At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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This Is Tamil Nadu

Priyanjoli Basu, a successful designer and dressmaker, flanked by her husband Varun (l) and close friend Dhruv Malhotra, at her apartment on the Chennai beach. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHENNAI, India – Unlike India’s other immense cities Chennai is a world apart. Tamil Nadu’s capital city does not have crowds of beggars trolling intersections like in Delhi. It is not nearly as traffic jammed as Mumbai. Its homes are well cared for, and many of its office buildings are new and Miami white, unlike the sagging and dilapidated built environment that describes Kolkata.

The most distinguishing feature, though, for an American journalist who has visited Indian cities and states across much of the country: Chennai’s tidiness. It’s unusual in a nation where thick blankets of paper and piles of bottles lie in the streets and alongside the highways. Household garbage, shoulder high, blocks alleys. The unkempt big cities and soiled countryside are like a metaphor for the bedlam that is contemporary India, an ambitious and crowded nation of 1.3 billion people.

Chennai is different. Quite a bit different. The city’s Bay of Bengal beaches sport garbage bins that people use. Municipal sanitation workers haul away accumulating refuse. The attention to appearances and street level hygiene is part of an unspoken culture of diligence and confidence that Chennai’s residents, well-to-do and poor, have built for themselves and their city.

Chennai’s residents know India’s fourth largest metropolitan region is on a roll. Jobs are plentiful. Incomes are rising. The city’s capable universities produce graduates that technology companies are anxious to hire.

A street merchant in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital city. Photo/Keith Schneider

Chennai’s residents also know they exist in an “at any moment” geography of peril, almost all of it due to ecological torment. In the last two years Chennai has been blasted by a typhoon, drowned in a flood, and challenged by the worst drought in 140 years. People are unnerved, for sure. In January a student protest on Chennai’s main beach grew into a statewide strike and mass demonstration of grievances that attracted millions of participants.

But even during the week of active public dissent Chennai’s residents stayed so centered and cheerful that parents brought their children to protests just to witness how a great city displays its collective discomfort. On Marina Beach, Chennai’s primary locus of protests, volunteers guided cars to available parking spaces. Vendors offered cups of tea at no charge. An army of people, young and old, gathered up all of the bottles and paper and food waste that had been dropped in the sand.

The spontaneous demonstration during the Tamil harvest festival in January attracted all kinds of people to the city’s main beach. Photo/Keith Schneider

Straightening up after the party, an especially impressive display of public civility, is seen as a civic responsibility. TITN: This is Tamil Nadu.

At the end of each of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S. I collect the various and intriguing threads — people, events , or cultural traits — that strike me as emblematic and distinguishing. They come together in “This Is” essays that I’ve prepared from India, China, Mongolia, Qatar, Panama, Peru, and South Africa. The idea is borrowed from a scene in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s great 2006 movie about diamond mining during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Asked, while having a drink in an African watering hole, about a peculiarly confusing trail of events that made no sense, DiCaprio tells his mate: “TIA. This is Africa.”

In that same spirit, here are other points of interest from my latest trip to India. Read More

Regina Lopez: Update From The Philippines

Regina Lopez (r) on one of her helicopter tours of Philippine mine sites in May 2017. She held public events at each stop. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gina Lopez, the former Philippines Environment Secretary, sent a message here this week that updates her activities following the Congress decision in May to remove her from office.

“I’m now into this movement called ILOVE: Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies. The goal is to build the country from the bottom up. I am in the midst of collaborating with 20 million youth as a citizen’s lawsuit is filed against the government. Will send you the details. I’m meeting the student leaders today.”

Gina’s message also included a link this terrific video by a Dutch filmmaker. It’s quite good.

In the pantheon of courageous public servants I’ve met, Gina Lopez ranks near the top.

— Keith Schneider

Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story

Before she was removed from office Philippine Environment Secretary Gina Lopez prepared to launch her latest helicopter tour of abandoned mine sites. Photo/Keith Scheider

A week after I arrived in the Philippines in late April, Gina Lopez invited me to lunch at her home in Quezon City, the center of government. Lopez was engaged in a national campaign to preserve her post as the Philippine secretary of the environment. Her 10-month tenure had yielded shutdown and suspension orders against 26 of the country’s 41 big hard rock mines. Lopez formed and promoted an interagency law enforcement campaign to impede the flow of timber logged illegally. She’d advocated renewable energy in a nation adopting a misguided program of coal-fired power plant construction in the midst of a less damaging and less expensive global renewable energy revolution.

