In a rich dialogue...”Shapiro” reveals the secrets of his environmental investigations
Interviewer: Mohammed M. Aljamal
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons (Afaq magazine):
Mark Schapiro is a veteran environmental investigative journalist whose books and articles discuss and expose environmental malpractices by governments and mega corporations, which trickles down to unearthing chilling details on unjust policy making, classism and racism. According to Schapiro, who currently lectures at the University of California – Berkley, it is all interconnected, as damaging the environment is always a question of equity of benefit and harm, and usually the corporates are on the greener side of the pasture.
In this article, our guest, Mr. Schapiro will give us a glimpse on his rich experience in Environmental Investigative Journalism, starting with the early beginnings and all the way to his current status as an acclaimed journalist and lecturer to a large number of prospective investigative journalists.
Good Morning Mr. Schapiro, or as the great Tommy Wiseau said: Oh hi Mark! This is Mohammed Aljamal, and I would like to thank you personally and on behalf of Afaq Environmental Magazine for this great opportunity.
Q: Environmental Journalism is not an easy career to tread, and after reading your articles, it seems like a tough career to have, but it must be rewarding. Would you kindly tell us about what drew your attention to environmental journalism?
A: My beginning was at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Oakland, California, where I worked on a story that became a cause célèbre and I even wrote a book that discusses this issue. The book is called “Circle of Poison”, which tracks the US sales of prohibited pesticides to Latin American and South East Asian countries, which ironically export food back to the US, hence the circle part of the name.
Through following up the breadcrumbs, I gathered enough evidences and details that gave me what it needs to write a report on who have access to resources, who the culprit is. This very first report is what gave me access to uncovering the injustice the US government commits with the countries we deal with.
The issue is not only environmental, as it goes beyond the environmental risks and delves down to policy making, governmental malpractices, power abuse and environmental equity; i.e. the imbalanced distribution of benefits and risks.
Of course it is a risky job, as you said, and you really need to know how to pry the information from the private and public sectors, or at least know where to look up for information since cooperation is not their forte. In the latest 5 or 10 years in this career, I would consider myself a journalist of science, as our work also involves reading scientific articles to get to know the full effect, let us say, of some chemicals on the environment and on people as well.
Q: How can you project that in the training you carried out in the Jordan back in 2018?
A: When I gave the training in Jordan, I noticed the concerns the participants had regarding the use of harmful pesticides and how it transports not only via the plants itself, but also through the waterways, which are already scares in most of the MENA region. Add to that how almost all the Arab countries have concerns regarding air pollution, water pollution, urbanization of natural reserve areas, with slight differences due to the contexts of course.
Q:Your very first investigative report gave us your book, Circle of Poison. As your breakthrough into environmental journalism, what are the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned that became your methodology of work later on?
A: My book speaks about how the USA exports locally prohibited chemicals, pesticides, and sell it to developing countries as if it was America’s landfill sites. Moreover, the book also discusses the leniency of American legislations towards some chemicals that are prohibited in other countries, like the EU countries for instance. So basically, we are not only poisoning less developed countries, but we are poisoning our own people as well.
When working on this report, I have faced a fierce pushback from the chemicals industry who responded to the facts I presented with skepticism and doubt in some instances, and with falsified facts in others. In response to their attempts to discredit my work, I presented science data from high-impact science journals. One takeaway I’ve learned is that science is not absolute, but you gain strength by the amount of information that can back your hypothesis. Accumulating evidence will not only serve your purpose in exposing malpractices, but also show your neutrality as a seeker of truth and justice.
The good thing is that I was never physically threatened, although this can be experienced in less developed countries, such as Pakistan and Colombia. I have written an article in the Guardian about incidents faced by environmental journalists and it is truly chilling. The article is named “Green Poison” and it tracks a series of incidents of physical harassments against journalists covering environmental transgressions, whether that was uprooting large areas of forest for a road in Russia, replacing conifer with soybean plantations in the Brazilian amazons, or unregulated mining activities in Tanzania. It is my duty to cast a light on such issues to protect the lives of environmental journalists and activists and ultimately protect the environment. After all, there is no such thing as planet B.
Q: What are the most excruciating challenges you’ve faced while covering abuses against the environment? And how far do agencies and companies delay your endeavors to gather evidence?
A: Delays and empty promises are things I am used to while gathering evidence. Do you know what else? Some companies would simply intend to drown me in paper work through bringing me stacks of irrelevant documents and make finding the evidence I seek a huge hurdle. Either way, companies and governmental agencies are obliged to provide documents under the Freedom to Information Act, which gives the people the right to access to information and hold the government accountable to its responsibilities. Nonetheless, things can get really tricky, and when someone, such as governmental agencies, don’t want to provide you with your requested documents, they can get really creative. Hence, as an investigative journalist, you may need to seek the information you want in an even more creative manner, such as looking for the information in unusual, still relevant, places, such as the DMV, given the fact whenever a company or an agency needs to conduct a work somewhere, they need to file for clearances and permits from other departments, hence why you may find your information there.
