People of Color Breathe More Hazardous Air. The Sources Are Everywhere.

People of Color Breathe More Hazardous Air. The Sources Are Everywhere.

Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadja Popovich              April 28, 2021
A home near the Marathon Petroleum Company refinery in River Rouge, near Detroit, April 24, 2020. (Emily Rose Bennett/The New York Times)
A home near the Marathon Petroleum Company refinery in River Rouge, near Detroit, April 24, 2020. (Emily Rose Bennett/The New York Times)


Over the years, a mountain of evidence has brought to light a stark injustice: Compared with white Americans, people of color in the United States suffer disproportionately from exposure to pollution.

Now a new study on a particularly harmful type of air pollution shows just how broadly those disparities hold true. Black Americans are exposed to more pollution from every type of source, including industry, agriculture, all manner of vehicles, construction, residential sources and even emissions from restaurants. People of color more broadly, including Black and Hispanic people and Asian Americans, are exposed to more pollution from nearly every source.

The findings came as a surprise to the study’s researchers, who had not anticipated that the inequalities spanned so many types of pollution.

“We expected to find that just a couple of different sources were important for the disparate exposure among racial ethnic groups,” said Christopher W. Tessum, an assistant professor in environmental engineering and science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the study. “But what we found instead was that almost all of the source types that we looked at contributed to this disparity.”

The study builds on a wealth of research that has shown that people of color in America live with more pollution than their white neighbors. Fine particulate matter air pollution, known as PM 2.5, is harmful to human health and is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths a year in the United States.

Racial and socioeconomic disparities in exposure to PM 2.5 have been well documented and have persisted despite an overall decline in particulate pollution. But the researchers sought to get a better grasp of whether these disparities came from just a handful of sources or whether the inequalities could be seen more widely.

They used an air quality model to analyze data from the Environmental Protection Agency on more than 5,000 emission sources collected as part of a 2014 nationwide emissions survey. Then they identified differences in exposure to each by broad race-ethnicity and income groups, based on U.S. census data.

They found that nearly all emissions sources caused disproportionate exposures for people of color, on average, as well as separately for Black, Hispanic and Asian people. Black people were exposed to higher-than-average concentrations from all major emissions groups, while white people were exposed to lower-than-average concentrations from almost all categories. The disparities were seen nationally as well as at the state level, across income levels and across the urban-rural divide.

These findings were consistent with the experiences of communities on the ground, said Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who has written for more than 30 years about the need to redress environmental racism, who was not involved in the study.

“If you go to communities of color across this country and ask them, ‘What’s the source of the environmental problems?’ they can point you to every one: the highway, the chemical plants, the refineries, the legacy pollution left over from decades ago, in the houses, in the air, in the water, in the playgrounds,” he said. “Empirical research is now catching up with the reality: that America is segregated and so is pollution.”

On Wednesday, the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group founded by former officials from the EPA, released a separate report that found that 13 refineries across the United States had released elevated levels of benzene, another harmful pollutant, into mostly minority and lower income neighborhoods in 2020.

These disparities have roots in historical practices, like redlining, under which the federal government marked certain neighborhoods as risky for real estate investments because their residents were Black. For decades, residents of redlined areas were denied access to federally backed mortgages and other credit, fueling a cycle of disinvestment and environmental problems in those neighborhoods.

“Communities of color, especially Black communities, have been concentrated in areas adjacent to industrial facilities and industrial zones, and that goes back decades and decades, to redlining,” said Justin Onwenu, a Detroit-based organizer for the Sierra Club. “And a lot of our current infrastructure, our highways, were built on — built through — Black communities, so we’re breathing in diesel emissions and other pollution just because we’re located right next to these highways,” Onwenu said.

The latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, shows how that legacy continues to cast a shadow. Emissions from industry, construction and both light- and heavy-duty vehicles were among the sources that caused the largest absolute disparities for Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans.

Particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants, meanwhile, was one of the only sources that substantially affected white Americans more than average. That was explained, Tessum said, by the predominantly white demographics of many coal towns. Coal power plants also tend to have smoke stacks that are many hundreds of feet high, scattering fine particles more evenly across larger areas.

Likely for the same geographic reason, white Americans were slightly more exposed to particulate pollution from agriculture, including from soil tilling and wind erosion. But in California, which produces more than one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, Hispanic people were disproportionately exposed.

Newer industries can perpetuate these inequalities. A large Latino population in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, for example, near one of the nation’s largest concentration of Amazon warehouses, has suffered from the heavy diesel traffic that feeds the sprawling e-commerce hub.

“These warehouses are being built within feet of existing homes, within feet of schools,” said Cesunica E. Ivey, an assistant professor in chemical and environmental engineering at the University of California, Riverside, who was not involved in the study. “Local voices in those neighborhoods are often drowned out,” she said. “And they can’t just move. You need resources to relocate.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on Black, Latino and other communities, added to the burdens.

“A lot of families have kids with asthma. There’s high rates of respiratory illness. Many people have died from cancer and other types of diseases,” said Vivian Huang, a director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which works with communities that live at the fence line of refineries and other polluting facilities in California. “The COVID pandemic has just exacerbated these immense inequalities.”

One surprising source of pollution that disproportionately affects communities of color, though a smaller source of emissions overall, were restaurants. A recent study that looked at Oakland, California, and Pittsburgh found that emissions from commercial kitchens — mostly from their use of cooking oils — were a surprisingly large fraction of particulate air pollution in those cities. More people of color tended to live nearby and so were more exposed.

Getting a clearer picture of how different sources of air pollution affect different groups of people is important, because history has shown that simply reducing overall emissions does not address racial and other disparities, said Joshua Apte, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of both the PM 2.5 and commercial kitchen studies.

“When nearly every major source category in the U.S. disparately impacts people of color, reducing sources alone is really insufficient to solve this problem,” he said. “We have to think about where the sources are as well.”

Judge gives Corps 2nd chance to offer oil pipeline opinion

Judge gives Corps 2nd chance to offer oil pipeline opinion

Dave Kolpack                    April 27, 2021


FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge faced with a motion on whether the Dakota Access oil pipeline north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation should be shut down during an environmental review is giving the Biden administration another chance to weigh in on the issue.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg held a hearing earlier this month to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers an opportunity to explain whether oil should continue to flow during its study, after an appeals panel upheld Boasberg’s ruling that the pipeline was operating without a key federal permit. The Corps instead told the judge it wasn’t sure if it should be shut down.

The decision not to intervene came as a bitter disappointment to Standing Rock, other tribes involved in the lawsuit and environmental groups. Even the judge appeared to be taken aback when the Corps opted to shrug its shoulders.

“I too am a little surprised that this is where things stand 60 days later,” Boasberg said at the hearing, referring to the three months he gave the Biden administration to catch up on proceedings. “I would have thought there would be a decision one way or another at this point.”

Boasberg said in a one sentence order filed late Monday that the Corps has until May 3 to tell him when it expects the environmental review to be completed and give “its position, if it has one,” on whether the pipeline should be shut down. The Corps said earlier it expected the review to be done by March 2022.

Attorneys for the pipeline’s Texas-based owner, Energy Transfer, have argued that shuttering the pipeline now that economic conditions are improving would cause a major financial hit to several entities, including North Dakota, and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation located in the state’s oil patch.

Attorneys for Standing Rock, which straddles the North and South Dakota border, and other tribes said in court documents that Dakota Access is exaggerating the economic losses. And no matter what the true figure is, Standing Rock said, it should not come at the expense of other tribes “especially when the law has not been followed.”

The $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile (1,886-kilometer) pipeline was the subject of months of protests in 2016 and 2017, sometimes violent, during its construction. Standing Rock continued to press legal challenges against the pipeline even after it began carrying oil from North Dakota across South Dakota and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois in June 2017.

