Author Archives: Justin Catanoso

Environment  Mongabay: Government takedown of illegal gold mining in Peru shows promise, but at a cost

This drone shot of La Pampa in Madre de Dios shows the widespread environmental devastation from alluvial goal mining. A few years ago, that area was entirely dense jungle. In the middle of the photo are military outposts, Peru’s unprecedented attempt to reduce gold mining in one of the most notorious regions for such illegal extraction on earth. Photo by Jorge Caballero Espejo/CINCIA

Because of widespread media attention over the past five years or more — who can resist a story that combines gold, organized crime, prostitution and environmental devastation of a pristine rain forest? — Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian Amazon has become known worldwide as a kind of hell on earth.

But as my story for Mongbay explains, a lot can happen in a year. La Pampa, the worst but by no means only large-scale illegal mining operation, was raided and largely shut down by the national government in February 2019. And the previous month, Madre de Dios — a region about the size of South Carolina known as the most biodiverse place on earth — elected a governor who wasn’t a miner. Instead, Luis Hidalgo Okimura is intent on reducing mining, formalizing and taxing miners who remain, and rescuing his home region from further environmental destruction.

I got to interview Hidalgo with three of my students in his government conference room not far from our hotel in Puerto Maldonado. After an hour and a half, I knew I had the makings of a good story. Specials thanks to my colleague Cesar Ascorra, national director of CINCIA, for arranging the interview. CINCIA is a Wake Forest-led science project that has developed proven strategies to repair deforested tropical areas and mitigate the public health threat of 185 tons of mercury dumped a year in Madre de Dios.

It was also a pleasure to work again with Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis. She not only accepted my story pitch, she enhanced the story by both downloading and analyzing satellite images that showed expanding deforestation outside La Pampa.

Riverside alluvial gold mining continues unhindered throughout Madre de Dios, especically along the Rio Inambari and Rio Malinowski. Photo by Jason Houston
This photo was taken by a member of Gov. Hidalgo’s staff after our 90-minute interview with him. My friend and translator Marianne Van Vlaardingen is on the left, then Wake journalism minor Juliana Marino, me, Hidalgo, Cesar Ascorra, and Wake journalism minors Kat Boulton and Renting Cai.

Environment  Mongabay: Carbon to burn — UK net-zero emissions pledge undermined by biomass energy

These innocuous looking wood pellets, largely from the US Southeast, are being burned instead of coal in the UK and European Union. And the emissions, which are worse than coal, go uncounted because of an outdated UN policy loophole.

I had been looking for an opportunity to write another story regarding woody biomass and the dubious United Nations policy that allows the accelerating pollution from burning those pellets for energy in the United Kingdom and across the European Union to be ignored in carbon accounting mandates. The opening came in mid-June when the UK announced plans to legislate that it would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Many cheered the less-than ambitious goal; if serious greenhouse gas reductions aren’t achieved globally by 2030, the International Panel on Climate Change has warned, nature will not be forgiving as floods, heat waves, drought, sea-level rise, wildfires, ferocious storms, disease and dislocation morph from crisis to calamity.

This story in Mongabay, which my editor Glenn Scherer welcomed and enhanced, explains as clearly and fairly as I can the danger to the planet of implicitly encouraging deforestation to produce wood pellets to be burned for energy with no obligation to report those carbon emissions.

This is an aerial photo of a wood-pellet producing plant located in eastern North Carolina. Those used to be trees that absorbed and stored carbon, harbored animals and birds, and protected the coast against winds, storms, and flooding. They are waiting to become wood pellets to be burned overseas. Photo courtesy The Dogwood Alliance

Environment  Mongabay: EU sued to stop burning trees for energy; it’s not carbon neutral: plaintiffs


Forest like these in North Carolina are being cut with the wood turned into pellets shipped to the UK and EU to burn in former coal-fired power plants.

One of the most disturbing stories I’ve covered in recent years now moves from the forests and sidelines to — possibly — an international court in Brussels, as this story illustrates.

Here’s the gist of the story, as summarized by my editor Glenn Scherer:

  • Plaintiffs in five European nations and the U.S. filed suit Monday, 4 March, in the European General Court in Luxembourg against the European Union. At issue is the EU’s rapid conversion of coal-burning powerplants to burn wood pellets and chips, a process known as bioenergy. Activists see the EUs bioenergy policies as reckless and endangering the climate.
  • Bioenergy was classified as carbon neutral under the Kyoto Protocol, meaning that nations don’t need to count wood burning for energy among their Paris Agreement carbon emissions. However, studies over the last 20 years have found that bioenergy, while technically carbon neutral, is not neutral within the urgent timeframe in which the world must cut emissions.

Environment  Wake Forest in the Peruvian Amazon — two photo stories

Deep in the Peruvian Jungle

Visitors in Wake Forest University’s homepage in January 2019 were first greeted by this image and these two stories. The first story explains in details the study abroad program I developed with colleague Miles Silman in tropical ecology and science writing in the Peruvian Amazon. The second focuses on the largest grant in Wake Forest history to create a science and education team — CINCIA — to address the impact of deforestation and pollution from illegal gold mining in the southern Peruvian Amazon.

