This storyis a follow up to my breaking news story in early October regarding Pope Francis‘ spirited addendum to his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si in defense of planet earth. In his concise, 13-page letter to “people of all faiths,” the pope makes clear his grave disappointment in leaders of the industrialized world to act with urgency to combat the accelerating climate crisis.
My goal with the follow up story, planned in consultation with my Mongabay editor Glenn Scherer, was to interview a range of sources in religious climate activism, theologians and climate policy makers. The timing of the new papal letter, called Laudate Deum, is clearly designed to challenge the national leaders who will meet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in early December for the 28th United Nations climate summit. My sources weighed in not only the Francis’ new criticisms and exhortations but also described a faith-based movement for climate action that emerged after the 2015 Paris Agreement in decline and disarray.
My first call was to the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of New York City-based GreenFaith, whom I first met in Paris at the 21st climate summit, and who has been a good source ever since.
“Most religious organizations and leaders, with few exceptions, are not doing enough,” Harper told me. “Once-a-year sermons are not enough. Building gardens behind your church or temple or mosque are not enough. We need people willing to stand up to governments and major financial institutions and say: ‘You are destroying the planet. And you have to stop.’ ”
Other sources weighed in thoughtfully about the pope’s moral authority, the struggle for climate action in Latin America, and the need for a moral compass in the upcoming climate negotiations. It’s a lot. And this pope is once again doing what no other global leader is doing with such clarity. With time running out to slow the rate of global warming and thus head off even worse impacts from climate change, the question remains: are people listening?
This story about the 20th anniversary meeting of a pioneering tropical research coalition came about for two reasons: 1) my first grandchild, Simon Catanoso, made his entrance into the world more an a week before his due date, thus opening the way for me to head to Peru, and 2) the 10th anniversary of the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group (ABERG) was the start of a new journalistic career path for me — climate change and climate policy — that ultimately led me to Mongabay.
A Spanish language version of the story, published on Mongabay LATAM, is here.
Since my first trip to Peru in 2013 at the insistence of my Wake ForestUniversity colleague and collaborator Miles Silman, a top tropical ecologist and co-founder of ABERG, I’ve returned nearly a dozen times. Once to cover COP20 in 2014, the UN climate summit that set the stage for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which I covered for Mongabay, with funding support from the The Andrew Sabin Family Center for Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest. Later, I returned multiple times as a communications consultant from Wake Forest for an influential NGO, CINCIA in Puerto Maldonado, founded in part by Miles with grants from USAID and World Wildlife Fund. In 2018, Miles and I developed a four-week summer program in tropical ecology and science writing and have brought four groups of Wake Forest students to the Amazon since then. Wake Forest featured our program online and in print.
Along the way, I’ve climbed a learning curve in climate science, forest and ecosystem mechanics, and biodiversity necessity that has enabled a late-career pivot to environmental journalism, mostly for Mongabay, that I simply could not have imagined when I left newspaper journalism in 2011. I am beyond grateful to Miles and host of environmental scientists, NGOs and forest campaigners over the past decade for assisting me in my immersion into covering parts of the most important story on earth, bar none — the existential threat to human life on earth wrought by human-induced climate change.
At ABERG10, held in the Andean village of Pisac, not from from Cuzco, I knew so little I was reluctant to interview the top tropical ecologists from around the world who gathered for that meeting, even though I was the only journalist there. Still, my coverage of ABERG10 was published in National Geograpic Online, as well as radio stories in WUNC and WFDD in North Carolina.
Ten years later, at ABERG20, many of those same scientists have become trusted sources, the issues they discussed and findings they presented are now familiar, and the context of complexity in their data gathering is something I’ve witnessed myself many times. The lead investigators and graduate students who make up ABERG are contributing to one of the most unique and vital longitudinal research projects in the global tropics across a range of topics.
My goal with the story here was to capture the essence of ABERG, its amazing transect, and its overlapping studies while highlighting a few of the scientists whose devotion to understanding the impact of warming temperatures on a warm and globally vital ecosystem remains strong and growing stronger.
ABERG’s study field for more than 20 years, off in the distance. My photo from 2013.
In my story, I describe the unique transect that Miles planned and oversaw the installation of starting in 2003 — more than 20 1-hectare plots on a single slope of the Andes stretching down from 12,000 feet to lowlands near sea level. This 2013 photo of mine accurately captures the ruggedness of each plot. What you can’t see is just how difficult these plots are to access, located as they are on a single, rough trail carved by Incans more than 500 years ago and used only by scientists and cocoa smugglers.
What the meticulous work of evaluating the impact of climate change on 1255 tree species along the transect looks like. My photo from 2013.
Miles Silman, ABERG co-founder and architect of the elevational gradient/transect, organized ABERG20 and opened the conference with a brief history of the group’s origins and aspirations. My photo from June 2023.
I wrote my second story for COP26, the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, while I was still in North Carolina. The first two days of the summit were attended by heads of state from around the world, eager to show some kind of eagerness toward climate action. The result here was the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by the U.S as well as more than 100 other countries. The goal — eliminating deforestation by 2030.
This declaration dovetailed well with my first story, which highlighted the importance of nature-based solutions in fighting climate change, and how deforestation was undermining nature’s ability to sequester carbon and provide the ecosystems services it has always provided to slow the rate of warming.