Mark Bittman’s warning: the true costs of our cheap food and the American diet

Mark Bittman’s warning: the true costs of our cheap food and the American diet

Oliver Milman in New York                        April 25, 2021


The global, industrialized food system faces increasing scrutiny for its environmental impact, given its voracious appetite for land is linked to mass deforestation, water pollution and a sizable chunk of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The implied trade-off has been that advances in agriculture have greatly reduced hunger and driven societies out of poverty due to improved productivity and efficiencies. But Mark Bittman, the American food author and journalist, argues in his new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk that these supposed benefits are largely illusionary.

In a sweeping deconstruction of the history of food, spanning the past 10,000 years of organized agriculture, Bittman takes in everything from Mesopotamian irrigation to the Irish famine to the growth of McDonald’s to posit the rise of uniformity and convenience in food has mostly benefited large companies, fueled societal inequities and ravaged human health and the environment. Al Gore, the former US vice president, has called the book a “must-read for policymakers, activists and concerned citizens looking to better understand our food system and how to fix it”.

The Guardian spoke to Bittman about the book – his comments are edited for length and clarity.

Many people will know you for the cookbooks you’ve written. This is quite a departure, isn’t it?

I think it is the most important piece of work I’ve done. I guess the obituary writers decide that or something. I don’t know. But How to Cook Everything was really important to me and my career. And obviously, it’s done very well. But this was the book I wanted to write, I think, for the last 20 or even 30 years. I can’t imagine doing anything bigger or more important.

You say that the advent of organized agriculture could be one of the most disastrous things we ever did. Why is this?

Jared Diamond is, I think, the first guy to say the agricultural revolution is not all peaches and cream. The population 10,000 years ago was a fraction of what it is now. Agriculture has enabled billions of people to have been alive, and be alive, than would be possible without agriculture. So if you think that’s beneficial, that’s really great.

On the other hand, one could argue that the quality of life did not go up, but went down when agriculture became common. And you could certainly argue that agriculture is damaging to the environment, the public health and so on right now. But that is fixable. It’s changeable. So, I don’t think you could say agriculture, which just means growing food or growing stuff, is a bad thing. It’s just what do we make of it?

The book contains quite a harsh critique of how free market capitalism has caused great problems in our food systems.

Yes. We should qualify, so called free market capitalism, since it’s socialism for big corporations and dog-eat-dog for everybody else or whatever. Yeah, there’s a zillion examples in the book and elsewhere of capitalism and its impact on agriculture. You could certainly argue that agriculture, agriculture slavery and capitalism are all tied together. And that’s something that developed from the 15th to the 18th century.

The fallout includes famine, doesn’t it?

The Irish famine was the first well known one and I guess you could say the first politically caused famine as opposed to more environmentally caused famine. They’re all complicated, but the Irish potato famine can definitely be laid at the feet of the English who had converted most of Ireland’s peasant farmland into grazing lands for both animals, the meat of which was destined to be sent over the Irish Sea.

And then followed famines in Bengal and in West Africa. Of course, Stalin and Mao’s famines, it’s not all the UK’s fault. The famines of Stalin and Mao are very much politically induced. They were about a lack of food, but how they were treated was very much political. Stalin wanted to erase the peasants, Mao wanted to erase the landlords. And they were both successful to some extent. They used food as a weapon.

Corn and soybeans grow on a farm near Tipton, Iowa.
Corn and soybeans grow on a farm near Tipton, Iowa. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images


So where did we go wrong with food?

There was a time that almost everyone farmed and grew food for themselves and their neighbors and or trade, local trade and so on. But at some point, surplus became more important than feeding people. Growing food, or growing crops in order to sell them and make money became more important than growing crops to feed people.

And that process accelerated since 1500, or whenever you want to say capitalism began. To the point where, in the States at least, 95% of crops are basically grown as cash crops. And the question is almost never ‘What is the land telling us we want to grow? What can we grow that will be most beneficial for our community? What can I grow that’s most nutritious that will damage the land as little as possible?’ Those are not questions that are being asked.

Growing food, or growing crops in order to sell them and make money became more important than growing crops to feed people

The questions that are being asked or the question that’s being asked is ‘How can I make the most money possible with this land?’ Sometimes that means just selling the land for development. But often, it means growing one crop at a time. And it’s a crop that’s either directly or indirectly subsidized, like corn or soybeans. And it’s a crop that mostly goes into junk food or animal feed, or even ethanol, which is obviously not food at all.

I really think the enclosure of the commons was a big deal. When the nobility started dictating to peasants what should be grown and how it should be sold and to whom it should be sold. And peasants began to run out of land to grow food for themselves and their families. That was one of the driving factors in the industrial revolution. And we’ve just seen that accelerate.

So if we fast forward to the current situation in the US, how has this history influenced what people eat today?

One of the most damning statistics is that close to 50% of the food that’s available is in the form of ultra processed food. So ultra processed food is what I call junk food. What many of us call junk food. And it means food that contains non-food ingredients; food that your grandmother, great grandmother, maybe at this point wouldn’t have recognized as food.

Food that you can’t cook yourself. Food that you don’t find in your own kitchen in the normal course of cooking and eating. A food that didn’t exist before the 20th century.

The counter-argument to this is often ‘There is so much choice now, why not just choose a healthier option,’ isn’t it?

It’s important to recognize that because ultra processed food is cheap and it’s fast and it’s widely available; people without time and without money, are more likely to buy that kind of food. But everybody eats junk food. And it also poisons the environment for everybody.

The answer is to increase the availability and affordability of real food. It’s not let’s make better personal choices, because they go back to that statistic. And that’s why I think it’s so important that you can only buy, you can only eat what there is. Since actually no one is growing food, we’re all on the market. And if the market is 50% junk food, that’s what people are eating.

This system of food has proved very successful in establishing itself, hasn’t it?

The American diet, which we have to take full responsibility for, is spreading worldwide. It’s spreading worldwide because it’s profitable for big food. It absolutely is engineered to taste good. It hits the pleasure centers in your brain and it stimulates dopamine and so on. If it’s not, strictly speaking, addictive in the way that caffeine or opiates are addictive, it’s very, very close.

The sun rises over chicken houses on a farm in Virginia.
The sun rises over chicken houses on a farm in Virginia. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP


What do we need to do differently?

We really have to change agriculture what we’re growing and make a real effort to grow real food. Transport real food, market real food. Have farmers who steward the land. All of those cliches.

But on the other hand, we have to make sure that people have the income or the ability to buy real food. We have a choice. We are subsidizing junk food. It may well be that as societies grow, as populations grow, as societies become more technologically inclined, that it may be that food agriculture just is an expensive enterprise. And needs to be supported by government. It needs to be subsidized.

But we do have a choice between whether we subsidize bad agriculture or subsidize good agriculture. Whether we subsidize the production of junk food or subsidize the production of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

The world is going to have a population close to 10 billion people by the mid-point of this century and those who support the intensification of monocultural farming say this will be the only way to feed this number of people. What is your response to that?

No one’s asking us to feed them. In many cases, people are just asking us to leave them alone. So that, in a way is a PR ploy for big ag: “We need to increase yield forever, so that we can feed the world.” But the world does not want us to feed them. The world wants us to stop stealing their land and stop poisoning them and so on. At least, that’s my perception of the world.

Cheap food has had a terrible impact on public health. As every country switches from a traditional diet to a more American diet, their rates of chronic disease go up. And yet we cannot get government to consider this a crisis

As for producing cheap food that Americans can afford, yeah, that’s a trade off. That’s an industrial revolution era trade off. Workers were paid, it was assumed that women’s labor was free. So you didn’t have to pay workers enough to worry about child care or cooking or any other domestic chores. And then if you made food cheap, you could pay them even less.

So that was a trade off of the early Industrial Revolution. But there’s a price for cheap food. And the price is not only environmental damage and heavy resource use. There are other prices as well. But the one I want to focus on just this moment is the public health costs.

And if you look at a chart of health care costs versus food costs, it’s perfect like this. As food costs go up, healthcare costs go down. And as food costs go down, health care costs go up. So cheap food, that’s a direct correlation. Cheap food has had a terrible impact on public health. As every country switches from a traditional diet to a more American diet, their rates of chronic disease go up. In every single instance. And yet we cannot get government to consider this a crisis.

