Transitions

Our “fight” against terrorism is being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change have seeded the grounds for an unwanted harvest. The topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.

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I arrived in the United Kingdom —the first flight into Heathrow that day— on a cool (early) morning in late September. My destination, two suitcases in hand, was the town of Oxford, and my new home at the Department of Politics and International Relations.

As many readers will know, I’ve worked as a journalist for the last five years —a period which has seen stories (or the search for stories) take me from the jungles of Ecuador to the temblor-crumbled streets of Nepal. Between these assignments and adventures, like message heard in static, was a deepening interest among a suite of issues both increasingly relevant and difficult to tackle. One of these was the apparent rise in insurgent (or “terrorist”) groups in West Africa.

For me, this topic was being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change were seeding the grounds for an unwanted harvest. Moreover, the topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.

My return to the academy has been tricky. One of journalism’s great traits is its vitality —its steady, often straining, pulse that signals to readers that this world is alive. But my impatience is mitigated by a steadily increasing gravity in purpose. By this, I really mean a growing confidence in my own ability to identify (and commit) to a story I believe will demand tellers for the rest of my life’s years.

And today, re-checking the The New York Times site before signing off, I caught the following headline:

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Source: The New York Times

The piece, strongly reported by Carlotta Gall, makes clear a range of growing security concerns about the expansion and sustainability of insurgent groups across West and North Africa. It might not be a “scoop” in the traditional sense, but it ought to be read as a clarion call. The editors, deciding to put the piece on A1 (front page) ostensibly felt the same.

For now, however, I’ll leave the story link here for readers to explore on their own. And I will be addressing particular conclusions/assumptions/suggestions of this in an upcoming series of posts. In these upcoming installments, I will outline my present work —its potential value and its weaknesses, in the hopes of engaging readers to comment and converse. Above all, this is a (re-)commitment to this online web space so often ignored amid the noisy chambers of the internet.

So, finally, this site —which has served as home for more than four years— might soon shift to meet my current demands, and will ideally serve as a platform to stimulate a new set of conversations. These are tricky conversations to begin, but essential conversations to attempt. I’m also keen to experiment with new ways to engage with readers (and their significant questions). And, of course, it’s 2016. So we better get started.

Why you need to read The Outlaw Ocean

This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

This post was updated on July 30, 2015.
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This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.

Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.

If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.

Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.

According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.

Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.

These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.

“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”

But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:

Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.

But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:

While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.

And:

While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.

Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments.  Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.

In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.

This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.


Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site

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Spooking the herd

In 1962, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński was traveling between Tanganyika and Uganda when he stumbled upon a massive herd of African buffalo. In less than five paragraphs, Kapuściński describes not only the potential danger of a wild herd but also the unexpected power of the lone buffalo. The message has particular resonance for journalists.

“A mighty force slumbers in the heat, mighty and —should it explode anywhere near us— deadly. It is the force of a mountain avalanche, only inflamed, frenzied, driven by foaming blood,” wrote Ryszard Kapuściński, the famed Polish journalist, stopped by a herd of buffalo while traveling overland by car between Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and the soon-to-be independent Uganda.

Worried about spooking the large beasts, Kapuściński remembered a discussion with a biologist who noticed that even the sound of their research helicopter failed to stir buffalo grazing alone. But when it flew over a large herd, “it sufficed for there to be among them a single overly sensitive one, a hysteric, a hothouse flower, who at the sound of the engine would start to thrash around waiting to flee. The entire herd would immediately panic and, in terror, begin to move.”

With Kapuściński’s sensitivity for narrative tension, his passage captured not just the potential for danger, but might rightly have rendered the aim of foreign reporters: To be agitated and aware and to move the masses. For Kapuściński, this message would have resonated personally.

In the months after his trip Uganda, Kapuściński suffered with a bout of cerebral malaria which so depressed his immune system he then contracted tuberculosis. As the diagnosis threatened his stay in the region, he told his doctor that “Poland had never before had a permanent correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa.” Kapuściński believed his illness, if ever shared with his editors, would force him back home, “and that thing that had been a lifelong dream… to work in Africa—will vanish forever.”

