Sophia Pickles - What if we swap places?

Through her work as an investigator into global supply chains, Sophia offers her thoughts on the world as it could be. Her work has exposed her to both policy makers who effectively control the flow of the world's natural resources and those exploited by those policies. She argues that those of us benefiting from today’s business-as-usual would not tolerate it if they had to swap places with those living where resources are being extracted or produced.

We can try and introduce some justice. We can try and change things. But I think over time, I've learned as an investigator that that question about making things better is a very difficult one, because better means different things to different people.

Download this episode.

Subscribe to the RSS feed or listen to this podcast on your preferred podcasting platform.

About the speaker

Sophia Pickles describes herself as an attentive listener with a curious mind. For over a decade she has investigated the production, trade, management and financing of natural resources, and published her findings. Her work is inspired by Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem ‘Please Describe How You Became a Writer’, which asks, ‘Why weren’t they looking to begin with?’


When I first started doing this kind of work, the focus was on the uncovering. What was the wrong, what’s the headline? How can you say this in one minute, in an elevator pitch? And the longer I spend doing this kind of work, the more I rail against that as the primary means. I think we have to be very careful to find the balance between that very reductive way of communicating, which can be efficient, and really understanding the sophistication, the complexity, the nuance, the reality of something. Mary Oliver has this wonderful line in her poem called ‘Wild Geese’, where she says the world offers itself to your imagination. It does. That's amazing. There's so much opportunity in that. And at the same time, because of all of the violence and degradation and corruption that I've heard from people I've listened to over the last fifteen years, I also thought to myself, huh, well what if we swap places?

I was in Europe, I was in Brussels, in this windowless, airless room with all these so-called decision-makers in suits with their golden fountain pens and their high heels and everything. And there's me there, just off the plane from somewhere feeling quite bedraggled. And we were discussing a law, which – well, we were discussing the idea for a law. And the conversation was like, ‘why should we make this better?’ And then I said, the thing is that that could be your grandmother. I mean, that could be your son. That could be you sitting next to the mine, washing through the minerals. And I felt the energy in the room change, which is unusual in a very dry setting somewhere like that. And afterwards, a number of these decision-makers came up to me and said, ‘that really helped us to think about this differently, because I think we would not tolerate that if we had to swap places. So why do we tolerate that?’ And that's a question that I carry with me often.

My name is Sophia. And for about fifteen years, I have been labelled an investigator, which means that I've been trying to pay attention and record what I see and what I hear from other people around the world, so that where there are abuses taking place, where there is violence, where there are illegalities and corruption and crime, we can try and bring some accountability. We can try and introduce some justice. We can try and change things. But I think over time, I've learned as an investigator that that question about making things better is a very difficult one, because better means different things to different people.

I tend to think of myself as being in a state of attentive awareness a lot of the time. And it's a really joyful, fun, curious place to be. 

At one point in my life, I lived in a part of Congo and I lived next to a metal mine, and I'd never seen a mine before in my life. When I first arrived there, I didn't even know what I was looking at. Just looked like a hole in the ground. I had no idea what it was. Huge hole. Took me, when I was jogging – and I jog very slowly, I admit – it would take me, you know, the best part of an hour to run all the way around it, it’s so big. And it was populated by people with shovels. And over time I came to understand that that was something called artisanal mining. It's kind of a funny – when I say artisanal mining to people in the West, they're like, ‘artisanal like artisanal coffee?, like hipsters?’ I'm like, ‘no no’, like, kind of simple mining with a shovel. And that's really it. There's no other safety equipment. There's just a shovel and you. And you think you might be able to dig something out of the ground that will get you some money. 