So we are paying for the food one way or the other, sometimes with our health.

Yeah, exactly. The society is paying the costs. Just like every aspect of food that you want to examine carefully has hidden costs. Economists call them externalities. Hidden costs that aren’t included in the cost of the product. So, Walmart pays its workers badly, you get cheap stuff at Walmart, including food.

Related: One in four faced food insecurity in America’s year of hunger, investigation shows

And some huge percentage of those workers are on food stamps. You’re also paying for those. You’re subsidizing Walmart employment costs. It’s not just cash, we’re paying with our own health.

What does an alternative to this look like?

I’m not saying we have to go from industrial farming back to farming the way it was in the 1600s by any means. But I’m saying there are steps we can take to reduce the use of pesticides. To make life better for farmers, to improve the quality of soil. To remove antibiotics from the food supply. To teach our children what real food is and so on down the line.

I think some limits on marketing junk food to children, along with teaching children where food is from and what food is about is really important. Because if you’re going to allow marketers to target kids, they will convince them that Tony the Tiger is their friend and that Coke is the best beverage to drink. And that McDonald’s is the most fun place to eat.

If you’re going to let kids become convinced of that then you’re going to have generation after generation of adults who were saddled with food preferences that are dictated by big food. And we all know how difficult it is to change our food preferences. We all know that. Especially in the last year, everybody saw that: “I’m so scared of Covid. I’m so bored with being locked up. I’m going to order in pizza and have ice cream.” Or whatever their favorite childhood food is, we would all turn to that. I saw this in myself and everybody I talk to sees it in themselves.

So, we have to raise generations of healthy children if we want generations of healthy adults. But that means making good food available, affordable to everybody.

  • Animal, Vegetable, Junk by Mark Bittman is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why so many epidemics originate in Asia and Africa – and why we can expect more

Why so many epidemics originate in Asia and Africa – and why we can expect more

Suresh V. Kuchipudi, Clinical Professor and Associate Director of Animal Diagnostic Laboratory, Penn State          April 25, 2021
<span class="caption">On Feb. 18, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea, people wearing face masks pass an electric screen warning about COVID-19. </span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon">AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon</a></span>
On Feb. 18, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea, people wearing face masks pass an electric screen warning about COVID-19. AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon


The coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19, is a frightening reminder of the imminent global threat posed by emerging infectious diseases. Although epidemics have arisen during all of human history, they now seem to be on the rise. In just the past 20 years, coronaviruses alone have caused three major outbreaks worldwide. Even more troubling, the duration between these three pandemics has gotten shorter.

I am a virologist and associate director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at Penn State University, and my laboratory studies zoonotic viruses, those that jump from animals and infect people. Most of the pandemics have at least one thing in common: They began their deadly work in Asia or Africa. The reasons why may surprise you.

<span class="caption">Shoppers in face masks as they line up at a grocery store in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, in central China’s Hubei Province. The urbanization of once densely forested areas of Asia and Africa have contributed to the spread of these deadly viruses.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:AP Photo / Arek Rataj">AP Photo / Arek Rataj</a></span>Shoppers in face masks as they line up at a grocery store in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, in central China’s Hubei Province. The urbanization of once densely forested areas of Asia and Africa have contributed to the spread of these deadly viruses. AP Photo/Arek Rataj

Population explosion and changing urban landscapes

An unprecedented shift in human population is one reason why more diseases originate in Asia and Africa. Rapid urbanization is happening throughout Asia and the Pacific regions, where 60% of the world already lives. According to the World Bank, almost 200 million people moved to urban areas in East Asia during the first decade of the 21st century. To put that into perspective, 200 million people could form the eighth most populous country in the world.

Migration on that scale means forest land is destroyed to create residential areas. Wild animals, forced to move closer to cities and towns, inevitably encounter domestic animals and the human population. Wild animals often harbor viruses; bats, for instance, can carry hundreds of them. And viruses, jumping species to species, can ultimately infect people.

Eventually, extreme urbanization becomes a vicious cycle: More people bring more deforestation, and human expansion and the loss of habitat ultimately kills off predators, including those that feed off rodents. With the predators gone – or at least with their numbers sharply diminished – the rodent population explodes. And as studies in Africa show, so does the risk of zoonotic disease.

The situation is only likely to get worse. A major proportion of East Asia’s population still lives in rural areas. Urbanization is expected to continue for decades.

<span class="caption">A family farm in Zambia. Disease in livestock is common, an easy way for pathogens to transfer from animals to people.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Getty Images / Guillem Sartorio / AFP">Getty Images / Guillem Sartorio / AFP</a></span>A family farm in Zambia. Disease in livestock is common, an easy way for pathogens to transfer from animals to people. Getty Images/Guillem Sartorio/AFP

Subsistence agriculture and animal markets

Tropical regions, rich in host biodiversity, already hold a large pool of pathogens, greatly increasing the chance that a novel pathogen will emerge. The farming system throughout Africa and Asia doesn’t help.

On both continents, many families depend on subsistence farming and a minuscule supply of livestock. Disease control, feed supplementation and housing for those animals is extremely limited. Cattle, chickens and pigs, which can carry endemic disease, are often in close contact with each other, a variety of nondomestic animals and humans.

And not just on the farms: Live animal markets, commonplace throughout Asia and Africa, feature crowded conditions and the intimate mixing of multiple species, including humans. This too plays a key role in how a killer pathogen could emerge and spread between species.

Another risk: bushmeat hunting and butchering, which is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. These activities, as they threaten animal species and irrevocably change ecosystems, also bring people and wild animals together. Bushmeat hunting is a clear and primary path for zoonotic disease transmission.

So is traditional Chinese medicine, which purports to provide remedies for a host of conditions like arthritis, epilepsy and erectile dysfunction. Although no scientific evidence exists to support most of the claims, Asia is an enormous consumer of traditional Chinese medicine products. Tigers, bears, rhinos, pangolins and other animal species are poached so their body parts can be mixed into these questionable medications. This, too, is a major contributor to increasing animal-human interactions. What’s more, demand is likely to go up, as online marketing soars along with Asia’s relentless economic growth.

A matter of time

The viruses, thousands of them, continue to evolve. It’s just a matter of time before another major outbreak occurs in this region of the world. All the coronaviruses that caused recent epidemics, including the COVID-19, jumped from bats to another animal before infecting humans. It’s difficult to predict precisely what chain of events cause a pandemic, but one thing is certain: these risks can be mitigated by developing strategies to minimize human effects which contribute to the ecological disturbances.

As the current outbreak has shown, an infectious disease that starts in one part of the world can spread globally in virtually no time whatsoever. There is an urgent need for constructive conservation strategies to prevent deforestation and reduce animal-human interactions. And a comprehensive global surveillance system to monitor the emergence of these diseases – now missing – would be an indispensable tool in helping us fight these deadly and terrifying epidemics.

Why young people of color are leading the fight to save planet Earth

Why young people of color are leading the fight to save planet Earth

Beth Greenfield, Senior Editor                                
Youth activists on the frontlines of climate-change justice include, clockwise from top left: Kevin Patel, Amy Quichiz, Wanjiku


As we head into Earth Day 2021 — the 51st anniversary of the worldwide environmental movement, on April 22— one of the best ways to find motivation and inspiration in the fight to save our planet might be to look toward those who are leading the charge: a diverse array of youth activists who understand that the only way to see and advocate for climate-justice issues is through an intersectional lens.

That means “taking account the dimensions of gender, socioeconomic class and race that all ultimately influence how one relates to and experiences the effects of climate change,” explains Aalayna Green, 22, co-environmental education director for Black Girl Environmentalist, a “supportive community of Black girls, women and nonbinary environmentalists.” Understanding those dimensions, Green tells Yahoo Life, “ensures that any climate change activism isn’t going to be automatically catered to one type of person in society.”

