At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Lake Michigan Ice Caves, Evidence of a Mighty Scheme

Deep cold, ample ice, and relentless snow during the 2014 winter produced a landscape of winds sharp and frozen warp. Photo/Keith Schneider

Deep cold, ample ice, and relentless snow during the 2014 winter produced a landscape of frozen warp. Photo/Keith Schneider

LELAND, Mi — The northern Michigan winter this year, with its Arctic cold and persistent snow, has locked Lake Michigan’s shoreline in towering walls of ice. It’s a frozen grip. The gales of January and the calmer winds of February, shifting from stout to steady, pulled the water and pushed the ice until it careened upward and outward, forming pregnant walls and bridges that birthed big caves.

North of Leland, walls of ice have formed along the Lake Michigan coast. Photo/Keith Schneider

North of Leland, walls of ice have formed along the Lake Michigan coast. Photo/Keith Schneider

Yesterday, gloriously cold and sunny, hundreds of people gathered north of this Lake Michigan shoreline village to explore the icy landscape, a rare example of the water’s warp not likely to be seen again anytime soon. Children and dogs slipped through crevices and slid down the steep faces of icy walls. Older people carefully navigated the ice, peering into caves, and settling onto sun-washed ice shelves that were out of the wind where it was surprisingly warm.

Everywhere there were smart phones and digital cameras documenting the kids, the families, the pretty girls, smiling and draped on the ice. Indeed, it was a day to celebrate the beautiful place where we all live. The sculpted formations, edged smooth, rounded by the wind, were painted by a bright sun — brilliant white, deep blue, and shades of aqua marine.

Families explored the crevices and caves in the ice on Lake Michigan. Photo/Keith Schneider

Families explored the crevices and caves in the ice on Lake Michigan. Photo/Keith Schneider

Snow, of course, has a perfect memory. Each winter here it finds the same gullies to fill, the same stream beds to cloak, the same trees and rocks and fields to cover. But it’s the depth of the snow, and the ice, that’s different this year. Read More

This is India — TII

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Noh Ka Likai Falls, India’s tallest and most beautiful waterfall, pours off a green and forested limestone cliff and plunges in a water-misted shower 330 meters to a blue pool. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHILLONG, India — This beautiful and tidy hill station city in Meghalaya, in Northeast India, is steadily expanding along the ridge tops and steep slopes of the region’s Himalayan foothills. Among the reasons is that few cities in India, and few Indian states for that matter, are as picturesque, as uncrowded, or as clean.

One striking example of Meghalaya’s natural beauty is Noh Ka Likai Falls, India’s tallest and most beautiful waterfall, which pours off a green and forested limestone cliff and plunges in a water-misted shower 330 meters (1,100 feet) onto a gold-colored outcropping of solid rock. White and bubbling, the stream ends its dive in a deep blue pool. Along the entire length of Noh Ka Likai Falls, from the daredevil jump into space, to the galloping turbulence of water rushing to fill the blue bowl, the whole of Earth seems to quiver with beauty that is unsurpassed by anything other than what is found in nature.

Yet this wonder of the world commemorates not the stream that links the sky and the land, not the ribbons of white and splashes of blue. No, this magnificent waterfall is said by Indian folklore and ritual to explore the import of the very darkest impulses of man. The legend that greets visitors on a big metal sign, and explains where the fall’s name originates, encompasses betrayal, jealousy, infanticide, cannibalism, and suicide. I kid you not.

The story is this. A young single mother newly married to a man jealous of his infant stepdaughter tricks his new bride into eating a meal made from the flesh of the baby girl. The mother discovers her daughter’s finger in the meal. Engulfed by disgust and horror hurls she herself to her death at the place where the water plummets from the cliff. (See full legend in picture just below.)

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I explained to my Indian guide that in the United States and other western nations such a magnificent display of nature’s elegance would typically be honored with a name that marks its location, its discoverer, or what it inspires in the human spirit. Ruby Falls in Tennessee. Grand Falls in Arizona. Cumberland Falls in Kentucky. Bridal Veil Fall in California.

Meghalaya is different. Here a great waterfall recounts a monstrous tale of infanticide, cannibalism, and suicide.