Q: What extra skills are needed by an Environmental Journalist to attain in order to grasp the scientific context of an issue, and what mistakes should the journalist avoid?
A: A successful journalist must possess the capability of interpreting scientific literature as it provides insights to the case in hand and accentuate the risks or threats that can result from certain malpractices. The bare minimum can be at least managing to draw facts from the abstracts and/or conclusions of scientific articles for instance, while certain sections like the methodology may not be necessary for the journalist to understand. At the same time, a successful journalist must have the capacity to make scientific facts reader-friendly, as many people may not necessarily have the ability to understand, nor enjoy, scientific articles that might be written in a less entertaining manner. In addition, environmental journalists must have good communications skills, networking and the capacity to understand environmental issues based on the context of the affected country or region. Furthermore, journalists must familiarize themselves with international resources, especially environmental websites and networks such as Arab Journals for Investigative Reporting (ARIJ), which leads a great job in investigating environmental malpractices across the Middle East. I had the opportunity to give some training there in 2016 and in 2018. It was a great experience and I had the opportunity to meet many well-versed activists who were investigating issues caused by some of the world’s most vicious corporations, such as Monsanto and their endeavor to monopolize global agribusiness and replace genuine and heirloom seeds with GMOs. On the other hand, many organizations started to realize the threat imposed by Monsanto and similar companies and started to build seed banks to preserve original seeds all over the planet.
So in general, a good journalist must observe and comprehend how certain matters react with each other in order to look beyond the issue itself and go all the way to the underlying reasons behind it; how some companies may collude with certain governmental officials for example, and how such relationships may interact with policy making, certain projects, how some interactions may change or alter the power dynamics in a certain region, and how it all leads to an environmental catastrophe. Just see things from multiple angles, different themes. At the same time, when reporting on an issue, try as much as possible not to overwhelm the people to the extent they may feel helpless or hopeless; show them the disease and give them the cure.
Q: In your career as an environmental investigative journalist, what moment do you consider as a milestone in which you went to a different level, and where do you think you had a turning point in your career?
A: That would be in 2002 when I covered the story of an oil tanker that capsized at the shores of Spain. I covered the incident in a documentary, which was broadcasted in the US on PBS. The incident was widely covered in Europe, but I went beyond the incident itself and the impact it had on, let us say, the Spanish fishing industry, or why did the tanker capsize.
As I mentioned earlier, things are not what it looks like; the ship crew was Russian, the ship was flying the Bahamas flag, was registered in Liberia, but I ended up realizing it was owned by a bunch of Greek oligarchs. Now, it all seems convoluted, and for an average person’s perspective, such revelation may not seem that significant, but it is!
The political and economic powers behind the ship speak of the measures taken by the owners to cover up any malpractices against the environment, including the event when the ship sinks, which already happened. It is quite peculiar the lengths some businessmen would go just to cover up and dodge liability. That being said, you need to dig deeper, hold people responsible for their actions, champion those impacted the most, who are usually much poorer and most impacted.
The attention my report gave to the incident made me proud and it surely made a huge impact on my career as an investigative reporter and an environmental activist.
Q: How do you rate the people’s interest in environmental journalism, especially that many people may consider this form of journalism dull and unappealing in comparison to, tabloids for instance?
A: Interest in environmental journalism is significantly increasing, especially with all those reports talking about major issues like climate change, deforestation, and extreme weather conditions. People started to realize the impact we, as humans, do to the environment and the changes we notice these days are dramatic. An example of such changes is the droughts that started hitting the State of California and the measures taken to alleviate the situation, such as planting drought-resilient crops and increasing awareness regarding water conservation. Moreover, people started realizing how sensitive the ecosystem is and how easy we can harm it, not to mention that some practices affect not only the native flora and fauna, but also it started affecting people themselves, especially children. The imbalance we make, tipping the scale of biodiversity, surely bites us back. So yes, people do care more and hence the interest in rising. How do I know it is rising? Look how many people started pursuing environmental journalism as a career and how many television channels started hosting such topics, not to mention the increasing number of centers that deal with investigative reporting, such as ARIJ.
Q: What are the most crucial ethics an environmental journalists and activists must posses in order to succeed and give momentum to the causes they champion?
A: They must have a curious eye and notice what is going on around them, starting with their own houses, all the way to their own communities. Moreover, tenacity is vital since many hurdles will be thrown in their way. Finally, they must have some literary taste in order to write their pieces in a reader-friendly manner.
Q: What cases concern you the most and make you feel it need immediate action?
A: There is a large number of issues that concern me and I wish they gain more coverage. For instance, there is the mining industry and the exploitation of natural resources and labor. Additionally, there is fracking, or hydraulic fracturing; the US government and oil companies seem to treat some areas inside the States itself as if it were some third-world countries. It is not that I consider it normal to happen to the developing countries, but look at the irony of how we started mimicking what we do to our international friends and partners here on American soil. Just look how some areas are treated with less justice due to disparities, including the socioeconomic status, race, or political views, hence those communities suffer from, let us say, polluted water supplies like what happened in Flint, Michigan, or live next to discharges of chemical wastes and so on and so forth. Less fortunate people are simply being sacrificed, or rather expended.