Environment  Mongabay: COP24 — Summit a step forward, but fails to address climate urgency

Young people were more visible and vocal at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, than at any previous climate summit I’ve covered. It makes sense; it’s their future at risk. The banner at the top reads: ‘Which side are you on?’ Photo by Justin Catanoso

This last story from the UN climate summit in Poland sums up a bit of the best and worst of what happened at an annual meeting of 196 nations where everyone clearly understood the urgency and the stakes involved in accelerating global warming. Twelve years. Twelve years is the time scientists estimate we have left to take unprecedented transformational action to reduce carbon emissions, shift to renewable energy sources like wind and solar and slow the rate of deforestation to little or none. There’s no choice. There’s no Plan B. 

Despite the desperate pleas of NGOs and youthful activists to act aggressively, leaders of the industrialized world did not act aggressively. That’s because politically and economically, they refuse to. Elected leaders are absolutely the least capable people on earth to do what necessary to meet this challenge. They are simply are incapable of moving past their own interests, their own conflicts and their own short-term thinking. As one source told me, leaders of the G-20 will finally come around when its far too late to do anything meaningful to prevent climate catastrophe. 

So COP24 wasn’t a complete waste of time. But it didn’t send any courageous messages or signals that leading countries like the US, UK, EU, China and India — all major polluters — were ready to pull out all the stops to fight climate change. It’s unlikely the outcome will be any different at COP25 next year in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Environment  Mongabay: COP24 — Nations complicit in ignoring bioenergy climate bomb, experts say

For all the attention paid to the growth of solar and wind energy, burning biomass — wood pellets and chips — is growing more than three times as fast, imperiling forests and pouring CO2 into the atmosphere that countries don’t have to account for.

This story, linked here, is far and away the most important one I’ve reported and written in the five climate summits I’ve covered dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014. It demonstrates politics triumphing over science, and it could not come at a worse time. In a conference dedicated to technical details, the unwillingness to accurately account for the escalating carbon emissions coming from burning wood for energy in the UK, throughout the EU and increasingly in Asia, amounts to a crime against nature — who is not fooled by what one source called “fraudulent accounting.”

An excerpt from my story: 

“Let’s be clear about this: delegates from developed countries are well aware of this dangerous loophole as they draft the Paris Rulebook that could be designed to remedy the problem at the 24th U.N. climate summit, or COP24, here in Katowice, Poland. Yet they have ignored the pleas, the scientific data, the detailed charts identifying the danger, submitted by impassioned NGOs over the past week and a half.”

Environment  Mongabay: COP24 — Will they stay or will they go? Brazil’s threat to leave Paris

Brazil had a lively, busy pavilion at COP24 in Poland. Will it have a pavilion next year when the summit is held in Latin America? Photo by Justin Catanoso

Mongabay prides itself on its close coverage of Brazil, especially the Amazon, its indigenous people and its biodiversity. It is one the earth’s most important ecosystems. Everything about the extreme-right president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, screams that the Amazon, and everyone who lives in it, is in dire jeopardy as long as the dangerous, Trump-like demagogue is in office. My editors asked for a story about Brazil at COP24 in Poland, the last climate summit before Bolsonaro takes office. The link is here

Excerpt:

“Bolsonaro, who unlike Trump, enjoyed a clear majority presidential win, has remained a Trumpian figure of discord and divisiveness during his transition to power. He has assailed environmental regulators, given lethal encouragement to gun owners, and struck fear deep in the hearts of indigenous peoples and environmental activists in a country that already sees more forest guardians murdered annually than any other country in the world.”

EnvironmentRadio  WUNC/The State of Things: Trump Administration Pushes Fossil Fuel At UN Climate Summit

Leaders of the 24th UN Climate Summit. Photo courtesy UNFCCC

For the fifth time in five years, The State of Things, the noon program on WUNC out of Durham,  which reaches half of North Carolina, had me on live to talk with host Frank Stasio about the UN climate summit. The location this year, 2018? Katowice, Poland.

The link to the radio conversation is here.

Environment  Mongabay: COP24: Trumpers tout clean coal; protesters call it ‘climate suicide’

Protesters, for the second year in a row, bring the surreal Trump Administration’s fossil fuel message at the UN climate summit in Poland to a halt with a long, loud, boisterous outburst.

In November 2917 in Bonn, Germany at COP23, I managed to get into the Trump Administration’s only public event at the conference. I called it one of the strangest panel discussion in COP history. Trump representatives, heedless of the perils of climate change and its causes, urged the use of more fossil fuels and essentially advertised that the US has plenty to export. This year, as I report here, the administration held only one event again, and once again touted the use of fossil fuels. Both years, protesters interrupted the event, chanting loudly and then marching out, leaving the room half empty (as planned). My story here at COP24 in Katowice, Poland focuses on the outraged responses to Trump’s villainous attitude toward the environment.

Environment  Mongabay: COP24 – US, Russia, Saudis downplay IPCC report in display of disunity

Tom Steyer, one of the United States’ most influential environmental activists, at COP24 in Poland. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Reporting for my first story — linked here — at my fifth United Nations climate summit started shortly I arrived at the sprawling venue in Katowice, Poland. There was a reception at the US Climate Action Center, the unofficial hub of acitivity on the part of the United States in the age of Trump, who refuses to pay for a national pavilion like other countries.

I got to hear Tom Steyer speak, someone I’ve been reading about for years. A billionaire from his Wall Street days, he has turned his fortune into political and environmental activism that helped stop the XL Pipeline and promote a youth vote in the 2018 midterm elections that helped Democrats retake the US House of Representatives. Interviewing him one-on-one, and then hearing him speak the following night at a private event, gave me my story idea. The Trump negotiators obstructive pettiness, which emerged in a Saturday evening session, ended up leading the story. Great editing by Glenn Scherer of Mongabay.