It’s 8 o’clock on a crisp Greenland evening. The air tastes like a fresh bubbling spring, the result of the steady gusts of wind blowing over the nearby glacier, my guide explains. A puff of diesel pollutes my senses as we bounce our way over this jagged landscape of rock and ice on an ATV. The small hunting village of Ittoqqortoormiit is on Greenland’s northeast coast. The 477 Inuits who call this territory home live in isolation and relative peace. But today we’re on the look-out for an unlikely predator.
"They come very early in the morning and very late at night," my guide Erling Madsen shouts over the engine and the waves of Walrus Bay crashing against a 50-foot cliff two feet from where our wheels grind earth. We’re heading to where that predator was first spotted. "A hunter called me. He saw it heading into town," Madsen said, his rifle strapped to my back as I hold on tightly to his shoulders.
Ittoqqortoormiit is one of the most remote villages in the Western Hemisphere. Not a single road connects the community to the rest of the world. Only a bumpy helicopter ride in and out once a week takes visitors to a world where seal fur and musk ox meat are popular forms of currency. Global trends have filtered through over the years, but usually after the rest of the world has moved on. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” is a current favorite among the village’s small teen population.
When it comes to climate change, however, there is a new world order and Ittoqqortoormiit is on the frontlines. Earlier this year scientists reported that the U.S. climate has changed as a result of global warming. “Summers are longer and hotter… Winters are generally shorter and warmer,” the report explained. This is old news to a town that straddles Greenland’s ice sheet—or what scientists call ground zero for climate change.
"We have a front row seat," said Madsen as we disembarked from our ATV. Madsen used to be the mayor of this northeastern territory, but today he acts like a sheriff. "Those are his tracks," he says pointing to depressions in the ground. The threat? Polar bears.
In the rural Indian village of Barjor Khera, Seema Kumar cradled her two month old daughter, Deepansi, in her arms. It was time to dream of the future.
“I wish for her a good education and a good job,” Seema said. “And a good marriage.”
Seema’s sister-in-law and neighbor, Sanju Kumar, sat beside her on the crude stoop between their humble houses. Her son, Adarsh, was born 13 days after Deepansi. “I want him to be a wise person,” she said. “He will need a good education.”
Neither of the mothers had ever gone to school. Both illiterate, they treasure education for their children.
In another rural village, in northern Uganda, another mom dreams big. “I want him to be a businessman,” Esther Okwir said about her 10-week old son Rodgers. They were sitting on a thatched mat under a shade tree behind their house in the village of Barjwinya. It was a cool, quiet place for breastfeeding and mother-child bonding. “If he gets the education, he can be a manager, an accountant,” Esther continued.
A hemisphere away, in Guatemala’s Palajunoj Valley, Maria Delfina Camacho envisioned her one month old son Jose getting the education she never did; she only made it to sixth grade. “I wanted to go further,” she said. “But I couldn’t.” Jose will, she hopes; it will be his way out of the valley.
On Chicago’s south side, Jessica Saldana admired her six-day-old daughter, Alitzel, who was sleeping in her arms. “I see her being an honor student. I see her playing sports like me,” Jessica said. “And there will be music in her life, maybe playing the violin.”
The dreams of new mothers are similar all around the world. Some of the details may vary at the edges, but at the center is a good education.
When Nguyen Thi Hong Hanh first noticed she was running a fever, she didn’t think much of it. The 26-year-old Vietnamese factory worker bought some over-the-counter drugs at a local pharmacy and went about her life. She endured a month of persistent symptoms before finally visiting a hospital, where she was diagnosed with lymph node tuberculosis. The news came as a surprise to Hanh, who knew little about the disease and had no idea a non-pulmonary form existed.
Do Kim Lang, a local health volunteer, is trying to prevent more cases like this. Several times a week, the 65-year-old straps on her helmet and rides her moped around Hanh’s Ho Chi Minh City neighborhood, a low-income area known as District 8. She visits people’s homes, educating them about tuberculosis and encouraging those with symptoms to get tested. She sees Hanh at her tiny one-bedroom house as well as others already undergoing treatment to make sure they’re taking medication correctly. “People’s knowledge is very limited,” Lang tells me. “They don’t know how to maintain their health or prevent their family members from getting TB.”
