigenous association Univaja, helping create Indigenous patrol teams to stop illegal poachers, miners and loggers invading their protected lands.

Who was Dom Phillips?

Phillips, 57, was a longtime contributor to the Guardian who had
lived in Brazil for 15 years. A former editor of the dance magazine Mixmag, he developed a deep interest in environmental issues, covering the link between logging, mining, the beef industry and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. His reporting brought him into contact with Pereira, and in 2018 the pair took part in a 17-day expedition deep into the Javari Valley. In 2021 he took a year off to start writing a book, titled How to Save the Amazon. His return to the Javari was to have been the last reporting trip for the project.

What is the Javari Valley?

Sitting on Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia, the Javari Valley
Indigenous Reservation is a Portugal-sized swathe of rainforest and
rivers which is home to about 6,000 Indigenous people from the Kanamari, Kulina, Korubo, Marubo, Matis, Mayoruna and Tsohom-dyapa groups, as well as 16 isolated groups.

It is also a hotspot for poachers, fishers and illegal loggers,
prompting violent conflicts between the Indigenous inhabitants and the
riverside communities which fiercely opposed the reservation’s
creation in 2001. Its strategic location makes it a key route for smuggling cocaine between Peru, Colombia and Brazil.

What happened to Pereira and Philips?

On 2 June 2022, Pereira and Phillips travelled up the Itaquaí River from the town of Atalaia do Norte to report on efforts to stop illegal fishing. Two days later, members of the Indigenous patrol team with whom Pereira and Phillips were travelling were threatened by an illegal fisher. Early on 5 June, the pair set out on the return leg before dawn, hoping to safely pass a river community that was home to several known poachers. 

They never arrived, and after a search by teams of local Indigenous activists, their remains were discovered on 15 June.

Three fishers are being held in high-security prisons awaiting trial for the killings: brothers Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and a third man, Jefferson da Silva Lima. 

Federal police have alleged that a fourth man, nicknamed Colombia, was the mastermind of the killings.

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Bruno Pereira’s attempts to fight that illegal trade by organizing Indigenous patrol teams put him on a collision course with such criminals. “It’s because of this that Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were killed,” a friend and former colleague, Armando Soares, told Forbidden Stories, the Paris-based non-profit coordinating the Bruno and Dom project. Earlier this year police named an alleged local illegal fishing boss as the mastermind behind the crime.

The Javari valley’s most prized asset is the arapaima, a giant air-breathing fish which Brazilians call the pirarucu and Peruvians know as paiche. One of the world’s largest freshwater fish, the arapaima can grow up to three metres (10ft) in length and often weighs about 90kg (200lb). It is considered a delicacy in major Latin American cities such as Lima, São Paulo and Bogotá.

Years of unregulated overfishing have pummeled arapaima stocks in the waters outside the Javari’s protected Indigenous lands – which outsiders are forbidden from entering without permission and where commercial fishing is banned. As a result poachers have increasingly taken to invading the territory to extract huge boat-fulls of the fish, as well as a river turtle called the tracajá.

A boat filled with pirarucu which was seized and picked up by police.
A boat filled with pirarucu which was seized and picked up by police. The prized fish can grow up to 10ft in length. Photograph: Cícero Pedrosa Neto/Amazônia Real

“They use small boats and travel in small groups,” said Orlando Possuelo, an Indigenous expert who is continuing Pereira’s work with the patrol groups battling to thwart such invaders. “They are specialists in the area. Many of them were born in there [before the territory was officially created in 2001] so it’s not easy to find them.”

After being smuggled out of the Indigenous territory in wooden barges packed with ice, the fish are sold in a constellation of border towns including Leticia in Colombia, Islandia in Peru and Benjamin Constant, an edgy river town near Atalaia named after one of the founders of the Brazilian republic.

A year-long investigation by Forbidden Stories found that the illegal trade continues to flourish in the tri-border region between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, despite government pledges to stamp out environmental crime following last year’s killings. None of the three countries there have rigid controls over the origin of the arapaima being sold.

Brazil has yet to reopen the offices of its environmental agency, Ibama, in Tabatinga, the city nearest to the Javari, after it was shut down in 2019. Peru’s regional production department has no fishing inspectors in Santa Rosa de Yavarí, the Peruvian town across the river from Tabatinga. And Colombian authorities do not control the quantity of fish being caught by the 40 companies registered to operate in Leticia, on the Colombian side of the border.

Outside scrutiny is unwelcome. “There’s nothing here. You’re looking to fucking die,” one man warned a reporter from Peru’s OjoPúblico, one of 16 media outlets involved in the Bruno and Dom project, when he visited a riverside fishing warehouse in the Colombian border town looking for illegal fish.

Activists say the almost complete lack of controls means the illegal fishing trade continues to thrive despite the international scandal caused by the killings of Pereira and Phillips.

“I don’t think anything has changed,” said Possuelo, remembering how Indigenous activists received reports of illegal poachers operating within the Javari territory even in the days after the two men vanished on 5 June last year.

