On February 12, 2020, with a letter to “all persons of good will,” Pope Francis sought to reclaim the mantle of global environmental leadership he established in mid-2015. That’s when he the released of the first-ever papal encyclical (Catholic teaching document of the highest order) on environmental protection and climate change — Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home.
My story for Mongay here picks up that thread with Dear Amazon, a papal letter in response to the first-ever Vatican meeting in October 2019 to focus on a specific region of the planet — Amazonia. While topics at the so-called synod focused largely on environmental protection and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in those jungles, the mainstream coverage of Francis’ letter focused almost solely on his decision to not allow priests to marry who agree to serve in the dramatically underserved Amazon regions spread across eight countries.
This left an opening for me to write a kind of exclusive about the pope’s environmental and social justice message, which makes up the vast majority of Dear Amazon. The story idea was pitched to me by my inimitable editor Glenn Scherer. I was glad for the opportunity.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.