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. Continue reading “This Is Tamil Nadu”

Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like

Former Philippines Environment Secretary Gina Lopez during one of her helicopter tours of mine sites. Photo/Keith Schneider

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — On June 20, 2016 Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, asked Gina Lopez to join him in Davao City for an extended conversation about the condition of his country’s land and water.

It turned out to be an eventful encounter. The glib, rough talking, 71-year-old strongman former mayor of Davao City sought help from a 62-year-of woman known inside her wealthy family as the renegade daughter, and outside as an incorruptible foundation director and maverick environmentalist. As head of her family’s ABS-CBN Foundation Lopez led one national campaign to ban open-pit mining. She organized another to clean up a portion of the filthy Pasig River that flows through Manila just to prove it could be done.

When the meeting concluded Duterte extended Lopez an invitation to direct the weak and corruptible Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She accepted. On July 1, the day after Duterte’s inauguration and with his enthusiastic support, Lopez launched environmental compliance audits of the country’s 41 big hard rock mineral mines that eventually resulted in shutdown or suspension orders against 26 mines. She reviewed government approvals for 339 proposed mines and issued show cause orders to cancel 75 of them. In the last week of April the DENR banned new open-pit mines. The order came seven years after Costa Rica banned new open pit mines, and a month after El Salvador banned all mining.

And all the while during her 10 months in the post Lopez planted bamboo to clear the nation’s waters of pollution, and invested in environmental restoration projects that produced new jobs for indigenous communities. Lopez also started a joint police-military-prosecution task force that curtailed illegal logging and jailed offenders.

Rarely has an environmental officer in any nation so aggressively challenged the industrial community. Not surprisingly Philippine business interests mounted a ferocious counter attack within the Congress and the Duterte administration, which includes several cabinet members close to the mining industry. Two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, owned by mining companies, editorialized against Lopez and her enforcement measures.

The Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Luzon island is a target of 50 mine proposals. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lopez In Office 10 Months
A skilled organizer, Lopez proved to be tenacious. She countered with frequent tours of towns affected by polluting mines, and inspected dozens of mine sites by helicopter. Her exploits were covered in the media and on Lopez’s Facebook page that kept hundreds of thousands of Filipinos informed about the value of the closure orders. Continue reading “Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like”

Out Of Disruption Rule-Breaking Leaders

Regina Lopez, Philippines environment secretary, who is requiring her country’s mining industry to follow the law. Photo/Keith Schneider

MANILA -In the era of disruption, diplomacy is an overt union of business and odd statesmanship. Here in Manila news that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte accepted Donald Trump’s invitation to visit the White House leads all the TV news and newspaper front pages. Trump in return accepted Duterte’s appeal to visit the Philippines for a meeting of SE Asia leaders in the fall.

Both leaders could care less whether they are criticized for supporting Duterte’s bloody campaign to eradicate drug trafficking, which produces a dozen dead drug dealers and users a day, and a surprising toll of dead police officers too. The Duterte drug war is popular here. Taxi drivers, sales clerks, restaurant workers, and young professionals tell me they have misgivings but they also stopped fearing their commutes home at night.

What’s important to the two presidents is business. Trump’s licensed name (for $5 million, according to news media accounts) graces a 57-story, $150 million residential tower that is about to open in center city Manila. The tower’s developer is Jose. E. B. Antonio, principal of Century Properties, a Trump confidante since the 1990s, and now also Duterte’s special envoy to Washington.

What’s so striking is how, in this age of uncommon ecological, economic, and cultural chaos, the emerging global figures are writing new operating rules for political and government behavior. The results come in all flavors. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi is passing carbon taxes and shifting his country away from coal. Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who led Britain out of the European Union, is now the country’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is seizing and sinking foreign trawlers fishing illegally off his coast. Rodrigo Duterte’s quality of life initiatives include bloodying drug traffickers and waging war against his nation’s ruthless and ecologically ruinous mining and logging industries.

Taken together all of these global government figures have a common link. They are breaking the old dishes in the political cupboard. And they are doing it with such conviction and authority that the sound of crashing political porcelain is much louder than the feeble brush strokes of the old power elites trying to maintain order and sweep up after them.

Banners offering messages of support for Environment Secretary Gina Lopez are draped on the wall of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources headquarters in Quezon City. A legislative vote that decides her job security occurs on Wednesday. Photo/Keith Schneider

I mentioned this to Gina Lopez, the Philippine environment secretary, who is a rare progressive figure and one of the few prominent women emerging from the disruptive global landscape. Her goal of reining in the ecological chaos caused by Philippine mining companies is novel and clear. The $1.6 billion industry, with its 40 big copper, gold, and nickel mines, has never faced a government official as determined as Lopez. She’s pursuing them with complaince audits, a police-military task force, shutdown orders, and permit revocations.