Despite the risks, Damasceno said he was determined to continue with his crusade to bring sustainable fishing to some of the most isolated and dangerous corners of the Brazilian Amazon, where he was born and raised.

Pirarucu fish on sale in a market in Leticia, Colombia.
Pirarucu fish on sale in a market in Leticia, Colombia. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Guardian

Now 65, the fishing engineer plans to retire after what will be his last – and perhaps most difficult – assignment: implementing such projects in São Rafael, São Gabriel and Ladário, the three fishing communities from which the alleged killers of Pereira and Phillips came.

Doing so involves helping those communities set up three different kinds of lakes that will help local pirarucu stocks recover and, hopefully, stop fishermen invading Indigenous lands: “permanent protection lakes” where fishing is forbidden, “maintenance lakes” which local families can fish to feed themselves, and “management lakes” where a quota of up to 30% of adult fish can be legally extracted after their numbers have reached certain levels. “So if there are 100 fish you can take 30, so stocks can recover,” Damasceno said.

The fishing engineer argued sustainable fishing was the only way to avoid further violence along the Itaquaí River and help deprived local families resist the temptation of supplying fish for organized crime. As proof that it was possible, he remembered how the fisherman who once threatened to harpoon him had since embraced sustainable fishing and become a close friend.

“I always say that sustainable fishing is the way out of this kind of conflict. It unites people. It raises awareness. It opens the door to equality, rights and acceptance,” insisted Damasceno, who hopes to retire to write a book about the pirarucu once his mission is complete. He plans to call it: “The union of people and sustainability in the Amazon.”

On a recent trip to the fishing villages near where Pereira and Phillips were killed, Damasceno urged locals to embrace the idea of legal, long-term survival rather than short-term, illegal gain.

“Lift up your heads. You must carry on,” he told them. “Think of your kids.”

Additional reporting by Ana Ionova (The Guardian), Rodrigo Pedroso (OjoPúblico) and Cécile Andrzejewski and Mariana Abreu (Forbidden Stories)

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Explaining AI Black Box

By Prof Saurabh Bagchi

Prof Saurabh Bagchi from Purdue University explains the purpose of AI black boxes and why researchers are moving towards ‘explainable AI’.

For some people, the term ‘black box’ brings to mind the recording devices in airplanes that are valuable for postmortem analyses if the unthinkable happens. For others, it evokes small, minimally outfitted theatres. But ‘black box’ is also an important term in the world of artificial intelligence.

AI black boxes refer to AI systems with internal workings that are invisible to the user. You can feed them input and get output, but you cannot examine the system’s code or the logic that produced the output.

Machine learning is the dominant subset of artificial intelligence. It underlies generative AI systems like ChatGPT and DALL-E 2. There are three components to machine learning: an algorithm or a set of algorithms, training data and a model.

An algorithm is a set of procedures. In machine learning, an algorithm learns to identify patterns after being trained on a large set of examples – the training data. Once a machine-learning algorithm has been trained, the result is a machine-learning model. The model is what people use.

For example, a machine-learning algorithm could be designed to identify patterns in images and the training data could be images of dogs. The resulting machine-learning model would be a dog spotter. You would feed it an image as input and get as output whether and where in the image a set of pixels represents a dog.

Any of the three components of a machine-learning system can be hidden, or in a black box. As is often the case, the algorithm is publicly known, which makes putting it in a black box less effective. So, to protect their intellectual property, AI developers often put the model in a black box. Another approach software developers take is to obscure the data used to train the model – in other words, put the training data in a black box.

The opposite of a black box is sometimes referred to as a glass box. An AI glass box is a system whose algorithms, training data and model are all available for anyone to see. But researchers sometimes characterise aspects of even these as black box.

That’s because researchers don’t fully understand how machine-learning algorithms, particularly deep-learning algorithms, operate. The field of explainable AI is working to develop algorithms that, while not necessarily glass box, can be better understood by humans.

Thinking Outside The Black Box

In many cases, there is good reason to be wary of black box machine-learning algorithms and models. Suppose a machine-learning model has made a diagnosis about your health. Would you want the model to be black box or glass box? What about the physician prescribing your course of treatment? Perhaps she would like to know how the model arrived at its decision.

What if a machine-learning model that determines whether you qualify for a business loan from a bank turns you down? Wouldn’t you like to know why? If you did, you could more effectively appeal the decision, or change your situation to increase your chances of getting a loan the next time.

Black boxes also have important implications for software system security. For years, many people in the computing field thought that keeping software in a black box would prevent hackers from examining it and therefore it would be secure. This assumption has largely been proven wrong because hackers can reverse engineer software – that is, build a facsimile by closely observing how a piece of software works – and discover vulnerabilities to exploit.

If software is in a glass box, software testers and well-intentioned hackers can examine it and inform the creators of weaknesses, thereby minimising cyberattacks.

By Prof Saurabh Bagchi

Saurabh Bagchi is professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of corporate partnerships in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University in the US. His research interests include dependable computing and distributed systems.

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