Historically, the environmental movement has been a very white one — at least on its face, due in part to a “long-running perception that people of color don’t care about the environment, or don’t have the skills and academic backgrounds for these jobs,” environmentalist Dorceta Taylor, a Yale School for the Environment professor, said in a 2014 interview. That perception “has been debunked for just as long,” according to Taylor, whose landmark 2014 report “The State of Diversity in Environmental Institutions: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies,” and a more recent update, called for action on the issue. (See just a tiny sampling of pioneering BIPOC environmental activists in the interactive XR, below.)

Just this week, Taylor and a slew of other environmental experts and a diverse array of young activists came together for the fourth annual New Horizons in Conservation Conference, presented by Yale, to discuss the status of equity and inclusion within the field of conservation. “The media tends to focus attention on climate activism on young white activists in the U.S. and Europe,” Taylor tells Yahoo Life vie email, but the conference “demonstrates that young students of color are engaged in climate activism and are interested in being a part of the solution… Many speakers drove the point home that the climate movement, conservation, and the broader environmental movement cannot be successful if white leaders, policymakers, practitioners do not collaborate with communities and activists of color.”

The event has served to highlight the new force of activists, expanding the understanding of who is affected by climate change and who is actively fighting against it.

“I think BIPOC youth, and youth in general, are leading the movement now,” says James Munn, an environmental organizer since 1990 and now the national campaign director for Greenpeace, which just released a new report, “Fossil Fuel Racism,” elucidating how fossil fuels disproportionately harm Black, brown, indigenous and poor communities. “I don’t think that was necessarily true before,” Munn tells Yahoo Life, “although not because there weren’t Black or indigenous POC youth involved in local fights, but because there was a huge separation between mainstream organizations and the local efforts.”

He adds, “We live in a white supremacist society, and organizations mirror the society they’re in. Hopefully, now we’re mirroring the changes that are happening in society.” That would make sense, he says, when taking into account today’s biggest issues and who they most affect.

“When you look at the current existential crises for humanity, you have racial injustice, inequality — with some making billions throughout the pandemic while many are struggling to just have enough food — and climate change,” Munn says. “And we have BIPOC youth often at the intersection of all three…so they can speak to all of it in a way that others couldn’t speak to it in the past.” And just being young, he adds, is an asset for these activists. “They feel invincible, and you need that to go against Trump or Bezos or Chevron, Exxon, and go, ‘OK, they have a lot of power, but we’re going to outlast and outthink them. We can do it.'”

To mark Earth Day this year, Yahoo Life is amplifying those voices by profiling just a handful of the ever-growing force of bright young activists who are approaching climate justice from an intersectional perspective. In our series of profiles, you’ll meet Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist; Kevin Patel, founder and executive director of One Up Action; Amy Quichiz, founder of Veggie Mijas; Nyaruout Nguany, co-founder of Maine Environmental Changemakers Network; Vic Barrett, a campaigner with Alliance for Climate Education; and Xiya Bastida, founder of Re-Earth.

“I think the youth movement is the most inclusive and diverse it has been,” Batista, 18, told Yahoo Life about Gen Z’s approach to climate-justice activism. “Re-Earth Initiative, for example, has activists in over 15 times zones, we translate our information to over six different languages. Our board includes people from almost every continent and we operate in a non-hierarchical way that actually listens to the whole body when it comes to what we’re going to do… In our own youth organizations, we’re modeling the world we want to see.”

In Romania, ‘modern slaves’ burn noxious trash for a living

In Romania, ‘modern slaves’ burn noxious trash for a living

Stephen McGrath                                  April 22, 2021


Vidra, Romania (AP) — In the trash-strewn slums of Sintesti, less than 10 miles from Romania’s capital, Mihai Bratu scrapes a dangerous living for his Roma family amid the foul reek of burning plastic that cloys the air day and night.

Like many in this community, for him illegally setting fire to whatever he can find that contains metal — from computers to tires to electrical cables — seems like his only means of survival.

“We’re selling it to people who buy metal, we are poor people … we have to work hard for a week or two to get one kilogram of metal,” 34-year-old Bratu, perched on an old wooden cart, told The Associated Press. “We are struggling to feed our kids … The rich people have the villas, look at the rich people’s palaces.”

You don’t have to look far.

The main road that runs through Sintesti, a largely Roma village in the Vidra commune, is lined with ornate, semi-constructed villas and dotted with shiny SUVs. Behind lurk the parts where Bravu and his young children live, a social black hole with no sanitation or running water. The two worlds are strongly connected.

For Octavian Berceanu, the new head of Romania’s National Environmental Guard, the government environmental protection agency, the pollution from the illegal fires that burn here almost ceaselessly was so bad that he started regular raids in the community — where he says “mafia structures” lord it over “modern slaves.”

“This is a kind of slavery, because the people living here have no opportunity for school, to get a job in the city, which is very close, they don’t have infrastructure like an official power grid, water, roads — and that is destroying their perspective on life,” Berceanu told The Associated Press during a police-escorted tour in April.

The slums of Sintesti, like Roma communities elsewhere, have long been ignored by authorities. They’re made up of makeshift homes, where unofficially rigged electricity cables hug the ground and run over a sea of trash.

“For too many years, they were allowed in some way to do this dirty job,” Berceanu said. “Nobody came here in the past.. to see what’s happening.”

On one day in April during a patrol of the local area, authorities seized a van loaded with 5,000 kilograms of illegal copper, worth as much as 40,000 euros ($48,000). That’s just a small cog in the local illegal metal recycling industry and highlights the staggering revenue it can bring to the wealthy homeowners.

But on top of the considerable social ills, according to the environment chief, the fires can significantly hike pollution in Bucharest, potentially by as much as 20-30%, at times pushing air quality to dangerous levels.

“The smoke particulates are taken by the wind 10 miles, it’s like rain over Bucharest and it’s destroying the quality of the air in the capital. It’s one hundred times more dangerous than wood-fire particles — there are a lot of toxic components,” Berceanu said.

During a late afternoon patrol of Sintesti, AP journalists joined Berceanu and four police officers as they homed in on an acrid cloud of smoke rising above the hotchpotch dwellings. A raucous scene broke out until a hunched-over elderly lady could be persuaded to douse the fire with water — exposing the valuable metal remnants.

“If the local authorities are not applying the law, of course people — whatever their ethnic origin — are encouraged to continue doing what they are doing,” said Gelu Duminica, a sociologist and executive director of the Impreuna Agency, a Roma-focused non-governmental organization.

Focusing on pollution from the Roma community, Duminica says, instead of on big industry or the more than 1 million cars in the densely populated capital of 2 million, is “scapegoating” and part of a political “branding campaign.”

“Everywhere in the world, the poorest are exploiting the marginal resources in order to survive. We have a chain of causes: low education, low infrastructure, low development … a lot of things are low,” Duminica said

“The rich Roma are controlling the poor Roma, but the rich Roma are controlled by others. If you look at who is leading and who is controlling things, it’s more than likely you’ll have huge surprises. Let’s not treat it as an ethnic issue,” he said.

In the future, the environment chief hopes surveillance drones with pollution sensors and infrared cameras can help paint a clearer picture of how the networks operate.

“We’re working against organized crime and it’s very hard,” he said. “If we solve this problem here, very close to Bucharest, we can solve any kind of problem similar to this all around the country.”

For local resident Floria, who refused to give a surname but said she was 40-something, a lack of official documents, education, and options leave her and her community with no alternatives.

“We don’t want to do this. Why don’t they give us jobs like (communist dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu used to, they would come with buses, with cars, and take us to town to work,” she told The Associated Press. “Gypsies are seen as the worst people no matter where we go or what we do.”

Mihai Bratu blames local authorities for the plight of his community, for the lack of roads, the lack of action.

“The mayor doesn’t help us!” he exclaims, as a small boy shifts building materials from Bratu’s horse cart to the muddy yard next door.

“What do we have? What can we have? Some little house? — whatever God granted us.”

