To uncover the truth, it’s often best to land “on the ground.” But sometimes obstacles—physical or bureaucratic or even mental—obscure our view. Then, it’s sometimes better to take to the sky and get perspective.
Photographer Alex MacLean has been doing just that—snapping photos from the air—for nearly 40 years. His photos reveal the overlooked scale of American car culture. They peek over the fences of military bases. They connect the dots between digging coal and generating electricity.
Alex will ride the skies above Alberta’s oil sands for a week beginning April 4th. We know the ground beneath Alberta’s boreal forest—saturated with an estimated 150 billion barrels of oil—rivals all other troves of oil apart from those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. We know Alberta’s rich deposits underlie a territory of 54,000 square miles, as large as Iowa. But we can barely comprehend numbers this big.
Alex will help us. He’ll show us waste ponds nearly the size of Manhattan and dump trucks that could swallow a McMansion whole.
We’ll report from the ground as well. We’ll talk to regulators, mining companies, the miners themselves and many others. Stay tuned.
Images by Alex MacLean with text by Dan Grossman.
Follow Dan and Alex reporting from Alberta @GrossmanMedia.
Grossman’s TED Book Deep Water is available to download.
Hydropower is booming on the Mekong River. The energy and money these dams produce are vital to a fast growing, rapidly developing region. The likely benefits of hydropower are substantial, but critics say many, if not most, of these large dams are going forward without a full reckoning of their environmental and social costs. There are more than 120 major hydropower dams planned along the Mekong and its major tributaries. We visited villages in the shadow of just one: the Lower Sesan2, planned near the confluence of Cambodia’s Sesan and Srepok Rivers.
Steve Sapienza and Chris Berdik traveled to Cambodia to report on Lake Tonle Sap. View their project: “Lake Tonle Sap: The Endangered Heart of Cambodia”
About 1 million children work in the dangerous job of mining and many are exposed to mercury while their growing brains are most vulnerable.
Mercury has been known to be dangerous since the time of the ancient Greeks. The liquid metal can cause tremors, memory loss, brain damage and a host of other problems. Mercury accumulates in the body over time and its effects are irreversible. It can be absorbed through the skin, ingested in food, or inhaled as a vapor.
Today, small-scale gold mining is the largest source of mercury emissions caused by humans, accounting for more than 35% of the worldwide total, according to the UN Environmental Program.
Mercury use is widespread in Indonesia, where illegal gold miners operate freely and child labor is common.
See more of Larry’s images and view his whole project here: “Philippines: The Cost of Gold.” You can also view Larry’s work in our newest e-Book “Tarnished: The True Cost of Gold” which combines the work of 11 journalists reporting from 10 countries. Download today.
I meet Keo Mao, 42, in the floating fishing village of Akol on Cambodia’s Lake Tonle Sap. The houses here move seasonally with the lake, which expands by a factor of five during the monsoon rains and recedes again in the dry months. Fish supply about 80 percent of the animal protein eaten by Cambodians, and about 60 percent of the inland catch comes from the Tonle Sap.
Mao is baby-faced, with a thick mop of dark hair and a ready smile that crowds out his other features when fully displayed. His stubby-fingered hands are heavily calloused from decades of work on the water. He’s not fishing the day we meet, however. Along with a few other local fishermen, Mao earns some part-time cash by helping Conservation International track the health of the lake and its fish. They collect fish from sample nets set around the lake and take notes, recording the species, size and weight, and snipping off a bit of tail to be shipped off to a lab at Texas Tech for DNA analysis. The rest of the time, Mao’s out on the lake — setting his net in the evenings and hauling it back out early the next morning. He doesn’t need science to know the lake is in trouble.
“The lake now is not really so good,” Keo says through an interpreter. “There are too many people.”