Q: As a seasoned journalist, what advise would you give to prospective young journalists who wish to become environmental investigative journalists?
A: I would simply tell them to observe how certain practices can affect people and never give in to the façade some companies may put. For example, many oil companies try to offset their contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions through cultivating trees in the Amazon forest. One example of those companies is Chevron. The funny thing is that Chevron ended up buying a large area of the forest to do the offset while kicking out the first nations that lived on that land for thousands of years only because they wanted to fulfill this commitment.
Therefore, a successful journalist should highlight where things go wrong and focus on fundamental matters like equity, abuse of power, that sort of things. Moreover, learn from good section writers how to write a compelling narrative.
Q: Is there a role model or person who inspired you to become who you are now?
A: When I was 20 years old, I was fresh out of collage then I joined a newly founded place called The Center for Instigative Reporting, which was the first non-profit journalism institute, the very first center as far as I recall. The center was near Oakland, California, and there I added more to my experience thanks to two of the founders; David Weir and Dan Noyes. They taught me the basics in terms of lifting the lid on corporate and governmental activities and how to gather information on abuses and violations of environmental laws all the way to the consequences of those violations. Both of them taught me how to report in an organized and systematic manner, in a way that traces the environmental value chain towards the socioeconomic and legal repercussions of the environmental incidents. The knowledge I received from David and Dan gave me the necessary skills to succeed with my first report, which later became the book titled “Circle of Poison”. I managed to track shipments of chemicals and pesticides in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, who happen as I said to be some of the main food exporters to the US. And as I said earlier, those chemicals were banned from the US, yet it was sold to those countries.
Q: Would you tell us about one of your most recent adventures or upcoming works, maybe a new book that you plan to publish soon?
A: I went to the Central Valley, which is a large agricultural area in the West Coast of the US, to see what impact global warming and climate change left there. As a person who lived in California for a very long time, I already noticed how the weather became hotter to the extent that we started suffering from droughts. My tour there has shown me some interesting and eye-opening things on one hand and disturbing things on the other. Surely the Central Valley has underwent numerous changes, including water scarcity and salinity due to seawater intrusion, which is a phenomenon that happens when the aquifer pressure falls below the pressure of the sea. Therefore, large plots of land became hard to cultivate, while urbanization started to claim large portions of the valley. As a result, many farmers, large-scale and small-scale alike, started to cultivate some crops which are native to the Middle East, such as pistachios, figs, olives, dates, etc. The reason for such a shift is that Middle East-native crops are drought resilient and can withstand higher salinity. The other thing is that many farmers began cultivating organic crops. The interesting thing is that although large companies like Monsanto claim that their crops are modified to withstand diseases and whatnot, they turned out to lack the resilience of heirloom and indigenous crops that seem to acclimate better with climatic changes. Furthermore, those farmers began using natural pest control methods rather than using large quantities of pesticides, knowing that crops that depend on chemicals seem to lack in many departments, including withstanding weather changes, let alone the restrictions imposed by parent companies that would put farmers into hot water for “unauthorized” use of their patented seeds.
Q: As a lecturer at the School of Journalism, how optimistic do you feel regarding this generation in terms of covering environmental issues?
A:Very optimistic; for starters, the new generation is more than determined to championing for environmental causes and exposing those who abuse their power and authority to bring pollution and destruction. What is so unique about younger journalists is that they are also interested in reporting the response of the organizations and companies that deliberately abuse the environment. Previously, we used to expose practices and culprits. Now, fresh journalists expose those issues and document the responses of those who commit crimes against the environment. Today’s generation is fixated on creating a less toxic environment, reducing pollution, and stopping corrosive economic practices. Just create a harmonious relationship between the economy and the ecosystem.
Q: What do you wish to fulfill now?
A: Firstly, I wish to continue teaching and inspiring younger generations to pursue careers in investigative reporting. Moreover, I also wish to delve deeper into the vast realm of biodiversity, given the fact that we are heading towards a biodiversity crisis; we are under ecological stress, and learning further on the interactions inside ecosystems before and during the onset of environmental malpractices will provide me with more insight on the magnitude of such violations and how to remediate it effectively. Additionally, and while studying the interactions within the ecosystem, I wish to be able to dig deeper into the effects on creatures and tie such effects with socioeconomic and environmental factors.
An example one must consider is that how the eradication of the grey wolves in the US led to increasing the deer population, which later began grazing more and more hence exposed the area to fires. Luckily, the grey wolf was reintroduced to the US to keep the peace.
Q: Finally, is there something else you wish to add?
A: It was a great interview that I enjoyed so much. I would like to add that it is necessary to preserve heirloom seeds and use them often rather than using GMOs. National varieties must be conserved in suitable places, such seed banks so it can remain protected and can be passed on to younger generations.