Black neighborhoods in Kansas hard hit by property tax sales

Black neighborhoods in Kansas hard hit by property tax sales

Roxana Hegeman                            


Racial Injustice Tax Sales

The Black homeowners kept paying what they could toward the taxes while waiting to talk to a judge about a new payment agreement. Then she found out her house was up for auction online.

“We just felt like it was a scam, like they were trying to take our property and my husband said we felt like we were targeted, you know, because we are living in a predominantly Black neighborhood and they were doing everything they could to cause us to lose our house,” she said.

The Dotsons are among those in historically Black neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, who risk losing their homes amid the pandemic as delinquent property tax sales resume under a practice critics decry as racist and government officials laud for revitalizing communities.

“It is a reverse redlining that is racist. And I don’t use that word a lot, but that is the only thing, I mean, it is classism and racism to socially and economically deprive people of color who live in a particular part or who have acquired a foothold in a particular part of Wyandotte County,” said state Sen. David Haley, a Black Democrat, who has tried to help some residents in his hometown keep their houses.

Officials with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, acknowledge delinquent parcels up for tax sale are predominantly in Black neighborhoods. The county — whose population of 165,000 is about 23% Black, 30% Latino and 40% white — typically has 2,200 properties for sale annually at its three tax auctions, far more than other large Kansas counties.

Wyandotte County says it auctions residential property as soon as the law allows — when taxes are three years behind. It says the goal is to put properties into “responsible hands” to improve the appearance of neighborhoods.

A lot of the properties don’t sell at auction, and the county then gets them through the Wyandotte County Land Bank, a public authority that now has about 3,500 properties — nearly all of them acquired through tax foreclosures.

Katherine Carttar, local director of economic development, said the county decided to be more proactive with delinquent property taxes about three years ago and to use the land bank more as a way to rebuild neighborhoods. At a virtual conference last year touting its successes, she showed slides featuring now-renovated homes and credited the program with raising property values and the county’s tax base.

Critics say Wyandotte County has a disproportionately high number of delinquent tax sales compared with the rest of the state, and that the effort deprives residents of hard-fought gains in communities that for generations have faced discrimination.

Wyandotte County, where 21% of residents live in poverty, has whole city blocks of foreclosed property for future redevelopment. Displaced property owners get no compensation, Haley noted.

Carttar says most properties in the land bank have been long abandoned. The upcoming online delinquent tax sale lists 43% of properties as vacant.

The practice comes against the national backdrop of a wealth gap between white and Black households. The “first rung of the wealth building ladder” is homeownership, said Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive research group.

Nearly 72% of white Americans owned their own homes in 2017, compared with just slightly more than 42% of Black families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Here we are during a pandemic where the racial impact of the pandemic has not been equal. It has been disproportionately borne by Black and brown people and there is a huge risk of evictions and foreclosures coming out of the pandemic once the various moratoriums are lifted,” Collins said. “So it might be a time not to pursue aggressive tax sales.”

The two Black county commissioners who represent neighborhoods hard hit by the sales did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.

In the Dotsons’ case, Haley noticed that their house was on the auction list and alerted them. They went to pay the full $2,300 in delinquent taxes the day of the sale, but were told it was too late, Rozetta Dotson said.

They eventually got their home back — by paying back taxes plus legal fees for the attorney for the real estate company that had bought it. The total was $5,200.

Haley successfully warned another Black resident, Karen Pitchford-Knox, that the house where she’d grown up was on the auction block this January. When Pitchford-Knox’s mom died in 2016, she inherited the house as well as more than $5,000 in delinquent property taxes. She got behind on her payment plan after losing her job during the pandemic.

Pitchford-Knox had about two weeks to — as she put it — “beg, borrow and steal from Peter and Paul” the $1,000 for the taxes.

“I most definitely do feel they are targeting Black homes,” she said, noting she knew three other Black women whose homes were on auction lists. “I feel it is like Black female homeowners and Black seniors.”

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

Civil Eats

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

From fishing rights off Nova Scotia, to grazing in Oklahoma and salmon habitats on the Klamath River, tribal groups are reclaiming their land and foodways.

The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Last November, escalating tensions between the Mi’kmaq First Nations people exercising their fishing rights and commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia resulted in an unexpected finale: A coalition of Mi’kmaq tribes bought 50 percent of Clearwater Seafoods, effectively giving them control of the billion-dollar company and one of the largest seafood businesses in North America.

The Mi’kmaq people, who compose 13 distinct nations in Nova Scotia alone, have relied on fishing for tens of thousands of years and were granted treaty rights to a “moderate livelihood” by Canada’s Supreme Court. Despite these protections, the Mi’kmaq faced resistance, hostility, and even violence from commercial fishermen when exercising their rights.

By becoming majority owners of Clearwater Seafoods, the Mi’kmaq gained full ownership of Clearwater’s offshore fishing licenses, which allow them to harvest lobster, scallop, crab, and clams in a large area extending from the Georges Bank to the Laurentian Channel off Cape Breton. Tribal leaders hope the purchase guarantees the food security and economic sustainability of Mi’kmaq communities for generations.

Indigenous food sovereignty activists across the world stood in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq and applauded their unexpected victory. The deal represents a growing trend: Indigenous people are regaining access to—and control of—their traditional foodways.

For centuries, Native Americans in the United States have endured countless atrocities, from massacre to forced removal from their ancestral lands by the federal government. This separation from the land is inextricably tied to the loss of traditional foodways, culture, and history.

Now, there is growing momentum behind the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. Over the past few decades, Native American tribes in the U.S. have been fighting for the return of ancestral lands for access to traditional foodways through organizing and advocacy work, coalition building, and legal procedure—and increasingly seeing success.

In recent years, the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California secured ownership of its ancestral lands and is working to restore its marine habitats; the nearby Yurok Tribe fought for the removal of dams along the Klamath River and has plans to reconnect with salmon, its traditional food source; and the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has cleaned up contaminated land to make way for agriculture and cattle businesses.

“A big part of [land reclamation] is for food sovereignty,” stressed Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “We depend on the land to eat, to gain protein. It’s what our bodies were accustomed to, it’s what we as a people are accustomed to—working out in the landscape. It’s where we feel home. It’s good for our mental health. Oftentimes, folks have to be reminded that [food] is our original medicine.”

At the heart of the tribes’ different approaches to food sovereignty is a shared common goal: reclaiming ancestral lands for habitat restoration, access to healthy, culturally relevant diets, and economic opportunity.

In Eureka, an Unprecedented Land Return—and the Restoration of Marine Habitats

Between California’s northern coastline and the redwood forests, the Wiyot Tribe has practiced its way of life for centuries, celebrating ceremonial dances on Tuluwat Island, its place of origin. The island sits in the Arcata Bay of the present-day city of Eureka and provided access to essential nourishment, including oysters, clams, mussels, and fish.

A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

“For us, it’s a giant Costco. Everything that we needed was right there,” explained Ted Hernandez, Wiyot tribal chairman and cultural director, in a recent interview.

That was until 1860, when gold-rush era settlers ambushed and massacred between 80 and 250 Wiyots peacefully gathered on Tuluwat Island for a renewal ceremony. The surviving Wiyots were forced off the island and moved to Fort Humboldt, where Wiyots say that nearly half of the tribe died of exposure and starvation. They were then forcibly relocated to reservations at Klamath, Hoopa, Smith River, and Round Valley. In the early 1900s, a local church group bought land to house the Wiyots on what is known today as the Old Reservation. But after briefly losing federal recognition and a lack of potable water, the tribe moved to the Table Bluff Reservation, where it currently resides.

In 2000, after an acre and a half of the ancestral Tuluwat Island went up for sale, tribal elder Cheryl Seidner organized fundraisers to buy it for $106,000. This purchase gave the tribe momentum and hope that it could secure more land. Seidner led the Wiyots in negotiations with Eureka city leaders, and the city agreed to return most of the island to the tribe in 2019.

“With Tuluwat, it’s the first example of a city ever repatriating land to a tribe, which I think is great—but it’s also pretty sad that that never happens,” said Adam Canter, a natural resource specialist for the Wiyot Tribe.

