Interviewing Luis Murillo, Colombia’s minister of the environment, at the headquarters of National Geographic. Photo by Enrique Ortiz, Andes Amazon Fund
On Sept. 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., I had the unique opportunity to interview one of the leaders of environmental protection in Latin America – Luis Murillo, the minister of the environment and sustainable development in the cabinet of President Juan Santos. Murillo was in DC that day for a ceremony sponsored by National Geographic honoring Santos for his aggressive action in doubling the amount of protected areas in his biodiverse country — from coral reefs to high-mountain rain forests — since taking office in 2010. My interview with Murillo preceded the event and was an exclusive for Mongabay. The story link is here.
In the weeks prior to my DC sojourn, I spent hours immersed in studying Colombian environmental politics, Santos’ environmental record, his controversial peace accord with the FARC that ended a 50-year civil war and earned him the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, and as much as I could about Murillo. Haley Weibel, a communications specialist with the Andes Amazon Fund in DC, was instrumental in providing key material for me to read. My good friend Enrique Ortiz, program director with the fund, provided critical insight about Santos, Murillo and the myriad challenges to their environmental legacy.
My time with Murillo was limited, so we wasted no time jumping into deep end of the issues I wanted to discuss. He was a pleasure to talk with. He spoke with great candor and insight, and never ducked when I asked him pointed questions. He knows what’s at stake in setting aside so much land in Colombia — land that just below the surface is rich with fossil fuels and precious metals. He made it clear that he believes his developing country has a moral obligation to not plunder these critical ecosystems for short-term economic gain. But he stressed that the world’s wealthiest nations should feel compelled to support Colombia financially so that it can actually protect and preserve all the land Santos has set aside for future generations. Extraction industrialists will only sit on the sidelines for so long. Deforestation in Colombia since the end of the civil war is already escalating. My interview with Murillo gets into such thorny issues and more. My thanks to Mongabay founder Rhett Butler for assigning me the story.
Gary Knell of the National Geographic Society honoring Juan Santos, president of Colombia. Photo by Enrique Ortiz
When Rhett Butler, founder and CEO of Mongabay, contacted me a few weeks back and asked if I could attend an event in Washington, D.C., I didn’t hesitate. The National Geographic Society would be honoring, on Sept. 21, 2017, President Juan Santos of Colombia for his unparalleled actions to preserve land, sea and biodiversity in his critically important Latin America country. By going, I would also get an exclusive interview with Luis Murillo, minister of the environment and sustainable development. That story is coming. The link here is to my story about Santos’ talk after receiving a plaque from Gary Knell.
President Santos greets indigenous leaders from Colombia on stage at the conclusion of the event at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. Photo by Enrique Ortiz
On average, three rhinos a day are poached from the highly protected Kruger National Park in South Africa. Photo by Bobby Amoroso.
Through the assistance and connections of my Wake Forest colleague biologist Michael Anderson, an expert in savannas and grasslands in Tanzania, I decided to take nearly two weeks in June 2017 to learn about this vast and important ecosystem. Tanzania proved too difficult to gain access, so Mike recommended South Africa and introduced me to professional colleagues at the university in Johannesburg. That story is coming, I hope.
On the way up that learning curve, I was led another compelling and timely story that besets every continent where nature collides with human greed. I saw that first hand in the mining industry in Peru in 2015; I saw it again in the poaching of large animals in Kruger National Park in northeast South Africa. I am incredibly grateful to Erik Hoffner, special projects editor at Mongabay, for allowing me to stretch a bit in telling this important story. My fixer in Johannesburg, Neil Bowen, was indispensable in helping me make connections and with logistics. The story link is here.
My good friend Bobby Amoroso of Greensboro took the fabulous photos that accompany my story. He was a great travel companion, too.
Note: African elephants have a healthy population in Kruger. But their overall numbers have been reduced by 30 percent due to ivory poaching in recent years. Photo by Bobby Amoroso
Two years after Pope Francis launched Laudato Si, the Vatican’s plea to save the earth, Trump rejected its tenets and the Paris Agreement. But people of all faiths are unified globally to beat climate change. Here’s my story in Mongabay. Thanks to editor Glenn Scherer for assigning this follow-up to a series of related stories I wrote from Rome, Peru and Paris in 2015-16.