TII. This is India.

Generally, toward the end of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S., I collect the various and intriguing threads — events or locations or people — that strike me as emblematic of a western journalist’s experience in a different place. They come together in essays that I call TII — This is India. TIM — This is Mongolia. TIC — This is China. TIQ — This is Qatar. The titles are 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.

Driving habits that are apparently reckless, but not really — I’ve encountered interesting taxi and hired-car rides on my journeys around the world. None are as initially hair-raising as they are in India. A year ago, in Punjab, the apparent two-lane highway was most often treated as an unofficial four-lane road. Cars, trucks, and buses, side by side heading east, side by side heading west, careening toward each other, weaving in and out of their lanes, horns blasting. Along the shoulders cows and dogs and goats and kids and adults and bicyclists and oxcarts and horse-drawn wagons trudged in both directions.

To leave the traffic lanes for any reason was to invite serious injuries, or deaths of animals and people. Not to get out of the way of onrushing vehicles coming your way while traveling in the traffic lanes was to invite your own serious injury or death. After a time you just get forced to become accustomed to the pandemonium, or you exist as an emotional wreck.

So it was in mid-January, when I returned for my third trip to India, and realized I’d grown accustomed. I jumped into a cab at Delhi International and swung off into evening rush hour traffic. The driver weaved across lanes, bolted by slower traffic, squeezed through impossibly small openings between diesel buses and bigger diesel trucks. He sped with reckless velocity, all to reach my hotel some five kilometers distance.

At the end, the last half-kilometer, the driver turned left onto a choked boulevard and headed east against three lanes of oncoming traffic. Doing so meant avoiding a two-kilometer roundabout and service road, and more traffic. We even made our way through a 200-person wedding party on foot that was all aflutter with the sounds of drums and trumpets and cymbals and flourescent spotlights. Nobody, not any person in the wedding party, nor any of the oncoming drivers, cared. Not a horn sounded. Not a word of protest was uttered. I arrived at the hotel entrance heading in the wrong direction. I thanked my driver. Tipped him well for his skill. Marveled at my own comfort and ease. And thought — TII. This is India.

Eating and drinking in different places in the same hotel — In Guwahati, a big city in Northeast India and the capital of Assam, I encountered unusual strictures involving food and beer. The hotel where I stayed, in the company of Dhruv Malhotra, a talented Indian photographer, had a fine vegetarian restaurant on the first floor, and a small bar on the second. We ordered dinner and asked for the beer and wine menu. No, we were told. No alcohol is served in the restaurant, only in the bar. But typically the bar doesn’t serve major meals, only snack foods. What to do? We ordered from the restaurant and then went upstairs to the bar. Explaining the situation, we asked whether we could eat our fine vegetarian meal in the bar. No problem, we were told. Dinner will be served straight away. TII. This is India.

India’s Internet is terrible — I hate paying for Internet service as an extra in western hotels. I see it as an affront, a gouging. I almost never stay in hotels in the US or Europe that charge extra for Internet.

I’m not nearly as unwilling in India. As a journalist wedded to the information gathering, communication-enhancing power of the Internet, encountering lousy service or no Web connection at all makes me jittery, like drinking too much coffee at night. India has terrible Internet connections. I still look for free Web privileges in Indian hotels, but I’ll pay handsomely for good Web connections, which are rare. That’s why I can recommend without hesitation the Highwinds Guest House in Shillong, which is reasonably priced, and has comfortable rooms, terrific service, good food, and a very strong, reliable, and free Internet connection. Surf’s up.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a beautiful hill station city in Northeast, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a beautiful hill station city in Northeast, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

India is mesmerized by its mega fauna, its top-of-the-food pyramid wild species — After three trips to India, three trips that take a veteran environmental journalist through the heart of a big nation’s water supply, energy production, and food harvesting infrastructure, it’s not hard to make the case that there’s scarce oversight of India’s natural resources. Except one category. The country’s big beautiful wild cats, elephants, surviving Indian rhinoceroses, and other beasts of the forest.