Since then, the Wiyot people have used local community partners, volunteers, and state and federal resources to clean up the island, which was left in toxic disarray after years as the site of a shipyard for non-Native commercial fishermen. “There was a huge [Environmental Protection Agency] cleanup there,” said Canter, who leads the restoration effort. “The soil was contaminated with dioxins and pentachlorophenol oils, and all kinds of bad stuff.”

Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

But this hasn’t deterred the Wiyots, who are 600 members strong and have a vision of restoring the crucial marine and land habitats that have for so long nourished the tribe. The Wiyots hope to improve health outcomes for tribal members and create a sustainable food system that emphasizes food sovereignty and security. “Now we’re in the process of completing that healing process by bringing back the traditional plants that were . . . in the waterways so our eels, and our oysters can grow back in the bay,” explained Hernandez. “And once that’s complete, then we can start the healing process for the whole world. But in order for us to do that, we need our traditional foods.”

In her role as natural resource technician-in-training, Wiyot tribal member Hilanea Wilkinson is working on removing invasive species and reintroducing native, edible plants to the island. She sees her work as even more urgent in light of the ongoing pandemic. “It has really shed light on the need for sustainable food for lots of reservations and Native communities—all communities,” she said. “Native communities are in more rural areas and don’t have easily accessible grocery stores.”

The Wiyot Tribe is also bolstering its food sovereignty movement through education. Currently, it’s fundraising to build the Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop in partnership with Humboldt State University’s (HSU) Native American Studies program. The goal is to indigenize the HSU campus and inspire future generations of Indigenous botanists and biologists who can help preserve Native American communities’ food security and sovereignty.

California’s Largest Tribe Restores Crucial Salmon Habitats

About 100 miles north of the Wiyot, the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest, is working to restore once-thriving salmon populations, which are culturally and spiritually significant in addition to being a major food source.

The Yurok people reside along the Klamath River, which was once a bustling artery that connected Northern California tribes and provided a food system of salmon, berries, elk, and acorns. Since the construction of the Klamath River Dams in the early 1900s for hydroelectric power and farmland irrigation, the salmon populations have been devastated to near-extinction. Most notorious was the Klamath River Fish Kill of 2002, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 34,000 salmon died from infection in a disaster caused by warm water temperatures and low dam water flow rates (Some counts say as many as 70,000 salmon died.)

Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Since the early 2000s, the tribe has built coalitions with local community groups and advocated for dam removal to state and federal authorities. They recently celebrated a historic agreement to remove four obsolete dams along the Klamath River (Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 in California, and J.C. Boyle in Oregon) to clear the river and revive the traditional salmon runs.

If all goes according to plan, the four dams will be officially decommissioned by 2023 in what would be the world’s largest dam removal project.

“We know from generations past that if we let the salmon die, then we follow along with [them],” said Myers. “The median [household] income on the upper reservation where I live is $11,000. The protein that salmon provides is actual sustenance people need to live.” (In California, the median household income is $75,235, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

While awaiting the final green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on dam removal, the Yurok Tribe is collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fish, and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California Department of Water Resources to build the Blue Creek salmon sanctuary—a permanently protected portion of the salmon’s river habitat—and restore native plants to the area.

They’ve also secured control of more than 60,000 acres of ancestral lands, through both direct purchase and a land transfer from Western Rivers Conservancy.

Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)

Ultimately, the Yurok Tribe hopes to become a fully sovereign nation that can sustain its people, both physically and economically, from the Klamath River and its salmon. “There is a way to survive and live and thrive here in the basin that isn’t just hunter-gatherer,” Myers said. “Because we used to have . . . an economy that was also based on salmon, and we feel like we could get there again.”

Restoring a Toxic Wasteland for Cattle Grazing and Agriculture

Across the country, in Northeast Oklahoma, the Quapaw Tribe has been working on land cleanup for its own food sovereignty initiatives. The Quapaw, or O-Gah-Pah (meaning “downstream people”), were a plains tribe that inhabited present-day Arkansas along the Mississippi River. When the Quapaw were moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1834, they could no longer practice their traditional hunting and gathering, according to Devon Mihesuah, co-editor of Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States. Out of necessity, they became ranchers, like many others relegated to reservations.

In the 1890s, lead and zinc were discovered on Quapaw land. In the documentary “Tar Creek,” Quapaw members described how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior often leased this land to mining companies without tribal approval, or through coercion. These companies mined lead and zinc to supply the war efforts until the 1970s. The mines, now long-abandoned, have polluted local water and land, leading to developmental delays in Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

While the local residents of the nearby towns all received buyouts to relocate, the Quapaw people are still on their land and determined to make it hospitable again. The tribe secured a contract with the EPA more than a decade ago to remediate the land at the Tar Creek Superfund Site and repurpose the land for agriculture. The tribe has also seen recent success protecting tribal land sovereignty in Oklahoma.

“We are reclaiming it little by little and regaining land. And we’re doing whatever we can [to] remediate and put it back into ag use,” says Mitchell Albright, Quapaw tribe member and agriculture director.

Today, the restored land is used for more than 1,000 cattle and bison grazing under the Quapaw Cattle Company. The Quapaw have also been able to grow row crops (canola, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and wheat primarily used for animal feed) on restored lands, and they have built greenhouses to grow heirloom, pesticide-free vegetables. In 2017, the Quapaw Tribe also opened the country’s first tribally owned, USDA-approved cattle processing plant.

With rural geography, the Quapaw know the difficulties in transporting mainstream foods to their tribe. That’s why their priority is self-sufficiency, along with cultural preservation and job creation.

Through their farm, they supply the casino and restaurants located on the reservation. They also boast a coffee roaster, craft beer production, and a strong honeybee pollination program. Albright recalls that when he took over as ag director around eight years ago, there were around 15 employees. Today, there are upwards of 100.

“There’s gonna be a time—maybe not in our lifetime, but at some point—[when] maybe you can’t go to Walmart or your local grocery store and get what you need to survive,” Albright said. “And that’s what I love about Native people when they come together. They come up with ideas [that] can feed our people.”

The Future of Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Myers sees the land reclamation work of his and other tribes as more pressing than ever in light of climate change. “[We are at] the frontlines of this war to reclaim our history, our land, our culture . . . We have a system that can not only be saved but restored. And not just kept from going extinct, but being able to flourish in abundance. We’re ready for some victories.”

Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy Rep. Deb Haaland's office)Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Deb Haaland’s office)

The confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) to lead the Department of the Interior is a huge symbol of hope to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, Haaland has firsthand understanding of Indigenous issues such as land sovereignty. Although the #LandBack movement wants Haaland to endorse land reparations for Indigenous people, and she has so far refrained from doing so, Myers and others say her confirmation is enormously significant.

Myers is optimistic about the way forward. “We’ve gone a few hundred years never having anyone in that seat that understood the tribes from a member’s perspective. And now we do,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, things are going to get better because there’s an understanding that was never there before.”

This article was updated to correct the spelling of the Quapah phonetical and to update the name of Western Rivers Conservancy.


Melissa Montalvo is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on the food and agriculture industry, cantinas, and all things Mexico.

Post-pandemic boom poised to get smacked with severe shortages

Post-pandemic boom poised to get smacked with severe shortages

Victoria Guida                                 April 17, 2021



With the economy set to boom this year and government aid inflating bank accounts, American businesses and consumers are ready to splurge. That is, if they can find enough of what they want to buy.

Production and shipping bottlenecks have cropped up around the world, a result of the coronavirus pandemic; severe weather events like the winter storm in Texas; a shortage of computer chips serious enough to spur President Joe Biden to summon CEOs to the White House; and even that ship that got stuck for days in the Suez Canal. Federal Reserve surveys show that delivery times are more delayed than at any time since 1951.

Compounding those difficulties is the unexpectedly sharp rebound in many sectors of the U.S. economy — an uneven reopening that makes it all the more difficult to predict what people will spend money on and ensure that supply is there to meet demand.