Backed by $19 billion in funding to assist in reducing deforestation and promoting Indigenous land tenure, it even sounds pretty good. As I wrote: The Glasgow signees, the declaration says, “emphasize the critical and interdependent roles of forests of all types, biodiversity and sustainable land use in enabling the world to meet its sustainable development goals; to help achieve a balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removal by sinks; to adapt to climate change; and to maintain other ecosystem services.”
But it’s what’s not in the declaration that not only weakens it, but according to a variety of my sources, implicitly encourages logging forests for timber and pellets so long as they are replaced with what is usually monoculture tree plantations that lack biodiversity, sequester little carbon and are harvested on a regular cycle. My story looks at both the positive and suspect aspects of a declaration whose primary goal is truly needed.
When we were making our coverage plan for COP25 in Madrid, my longtime editor at Mongabay, Glenn Scherer, made an unusual request: “Try to find at least one upbeat story. The site is filled so such much gloomy news about the environment, we could use it.”
I had written about the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative in September 2019 and knew representatives from the group would be at the UN climate summit. Over breakfast with IRI’s program director in Peru, Laura Vargas, the idea slowly emerged as we spoke that she was exactly the story Glenn was requesting. Here’s the story. What a remarkable woman.
“IRI has given me a goal of defending life and nature on a global scale, and a deeper sense of purpose.”
At the close of the UN Climate Summit in December 2018 in Poland, United General Secretary Antonio Guterres was so discouraged by the lackluster outcome that he told world leaders that he would admonish them to increase their urgency and ambition for climate mitigation during Climate Week in New York City (Sept. 23-27, 2019).
Guterres is not alone. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, in her inimitable way, has inspired millions of school-age children around the world to organize and rally to demand that world leaders treat global warming at the existential crisis that more and more scientists are finding it is.
Add to that an emerging group of faith leaders — the Interfaith Rainforest Iniative (IRI) — that aims to use its moral clout and power in numbers to pressure national leaders to enact policies to slow, reverse and stop deforestation in five tropical countries, as my latest Mongabay story describes.
This kind of religious political lobbying comes with challenges and obstacles, as I explain. But here’s the goal:
“This isn’t about churches planting trees,” said Joe Corcoran, IRI program manager with UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. “We want to say clearly and definitively to world leaders: religious leaders take this issue of forests and climate very seriously, and they are going to be holding public officials accountable to make sure these issues are addressed.”
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.
Wayne Walker, a Woods Hole Research Center scientist, in the forest with indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of Woods Hole Research Center
In advance of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco from Sept. 12-14, 2018, Mongabay special projects editor Willie Shubert encouraged me to attend and cover the event. In several phone discussions, we decided I should focus my coverage mainly in an area of climate mitigation I have not written about previously: the impact of indigenous peoples on the forests in which they live, and the injustice that so many live on ancestral land to which they no longer hold title.
The story is here. It’s a story that resonated with readers and was retweeted widely, including by the Ford Foundation, which has 157,000 followers. An excerpt:
“Economic analyses make it fairly clear that indigenous peoples’ lands that are titled and secured, especially in Latin America where the data is most abundant, have deforestation rates that are three to four times lower than similar lands not held by indigenous peoples,” Peter Veit, director of the Land and Resource Rights initiative at the World Resources Institute, told Mongabay. “Having title to the land is critical.”
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
Indigenous people from the jungles of Peru line up in Puerto Maldonado to see Pope Francis. Photo by Luis Fernandez
My story here about the visit of Pope Francis to the Peruvian Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado was historic in every sense. It was the pope’s first visit to Amazonia, a region of South America the size of the continental United States. While he spoke largely about conservation of the Amazon’s great and important ecosystems, he mostly gave voice and inspiration to the forgotten, oppressed and shoved-aside peoples who live in those far-off places — the rightful owners of the land, the indigenous tribes of multiple nationalities.
Pope Francis clearly called on the Catholic Church of South America to live up to and live out the promise of his encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, and called on the tribes for their guidance. This is a critical time for church leaders to step up, as my story discusses.
The pope greeting the people in the streets of Puerto Maldonado. Photo by Luis Fernandez
I met the author behind the important research that makes up this story of mine during my first trip to the Peruvian Amazon in summer 2013. Richard Tito is a Quechua Indian who grew up poor and isolated in the remote Andean Mountains in the Amazon basin. We could not speak because his second language was Spanish, which I don’t speak, and he had no English.
But his determination to rise above any and all obstacles and become a biologist was apparent in the short time we spent together. I didn’t realize he was the author of this report until after I concluded its newsworthiness (as did my Mongabay.com editors). Richard is now Dr. Tito with a PhD from a reputable university in Brazil. His own story is as good as his research on the impact of rising temperatures on high-elevation tropical farming (shown above).
“I am a member of the local community and I know the study area, the local farmers and their rich traditional knowledge,” said Tito, who recently received his PhD from the Instituto de Biologia at the Universisdade Federal de Uberlandia in Brazil. “Because the population is skyrocketing, climate is changing and the impact on food production is a real threat, a real motivation for me in this research is to recommend effective management strategies.”