Volunteers like Lang play a crucial role in Vietnam’s ability to fight tuberculosis. Here, treating disease isn’t as straightforward as it is in developed countries, where people are more educated about health risks, commonly seek professional care, and generally understand how to follow treatment regimens. In the developing world, the greatest challenge often occurs before treatment: it’s seeking out and educating people in need of diagnosis before they spread the disease to others.
Because many low-income Vietnamese aren’t educated about tuberculosis, they don’t know how to protect themselves and others. Lang says some people in her community don’t know the disease exists, while others believe it’s genetic and many are afraid to visit clinics. According to a 2013 study by PSI, a global health organization, 31 percent of Vietnamese who had TB symptoms weren’t able to correctly identify any symptoms of the disease. Only 56 percent of respondents were able to identify the more common symptom: a cough lasting longer than two weeks.
As a result, many people ignore symptoms or, like Hanh, buy over-the-counter drugs rather than seeking a TB test from a local health clinic. Some who are aware of the disease still skirt diagnosis because of stigma, while rural patients often stay away because they can’t afford to travel to TB clinics in larger cities. These tendencies can make the disease more difficult to treat and give it more time to spread. That’s a problem because people with pulmonary TB can infect between 10 and 15 people during the course of their disease, according to Laurel Fain, director of the USAID Health Office in Vietnam. “The earlier they can get on treatment, the lower the chance their disease will spread,” Fain says.
If you’re unfamiliar with newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic vision, here’s a quote to get you started:
“We have to go one step ahead of the PPP model to a P-four model of people-public-private partnership,” Modi said at a televised campaign event in April. “We have to inform people what we are doing, involve them, and then see how we can work wonders.”
The phrases “PPP” and “3P” refer to what’s known in India as public private partnerships, a means of development that unites government and corporate resources to complete infrastructure projects like highways and transit systems. One example is the Mumbai Monorail Project: The Danish-based group Larsen and Tourbo and the Malaysian-based group Scomi Engineering paired with the Mumbai Metropolitan Development Authority in order to facilitate the creation of a shiny, but flawed new urban transit system.
PPPs are declining in other parts of the world, but the phenomenon is surging in popularity here, largely on the influence of business-first politicians like Mr. Modi. His election is therefore not only a public acknowledgement of support for the practice of privatization of public works, but also represents the start of what could become a testing ground for the phenomenon on the world stage.
In these contracts, corporations take on early elements of risk in order to alleviate the burden of taxpayers in return for tax breaks and guarantees of annual revenue. But they’re often charged with worsening an already inefficient public works system here, and pulling in large profits at the expense of the government.
Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.
I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races. We know so little about them. They straddled the strait called Bab el Mandeb—the “gate of grief” that cleaves Africa from Arabia—and then exploded, in just 2,500 generations, a geological heartbeat, to the remotest habitable fringe of the globe.
Masika Daya, abducted by Morgan to be one of his ten “wives,” stands in the grounds of the prison in Bunia where she is held by local authorities. Meanwhile, the need to capture the violent militiamen, who wreaked a campaign of murder, rape and poaching, grows ever greater. Read the full story by Pulitzer Center grantee Pete Jones here.
Image by Francesca Tosarelli. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Today marks the third and last installment of He Guangwei’s extraordinary series on soil pollution in China, a Pulitzer Center project in partnership with chinadialogue and Yale Environment 360. Guangwei details the staggering levels of industrial heavy-metal contamination in the soils of Jiangsu and Hunan provinces, the cancer “hot spots” that have resulted, and estimates of long-term remediation costs in excess of $1.6 trillion.
Guangwei is an investigative journalist for The Times Weekly, based in Guangzhou, and a past winner of China’s Environmental Press Award presented by chinadialogue and The Guardian. The soil-pollution series is a reminder that some of the best environmental reporting in China is coming from Chinese journalists, often working in concert with local citizen groups demanding government action to protect their health and also the long-term economic viability of their land.
WHAT THE CHILDREN FLEE
Current coverage of the surge of children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border suggests that this mass immigration is occurring out of the blue. Pulitzer Center grantee Carlos Javier Ortiz shows that what is happening now is in fact the predictable result of U.S. demand for drugs, the export of gang violence to Central America, and too many children caught in the middle.
“Kids are living in danger from gangs and the gangs extort people for money because the economy is crap and there is so much corruption,” Carlos said, in an interview with MSNBC that includes haunting black-and-white photographs from his Guatemala project El Sueño. “It’s all a chain reaction.”