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Unregulated sand mining along Meghalaya’s river banks turns streams yellow. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Owensboro Convention Center Opens With Big Party; Senators Paul and McConnell Not Among The Guests

Owensboro threw a big  party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Events Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two who didn't were Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider

Owensboro threw a big party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Convention Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two invited guests who didn’t show up were U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY – In February 2009, in the very depths of the Great Recession, seven of the nine commissioners elected to lead this capable city and surrounding Daviess County took a long breath, understood the political consequences, and approved a modest increase in a local tax to generate $80 million to build a new downtown.

Though just two of the seven officials remain in office, what they accomplished in a single courageous vote achieved three distinct and nationally significant objectives.

First, they created a local economic stimulus plan that, to date, has generated $250 million in downtown construction and infrastructure upgrades — $140 million in taxpayer-supported investment and $110 million in private spending. A pallid, mall-savaged 20th century downtown, short of breath and close to death, is being replaced by a beaming and inviting urban center fit for the 21st century. Owensboro today is a display of savvy design that encompasses a stunning river walk and riverfront park, a $50 million convention center, two new hotels, a $12 million office building, new housing and businesses, and streets reconstructed as handsome boulevards, with wide sidewalks to encourage outdoor cafe seating.

Second, those seven elected officials offered a pointed rebuke to the politics of austerity that grips Kentucky and the nation. The local increase in an existing tax on insurance premiums — from 4 percent to 8 percent, or around $150 a year for an average family — unleashed a torrent of new economic activity that produced hundreds of new jobs, more than any city in Kentucky, and dropped the city and county unemployment rates to around 6 percent, among the state’s lowest.

And third, Owensboro and Daviess County are building a nearly flawless case in support of the primary economic principle that built the United States — the joining of public spending with private investment to foster civic innovation, strengthen the quality of life, and generate jobs and new wealth.

Through the Convention Center's east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider

Through the Convention Center’s east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider

Spurred by two-term Republican Mayor Ron Payne, who led Owensboro’s downtown redevelopment, city leaders here are doing everything in their power to make sure that lesson hits home. Earlier this month Payne and his colleagues held a three-day, $134,000 party to stoke the new civic energy. It started on January 31 with an evening open bar, a tenderloin banquet, and a Sara Evans country music concert, all free of charge, for 2,100 evening gown and tuxedo-clad city and county residents.

The occasion, maybe the most ardent, festive, and longest public party ever held in Owensboro — nobody here remembers anything comparable — celebrated the on-schedule, on-budget opening of the city’s two newest facilities — a 169,000-square-foot Convention Center and the $20 million LEED-certified, seven-story, 151-room Hampton Inn & Suites next door. Read More

Shillong Times and its Courageous Editor, Patricia Mukhim, Gain National Hearing On Coal Mine Safety

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Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times. Photo/Dhruv Malhotra

SHILLONG, India — To the best of anyone’s knowledge, and that includes a tribunal of senior jurists who heard testimony here on January 24, 15 men drowned in a coal mine in this state’s mineral-rich Garo Hills on July 6, 2012.

The disaster occurred in one of the thousands of Meghalaya’s dangerous and unregulated coal mines. It wasn’t formally reported for more than a week. The bodies weren’t retrieved. Meghalaya’s safety and health authorities conducted what appears for now to be a rudimentary investigation. For a time, state officials even asserted that because the bodies weren’t recovered the men might have escaped, just as 15 to 20 other men did who were working in the mine at the same time.

These details, and many others about the mortal danger of Meghalaya’s mines, and the egregious levels of mine-related pollution that poison the state’s land and rivers, were discovered by the reporters of the Shillong Times. They were disseminated persistently and broadly by its courageous 60-year-old editor, Patricia Mukhim.

Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

From an uncluttered office lit with a single bulb, and so deep in the newspaper’s concrete basement that cell phone service is spotty, Mukhim manages an editorial staff of nearly 30 that consistently produces first-rate reporting on Meghalaya’s biggest issues, and that includes the state’s lawless coal mining sector. She’s worked for the paper since 1987, and been its editor since 2008. Her work on human rights, on the state’s dangerous insurgency, and on the sickened environment has generated death threats against Mukhim, and earned her numerous awards, including the Padma Shri Award, one of India’s highest civilian honors.