Taking the buffalo as metaphor, Kapuściński would certainly have been the loner — the “hysteric” — who sought to move his herd (the readers and the reticent) with news from far-off places. And for years, he did just that —drawing out stories that textured a continent, that explored the unknown and that laid the foundation for a generation of journalists.

This is where Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil comes in.

The project will report, unsurprisingly, on the practice that once threatened those buffalo: poaching. But the goal is also to draw connections between issues well known to residents of Nigeria and Cameroon, and poorly covered from afar. From Faro National Park in Cameroon to that country’s expansive fields of palm, and even to Nigeria’s coast and the boys who could be pirates, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil seeks to provoke, through sheer force of reporting, a stir from the masses.

With less than a week left before deadline, though, I need your help. For as little as five dollars, you can pledge your support and join me on the front lines. With updates from the field, original photographs, and behind-the-scenes video, you’ll be closer to the action than ever before.

As Kapuściński knew, “the [African] continent … is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.” With your help, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil will provide just a few of its stories. The stoic and stubborn be damned.

**Author’s note: In recent years, the veracity of Kapuściński’s reporting has been questioned. In his 2012 biography of Poland’s most celebrated journalist, author Artur Domoslawski asserts that much of Kapuściński’s nonfiction/reportage was —damningly— imagined. While this post draws on his work (and perhaps even more on his lyricism and knack for literary construction), it is not to be taken as endorsement of practice. There is no substitute for accurate and balanced reporting.** 

Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil

With just under two weeks to go, I need your support to bring “Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil” to life!

As many of you might know, I recently launched a new editorial project with the help of Beacon. “Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil” is an investigative project that will take me to Nigeria and Cameroon this spring reporting on three issues I believe are both critical and importantly inter-related in the region.

The support I’ve received over the last six days has been incredible —not to mention humbling. In my project pitch I stressed that these types of projects cannot be completed alone, and that (freelance) international reporting is perhaps the hardest gig in the journalism world right now. The many kind donations and messages of support demonstrate that there is still an interested readership for some of today’s most complicated and compelling stories.

Unlike Kickstarter, which fixes a numerical goal for crowdsourced projects, Beacon focuses on the number of “Backers”. For a project to secure funding, 50 “Backers” have to pledge their support before the project deadline. To date, I’ve been honored to accept pledges from 20 different sources, but remain eager to add to this tally with just 13 days remaining.

For those who haven’t visited the project page, please do so here. For the cost of two coffees (in NYC, of course) you can add your name to the list. For those who might know friends and family members interested in these topics, feel free to pass the information along. And finally, check back here for updates as the project progresses.

What I’m reading…

With higher numbers of displaced people fleeing to the DRC and Cameroon, continued inter-ethnic conflict, and a rise in criminal opportunism, the CAR is on the verge of unraveling. Oh, and Nigeria’s newly designated terrorist organization, Boko Haram, might join the mix.

Important read on The Central African Republic and a timely article, given my upcoming piece for Beacon:

My profile on Beacon is here.

Updates: What’s Next on Beacon

While I’ll be traveling back to Canada this week, I wanted to preview my next post on Beacon. (For those who don’t know, I joined the new platform last week.)

I recently wrote about the future of American operations on the African continent, but my next piece will look at the simmering insurgency of Nigeria’s Northern province of Borno.

I’ll post a link on this updated page after the piece is live.

**For my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving!

How Short History

An interesting Atlantic piece published today analyzes the failure of then-British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Loyd to foresee the failings of British “empire” and the African independence movement throughout the 1960s and 70s. More important than the colloquial and racial undertones in Loyd’s analysis, is a lesson of punditry, political-prognostication and the bias of the present. In the words of the author:

“Within only a few years of this memo, both Britain and the Africa were dramatically changed, and the assumptions Loyd shared with the power structure around him had become obsolete. History can shock itself like this. Just a few years from now, the idea that China and India would become superpowers — or that multilateral institutions like NATO or the UN would maintain their primacy, or that most of Europe would remain pluralistic and democratic — could similarly read like quaint reminders of the arrogance or credulousness of an earlier age. And by 2060, they could seem like hopelessly deluded relics of a vanished world.”