Pulitzer Center grantees Alex McLean and Dan Grossman continue their examination of Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands project with a two-part series for GlobalPost and a report for PRI’s The World. The two rented a small Cessna aircraft and relied on Alex’s aerial photography to capture the scale of one of the world’s most massive—and controversial—industrial projects.
“That used to be a forest down there: aspen, pine, fir, and peat bogs,” Alex says, “but now it looks like a huge trampled sand box. Since the first bitumen was scraped out from here, 40 years ago, nearly 300 square miles of forest have been dug up.”
Pulitzer Center grantee Shiho Fukada captures the various faces and places of Japan’s disposable workers. Stable full-time jobs are becoming scarce as companies increasingly favor hiring easily-fired and re-scheduled part-time workers. Some 3000 workers now live in 24-hour internet cafes, while others wait in long lines for temporary employment and women compete for hostess jobs. Depression and suicide rates are skyrocketing.
"[Japanese] people suffer in private, in their homes, so I thought it was a really important story to tell, Fukada told Coburn Dukehart, for NPR’sThe Picture Show.
With the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s death, my thoughts went back to a glorious February afternoon in 1990.
What will he say? What will Mandela say after 27 years in prison?
That was the feverish question infecting the multitudes who had gathered in the center of Cape Town on the day when the leader of the African National Congress walked to freedom. I was in the crowd, as the South African-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. For hours we waited as Mandela, who had been freed earlier that day, reunited with his family, friends and comrades in the struggle against apartheid.
Suddenly, he appeared — a thin, gray stranger, for nobody except a precious few had seen him in nearly three decades. And then he spoke, and a familiarity settled in.
In a deliberate, thoughtful cadence, he uttered pretty much the same words that had landed him behind bars all those years earlier. He repeated the tenets of the ANC’s Freedom Charter, the words he spoke the last time he had been heard in public, at his treason trial: Above all, the end of exclusive white rule, the abolishment of apartheid and racial oppression and the government that enforced it, the demand for equality, dignity, freedom; but also, the continuation of the mass struggle until a new democratically elected government would be formed and the economy reordered to share the country’s great natural wealth for the benefit of all races. Though more than one-third of his life had been taken away from him, he spoke not of revenge but of reconciliation. South Africa needed to come together, not remain apart.
It was a masterful performance, I thought, a demonstration that he hadn’t lost his touch. Mandela needed to convince his supporters, and his foes as well, that he hadn’t changed during all those years away. Physically yes, but in substance certainly not; he was still the same.
This was imperative to maintain the support of the ANC’s hard-edged youth, who knew Mandela only as an imprisoned myth and who had been raised on a campaign of resistance to authority. Here standing before them now wasn’t an old man who had sold out, who had gone soft. The white government hadn’t gotten to him. Nelson Mandela would still be their champion; like the boxer he had once been, he hadn’t backed down. Now he exhorted his countrymen of all races to seize the moment, to be strong and move forward with him.
Read the rest of Pulitzer Center grantee Roger Thurow’s piece about Mandela.
What’s being pulled from the arctic water, 500 miles south of Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland’s Sermilik Fjord, could predict how much more of Greenland’s ice will melt.
"Gentle," a small research team chirps with as much excitement as anxiety as they ease what resembles a time capsule onto the deck of a fire-truck red icebreaker.
The high-tech instrument has been recording water temperature and salinity every hour of every day for a year. “So that we can estimate how much melting is happening, but also if these conditions change,” explains Dr. Fiamma Straneo, an oceanographer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She’s the lead researcher on this arctic mission.
Fjords are like rivers, connecting the ocean to glaciers. Early data collected by Straneo’s team shows a temperature of 40 degrees. Enough to rapidly melt glaciers. “We really want to know how much warm water is flowing in. What things drive it,” Straneo tells me as she looks up the fjord at a cluster of icebergs. They will eventually be deposited in the ocean. “It appears climate change has shifted ocean currents sending subtropical water up to this environment. That warm water makes its way to the base of the glacier,” she continued.
The threat has become two-fold. Warm air attacks glaciers from above. Warm water attacks from below. In the past decade the Greenland ice sheet’s rate of melting has doubled. That’s faster than ever recorded. Scientists say if all of Greenland’s ice were to melt, oceans would rise by 20 feet, threatening coastal communities world wide. Straneo’s research could predict how much the ocean will rise in the next century.
