This story here came to me in November as a tip from a source in Scotland who is familiar with my reporting on the growth of the biomass industry for energy production. This one has a new twist in that it doesn’t focus on wood pellets for energy, but rather soy for biofuels — in a part of the world rarely discussed but critical in size and scope for biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation — French Guiana.
With lots of research reports, government documents and exceptional sources in both Paris and Cayenne, French Guiana, the story started to take shape. With a population of just 300,000 almost entirely along it’s northern coast, French Guiana is in need of expanding and upgrading its energy system from diesel-powered plants to renewables. The problem, however, is the France wants the department to grow its own soy — the most common source for biofuel — to power five new energy stations. To grow enough soy would require a staggering amount of Amazon jungle to be clearcut — by one estimate, an area three times the square miles of New York City.
My story details what’s at stake with this unusual proposed policy change for a country and president, Emmanuel Macron, recognized for their sensitivity to climate action and ecosystem protections. Activists in French Guiana are mobilizing to stop the policy proposals, preserve their densely forested department (which is the size of Indiana) and promote true renewable energy sources like expanded wind and solar installations.
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.
A giant otter in Cashu Lake at Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Photo by Jason Houston
In early May 2018, I called Mongabay special project editor Erik Hoffner with a vague idea. I would be spending six weeks in Peru between May 25 and July 5. Most of it would be in the Amazon, save for a week in Lima at the outset. I wanted to write a story that somehow captured the majesty of the Peruvian Amazon and what’s at stake as climate change and assaults such as mining, timbering and extraction put large swaths of the rainforest at risk. I’d be working with environmental photographer Jason Houston.
“I don’t exactly know what I’ll come up with, but I think we have a shot at something unique and interesting.” Erik was familiar with Jason’s extraordinary photography. He said, in essence, go for it.
And an excerpt: Eavesdropping on nature from above is an unparalleled thrill. Even more thrilling is understanding the interconnectedness of the forest below, and everything in it; the mutual support and subtle language of various species that keep the forest thriving. Every living thing has a role to play, and it all adds up to provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and cloud production that the developed world depends on, whether we know it or not.
The story turns on a simple premise: A new Peruvian president took power in Lima in April 2018 after the fourth consecutive president had been felled by corruption and scandal. Each promised to protect the Amazon, seeing sweeping environmental laws passed. Yet with only sporadic enforcement in limited areas, Peru has some of Latin America’s highest rates of deforestation. Much is at stake for biodiversity and the health of the planet. That’s the story Jason and I sought to tell in both my words and his powerful photos. Special thanks to Mongabay editor Genevieve Belmaker for her careful editing and layout.
This gigantic mahogany is Cocha Cashu is a rich target for illegal timbering. That’s me in the background. Photo by Jason Houston
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.
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.
This broad-leafed plant in the rubiaceae, or coffee, family was spotted at 8,000 feet elevation in the Amazon basin of the Peruvian Andes. Such species are not normally seen at such high elevations. Photograph by Justin Catanoso
Excerpt: “As I learned in my reporting last summer, (2013) in temperate or cold climates, trees and plants are adapted to wide temperature ranges and can migrate to latitudes for many miles north to stay in their ecological comfort zones. In the tropics, where most of the world’s biodiversity exists, trees and plants live in extremely narrow temperature ranges. To survive, they will need to reproduce in higher altitudes where space is far more limited and upslope soils might not be accommodating – hence the possible threat to coffee growing in the future.”