The Sweet River Turned Sour

The Doce River runs red some 50 miles downstream from Mariana, the municipality where the Fundão dam collapsed sending tens of millions of tons of iron tailings into the river. (Zoe Sullivan, 2016)

The Doce River runs red some 50 miles downstream from Mariana, the municipality where the Fundão dam collapsed sending tens of millions of tons of iron tailings into the river. (Zoe Sullivan, 2016)

In April, I accompanied a group of permaculture activists and artists during a trip along Brazil’s Doce River. “Doce” means sweet in Portuguese. They were aiming to connect with different communities to try to identify needs and potential responses to the environmental devastation resulting from the Fundão dam´s collapse on November 5th last year. Environmental news web site Mongabay.com published two reports I produced from this trip. Then first focuses on the impact that the roughly 50 million tons of toxic iron tailings had on the river basin and its communities, while the second examines the range of responses arising from the disaster.

Reporting on Zika, Highlighting Social Inequality

This protest banner reads “Sanitation Yes! Cable car No! ” It was part of a joint demonstration of the Rocinha and Vidigal favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Melaina Spitzer, Catalytic Communities, 2013.

This protest banner reads “Sanitation Yes! Cable car No! ” It was part of a joint demonstration of the
Rocinha and Vidigal favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Melaina Spitzer, Catalytic Communities, 2013.

The outbreak of Zika and the associated cases of microcephaly in Brazil have terrified many, and as the Rio Olympics draw near, the media are returning to the issue. Earlier this year, Al Jazeera English published my report from Recife on how gender, race and class play into this scenario. Recife is a majority Black city, yet wealth is unevenly distributed, and most low-income residents are people of color. One women’s rights advocate explained that women also represent the bulk of Brazil’s self-employed workers, which means they have no sick leave or safety net.

And while Brazil is fumigating to control the mosquito population, public health researchers sustain that mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, Chikungunya and Dengue, which are devastating the population, will be controlled more effectively once Brazil ensures universal access to running water and sewer systems.

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The Debt-Migration Cycle Swallowing Rural Guatemalans

IMG_3484About a year ago, I spoke with a friend who works as an immigration attorney and focuses on assisting young people who have migrated alone to the US from Central America. He told me about the practice in Guatemala of people signing away their homes as collateral on loans to pay a human smuggler to come to the US. The people get three attempts at crossing the border, and then they must pay back the loan. For many who don’t make it to the US, this means the threat of losing one’s home and the reality of struggling to pay back the loan in a country where most people work in the informal economy and earn a few hundred dollars a month.

The Fund for Investigative Journalism very generously accepted my request for support to travel to Guatemala and do this reporting. It would not have been possible otherwise. I also owe a huge debt to Álvaro Caballeros, who provided data and insight, Julia Gonzaléz, and Rachael Bale, who offered excellent tips on conducting my investigation and shaping the stories that emerged. Two printed reports came out of my time in Guatemala, one for Al Jazeera English, and another for Al Jazeera America. I´m also working on a radio piece for Making Contact.

Wisconsin’s many issues

I started hearing about human trafficking in Wisconsin shortly after my return in 2014. Finally this fall I started to look into what I was hearing. The result was this piece for the Guardian, which was the most-shared story of the day when it went up in early November. There is much more to this issue, and this report focuses only on minors and only on those caught up in sex trafficking. There is, of course, trafficking that doesn’t involve sex, just as there is labor trafficking that does. This work introduced me to Claudine O’Leary along with others in the Milwaukee area who are on the front lines with the young people involved. They are the ones who made this report possible and who are raising awareness that sex trafficking happens in the US every day; it’s not something that just takes place overseas.

Shortly after this was published, Pacific Standard Magazine posted my analysis of the federal lawsuit filed to challenge Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting plan. The Whitford vs. Nichol lawsuit differs from other lawsuits arguing partisan bias because it is presenting a method for determining whether redistricting processes are fair to the two major parties. Eric McGhee and Nick Stephanopolous developed the “efficiency gap” tool set out in the lawsuit.

Pizza on the farm

NPR’s Morning Edition carried my story about Kat Becker and Tony Schultz’s Stoney Acres farm in Athens, WI yesterday. They have been making pizza with ingredients entirely from their organic farm since 2012. In addition to providing an income stream to the farm, the Friday-night pizza events are also offering residents a space to connect and get to know each other.

Riley Schultz helps the pigs cool off on a hot July evening at Stoney Acres farm.

Riley Schultz helps the pigs cool off on a hot July evening at Stoney Acres farm.

Living in Paradise: a multi-media documentary on Pernambuco’s women fisher folk

Vania Maria de Alcàntara looks up at a mangrove tree as she starts a shellfishing expedition.