"Big berg on the left," shouted engineer Will Ostrom.
I joined the other scientists who rushed to the ship’s stern, cameras in hand, to marvel at the palatial chunks of ice. Under a bright afternoon sun, the icebergs acted like a disco ball, reflecting fragments of light. The twisted shape of the ice in front of us resembled frozen fire.
"They’re as big as some New York City high rises," said Ostrom, who is in charge of extracting the thermometers. He needs to retrieve two more before dusk. "It’s tricky. There are more icebergs in the fjord this year. The instruments run the risk of getting stuck underneath them," he explained. Straneo’s team will be in the fjord for a week retrieving old devices and depositing new ones that will be retrieved next year. While the rate of melting is still unclear, scientists say continued melting is inevitable. The real question is whether society can adjust fast enough.
Back in Ittoqqortoormiit, the familiar sounds of dawn ring villagers awake. Bells of a small church. Seagulls greeting hunters by the docks. And the engine of an ATV.
Erling Madsen begins another morning patrolling for polar bear. “We’re a simple town. We’re not used to much change, but we’re keeping up best we can,” he said.
There is no way to treat patients who don’t know that they have TB, and it’s estimated that a person with TB who goes untreated will infect between 10 and 15 people every year. So even if things inside the walls of a hospital are running smoothly, it is what is happening outside the clinics and hospitals that is most important.
If there is a good health system in the cities but not in the countryside, then the disease will continue to spread. Because TB is contagious and airborne, no half measures can be effective in ending the disease. That is one of the reasons that the funding gaps we are exploring in this project are so worrying. TB is a powerful disease that is present across the globe. If you don’t fully fund the fight against TB, then every dollar you spend will only make a small difference and then be washed away.
For refugees, lack of funding means delayed processing and insufficient aid. For Iraqis, it often means extended periods without any aid at all.
Nada Qasim fled from Baghdad in November with her seven children and husband, targeted by extremists for having worked with American soldiers.
Paint flakes off the walls of the bare apartment that they pay $225 per month to rent. Nada’s sister, married to a Kurd in northern Iraq, sends them rent money each month. The family depends on charities for everything else.
Syrians entering are given prima facie refugee recognition. That is, UNHCR registers Syrians immediately so they can access food, healthcare and education services.
Iraqis, along with minority refugee populations—Sudanese, Somalis and others, receive aid on a case-by-case basis, determined through vulnerability assessments that take an indeterminate amount of time.
"Ninety percent of Iraqis I deal with don’t receive any money anymore," said Haifa Hourani, an employee at an organization that works with Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement.
"If you’re not a widow or divorced woman alone with children, they probably won’t give you anything."
The 50-something teacher at the Koranic school described her as “calm and obedient,” ideal marriage material. Samira Abdoulaye, 19, did not return the sentiment.
Older than most of her peers—and all her 18 female siblings when they married, Samira the “calm and obedient” daughter said “no.”
Unfortunately, her rejection meant little and one afternoon the “old man,” as she describes him, showed up at the compound where she lived with her mother, her father’s two other wives, and several siblings and their daughters.
Her mother Salmou accepted the offer. Married herself at 12, Salmou felt relief in knowing her daughter would be taken care of. That Samira might object did not cross her mind.
And Samira, who was generally calm and obedient, did not think she could tell either parent no. Her older siblings—the brothers in particular—had teased her and berated her for remaining single for this long. And it was a source of disappointment and anxiety for her mother.
Believing she didn’t have the voice to object, she resolved to derail the nuptials by the only means at her disposal, ending her life.
The scale of this ecological disaster is daunting, and the potential scale and cost of any remediation or cleanup effort is mind-boggling. According to a geochemical survey conducted by the Ministry of Land and Resources between 2002 and 2008, 794 square miles in the area are polluted by heavy metals, an area that stretches from Zhuzhou, on the Xiang River, to Chengjingji. The report revealed that the area’s rice and vegetables—as well as reeds and mussels in its waterways—all contained elevated levels, mostly of cadmium.
Liu Shu—who is chair of the Shuguang Environmental Protection Organization, an NGO founded in 2013 in Changsha that works on soil pollution—has investigated soil pollution in Zhuzhou, Changsha, and Xiangtan. Her group found cadmium levels 49.5 times the limit in soil samples taken from the vicinity of a smelting plant in the municipality of Changning. At another site, an industrial park by the Xiang River in Henghan County, the group found levels 331 times the limit.
