Last week, seven yachts arrived in Cardiff as part of the Volvo Ocean Race. This round-the-world sailing event is one of the toughest sporting challenges on the planet, attracting Olympic medallists and endurance sailors who push their multi-million pound boats to the absolute limit for months on end.
When they're not posting footage of the carbon fibre boats surfing down massive waves, the event organisers are working hard to rebrand the race for an increasingly environmentally conscious market. It has become an unlikely platform for campaigning against plastic pollution, highlighting the problem through features on Sky News and working in tandem with the UN Environment Programme to raise awareness of their Clean Seas campaign. The fleet has sailed in some of the most remote reaches of the world's oceans, where our litter accumulates into colossal floating islands of plastic.
Each boat is fitted with scientific instruments which take readings of carbon dioxide and micro-plastic levels in the waters they sail through, gathering rare data on the scale of oceanic pollution. Two of the teams are explicitly eco-themed: British yachtswoman Dee Caffari is skipper of "Turn the Tide on Plastic", and Danish wind turbine company Vestas has sponsored another team.
But the newly green-washed image sits awkwardly with the race's sponsorship by less-then-green companies.
British company Cobham has worked with the Volvo Ocean race since 2001 and is an official sponsor and partner to the event. Cobham is also one of the world's top 60 arms companies, selling its cutting-edge communications equipment to larger firms like Lockheed Martin for use in missile systems, fighter jets and war ships. Cobham's customers include Brazil – the most deadly country on earth for environmental activists.
Cobham is at the forefront of the booming surveillance market, and sells communications technology that can monitor phone calls and track users without their consent. One example is the Evolve4-Nimbus, a type of International Mobile Subscriber Identity – or "IMSI" – catcher. IMSI catchers hoover up mobile phone numbers within a given radius to intercept call and location data.
VICE has long reported on the existence of IMSI catchers, their secretive use by police forces in the UK to monitor protesters and the take-up of this technology by repressive regimes around the world. The export of British-made military and surveillance grade equipment requires a licence from the UK government. Cobham has secured many such licenses for its Evolve4-Nimbus, including to customers in Brazil. In 2012, Cobham opened a new subsidiary in São Paulo, Cobham do Brasil Ltda, to "provide a basis for Cobham Tactical Communications and Surveillance to develop relationships and a foundation for active engagement with customers and partners in the public and private sectors".
Cobham's sale of surveillance equipment in Brazil should give pause to those celebrating the Volvo Ocean Race's socially responsible and environmentally conscious direction. In 2017, Brazil was the most deadly country on Earth for environmental activists. The advocacy group Global Witness reports that 46 activists were killed in 2017, in the Amazon alone. Many of the dead were defending their land, wildlife or natural resources from corporations which are often backed by the Brazilian state. This time last year, Brazilian police and soldiers in Pau D'Arco gunned down ten land activists who were occupying a farm, according to Amnesty International.
There is no suggestion that any Cobham equipment was connected to the deaths of any of these environmental activists. However, Cobham continues to hold a permanent export license to sell its spyware, including IMSI catchers, to Brazil. In a deal made ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Cobham sold high definition helicopter video surveillance equipment to the country's police. The World Cup was the target of major protests by groups such as the Landless Workers Movement – a social movement of rural workers who are demanding land reform.
With Forbes magazine estimating it costs around $20 million (£15 million) to get a boat on the water, major corporate sponsorship is inevitable: the Dutch bank ABN AMRO won the 2006 edition of the race, largely by buying two boats and testing them against each other during training. (The bank was sold to RBS shortly before the global financial crash, and both banks then required government bailouts – meaning that in the long run the taxpayer effectively subsidised the expenditure on the two yachts.)
"Sporting events like this should be about promoting human achievement and the social good," commented Andrew Smith, from Campaign Against the Arms Trade. "They should never be treated as promotional vehicles for arms companies. Cobham isn't sponsoring the race because it cares about sustainability, it is doing so because it wants to whitewash its appalling business and normalise its arms sales."
Cobham did not respond to VICE's questions about its customers in São Paulo, or if it was willing to sell spyware to buyers intending to surveil environmental activists.
The Volvo Ocean Race did not respond to VICE's questions about its partnership with Cobham and the appropriateness of this relationship in light of the event's green agenda.
The race restarts on the 10th of June and heads for Sweden.