That pretty much sums it up. There are still plenty of fish here, but more and more people are going after them. In the last few years, many have migrated to the lake, because huge government land concessions to timber, mining, sugar, rubber and cassava plantations have displaced them from family farms. Others have been forced to sell their land to pay off debt. The vast majority of people in Cambodia earn their living from the land, and good land is increasingly expensive. Fish, however, are free for the taking, especially since the government dissolved the Tonle Sap’s large private fishing lots in 2012.
The lake is now divided into hundreds of community-managed fisheries, mingled with newly designated conservation areas. It was a change long-advocated by many Tonle Sap residents, who were tired of wealthy, politically connected people securing the fishing lots, hiring a few locals for harvest and excluding the rest with fences, guards and AK-47s. But when the lot owners pulled up their fences, the weakness of public governance on the lake was evident. Most local communities don’t yet have the means to properly police their bit of the lake, exclude outsiders, or keep people from using illegal fishing gear or sneaking into sanctuaries.
The lake’s bigger fish are increasingly scarce. What remain abundant are the various, small silver species known collectively as Trey Riel, “Money Fish,” most of which are processed into Prahok, a fermented fish paste found everywhere in Cambodian cooking. On a good day, a lone fisher might catch 30 kilograms of fish, earning maybe $15, depending on what’s caught. Accounting for the cost of gear, boat maintenance and diesel means many people here are in debt, with loans provided by the middlemen who buy their fish and lock them into lower-than-market prices in lieu of charging interest.
To support his family, a wife and five kids, Keo also keeps pigs in a floating pen next to his house. Like many others in his village, he has an aquaculture cage where he raises giant snakehead fish (channa micropeltes), which take about six months to grow to market size. He also had a floating vegetable garden, but a storm during the last monsoon season tossed the house so violently that the gardens were destroyed. New arrivals around the lake have also expanded rice planting on the floodplain, clearing the seasonally flooded mangrove forests that are a critical habitat for Tonle Sap fish as well as protection for the villages from storms like the one that ruined his vegetable garden.
Like most people in Cambodia over a certain age, Mao’s life story is divided and torn by war. From 1975 to 1979, when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled, much of the country was forcibly relocated to rural areas to work in the rice fields. People were separated from their families, and nearly two million people — about one-fifth of the population — were killed from overwork, starvation and executions. Asked about his history, Keo focuses on the time after Pol Pot was ousted, during which he has always been a fisherman.
He moved to the lake in the mid-1980s. Since then, he has witnessed the destruction of more than half of the flooded forests. Mao believes his five kids will likely also fish this lake for a living, but it’s a hard life and not likely to get easier anytime soon. If he could earn a little more money, he says, he’d keep his kids in school longer to give them more opportunities. If he did very well, he would leave the lake and move his family to dry land.
Images by Steve Sapienza. Cambodia, 2014.
"Gold never brought us happiness," he says. "The Romans conquered this land for the gold. The Austro-Hungarians came here for the gold. Then the communists. And now this company. Before they were called invaders, now they are called investors. This is evolution, I guess." — Dimiter Kenarov. Romania, 2011.
Excerpt from our newest e-Book “Tarnished” which examines the true cost of gold. Download for free until March 7. After March 7, the cost will be $9.99, with all proceeds going directly to the 11 journalists who contributed to the book.
Cambodia’s Lake Tonle Sap is a fish factory, powered by an annual pulse of water—flooding and receding in the lower Mekong River basin to which it’s connected by the Tonle Sap River. About 80 percent of the protein Cambodians eat is fish, which makes the Tonle Sap indispensable for a growing nation’s food security.
But Cambodia and its neighbors also need other things from the water that flows through the lower Mekong Basin—for irrigating rice and other crops, for expanding hydropower and supporting booming cities. All these needs are real, but coupled with a changing climate, they could put the Tonle Sap at risk. Can a new approach to conservation on the lake keep it all in balance?
Read more from Pulitzer Center grantee Chris Berdik and his project: “Lake Tonle Sap: The Endangered Heart of Cambodia”
NEW RELEASE: PULITZER CENTER E-BOOK “TARNISHED: THE TRUE COST OF GOLD”
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