Gun violence is an epidemic that affects youth from all walks of life. In Guatemala young people experience the consequences of gun violence every day, adding another difficult obstacle to their daily lives. The Northern Triangle of Central America is currently one of most violent regions in the world and compares with Iraq, Somalia or Sudan. Young men and women are most susceptible to armed violence, and those living in marginal areas are particularly at risk. As a result of such exposure, youth can become both perpetrators and victims of the hostile environment. (www.youthpolicy.org/)
My interest in capturing violence in the developing world is to bring attention to what usually fades into the background. I began following the families of victims in Chicago and was struck by the incredible grief, loneliness, and fear that shadow these survivors of violent crime. Unfortunately, families in the United States share a common burden with families in Guatemala, who also carry the threat of violence with them everyday. In fact, the situation in Guatemala is so dire many families see no other option than to take matters into their own hands by forming vigilante groups to protect themselves from gangs. These gangs use violence to extort residents out of scarce resources. As a result, innocent Guatemalans carry out their daily activities in mortal fear for their lives and livelihoods.
Many young people who are involved in gangs say they join a gang as the last option to belong somewhere in society. Most of these young people come from abusive households. For Guatemalan youth breaking out of this cycle of poverty and violence is almost impossible. There are few social programs to help them get back on their feet. The Guatemalan government has enforced the “iron fist” approach, known as mano dura in the past, but the iron fist approach has not worked in stopping the violence.
Guatemala’s release of end-of-year crime statistics for 2012 showed a drop in the murder rate to 34 per 100,000 residents, down from 38.5 in 2011. This is the third consecutive annual decrease since the murder rate peaked in 2009, but the 2012 figure still translates to 5,155 murders and makes Guatemala one of the more dangerous countries in the world, according to data from the U.S. Department of State in 2012.
These are not problems bound by political orientation, social class, country of origin, or race. Violence affects youth and their families from all walks of life. By illuminating the images of victims and survivors who face these problems on a daily basis, I hope I can help bring them out of the shadows of death.
From the Caribbean to Africa, the production of cocoa has long been a bittersweet tale of profit and power. Ethnic strife in Ivory Coast is the most recent chapter in this prized commodity’s checkered history. Initially migrant workers from across West Africa were invited to the country to share in its farmland, helping Ivory Coast become the world’s top producer. (Today it provides some 40 percent of the world’s crop.) But once the economy went sour in the 1980s, cocoa profits were more jealously guarded. Land disputes erupted, sparking xenophobic violence that became a 10-year civil war.
With the cessation of post-election violence last year and the ascendance of a new government, the war is supposedly over. But new attacks are still carried out between rival factions; thousands of people still live in refugee camps; and those who return to their destroyed homes swear vengeance. As always, cocoa production continues through the strife — but reconciliation and a true end to conflict may still be a long way off.
LAGOS, Nigeria — Planks serve as sidewalks, and raised wooden structures serve as homes, bars and beauty parlors here in Badia East, a slum built on marshy landfill in this West African city. A., four months pregnant and newly homeless, sat deep toward the back of this neighborhood. She was contemplating terminating her pregnancy.
While technically legal only to save the life of the mother, abortions are readily available in Lagos’ underground market. But the quality and safety of the procedures vary widely. A., 24, had no source of income and planned to borrow money from family whether she aborted or continued the pregnancy.
Her house had burned down days before, after a neighbor forgot about a pot of beans on the fire. In the cramped remnants of her home the walls were blackened, and charred boards were stacked in the corner; the air still had a tinge of charcoal. Ibrahim slept now in a roofed but otherwise open structure at the end of a plank walkway.
She spent most of her days there, lounging, waiting, surrounded by a shifting crew of young urbanites. Boys rolled thick joints of India hemp and debated their favorite rappers — Nigerian 2Face and American Lil Wayne. Most of the young women had small children on their hips.
The man A. called her husband was in prison. “Every day I ask myself, think to myself, ‘Will I have the abortion?’” she said. “I have been struggling to survive. That is why I am confused on what to do now … It would be very painful for me to raise the baby alone.”
Already A. had given birth to one baby, who died, and aborted an earlier pregnancy. She had no complications from the first abortion, which is lucky. Botched abortions kill 3,000 to 34,000 women every year in Nigeria, according to the Guttmacher Institute and the Nigerian government. The dangerous abortions are the cheap ones.