And over time, I've discovered that a lot of the commodities – what we call commodities – essentially the resources that underpin our economies, the things that we move around in and with, communicate with, eat, trade, build with, of course they all come from somewhere, and then they go somewhere else. And my work has been, I feel actually very privileged to have been able to see the beginning of what we call supply chains. Because we are, whether we like it or not, so much more globalized, stuff moves around the place. And so one of the lines of inquiry, one of the things I was curious about, was what does that look like? Seeing things being dug out of the ground in a part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then understanding what happens then. Put in bags, they go on a plane and they maybe go to somewhere like Malaysia or China or parts of Europe, where there are essentially big cauldrons that melt this stuff down into metal and then the metal is used for manufacturing. And it's kind of crazy when you really look into it. You know, like if you ask yourself the question, ‘where did my pen come from?’ Some manufacturers can't even answer that question, because they don't even understand their own supply chains. So it's this kind of topsy-turvy situation we find ourselves in, where there's a lot of demand in some parts of the world, there's a lot of supply in the other parts of the world. And these things get switched. It's basic economics. The question is, what are the terms of the switch? How is that happening? And nine times out of ten, people who look at that closely are quite surprised by what they find.

When I start looking at these supply chains, about the way that something is dug and then produced and then traded, I look at it and think, how can that possibly be? That this is what we call business as usual? Because this is destructive, is painful, is unequitable, is injust. Yes, it's also efficient. Yes, it also helps us to bring metal to create essential medical supplies, for sure. But I have this permanent feeling that we can do this better. I was reading this book by Abbie Hoffman, who's one of the Chicago Seven. It's called Steal This Book. He didn't want to sell it. He didn't want anybody to make money. He just wanted his ideas to be heard. And in that, he writes that the world is topsy-turvy and that's something that I feel all the time when I'm investigating these supply chains. Maybe to give an example that's closer to home: You can imagine your own front garden, right? Or your own pavement outside your house. I was really interested in what was being sprayed on the pavement outside my house that made everything die. And one day, not many years ago, I asked the very nice council worker, could I see what it was? And it turned out to be this chemical called Roundup, which is a herbicide. I went away and did a bit of research. And if you've ever looked at the bottle of Roundup, it's full of skulls and crossbones and like tortured fishes and humans hanging upside down with their hair on fire. And we still use it, because it's normal, because that's what everybody uses in their gardens. So I ended up researching round quite a lot, and the companies behind it, and found that, not only was it full of this chemical called glyphosate, which again, there was a big body of scientific evidence to show that it was a very damaging thing to put on your plants, but that Bayer, the company that now own this chemical, had been involved in a lawsuit in America because Roundup was linked to Hodgkin lymphoma. And yet we continue to use it and the company continues to sell it. And to me, this is a really kind of normalized example of why is nobody asking any questions?

I often feel like I'm faced with that contradiction in my work, the idea of what we accept as normal versus what I'm seeing in front of me, what I'm hearing from the people who are part of that normal doesn't look very good. I wouldn't want to be part of that normal. 

I was doing a piece of research about the way in which cocoa was being grown and traded. There was a number of human rights abuses involved in that, and it was a very complicated story. And after I'd interviewed the cocoa farmers, who it turns out were being massacred – killed – in their fields by machete, by an armed group, kidnapped in hundreds – hundreds of people, men and women who could tell me, ‘yeah, I buried my daughter. I buried my brother. I buried my neighbor. We didn't know where they'd gone. We found them in the fields’. People who told me ‘well after the arm groups came along, then the army moved in and then they started to harvest our cocoa instead’. And they took it all to the neighbouring country and they were making money from it. And this was going on and on, month after month after month. I tried to relay the stories, which are not stories, the realities of the lives there.

‘Well’, they said, ‘these are intractable issues’, they said. ‘These are difficult issues. If we stop buying the cocoa altogether, we will make things worse for the farmers’, they said. And I sat there and I wondered about the moral logic of a premise that allows us to continue to acknowledge the most degrading and harmful economic activity whilst sustaining it. That's my work, every day. 

Why is it that we tolerate particular harms? Why is it that we can see the world melting around us, at a great speed these days, and we still get an our cars, and we still refuse to have bicycles, or we still –– and there are a whole number of societal reasons dependent on where you are in the world, what your economic circumstances are, what your culture is, what your gender is. And the more people I speak to, the more perspectives I hear, the more I understand the complexities of those questions. And at the same time, I often meet fear, fear of being alone, fear of losing their identity, fear of losing their shelter, their home. And what's really interesting to me is that same fear is present in the international businessmen, as it is present in the people in the mine. 