In response, a Philippine legislative committee, acting at the behest of the mining industry, was preparing to remove her from office. It was plainly apparent, though, that the orders she’d signed, and the way she’d galvanized grassroots activists, would not be so easily cleared away. Lopez looked to me to be part of a welcome trend. Several more enlightened government officials have emerged in Asia. Piyush Goyal, India’s energy minister, is pivoting the world’s second largest country, to renewable energy. Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, is seizing and sinking foreign trawlers fishing illegally off the country’s coast.

We talked as Lopez showed me around her home and gardens, which laid out on multiple levels accessible by wood and stone stairways. I told Lopez that I’d been writing about her since last summer. I was convinced her powerful advocacy for environmental enforcement and human rights was a signal of global transition. While the U.S. retreated on ecological safeguards Asia was tilting green in a way it never had before. China was cancelling coal-fired power plants. Vietnam cancelled a $12 billion steel plant because of pollution concerns. The Philippines had installed an eco-activist, a determined woman, to fulfill President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign pledge to rein in the Philippine mining industry.

The Philippines is 7,000 islands cast amid a blue Pacific. The country is stunning. Photo/Keith Schneider

“I’m thrilled to hear that,” Lopez responded. “I’m thrilled that what I’m doing resonates around Asia. It’s life. You need to sustain life. It comes from a deeper and more enlightened perception of what is needed to sustain life, and the role of the environmnent in the sustenance of life.”

Lopez is the daughter of a very wealthy and influential Filipino family that owns ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media and communications company. She’d attracted Duterte’s attention while working as the leader of the ABS-CBN foundation and taking on open-pit mining as one of her primary projects. An adventurer her entire life, Lopez’s airy home was filled with art and sculpture from various continents. Birds sang in the garden. Roosters crowed. Flower scents drifted through the open air kitchen and dining areas on several levels.

Lopez introduced me to her youngest of two sons who was returning to college. She introduced me to the woman who’d made her meals for years and the gardener who tended the tropical landscaping. She treated me like a friend she’d known for decades. I knew this was genuine because it was the same way she’d interacted with every other person she dealt with in the week I’d been around her.

Because of her strong views, courageous in a nation that regularly experiences assassinations of environmental activists, Lopez was lionized by millions of Filipinos. She made it a point to tour mine sites and hold public events, which attracted hundreds of Filipinos. Her communications operation was strong, especially her Facebook page that had 400,000 followers. By the time I met her Lopez had become something of a Filipino folk hero.

The rusting equipment of the Marcopper mine, site of one of world’s worst toxic mining disasters. Photo/Keith Schneider

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A Philippine Struggle Over Coal-Fired Power

Members of Limay Concerned Citizens in the Philippines. Photo/Keith Schneider

MANILA — Valentino de Guzman, the energy campaigner for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, guided me to Mariveles to interview leaders of Limay Concerned Citizens. Guzman, a well-educated activist, once taught college level math before joining the Philippine climate justice movement. The citizens group on the Bataan Peninsula, across Manila Bay from the capital region, has been protesting the air pollution and disruption to their groundwater reserves caused by SMC Consolidated Power Corporation. The company’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station is under construction along the Manila Bay shoreline in the community’s backyard.

On the way to Limay — a village of packed dirt, shade trees, and clustered homes — Guzman briefed me on the situation that the Philippines and much of the rest of southeast Asia faces. Government campaigns to build coal-fired power plants, and import most of the fuel from Indonesia, are running straight into the global energy revolution. Solar powered electrical generation is cheaper, easier to build, and prompting far less social resistance than coal-fired electricity. India is shifting to renewables. So are China, the United States (despite the Trump administration), and Europe.

For the time being, though, coal has the upper hand in the Philippines, and in Indonesia and Vietnam. Guzman said 26 coal-fired plants are operating in the Philippines and produce almost half of the country’s electricity. Thirteen more are under construction and 36 coal-fired plants are in the pipeline.