Springtime for Mugabe

Get set for the African spring. With the recent arrest of six Zimbabwean citizens for watching news international news coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions, the stage is set for a violent uprising against the government of Robert Mugabe. And it can’t come a minute too soon.

The charges laid against the six individuals last week was “conspiring to commit public violence.” The arrests — expected to be the first of many — signal the growing panic within Zimbabwe’s divided government that the Arab spring protests might soon shift south, from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to ignite the kindling of Zimbabwe’s disenfranchised public.

Get set for the African spring. With the recent arrest of six Zimbabwean citizens for watching news international news coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions, the stage is set for a violent uprising against the government of Robert Mugabe. And it can’t come a minute too soon.

The charges laid against the six individuals last week was “conspiring to commit public violence.” The arrests — expected to be the first of many — signal the growing panic within Zimbabwe’s divided government that the Arab spring protests might soon shift south, from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to ignite the kindling of Zimbabwe’s disenfranchised public.

Arrests nearly a year ago moved  Zimbabwe’s population to threaten action: the “Zimbabwe Million Citizen March” was organized online with the intention of occupying the capital’s Harare Square in March 2011. On the day of action, no one showed up.
Activists originally blamed the poorly organized online presence: Facebook and Twitter, they said, does not a revolution make.

The more likely culprit behind the failed event was the knowledge of Mugabe’s history of abuse against all forces of opposition. Amnesty International, a consistent critic of the Mugabe government, notes that the aging regime has a history of state-sponsored intimidation, arbitrary arrests and torture. Opposition in the streets, a rarity within the nation, would demand a large assumption of risk by the people of the former British colony.

Many argue that the people of Zimbabwe are not “desperate” enough to stand up to their government. However, as the international community remains transfixed by Syria, recent trends suggest that Mugabe’s time may soon be up.
Frail and ill, the 88-year-old dictator is nearing the end of his life, but remains unwilling to name a successor, let alone cede control to a party. His preoccupation with power, too, is due in part to Mugabe’s rampant distrust even within his own party.

His concerns were confirmed when Wikileaks revealed communication between officials close to Mugabe and the United States’ ambassador. Mugabe’s spokesperson referred to events —and participating officials— as treasonous.
This dissent internally is mirrored in the public distrust of Mugabe’s government. Most notably, ZANU-PF’’s treatment of the white population has raised the ire of domestic and international observers.

Targeted by the government’s controversial land reforms, many white landowners were forced to relocate, often moving to neighboring South Africa, when the measures began 12 years ago. Despite Mugabe’s pledge to redistribute the wealth and resources claimed to the public, however, critics claim the funds have lined the pockets of black farmers loyal to the government. But with diaspora groups playing an important role as main financier of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, these grievances held by the exiled are not negligible.

In addition, Zimbabwe’s poor economic performance in 2011, falling from 9 percent growth in 2010 to 2.4 percent last year, according to The Economist, will only add sparks to a combustible atmosphere. With 72 percent of the population at or below the poverty line, the expanding economy had once provided hope for some that, even under an exploitative leader, steady economic growth would lead to economic development. This development would then improve the lives of average Zimbabweans.

Instead, the rising expectations —now dashed— have created a fissure in political structure that has squeezed the landlocked African country since Mugabe came to power 32 years ago. Late last year Mugabe announced that his ZANU (PF) government would seek elections in 2012, because the tense, power-sharing arrangement between Mugabe and Morgan Tsyangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change has “overstayed its welcome.”

Mugabe’s party recognizes that an election, before critical electoral reforms are completed, will likely benefit the ZANU-PF party, and strengthen his grip on power. Recognizing the likelihood that a Mugabe headed-leadership would reclaim power in Zimbabwe, opposition groups might prepare to change the country through direct action or protest.
As history has shown, tensions tend to be highest around electoral periods, and this has certainly been the case in Zimbabwe’s past.

However, today a model of resistance —stubborn, bloody and driven by a relentless battle to break loose the tentacles of power— now exists as Zimbabweans confront the specter of life under ZANU-PF. So in June, instead of casting ballot in a game tipped in the dictator’s favor, Zimbabweans might fulfill the intentions of March 2011’s failed “Million Zimbabwean March.” This spring they have the chance to vote with their feet and stand united against a government, and in support of a country long overdue for change.