To monitor and document abuses in this pocket of land in a few weeks only, and my body feels the whole land is on fire, the whole economy, the whole planet. And when I trace the journey of these cocoa beans, their energy, the trades and deals that they underpin, and I sit here. I listened to the farmers, and they said ‘we returned to the fields because we have to earn money for our families’. I listened to the international commodity traders and they said ‘we returned to the business because we have to earn money for our families’. I read the work of Merlin Sheldrake recently, who writes about fungus. And that made me think two things: One – as an investigator, I feel like I'm part of this enormous, beautiful, incredible underground network of people talking to one another, supporting one another, realizing things, sharing information, our tribe as investigators. And when I heard him describing this incredible, intelligent, flexible, compassionate mess that is fungus, that we couldn't exist without, I thought mmhmm, I also see it when I see, as part of this wonderful underground fungal network of investigators, people saying, ‘well, it's raining more than it was’; ‘Well, the village got swept away’; ‘Well, the road's no longer there’; ‘Well, we haven't had any beans this season’. It's happening across the world. And for sure there are some of us who are more responsible than others in the Western industrialized nations, of course. I think there needs to be allowed a conversation amongst all of us about our own interconnectivity.

What I'm so grateful to technology for is that at three o'clock in the morning, I can write to my friend in Burundi and say, ‘what would you do next?’ My friend in Suriname, in my world he thinks upside down. But if I need something, I write to him and he's like, ‘well, obviously this thing’, which I would never have thought of, and you learn to know who to go for and who you can trust. And that's another thing that I really rejoice in. It's like an unwritten agreement or code between us all that if another investigator tells you something, that stays with you and the other investigator. Somebody once said to me that there's only secrets between people, one person and the other person who's dead. And I thought that's because you're not an investigator, because if you are then you know that you have to keep a secret because that can sometimes mean somebody else's life.

And we take that so seriously. And it also makes it wonderful because it means you can share with people. You can share ideas, you can share information. And we do share information because also, most often, I find there's a shared understanding that we're not doing this, most of us, for our own egos. I don't want my name on anything. I'm not doing this to be famous. I'm doing this because I know I have privilege and I have a voice that some people don't have. And I hope that will change in my lifetime. Maybe it won't. And for as long as it doesn't change, I want to use my voice for the other people.

I tend not to think of myself so much anymore as an investigator, but rather as a listener. Even if I'm listening to the stock exchange, you know, I still have to pay attention and listen. And the other part of this beautiful mycorrhizal network that we're part of, are some of the people that we speak to and we meet. And I find often it's when I'm not expecting it that I get the most beautiful surprises. And I want to read you this thing that I wrote. Just a minute. I was running an investigation  in Congo at the time, and I was in a military court. And I was there to see someone, and I was waiting and I was waiting. And I was seated next to this wall, where somebody had written, very crudely in black paint, ‘ne touchez pas le mur’. So don't touch the wall. And this is what I wrote about it:

It's a story and it's a building. It's grimy and it's sweaty. It's damp. It wears neglect. The rain reveals the court's worst face. And I was there in raining. There were chunks missing from the stairs and they had no other function, other than to foil and approach. I recoil from those walls and their surfaces and what they've seen; there's no way I'd lean there. So I negotiate a chair and then, weaving through these curling paper archives, stacked to almost the ceiling, arrives the new friend. He’s Katangese. And he lectures me for as long as I wait for my interview about preserving Congo’s trees. He blames the West, globalization and our insatiable [thirst] of oil. He asks when ‘les blancs’ – the white people – will foot the bill for the trees that they have taken. And for him, they are more than trees. They are his childhood, his memories of his grandmother. They map out his past. The map of his past is laid out in the trees that he grew beneath. To him, my people took them. We, the white invaders. Well-versed in climate change, he asks me, ‘well, what next? It’s your move, your people’, he says. And as he spoke, a Colonel beat his subordinate in the adjacent corridor because of a broken typewriter ribbon. 