Literally in the backyard of Lamao village residents, SMC’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station. Photo/Keith Schneider

In some communities, Guzman said, public resistance is so keen that the plants are not likely to be finished. In other instances, companies and the government are reappraising the cost of building coal-fired plants relative to solar, which currently accounts for scant generating capacity in the Philippines.

Environmental resistance is dangerous. More Philippine environmental activists have been murdered over the last decade than in almost any other country, according to Global Witness, a London group that compiles an annual report.

The situation in Limay is emblematic of most of the frontline struggles. The ten men and women waiting for me around a big communal table in the shade of a pitched roof described their frustration with the new power plant. Fly ash from preliminary operations contaminated the soil, and their gardens were no longer were productive. People were coming down with strange skin ailments. Some neighbors had respiratory illnesses.

One of the leaders of the anti-coal movement on the Bataan Peninsula was Gloria Capitan, president of United Citizens of Lucanin Association, a community that has been peacefully opposing the operation and expansion of coal plants and open coal and ash storage facilities in the Mariveles region. Auntie Gloria, as she was known, had focused her work on a big ash storage pile on a coal loading dock along the shoreline in her community. Ash from the pile was causing respiratory difficulties and dirtying the homes of nearby residents.

Capitan was gunned down on July 1, 2016 by two men on a motorcycle. The murder occurred at Capitan’s roadside store and bar near Mariveles. Capitan’s eight-year-old grandson was grazed by a bullet. Like so many other killings of activists around the world, the police have no suspects.

The Philippine and local governments had paid some heed to the resistance. The coal ash pile that Gloria Capitan opposed was enclosed in an immense metal building soon after her murder. Not far away, due to activism from Limay Concerned Citizens, their village’s water supply was switched from groundwater to municipal water. In December 2016 and January 2017, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, then led by activist Gina Lopez, served SMC with notices of violation for haphazard fly ash management and for air pollution. SMC said it would send doctors to Limay and would stop dumping ash. The doctors never showed up, said the citizens group, but the ash dumping did stop.

Manila Bay, despite its pollution, supports a strong fishery. Here, maintaining a fishing boat near Mariveles on thee Bataan Peninsula. Photo/Keith Schneider Read More

Trump Exit From Paris Climate Agreement Is Infuriating and Dangerous

A husband, father of three sons, and grandfather, Harikrishna is the prosperous head of a family farming operation entirely in ecological and economic balance with its region. He opposed construction of a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu, India. Photo/KeithSchneider

BENZONIA — June 1, yesterday, was miserable and infuriating. President Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It was a decision as foolish and dangerous as the one George W. Bush made on August 6, 2001, when he tossed aside the intelligence briefing — “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” — that warned of an imminent and monstrous Al-Qaeda attack.

My thoughts on why:

First, I’m heart sick that the president abdicated America’s responsibility to set a high standard and help lead the work of solving a planetary crisis. But I’m not surprised. I travel the world. I spend a lot of time reporting overseas. It was plain to me several years ago that the disorder in Washington and the doctrinaire policymaking in most states were fracturing the authority and unity and opportunity that the world admired about the United States. China and India are more than capable of leading the council of nations in reducing carbon emissions. The American century is over. Rejecting the Paris Climate Agreement, approved by over 190 countries, is more proof of that.

China’s consumption of coal is falling and its economy is growing. Here, construction in Shenzhen. Photo/Keith Schneider

Second, I find the president’s case against the Paris Agreement outrageous. Almost every point he made yesterday is wrong. To cite the agreement as a threat to the American economy because it tilts economic advantages to India and China flat out ignores real world conditions. To assert that the agreement provides space for China and India to increase coal consumption brushes aside what is actually happening in the world.

A core element of China’s strategy to clear its dirty air, solve serious water scarcity, and add to economic strength has been to cancel 300 coal-fired power plants and build the world’s largest clean energy manufacturing sector. China’s coal consumption is declining. It’s economy is growing.

India also is idling coal-fired power plants. India’s coal imports are falling. India’s new national energy plan sets a target of generating nearly 60 percent of the country’s electricity, around 275 gigawatts, from wind, solar, biomass, and small hydropower plants by 2027. That’s 225 more gigawatts than India currently generates from renewable energy sources. It is the most ambitious clean energy development plan in the world outside China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged early in his administration to “achieve energy security for India based on clean fuels.”
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