While I was in Manila this week she even banned new open-pit metal mines. And she’s done all of this with the backing of President Duterte, and without consulting the Philippine Legislature. She has the authority to address a long-standing social and ecological grievance, she says. And since taking office in July 2016 she decided to actually act with righteous zeal on the authorities the law provides.

On Wednesday this week her legislative opponents, as well as Lopez’s supporters, have a chance to weigh in on her performance. A 25-person legislative committee will vote to confirm her appointment as environment secretary or reject her. According to Lopez’s executive assistant, eight committee members are solidly in the mining camp and will vote against her. Twelve votes are solidly with her. Lopez needs one of the remaining five.

The vote is a test of whether the old order — the political influence of the mining industry and its conventional back-slapping campaign-supporting way — prevails over an independent leader who thrives on disruption and has produced a lot of it for resource developers. Or does the new era of disruption, and the leaders that have emerged by inventing new rules of the game, assure Lopez’s confirmation?

My bet is the latter. The momentum of the era points that way.

— Keith Schneider

Amid Global Pivot, Ghost Dancing in American Coal Fields

Underground coal miners in Appalachia, 1945
Underground coal miners in Appalachia, 1945

SOMERSET, KY — There are reasons to feel empathy for the ghost dancers in America’s coal fields. Like the Plains tribes of the late 19th century, the men and women that supply the nation’s steadily eroding demand for coal raise closed fists of anguish, dance in circles, and call on false prophets for help.

An industrial culture is dying. Unyielding, era-altering market and technology trends are running coal’s usefulness for supplying electricity to the ground. People in Appalachia, along the Ohio River, and in the surface and underground coal fields of the West merit our national appreciation. Their courage, their dust-clogged lungs, their 130-year-old devotion powered an industrial economy that really did make America great.

But the age of burning coal to generate electricity is sunsetting. U.S. coal production, a bit more than 700 million tons last year, has fallen from 1.2 billion tons a decade ago. Just 30 percent of U.S. electricity is supplied by coal-fired power plants, down from half eight years ago.

Other big nations are following the same course. China cancelled 300 big coal-fired power plants in the last two years. India idled dozens of big coal plants and cancelled its program to build 16 big 4,000-megawatt generating stations. Global coal production peaked in 2013 and has fallen three straight years. Emissions of climate changing gases, according to the International Energy Agency, have finally stopped going up.

Those facts, and hundreds more like them, form what I argue is the greatest “good news” story of our time. The world is pivoting to clean energy and away from coal. In 2015, clean energy developers spent $286 billion globally on solar, wind, biomass, and other alternative fuels. That was more than twice as much as utilities spent to develop new coal and natural gas fired plants.

When the numbers for 2016 are published, they will show the trend was even stronger last year. India announced in December that it has no need to build another new coal-fired plant for at least a decade and maybe ever. India has committed to increase its generating capacity from renewable energy sources to 275 megawatts by 2027. That’s equal to more than a quarter of all current U.S. generating capacity. China’s renewable energy goals are even higher.

And that’s where the bad news comes in. And it’s distinctively American bad news. The Trump administration’s new policies to assist coal miners and coal producers will do little to help either. Coal-fired electrical generation is more expensive than natural gas or the sun and wind. The administration’s policy to weaken clean water rules that protected streams from strip mining, or to dismantle the Obama administration’s program of tightening carbon emissions for coal-fired power plants will slow America’s pivot to cleaner fuels. It will likely keep a few older coal stations open that utilities were planning to close.

But the president may also go after wind and solar development, and the government-financed research programs that keep U.S.clean energy technology and equipment competitive. If he does, it’s a certain formula for wrecking the U.S. economy.

The transition to clean energy is the biggest market opportunity of the century. Trillions of dollars in international investment will be made to update the electrical and transportation sectors, and to more efficiently power industrial processes. Electric vehicles are coming. More energy efficient homes, buildings, and materials are on the way. Cleaner manufacturing practices are coming. America is competitive in all of these arenas now.

Is the president really going to get in the way of the most important new industries of this century? He really could. That is frightening.

Trump’s policies, and his cabinet appointments, are intended to bring discipline to black fuel markets that can’t be disciplined. They are intended to keep his political allies in the black fuels sector solvent. But the age of black fuels is ending, starting with coal. Oil is next. Oil prices are stagnant and likely to fall due to over supply and uncertain demand. Trump will have scant influence in altering oil prices. Deals for increasing oil production in Russia will only push prices down, which makes it harder to produce expensive North American oil from the Gulf, Alberta tar sands region, and the fracked fields of Texas, North Dakota and Ohio.