That man, what he said to me about trees that day, I will never forget. I can never forget his perspective, the time he took to explain to me about his grandmother and the trees, and his honesty. And this energy that he brought with him, which was, ‘I look at you and I see the problem. Now go away and take that with you’. I don't have to carry that. I don't know that he's right or wrong, but I really listened to it. And those people, they are also part of my network. I bring those stories with me and I return to them when I'm writing, when I'm thinking, when I'm strategising, when I'm investigating. 

Someone once said to me that one of the things investigators do is to tell the things, to tll the stories that other people know. And sometimes we choose to tell stories that other people can't tell for themselves. And that brings with it risks. Of course. So one of the reasons I often don't use my own name – well, there are two reasons. One of them is security. And that is because if you are saying what is unpopular, even if it's known, even if it's what everybody knows, then you become a target. As much as I wish that the world wasn't like that, that's the reality that I'm operating in. So we do have to take careful steps as investigators to understand technology – change our phone numbers, use different SIM cards, use VPNs, know how to cover our traces. Don't leave your notebook on the train, don't use a notebook. But I think what's more important to me is the people I talk to, because quite often I can get back on my bicycle or back on the train, or sometimes back on an aeroplane and leave the place. And that's their home and being deeply respectful, of course, like if I invite somebody into my home, I would like them to respect it. So I would like to respect somebody else's. And so, making sure you meet in a discreet place, making sure they understand about wiping their own WhatsApp messages after the interview, making sure that you aren't being observed – as best as you can – and then checking in with them afterwards. And that's something that I find difficult sometimes in investigation, that sometimes there's a risk of it becoming very transactional. It's not just important to me to remember, but it feels right to recognize that essentially I'm inviting someone – they're inviting me into their life, I'm also inviting them into mine. It's a two-way thing. So after the interview, if they want to ask me my advice on what colour carpet to use, then I will answer the question. I won't just ignore them because the interview is over. And that's another reason why I don't use my name often, because, for me this work is not about focusing on my identity – me the investigator. Quite often I see myself as a conduit. I'm simply carrying information around and disseminating it to people who might otherwise not have that information. I mean, you can call me what you want. We can call me a pillowcase if you want. It doesn't make any difference to what I'm trying to do. Maybe that is one way that distinguishes us from other professions.

I was a few years ago involved in quite a big investigation into some gold trading that involved money laundering and financial crime and human rights abuse. And we’d mapped out our framework and I needed to go to Peru because that's where a lot of the gold was coming from. There was a big deforestation angle, of course. And we thought we'd understood this thing. We thought we'd understood, like, the flow diagram of what was happening. And then someone said to me, ‘oh, you should speak to this guy. He's into really extreme sports’. I was like, ‘why would I spend my time doing that?’ And sometimes as an investigator as well, I have to fight my own impatience. So I sat myself down in front of this guy, and this is where I also have to remind myself to listen. And it's a tool that I use more and more now, where, you know, in the beginning, people would say to me, ‘line up your questions, know what you need to get from an interview and know what your killer question is at the end’. Sometimes, you simply need to create a space for somebody else to sit in and hold that space for them, and then just listen. I sat in front of this man, and first he brought his ego, then he brought his defensiveness. And after we'd listened to all of that, and got through all of that, then he started to tell me about what I needed to understand, which was his role in this incredibly complicated mafia network. And what he told me completely changed the investigation. This is the balance that we have to –– we need to strike as good investigators to understand the nuts and bolts, the laws and the data sets, and spend time on those and not neglect them. And we also need to listen to people because you can't predict a person. You can't predict what somebody's going to tell you happened last week or what they're going to do next, or why they're doing something. And often that's the very nub of understanding the thing that you're looking at on paper, and it can change everything. 