She was fostering her nephew, a disheveled 6-year-old with piercing eyes. All around her, friends were raising children in the very environment into which she was unsure she wanted to bring a child.
A. spoke of her abortion only in tense whispers. “There are some pregnancies that happen by mistake. You have to abort them. But there are some that teach you a lesson,” she said. “I don’t want the abortion, but I don’t have support for the baby.”
A women’s revolution has begun in Saudi Arabia, although it may not be immediately evident. This fall, only a few dozen women got behind the wheel to demand the right to drive. Every female Saudi still has a male guardian—usually a father or husband—and few openly question the need for one. Adult women must have their guardians’ permission to study, to travel, and to marry, which effectively renders them legal minors. It took a decree from King Abdullah to put tens of thousands of them into the workforce. For the first time, they are interacting daily with men who are not family members, as cashiers in supermarkets and as salesclerks selling abayas and cosmetics and underwear.
One afternoon in late October, at the Sahara Mall, in central Riyadh, the Asr prayer was just ending. The lights were still dimmed in the mall’s marble corridor, but the Nayomi lingerie store had been unlocked. The rattle of steel and aluminum could be heard as security grilles were raised over nearby storefronts. Twenty-seven-year-old Nermin adjusted a box of perfume on a tiered display near the entrance, then turned to greet six saleswomen as they filed out of a storeroom, preparing to resume their shift. Nermin started working at Nayomi eighteen months ago, as a salesclerk herself. She was warm and engaging with customers, and was recently promoted to a position in which she oversees hiring and staff training for Nayomi stores across four Saudi provinces. All the employees wore long black abayas and niqabs, which revealed nothing but their eyes. They positioned themselves among the racks of bras, underpants, nightgowns, and foundation garments—black-cloaked figures moving against a backdrop of purples, reds, and innumerable shades of pink.
Nermin is one of the Nayomi chain’s longest-serving female employees. She was hired nearly a year after King Abdullah issued a decree, in June of 2011, that women were to replace all men working in lingerie shops. Early in 2012, on a visit to the Nayomi store in a mall near her house with her younger sister, Ruby, Nermin noticed a poster advertising positions for saleswomen. The sisters had never considered working, since there were virtually no jobs for women without a college degree or special skills. Nermin and Ruby mostly spent their days watching television, exercising, and surfing the Internet. In a blisteringly hot city with few parks, the mall was one of the only places to go for a walk. They filled out applications on the spot, and their family encouraged the idea. “I was surprised to find that I like to work,” Nermin said. Ruby, who got a job at the same store, is now the manager there. She wore its key on a yellow lanyard around her neck; pink-trimmed platform sneakers were visible beneath the hem of her abaya. After graduating from high school, she had spent four years feeling increasingly trapped at home, she said. “Nayomi gave me the chance to go on with life.”
You know the one. When the waiter comes to the table to give the specials, I’m the one who needs to know where the snapper’s from, how the swordfish was caught, and whether the salmon is farm-raised. My brother generally starts apologizing for me as soon as I open my mouth to see if the Chilean seabass is from the Marion Islands or the McDonald Islands. The answer better be the McDonalds or I lose it.
I am aware that there are lots of things on the menu. And that if we freaked out over every food injustice we’d quickly become the classic Portlandia sketch.
But here’s the thing, sustainable fish is not like organic veggies or free-range chicken. In fact, if you only follow one food issue, forget GMOs, hormones in beef, or (please, God) biodynamic wine.
Become a fish nerd. As I detail in a story for the upcoming issue of Harpers Magazine the oceans are in freefall. We are literally squeezing them dry. Except, you know, not literally dry I suppose.
Fish are the last wild creatures that we eat (no, that mooseburger you ate was not from a wild moose). And as global demand for fish has doubled in the past 20 years, the prices have remained stagnant. How is that possible, you ask? We catch a buttload more of them now, that’s how. Many populations have tanked below 20 or 10 percent as we just move onto the next species. And worst of all is how many we catch, kill, and chuck overboard because it’s the wrong thing. Up to 90 percent in many cases.
And unlike beef or chicken, most of that fish we buy at a restaurant rather than the market, meaning we are even more unconnected to it. Which leads to the next logical question, “What can I do?” The answer is, a lot. Fish may be the most damaging food you can eat, but it’s also the one where the consumer has the most direct power to affect change. So rather than simply saying, “Don’t eat seafood anymore,” I’ve created a guide, arranged in order of pains in the ass (easiest stuff at the beginning, biggest pains in the ass at the end, in case you drop out early). I give you the Erik Vance Restaurant Guide to Saving the Oceans.