If, however, Trump impedes U.S. technological development in cleaner electrical production, and smarter, cleaner vehicles it would be a mess. It would mean that the United States is unable to compete with China, India, and Europe for market share in the century’s largest economic opportunity. It would be tantamount to President Teddy Roosevelt, at the start of the 20th century, telling France, Germany, and England, “Okay, you guys take the vehicle development and assembly industry. We’ll stick with making buggies.”

— Keith Schneider

Bazooka Radebe Wild Coast Murder Yields No Suspects

A battle for control of a portion of South Africa's magnificent Wild Coast has evolved into one of the most unpredictable and dangerous environmental conflicts in the world. Photo/Keith Schneider
A battle for control of a portion of South Africa’s magnificent Wild Coast has evolved into one of the most dangerous environmental conflicts in the world. Photo/Keith Schneider

Nearly a month after gunmen assassinated Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe, the leader of a community group that opposed a mine and new highway on South Africa’s Wild Coast, the investigation has expanded but no suspects have been identified, according to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, South Africa’s national police unit for investigating corruption and political and organized crime.
“It’s a murder case and we suspect there’s an element of organized crime,” Hlangwani Mulaudzi, the spokesman of the Directorate, told reporters in South Africa.

“There is a task team formed to deal with this case,” Mulaudzi added last week in an interview with Checkpoint, a program of the 24-hour eNews Channel Africa. “There have been huge strides made so far.”

Radebe was attacked on March 22 at one of his repair and storage shops in Port Edward along the Indian Ocean coast, about two hours south of Durban and close to Xolobeni, where a titanium beach mine and freeway are proposed. Witnesses, among them Radebe’s son, said two men, apparently impersonating police officers, arrived after sunset in a white vehicle with blue emergency lights fixed on the roof. Radebe had received a warning about a hitlist prior to the attack. He resisted the gunmen’s order to get in the car and was shot eight times.

Investigators learned that the vehicle had been carjacked with two passengers inside. The gunmen put one of the kidnapped passengers in the trunk and restrained the second in the back seat. Both passengers survived.

The owner of a taxi company raised in the Xolobeni area, 52-year-old Radebe chaired the Amadiba Crisis Committee, a civic group formed in 2007 with hundreds of members who opposed plans to mine the Indian Ocean beach and cross their Pondo tribal lands with a freeway. Radebe and his colleagues were convinced that both developments would wreck the region’s agrarian way of life, and that investments in agriculture, local road repair, and eco-tourism would generate more businesses and jobs that also secured their magnificent coastal homeland.

Conflict Over Development
The Crisis Committee’s steadfast opposition inflamed local supporters of the mine’s Australian developer, Mineral Commodities Ltd., who argued that development would produce economic opportunities. The conflict split Xolobeni as families divided and close friendships dissolved.

The Crisis Committee appeared to win the mining struggle in 2011 when the Department of Mineral Resources revoked the mining license. The 2011 mining license revocation, though, was based on what the department said were weaknesses in the application. The ruling left open the opportunity for Mineral Commodities to restart the licensing process by March 6, 2015. Two days before the deadline, on March 4, 2015, the company submitted a new license application to mine the Indian Ocean beach.

Simultaneously, a year-long reign of violence began against the Amadiba Crisis Committee. Night and daytime attacks on committee members since May 2015 resulted in severe injuries, but were largely viewed as insignificant. Just one attack in December was regarded as worthy of investigation by local officers of the South African Police Service and prosecution by the government. Radebe’s death also fit the era of turmoil engulfing South Africa.

Bazooka Radebe’s death, as well as his funeral, which attracted 3,000 mourners and international television crews, are the most visible events in the furious 10-year struggle. Both events elevated an unpredictable and dangerous conflict over industrial and transportation development on the northern end of South Africa’s Wild Coast to national and international attention.

Xolobeni residents see themselves as heirs to a tradition of stalwart defense of their magnificent Pondo homeland. Like the Pondo tribesmen who spent three years battling Apartheid-era restrictions from 1958 to 1961, members of the Amadiba Crisis Committee vow to block development of their free-flowing rivers, open grasslands, and undeveloped Indian Ocean coast.

A researcher, Dick Forslund has assisted the Amadiba Crisis Committee's work to secure the Wild Coast. Photo/Keith Schneider
A researcher, Dick Forslund has assisted the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s
work to secure the Wild Coast. Photo/Keith Schneider

“The assassination of Sikhosiphi Bazooka has caused a groundswell of opposition, and massive support from civil society organizations all over the country,” said Sinegugu Zukulu, a professional conservationist and a leader of the Amadiba Crisis Committee. “The same can not be said about our government. I think they are hoping to calm things down and continue to push for mining. They have forgotten too soon as history could be telling them about our tribe. In Mpondoland when we say ‘no’ we mean it. We do not change.” Continue reading “Bazooka Radebe Wild Coast Murder Yields No Suspects”