Vania Maria de Alcàntara looks up at a mangrove tree as she starts a shellfishing expedition.

I owe a debt of thanks to Allison Mills who suggested I look into the Creativist (now Atavist) platform for this project. Below is a link to the project I put together after my eight months in Brazil exploring the issues affecting women, especially women fisher folk, south of Recife near the Suape Port and Industrial Complex. The idea was to explore the impact that an expanding port and industrial complex (complete with a brand new Petrobras refinery) was having on the women and the environment that sustains their livelihoods. There is much more to say about this and the overall impact, but the link below will take you to the multi-media piece that I have finally finished.
This project was only possible thanks to the tremendous generosity I found in Pernambuco from people like Renato Amram Athias, Méle Dornelas and Diana Moura. The Centro das Mulheres de Cabo de Santo Agostinho deserves acknowledgement as well for all the connections and support they provided.
Since I started this project, Petrobras has come under investigation for corruption, corruption exemplified by the Suape refinery. Brazil’s economy has slowed down significantly, and the country’s political landscape is much more unstable than it was. The stories in this piece are stories you would not likely hear elsewhere. They come from the grassroots and express some of the realities of people who have been living a subsistence lifestyle in the midst of an expanding capitalist project. Please share the link widely.

https://zoe.atavist.com/suape

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Reporting on the Tony Robinson Shooting

For the past few months, I have had the privilege of working with the Guardian to cover the issues related to Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr.’s shooting at the hands of a police officer in Madison, WI. The story I did about the initial aftermath of that tragedy highlighted the city’s racial disparities, putting Robinson’s death in a larger context. In the days and weeks that followed, I worked closely with the Guardian’s outstanding senior reporter, Oliver Laughland, to reveal that Robinson had taken magic mushrooms the day of his death and that his close friends, Javier and Anthony Limon, were unlawfully arrested by Madison police in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. All my US coverage for the Guardian is available here: htttp://www.theguardian.com/profile/zoe-sullivan

The doorstep to 1125 Williamson Street, where Tony Robinson was shot, quickly became a memorial to him in the days following his death.

The doorstep to 1125 Williamson Street, where Tony Robinson was shot, quickly became a memorial to him in the days following his death.

Valeria Maria de Alcântará, marisqueira

Roughly 5000 women participate in Pernambuco’s “straw hat” community education course for fisher women. Unlike their male counterparts, who generally use boats to fish off-shore, the women fisher folk are marisqueiras, shellfish women. They collect mollusks, sand crabs, brown crabs and other shellfish from the tidal mangrove swamps that hug the state’s coast. They do the work barefoot since they can since up to their mid-calves in the muddy terrain. At times, the women will be waist deep in water or higher as they pry mussels from tree branches or coax small crabs out from their shelter among the mangrove trees. Marisqueiras subsist on what they catch, which generally supplements the income the men in the household earn on the water or through other work.

But the marisqueiras say that the conditions in the mangrove swamps has deteriorated dramatically over the past several years. The decline corresponds to expansions at the Suape Port and Industrial Complex which houses two shipbuilding firms, a coca-cola bottling plant, and various chemical companies, among other enterprises.

The complex is located roughly 2 hours south of the state capital, Recife, on a coast known for its beautiful beaches. For some, the expansion has led to job opportunities in the port complex, which contributes roughly 10% of the state’s revenues. For Brazil as a whole, the new oil refinery offers a way to process some of the country’s oil wealth and avoid paying a premium for refined products it has to import. For many others in the area, the expansion disrupted lives and livelihoods by displacing people from their homes and crippling damage to the mangrove swamps’ ecosystem.

I owe tremendous thanks to Valeria Maria de Alcântará, who is featured in this slideshow, as well as to Melé Dornelas of the Comité Pastoral da Pesca, which organizes subsistence fisherfolk like Ms. de Alcântará. Many others deserve recognition for their help:  Helenilda Cavalcanti of the Fundaçao Joaquim Nabuco and Nivete Azevedo of the Centro das Mulheres do Cabo.

San Francisco integrates climate-change planning into its capital expenditure budgeting requirements

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco has taken an important step towards protecting itself and its infrastructure investments from potential flooding and other climate-change related issues. Vice News asked me to cover this for them, and my story is here https://news.vice.com/article/san-francisco-braces-for-sea-level-rise.

 

Walker re-elected in record mid-term turnout

Al Jazeera America ran my story about the highest election turnout in 50 years. In spite of the large number of voters who did go to the polls, there were fewer voters than in the 2012 recall election. votingThe photo below is from a polling station at the Madison Municipal Building.