Send a message to the chef – Your average chef could give hot bowl of sea lion turds about where his/her seafood comes from. And most think you feel the same way. Many tell me that they would happily look into sustainable options if they thought their diners cared. It’s hard work and they’re not going to do it just to be nice. Statistics suggest that more than half of us do. So if you’re not sure if something’s sustainable and you want to eat it anyway, tell the waiter to tell the chef (or manager – whoever orders the fish) that sustainable options are important to you. That you will eat the halibut-of-dubious-origins this time, but that you expect an effort to find clean versions next time. If everyone did that alone, it might save our oceans.
Sushi - Don’t eat it. There are, like, six truly sustainable sushi restaurants in the country and their owners are driving themselves insane. Sorry, but just don’t eat it.
Talk to your waiter - Ask if the fish is sustainable. If the waiter doesn’t know, then it’s not. If he comes back and says it is, he’s probably fibbing (this happens A LOT). If a restaurant is going to the trouble of sourcing their fish right, they will tell their waitstaff before the night starts. Unless your waiter is new or not terribly bright.
Don’t trust the waiter - Even if the waiter says a fish is sustainable, it may not be. After all, there is a premium for selling sustainable and it’s not clear that laws are being broken if you fib a little. These fibs can come from either the restaurant or the distributor, trying to appease a chef who cares about the oceans. A few years back I fact checked the menu of a restaurant in San Francisco, called Waterbar, that claimed to have sustainable fish and charged high prices for them. When I called the distributors and talked to the staff, more than half of the menu was either unverifiable or patently false (I encourage any local journos to take a look at them and see if they’ve improved – might be a story in it).
Check the species - What kind of fish is it? Obviously, if you are eating orange roughy or blue fin tuna, it doesn’t matter how the thing was caught, it’s from a decimated population. For this, there is no better guide than the Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide. They have a cool smartphone ap and little paper pocket guides, organized by region. If a fish is on the green list, eat away; if it’s yellow, only on special occasions; and if it’s red, don’t order the stupid thing.
Start at the bottom - If you do recognize the fish ask yourself, “Is this from the top or the bottom of the food chain?” Tuna, shark, and swordfish are all slow growing and likely to disappear faster (also loaded with mercury). Things like halibut, sardine, crab or trout are closer to the bottom and tend to be better.
Check the gear - “Gear” in fishing parlance is how the fish was caught. Bottom trawlers, for example are basically bulldozers that rumble up and down the ocean floor, wreaking havoc. Long liners leave hooks that sit out for days and catch everything and its mother. Acceptable terms are troll caught (not to be confused with “trawl” caught), rod and reel, Scottish seine, trap-caught, or pole caught. “Hook and line” is sort of a mixed bag that could either be a sustainable fishing rod or an unsustainable longline.
Check the season - If you are still reading, you are probably already a fish nerd. Yes, fish, like crops, have seasons. If you are eating something that claims to be fresh and it’s out of season, well, either it’s caught in a very nasty way for the ocean or its not fresh. Sadly, most seasons are from late spring to early fall (mmm, except for the wonderful California crab season).
Fins and farming - If it has fins, it shouldn’t be farmed. That’s a rough guide, but salmon and other farmed fish are heavy polluters and eat a lot of fishmeal (ie: other ground-up fish from the ocean as shown in this hilariously-titled movie). If it has a shell and is farmed, like oysters or (rarely) scallops, it’s great to eat. If it’s farmed shrimp … well, ah, that’s complicated.
Mix it up - This one is actually pretty easy, but it hurts a lot more. About 60 percent of the fish we eat in the US is either shrimp, salmon, or tuna. Even if we hunted them right, no species can withstand being America’s favorite fish. Just avoiding the top three and broadening your horizons is a help. Try the rockfish, it’s good.
In all of this, remember that the term “sustainable” is not a legal term. It’s not like “organic,” “grade A,” or “registered sex offender,” which have specific legal definitions. Laws requiring accurate menus punish lying about what kind of fish it is, not lying about whether it’s good for the planet. If I want to say it’s sustainable because I urinated on it while calling it nasty names, well, I’m not breaking any laws. Except, I suppose, one or two health codes.