All of this raises the stakes for the Fed. Despite the raft of positive headlines around soaring consumer purchases and lower jobless claims, the disruptions have led to an uptick in costs for companies in industries from furniture to food. That could lead to a surge in inflation if passed along to consumers, putting a drag on Biden’s hopes for a robust recovery and fueling pressure on the central bank to raise rates far earlier than it wants to.

“The economy’s a fine web where everything’s matched together, and that got torn apart by the pandemic,” said Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard University and a former chief economist to President Barack Obama. “We’re just hoping it all comes back together.”

Supply chain problems have been unfolding throughout the pandemic, as people radically shifted what they bought — canned beverages instead of fountain drinks, sweatpants instead of suits — toppling the normally efficient order of global supply chains.

Higher prices, at least temporarily, would bring supply and demand back into balance, a dynamic that the Fed — as the country’s inflation cop — has been watching closely. The central bank has argued that any price increases due to supply disruptions will only have a short-term effect on inflation data, and Chair Jerome Powell says the Fed won’t act to raise interest rates unless there is a more long-term, concerning shift upward in price levels.

“There’s a difference between essentially a one-time increase in prices and persistent inflation,” Powell said last week. “Inflation tends to be dictated by underlying inflation dynamics in the economy, as opposed to things like bottlenecks.”

Still, the Fed’s anecdotal analysis of different regions of the country, known as the “Beige Book,” this week showed that supply chain disruptions were cropping up in nearly every industry, the caveat to an otherwise optimistic outlook for the economy.

“This supply disruption is getting to the breaking point where we’re going to have to start raising prices, and we’re going to see inflation,” said Jim Bianco, head of financial analysis firm Bianco Research.

In the meantime, a key question is how markets will react as inflation rises, even if it’s only temporary. So far, the Fed has attributed gradual increases in yields on U.S. government debt to the brightening outlook for the economy, a scenario that should bode well for stocks as well as bonds, since faster growth is also positive for the long-term performance of corporations.

But if yields were to rise sharply because bond investors are spooked about inflation, that could lead the Fed to pull back its support for the economy sooner than expected, popping financial bubbles and hurting the latest record-breaking stock market rally.

“If rates are rising because real growth is causing a huge demand for credit — great,” Bianco said. “But if rates are going up because inflation is occurring, that is a problem for the stock market.”

The most high-profile supply problem is the global computer chip shortage, fed by a surge in demand for tech products as millions of people moved to work from home. That’s rippled out to hurt industries like auto manufacturing, with cars now so dependent on computerization.

Biden convened a group of CEOs to discuss the problem on Monday, and he said there is bipartisan support to boost funding for U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. His own infrastructure plan would set aside $50 billion for that purpose. But the results of that effort would take years to manifest and would do little to address the crunch in the near term.

Other shortages might be resolved more quickly, with mismatches driven more by the difficulty of advance planning in a situation that continues to be highly uncertain.

“It’s easier to turn the lights out at a plant than to ramp up,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “The rebound in goods in many cases was a surprise.”

The reopening of many restaurants, for example, has sparked a rise in purchases of single-serve ketchup packets, but there’s only so much capacity to produce those at once. And unless it’s clear that the higher level of demand is going to be sustained, companies might not want to invest in expanding their production capacity.

“If I were in the aluminum can business, I’d be reluctant to be ordering new machines until I knew what the fountain business looked like,” said Scott Miller, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I’d be doing a lot of market research in Florida and Texas, where bars and restaurants are reopened, to determine how much of the shift is temporary and how much is permanent.”

The Dead Sea is dying. Drinking water is scarce. Jordan faces a climate crisis

The Dead Sea is dying. Drinking water is scarce. Jordan faces a climate crisis

Nabih Bulos                              April 15, 2021
GHOR HADITHA, JORDAN -- APRIL 10, 2021: A ground has sunk with the appearance of multiple sinkholes at the former grounds of the Numeira Salt company in Ghor Haditha, Jordan, Saturday April 10, 2021. The Dead Sea is shrinking at a rate of anywhere from 3 to 5 feet a year, and in the last three decades, the Dead SeaOs level has fallen almost 100 feet. The rate of loss is accelerating, as are the sinkholes; they now number in the thousands, like a rash spreading on the exposed seabed. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
One of multiple sinkholes at the former grounds of the Numeira Salt company in Ghor Haditha, Jordan. The Dead Sea is shrinking at a rate of anywhere from 3 to 5 feet a year. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


The first time people here saw a sinkhole, they thought a small asteroid had slammed into the Dead Sea’s salt-encrusted shore.

Then others appeared.

One swallowed the edge of a state-owned building. Another opened near a house and forced the family to move. Worried farmers scanned their fields and abandoned their harvests. At one point, a chunk of highway collapsed, disappearing several stories deep and leaving a lone PVC pipe that ran like a high-wire over the crater.

Finally, the residents of Ghor Haditha realized, the problem was literally beneath their feet, a symptom of the Dead Sea’s death and a disturbing measure of the parched land Jordan has become. This small kingdom has long ranked high on the list of water-poor countries. But a mix of a ballooning population, regional conflicts, chronic industrial and agricultural mismanagement and now climate change may soon bring it another distinction: the first nation to possibly lose viable sources of freshwater.

The sinkholes are a harbinger of a future in a Middle East precariously balanced on dwindling resources. With the Dead Sea — a lake, really — shrinking at a rate of 3 to 5 feet a year, its saltwater is replaced by freshwater, which rushes in and dissolves subterranean salt layers, some of them hundreds of feet below. Cavities form, and the soil collapses into subsurface voids, creating sinkholes.

In the last three decades, the Dead Sea’s level has fallen almost 100 feet. The rate of loss is accelerating, and sinkholes now number in the thousands, like a rash spreading on the exposed seabed.

“When I was younger, the water used to reach all the way up to that field,” said Hassan Kanazri, a 63-year-old tomato farmer, as he pointed to a spot some 300 yards away from the water’s edge. He stepped onto a patch of dark brown earth speckled with holes; the soft dirt gave way underfoot.

“We can’t use tractors here. The land is too weak, so we’ve had to plow manually,” he said.

Hassan Kanazri stands beside a sinkhole
Hassan Kanazri stands beside a sinkhole in Ghor Haditha, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


The sinkholes are a piece of a larger danger revealing how Jordan’s perennial thirst is worsening. A virtually landlocked desert kingdom with few resources, the country’s yearly decrease in rainfall could lead to a 30% reduction by 2100, according to Stanford University’s Jordan Water Project. Jordan’s aquifers, ancient groundwater reservoirs that take long to replenish, are being pumped at a furious pace, even as the pandemic has increased demand by 40%, the Water Ministry says. And precarious finances mean desalinization, which serves some of Jordan’s richer neighbors, is — for now — too expensive an option.

“The situation here is bleak,” says Water Ministry spokesman Omar Salameh. “Without a huge amount of support to execute development projects, Jordan doesn’t have the resources to provide water.”

To understand the crisis one need only take a drive on Highway 40, which stretches east from Amman toward the Iraqi border. With the capital in the rearview, you cross through to the Azraq wetlands — once a lush, water-filled stopover for migratory birds now decimated by over-reliance on an aquifer there — before you reach a vast expanse of desert. Some 92% of the country gets less than 200 millimeters — about 8 inches — of rainfall per year, with only nine countries in the world getting less annual precipitation than Jordan.

A sinkhole by the Dead Sea
A deep sinkhole along the salt-encrusted shoreline near Ghor Haditha. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


Though Jordan is uniquely challenged, it’s a preview of what the region faces as a whole. Middle Eastern nations top the list of most water-stressed countries, the World Resources Institute says.

The region is also a “global hotspot of unsustainable water use,” according to 2017 World Bank report, and whatever water is available is further degraded by brine discharge from desalination, pollution and untreated wastewater. Poor water quality costs governments as much 2.5% of their gross domestic product.