Mukhim was born and raised in Shillong by her mother, a single woman. Mukhim, divorced, is the mother of five children, two of whom died. Two years ago Northeast Monologues posted a good interview with Mukhim.

Her work has made Mukhim a prominent voice and personality in Northeast India. The region’s industrial development and the changes it has brought to the water, air, and forests stirs her interest. In 1996, for instance, she teamed with the Khasi Students’ Union to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India in support of a petition by TN Govindavarman to ban the cutting and export of timber. The Supreme Court upheld the petition and ordered a 10-year ban on timber cutting. The Court also ordered the national Ministry of Environment and Forests, one of India’s premier environmental regulatory agencies, to direct state governments to develop working plans for their forests.

The rank practices in Meghalaya’s coal mining industry also are a focus of Mukhim’s attention. In July 2013, in a frank article about the number of coal mining deaths in Meghalaya, the Shillong Times reported that, in the five months from January to May 2013, 15 more miners died in seven separate accidents. The newspaper reported that almost all of the sector’s tens of thousands of laborers are undocumented workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, and neighboring states in Northeast India. Because there is no record of their presence, no taxes on their wages, no formal knowledge of their names or where they came from, the migrant laborers operate without claim to basic rights of safety, fairness, or justice.

In this dangerous and spellbinding confrontation between 21st century production demands and 19th century working conditions, the miners are losing badly. Lawlessness, already pervasive, is prompting more violence above ground, with rapes and beatings and murders becoming commonplace, the Shillong Times reports. Five miners, for instance, were murdered in 2012 by factions apparently associated with the region’s political insurgents. The motive? Choose any one of a long list of mortal threats. Failure to pay insurgents’ self-imposed transport fees and bribes. Fight for control of the mines. Ripoffs and gambling and plain bad behavior.

It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider

It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider

Mukhim, a writer of considerable skill and knowledge, summed up the conditions this way: “The coal laborers, mostly migrants, are silent sufferers as they face the wrath of the militants, as well as the fury of nature,” she wrote last year.

That silence, though, may be approaching its end. Mukhim’s own work on the mine sector — determined and poetic – as well as her staff’s incisive reports, last year attracted the attention of the National Green Tribunal. The Tribunal is a panel of senior jurists formed by a remarkable national statute approved in 2010 to specifically investigate and adjudicate major risks to India’s public health and the environment.

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Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan's gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan’s gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, Michigan — It’s winter in Northwest Michigan, the coldest and deepest season of ice and snow in years. It’s possible that the severe winter will produce the conditions necessary to curb the newest noxious and unsightly threat to the region’s waters: the algae blooms overtaking northern Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The blooms not only illustrate the presence of rising levels of nutrients in the water. They also are evidence of the weakening resolve of citizens, their state, and the nation to secure America’s clean fresh water. Write me – keith@circleofblue.org – if you’re interested in organizing to halt this frustrating risk to the national park in our own backyard, and to addressing this insult to our lakes and rivers.

No place in the United States, it seems to me, is a better place to start. In 1970 the United States Congress authorized land purchases to establish Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — 35 miles of towering dunes, broad forests of maple and hemlock, and magnificent shallow blue bays along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline west of Traverse City.

In almost every way conceivable, Sleeping Bear’s founding reflected the best impulses of a nation determined to prove that economic development could coincide with new measures to conserve land, and scrub the air and water clean of multiple pollutants.

The 71,000-acre national park, founded at the very center of the five Great Lakes, met two primary national goals. Sleeping Bear restored the deteriorated bounty of soil, forest, and water that supported, into the early decades of the 20th century, a necklace of tiny maritime communities and several thousand fishing, farm, and forestry jobs.

And second, Sleeping Bear helped to prove that a new and much larger economic sector could be formed from policies that preserved a region’s ecology, limited pollution, and effectively enforced environmental law.

In the course of two generations, the air and water in and outside the park were largely cleared of pollution and improved to near pristine quality. Rivers in and outside the park grew colder and clearer, supporting active salmon and trout fisheries. Forests in and outside the park grew taller, more dense, and more supportive of wildlife, including regular sightings of bobcat, bear, goshawks, and once-endangered bald eagles.
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