But after I published a seafood story a few years back, I got a call from NOAA’s enforcement wing trying to figure out how they might begin enforcing sustainability. It’s still a ways off, but the more demand we create the faster industry will adapt. And we’re not talking about a lot, here. The industry completely freaked out and went through a revolution when it realized that 10-15 percent of us wanted to buy sustainable fish. If we hit 30, God knows what we might accomplish.
1,000 Days: The Period That Decides the Health and Wealth of the World
BARJWINYA, Uganda—In this tiny village in northern Uganda, Esther Okwir heard something she could barely believe: Her child could be the country’s president one day.
Esther, a 22-year-old who was five months pregnant, sat on the cement floor of a veranda at the Ongica Health Center on a sweltering afternoon, squeezed under a tin awning with several dozen women who had come to the spartan clinic from miles around. About half of them were also pregnant, some poised to deliver any day, and the others cradled and breastfed newborn babies.
The 1,000-day period from the beginning of pregnancy to a child’s second birthday “will determine the health of your child, the ability to learn in school, to perform at a future job,” Susan Ejang, the midwife at the clinic, told the women, adding that proper nutrition for the mother and child, as well as good sanitation and hygiene, are vital to prevent stunting of the body and brain. She spread her arms wide, as if to embrace all the women on the porch. “Yes,” she insisted, “if you take good care, the next president of the country may come from this group.”
Esther had been dreaming a bit more modestly. She hoped her child would get a good education and be successful in business. But the president of the country? Well, why not? “That would really be something,” she said.
He was genuinely frightened to be returning to Afghanistan. His uncle was going to pick him up at the airport and drive him through some of the country’s more dangerous provinces to his family’s home.” Jeffrey E. Stern investigates the lives of women, minorities, youth in Afghanistan. Read more here.
In Guatemala – the country with the highest rates of malnutrition in the Americas – roughly half of the nation’s children are “stunted” and experience slow growth, poor school performance and, later in life, lower economic productivity. Watch Roger Thurow and Hari Sreenivasan’s report here.
“The violence is everywhere,” said photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz, who has documented the poverty and crime in the region with his project El Sueño. His photos were recently featured in this MSNBC report about violence in Guatemala.
Our grantee Philip Brasher was in Ethiopia to examine Feed the Future, President Obama’s bold initiative to increase global food production and end hunger. Read about what Ethiopia is doing to improve market access for smallholder farmers here.
"All these improvements, all the trained police and immigration staff—all to help people and money leave the country. And that money is fleeing fast. In 2011, an estimated $4.6 billion left the country through the airport—almost as much as the Afghan government’s total annual public spending, at $4.8 billion. The economic impact of the withdrawal is, while not yet paralyzing, ever present." Check out Jeffrey Stern’s project Afghanistan: On Its Own.
"China has 135 million hectares (334 million acres) of arable land in total, but the amount of available high quality arable land has been dropping due to advancing urbanization and pollution. According to the recently released data, the government classifies more than 3 million hectares of arable land as moderately polluted. How much of that is contaminated with heavy metals is still not clear." Find out more about China’s environmental challenges on our Soil Pollution in China project page.
"Some island nations, such as the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, face an existential threat of becoming uninhabitable or disappearing beneath the waves. The difference with Bangladesh is how many more people live in harm’s way. In the Maldives, leaders expect their 380,000 citizens will have to move at some point this century. In Bangladesh, the government estimates that as many as 25 million people will be permanently displaced if one-fifth of the country becomes inundated by a 3-foot rise in the seas, as scientists predict." View Pulitzer Center grantee Kenneth R. Weiss’s project page: Beyond 7 billion.
Dr. Jill Biden recently traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and met with survivors of sexual violence. Read how girls and women in the DRC are recovering from trauma and rebuilding their lives in this newly published e-book. http://bit.ly/congoebook
"I wanted to know how mothers, scientists, and doctors in West Africa felt about seasonal malaria chemoprevention, so I traveled to Mali and Senegal to speak with them. To my surprise, everyone seemed to endorse the intervention. In southeastern Mali, nurses bragged about empty pediatric wards, which usually overflow with young malaria patients soon after the first rains fall." Check out Pulitzer Center grantee Amy Waxman’s project on West Africa: Malaria Prevention at the Cost of Drug Resistance. http://bit.ly/malariaprevention