Making matters worse are broiling summers, with the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry projecting average daytime temperatures to exceed 116 degrees Fahrenheit and reaching almost 90 by night. (And it’s not just estimates; the temperature in Mitribah, in northern Kuwait, reached 129 degrees in 2016.)

Rooftop water storage containers in Amman, Jordan.
Water storage containers cover rooftops in a dense neighborhood of Amman, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


Much of Jordan’s water problem is a simple matter of math: In the 1950s, its population numbered half a million people. Now there are more than 10 million, housed in a country whose water supply, researchers say, can’t sustain a population exceeding 2 million. Residents make do with 135 cubic meters, or about 36,000 gallons, of water per person per year; the U.N. defines “absolute scarcity” at 500 cubic meters per year.

That population explosion is less a result of Jordanians’ fertility than it is of the country’s reputation as a so-called oasis of stability in a not-so-stable neighborhood.

Palestinians pushed out by the creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent 1967 conflict; Lebanese escaping civil war in the ’80s; Iraqis fleeing U.S. bombardment and sanctions; more than a million Syrians after 2011, along with Yemenis and Libyans — if there’s a regional conflict, Jordan is probably hosting its refugees.

A 2016 census estimated the number of refugees at 2.9 million, and that’s including the approximately 1 million migrant workers in the country.

“The Syrian crisis alone raised demand for water an average of 20%,” Salameh says. It’s double that amount in northern areas of the kingdom, where most of the refugees reside, he adds.

It’s little better on the supply side, where Jordan has to contend with the tyranny of geography.

Go north from Ghor Haditha, past the baptismal site of Jesus Christ on the Jordan River (now reduced to a sewage-contaminated trickle in some parts); continue east along its main tributary, the Yarmouk River, where Lawrence of Arabia once tried and failed to blow up an Ottoman railroad, and you encounter the Al Wehda Dam, a 360-foot concrete embankment on Jordan’s border with Syria.

Jordan&#39;s Al Wehda Dam
The Al Wehda Dam, a 360-foot concrete embankment, near Harta, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


Its capacity of 110 million cubic meters makes it Jordan’s largest dam, a reliable source of more than a third of the country’s water supply. But it’s never been more than half full. That’s because Syria, which controls the Yarmouk River’s flow into Jordan, has built upstream more than 40 dams and thousands of wells to irrigate its own crops, leaving Jordan with only a fifth of its share.

A river is full of green algae
Green algae in the Yarmouk River, which flows to the Al Wehda Dam. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


“We were supposed to expand the dam and build a hydroelectric plant. The plan was we would get water, and the Syrians would get power,” said Munther Maayeh, one of the dam’s managers. “But the water we receive from the Syrians isn’t anywhere near enough for that.”

Israel too has diverted some 600 million cubic meters of water in the Sea of Galilee — another lake — from the Jordan River. The result has been a 90% plunge in the river’s flow to a paltry 200 million cubic meters per year. (Under the 1994 peace agreement, Israel regularly conducts transfers of water from the Jordan River to the kingdom.)

To make up the shortfall, Jordan increasingly turned to nonrenewable water sources such as aquifers. Jordan has 12 of them, but is already pumping 160% more than it should for them to be replenished; 10 are all but depleted.

The low supply coupled with burgeoning demand has forced the government to ration water delivery. In practical terms, that means most homes don’t get municipal water more than once a week. Many residents turn to illegal drilling of wells, Salameh says.

On the outskirts of Amman, water tank trucks back up to a communal well equipped with 9-foot-high faucets. Raafat Awamleh, a driver with his 8-year-old son, Shahem, by his side, climbed up the side of his truck, slipped a rubber hose over one of the faucets and placed the other end into his tank.

“People call us from all over Amman to deliver water,” Awamleh said, adding that the area had some six similarly equipped communal wells. The coronavirus cut a portion of his business, including water deliveries to farmers, but he expected work to pick up soon.

“In the summer we have to do this all the time,” he said. “It just gets too hot and people need water.”

Jordan’s internal topography plays a role as well. More than half of Amman’s water supply, for example, comes from the Al Disi aquifer, some 200 miles south. Another portion is taken from the Azraq aquifer, 50 miles east.

Shahem Awamleh and his father fill a water tank truck.
Shahem Awamleh reacts as he and his father fill a water tank truck at a community well near Amman, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


“That’s a huge expense on the state treasury,” Salameh says, estimating the cost at $4 per cubic meter from aquifer to tap. Power requirements for pumping water amount to more than a sixth of the country’s total power production, the government says.

The failure of Jordan’s water management is increasingly apparent, says Raed Dawood, founder and head of Eco Consult, a water-use consulting firm. Rickety infrastructure means more than half of the water leaks out of pipes or is stolen. State subsidies for agriculture, a sector that consumes slightly more than 50% of Jordan’s water supply while contributing only 3% to 4% to its GDP, give farmers little incentive to use new — and expensive — irrigation techniques or choose crops that are more profitable.

“Water productivity here is about $1.50 per cubic meter. It’s $100 in the Netherlands,” Dawood says, adding that Jordan’s top crops are tomatoes and cucumbers, low-profit plants that consume a lot of water.

To make a point, he walks out of his office and returns with a plate of dates. They were plump, with a singed caramel-colored skin. The variety is known as Medjool and the kingdom is famous for them, Dawood says. This kind of crop, he adds, could more than quadruple the value farmers get out of their water.

A man shows Medjool dates
Hamzah Rashaydeh inspects a stem from date fruit clumps at Tadros Farm. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“We have to be selective and careful in what we grow,” he says.

“All these things are matters of policy, and yes, we’re a scarce-water country, but we have to use it effectively.”

A farmworker trims a date tree.
A farmworker prepares to trim a date tree at Tadros Farm in Karamah, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


Back in Ghor Haditha, increasing industrialization, much of it centered around the Arab Potash Co., is exacerbating the water problem. The company, along with its Israeli counterpart, pumps Dead Sea water to extract minerals, adding to the sea’s retreat and compounding sinkhole formation, says William Ajalin, a resident and head of a local environmental association.

On the rooftop balcony of the association’s building, he points to the main highway bisecting Ghor Haditha: On one side lies the Dead Sea, the foot of the Karak mountains on the other.

“People are already too afraid to do anything on the side by the Dead Sea,” he says.

“Of course we’re worried this is making it worse.”

But a change of behavior, including better conservation, would have to go beyond villages like Ghor Haditha to cities, especially Amman, says Ammar Khammash, an architect who specializes in eco-friendly projects.

“We cannot continue like we did in the ’70s and ’80s. All the water of Azraq, we flushed it down the toilets of Amman,” he says. The solution, he says, is to incorporate water storage capacity in every building.

“Governments like big projects, but the solution involves smaller pieces: A place like Amman needs to become a ‘sponge city’ where every house doesn’t waste a single drop.”

A man picnics by the Dead Sea.
Nabeel Musa smokes as he picnics along the salt-encrusted shore near Ghor Haditha. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


For now, the government is exploring other venues, such as Red to Dead, a joint project with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It aims to build a desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan’s sole outlet on the Red Sea, and dump the briny water to replenish the Dead Sea. The project has been on the books since 2005 without much progress.

In any case, relations between Jordan and Israel have reached a nadir, with diplomatic spats flaring over the last year between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II. The last such incident was resolved Monday when Netanyahu approved Amman’s request for extra water rations from the Jordan River, almost a month after the Jordanian government asked for it. (The peace agreement allows for Jordan to request additional water supplies.)

That has forced the kingdom to look inward, conducting deep-water exploration of desert areas and drilling wells more than a mile deep. Those efforts are expected to yield 70 million cubic meters of water by the project’s end. It’s expensive, but essential at a time when the kingdom’s relations with its neighbors over water remain a challenge.

“You can’t predict what the political situation is going to be,” Salameh says.

“As long as there is no horizon for peace in the area, Jordan will remain vulnerable to the challenges imposed on it by its situation with water.”

(This is the second in a series of occasional articles about how climate change and water scarcity are affecting the politics and landscape of the Middle East.)