In the beginning. I thought about my work as investigating a discrete problem. And the more investigations I have been part of, the more I've understood or been able to zoom in and out. So there's the, I don't know, the corruption scandal that I'm looking at today, which is part of a bigger pattern of behaviour: the same loopholes, the same financial shortcuts, the same violence that I see in all countries, everywhere that I've been. And the working conclusion that I'm sitting with now is that, well, this is about human behaviour, and this is about the way we think about ourselves.

One of the things that I see quite a lot is, particularly politicians, working in very stressed, very so-called fast-paced environments – that we create ourselves, by the way – operating out of their limbic brains. And if you're doing that, there is no space for imagination. There is no space for joy and playfulness. And sometimes I think we have an opportunity as investigators, because sometimes we are given these incredible moments, glimpses into other people's lives, and we have the opportunity to talk with them. And sometimes that's an opportunity to hear, to listen, to gather as much information as I can, whatever I'm doing. Sometimes I think, hmm, is this a time  for planting a seed? And that's partly playfulness. That's partly me using my imagination. Because again, when you're preparing for an interview, you're thinking about the person you're going to talk to. And if, let's say, some are very high profile, they don't have a lot of time, you need to do your research. You need to understand what makes them tick, where they've been, what you should avoid, read what they've said before, understand a little bit about their psychology and psychology is a big part of investigating. And one of the things that can be quite playful, if you have the time to do it as an investigator, or the opportunity, is to use your imagination to think, how can I break through to this person? What about if I talk to them about love? Because they are not expecting that. We also, all of us, including investigators, overlook our own psychologies and our own bodies. Because people often ask me, they say, ‘you're in a really –– you sound like you do very dangerous things. You sound like you're in dangerous places’. And sometimes I suppose I am, relative to what some people are used to or not. And I've really learned the importance of listening to our own intuition, to ourselves, to our own bodies, to being embodied, actually, in that way. And as an investigator that I saved my life several times and it saved the life of my colleagues when they've done it too. And I also think about it in terms of decision makers and politicians. I think, ‘when was the last time you listened to yourself, when you made that decision? Do you really feel like that's the right thing to do?

When I first started investigating, we didn't even have a word for it. People used to call me a human rights activist, or a human rights defender, and I'd think, well, I am that – I am that if you want to– if you insist on labelling me. But I'm something else as well. I'm curious. I don't understand why we accept things the way they are. As I've gone along. this kind of, I suppose, identity. is being recognized by other people in themselves and you know, birds of a feather. You meet people, you meet more people, they introduce you to more people. And I feel that there is a growing number of people now globally. And I love that it's globally. I love that it's not just in the West. It's not just in America. It's everywhere. Very, very vibrantly the groups I'm connected to in central Africa are all asking the same questions. They are the questions like, why, why are we accepting this? How are we going to change it? And one thing that I find increasingly interesting, particularly when I'm working with the business community, and I say to them, ‘but, okay, I understand, I understand the way a company works. I understand your bottom line. Let's not have an argument about who's making profit. Okay, I get it. You want to return something each year, you have shareholders, you need a dividend, you have directors. I understand that. That's not the discussion here. Let's just talk about the first step, which is, within this current model that you have, what can you do differently? How can you do it differently?’ And I would say I met with a great deal of lack of imagination, a great deal of lack of consideration, and then often a great deal of defensiveness. And the defensiveness often comes back in this question, which is, ‘well, what are you proposing that's different?’ And in the beginning when they asked me that question, I didn't know what to say, because I didn't know how to formulate the ideas. One thing I've realized along the way, and this is my response now – it may change in the future – is, ‘well, you tell me that I can't describe what a new normal looks like. You described to me normal now’. And so far, I haven't met anybody that can do it. So if you can't describe the system that we're in, then your challenge is empty. If you're challenging me to describe the system of the future.


The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech. 

Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.

Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.

Music by Wael Eskandar.

Additional music is Smolderingby Kai Engel and Laburnam by Kai Engel both used under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution licence.\ Sound effect by Stephenkujo used under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution licence, Additional sound effects used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.

Illustration by Ann Kiernan

This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

More about this topic