Top officials celebrate after the Paris Agreement was signed in December 2015. Trump’s threats to withdraw from the agreement has touched off a hostile global response, especially from China. Photo by Justin Catanoso in 2016.
A good source with World Resources Institute in Bonn, Germany, tipped me off to this story about China’s disgusted reaction to Trump’s repeated threats to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. After a conversation with Mongabay editor Mike Gaworecki, we agreed to a quick follow up given that the mainstream media has not reported the news yet. They will. We just have it early.
Last year (May 2016), I was fortunate to cover the first week on the UN mid-year climate conference in Bonn, Germany. This year, under the specter of a US president threatening to pull out of the historic Paris Agreement, I produced a story for Mongabay from my home office in North Carolina. The story is here. Thanks to editor Glenn Scherer for his quick and thorough work. The story quickly hit Mongabay’s Best Read list at No. 5.
In my reporting:
Bonn negotiators remain unfazed by Trump’s climate change denialism or his threat to withdraw from Paris. Every signatory nation is going forward with meeting voluntary carbon reduction pledges. Some policymakers do worry how the parties to the Paris Agreement will make up the loss of billions of dollars in U.S. climate aid promised under Obama, but now denied by Trump.
Early last month, Erik Hoffner, a special editor with Mongabay, got in touch to tell me about the site’s coup of an interview with Dr. E.O. Wilson, one of the world’s leading conservationists. The story and Q&A was exceptionally well done. Erik then let me know that the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation based at Duke University would be hosting a two-day conference, and the legendary singer-song writer Paul Simon would be involved. He wondered if I would be interested in trying to get an interview with Simon and writing a story for Mongabay.
Not a tough question to answer. With the help of Paula Erhlich, the CEO of Wilson’s foundation, Simon agreed to meet with me for an exclusive interview on March 3 on the Duke campus during the conference. Simon’s music has been a seminal part of my life, and the life of my family, for decades. Meeting him was a special thrill of a fortunate journalist working for a great news organization. We spoke easily and intently for an hour, a little about music, but mostly about Wilson’s Half-Earth Project and its goal to stave off species extinctions around the world.
Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts produces as strong compelling evidence of how climate change is affecting our most iconic trees in the Eastern United States. My story for Mongabay is posted here. Thanks to Dave McGlinchey, a former student now the Woods Hole communications director, for helping with sources and photos. And to my editor at Mongabay, Mike Gaworecki.
While the Obama Administration — including John Kerry shown here at the Paris summit — was instrumental in successfully negotiating the 2015 accord, the international community at COP22 says it is committed to moving forward without the US. China is likely to fill the leadership void created by Trump. Photo courtesy of the US State Department
My Mongabay editor Glenn Scherer requested this storyover the first weekend of the 22nd United Nations Climate Summit in Marrakesh. I had already written a world reaction story to the stunning election of a boorish, bigoted charlatan as the next president of the United States. But Glenn wanted me to keep after the story. I’m glad I did. The specter of Trump hung over the entire conference and dominated almost every question at every press conference, and more than a few side side discussions.
Appearing at the mid-week press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry said angrily: ““This is bigger than one person, one president. We have to figure out how we’re going to stop this [Trump’s plan]… No one has the right to make decisions that affect billions of people based solely on ideology or without proper input.”
Jonathan Pershing. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Lead US negotiator Jonathan Pershing added: “It is no longer a question of whether to accelerate the [Paris] Agreement’s implementation, but rather a question of when and how.”
The offshoot: world leaders felt compelled to pledge an even stronger allegiance to the historic Paris Agreement, to not back away from their carbon-reduction pledges, and to do so with or without US participation or leadership. China now emerges as a potential leader in climate action, a development with grave implications for US trade and military policy and alliances. My story captures many of the storylines that dominated the final week of COP22.
Entrance to COP 22, UN Climate Summit, Marrakesh, Morocco. Photo by Justin Catanoso
WFDD reporter Keri Brown interviewed me for my reflections on the outcome of the 22nd United Nation’s climate summit in Marrakesh. The link to the four-minute radio story is here. As I’ve written previously, the new president-elect has galvanized world leaders to take aggressive climate action, with or without US leadership.