Jellyfish: A Gelatinous Invasion

Time has published my story on the danger of a world where the seas are ruled by jellyfish.

The jellyfish in the photos didn’t look like they’d pose a danger to swimmers. Thinly veined and translucent, they didn’t have stinging tentacles trailing behind them or dramatic colors signaling danger. But Ferdinando Boero, a professor of zoology at the University of Salento in Italy, knew that they meant trouble nonetheless.

The pictures, sent by a biologist in the northern Italian town of Lerici in July, marked the first time the species Mnemiopsis leidyi, a thumb-size jellyfish known as the sea walnut, had been documented in the western Mediterranean Sea. Native to the Atlantic coast of the U.S., Mnemiopsis was introduced to the Black Sea in the 1980s — most likely from the ballast water of oil tankers — and played an instrumental role in the collapse of the region’s fisheries. “Now the question is, Will it do in the Mediterranean the same thing it did in the Black Sea?” Boero says. “It’s harmless for [humans], but it can be deadly for the fish.”

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A Better Measure than GDP

Time has published my essay on why GDP is a bad way to measure progress.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy drew heat last month when he suggested that countries should factor happiness into their statistics for growth. After all, Sarkozy campaigned on promises of wealth creation, and rejigging the data to include France’s welfare system, famously generous holidays, and je ne sais quoi seems like an easy way to fulfill a promise he is struggling to keep.

But what if Sarkozy has a point? After all, the figure at which he was taking aim — gross domestic product — was never intended to gauge anything other than how much money was changing hands. Yet we routinely use economic growth as shorthand for how well a country is doing. If we’re going to use a metric to track our progress, shouldn’t we choose something that measures the things we care about?

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Heroes of the Environment 2009: Nnimmo Bassey

My contribution to Time’s annual Heroes of the Environment issue was a profile of the Nigerian oil campaigner Nnimmo Bassey.

It wasn’t an oil spill that made Nnimmo Bassey an environmentalist. It was a massacre — the 1990 assault by Nigeria’s armed forces on the village of Umuechem, where residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta had accused the Shell Petroleum Development Company of environmental degradation and economic neglect. In two days of violence, 80 people died and nearly 500 houses were destroyed. “We woke up from a sleep and … everything was collapsing around us,” says Bassey, 51, head of Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth.

The deaths convinced Bassey and his colleagues that they needed to broaden their efforts. “We realized that if people don’t have a safe environment to live in, then they don’t have literally any other rights,” he says.

Read the rest.,28804,1924149_1924153_1924211,00.html

Italy’s Newspapers: Untrusted Sources

I’m now back in Italy, where I’ve written an essay for Time on the sad, sad state of Italy’s newspapers.

Any discussion of what’s wrong with Italian politics eventually leads to the question of what’s wrong with the country’s media. In a nation where the Prime Minister controls the airwaves, only one out of 10 people buys a daily paper, compared with one in five Americans and three in five people in Japan, according to the World Association of Newspapers. Italians, it seems, don’t care to read the news.

But what if the fault doesn’t lie with Italians’ appetite for news? What if the problem is with what’s on the menu?

Read the rest.

Different Shades of Green in Africa

Time has also published my story about an agricultural war of ideology taking in place in Africa. It’s a fight that could turn out to be good for the continent, but that’s not something that’s guaranteed.

Joseph Odiambo walks decisively past eight plots of corn and comes to a stop in front of the ninth. Where the other plants towered sugar-cane thick with broad crisp blades, here the plants are skinny and stunted, draped with yellow-tinged leaves. The contrast is deliberate, an advertisement for the wares Odiambo sells from his roadside supply shop in western Kenya. While the shopkeeper’s robust plots were planted with commercial seed and carefully nurtured with inorganic fertilizer, his sickly specimens are the result of seeds sown in the bare ground. “We wanted to have a control plot, to show the difference,” he says.

Odiambo’s demonstration plots are an opening salvo in a battle between two very different agricultural philosophies. The goal itself is not in dispute: a healthier, wealthier Africa, one that can feed itself and perhaps even export. Both sides also agree that the solution should be green. The disagreement lies over just what that word means.

Read more.

Kenya’s Blackboard Jungle

When I was in Kenya last fall I visited a school that was trying to enlist the Masai in the importance of conserving the lands in which they live. Time has just published a brief peek at my findings.

It begins:

After we pull our land rover off the track to watch a pair of leopards, I ask my two safari guides what animal they’d be most excited to see. I’m thinking elephants, lions, rhinos — the charismatic megafauna that attract tourists from across the world. Their answer: aardvarks and porcupines, the reclusive nocturnal residents of Kenya’s Masai Mara. “I took care of cattle on the Mara when I was a boy,” says Jackson Tinka, 21. “So I’ve seen a lot of wildlife.”

Tinka and his companion are what was until recently a rarity in Kenya’s biggest-drawing game park: tour guides working in the land of their fathers. Though the vast stretch of savanna lies in territory owned by the Masai, until a few years ago the red-robed pastoralists made up less than 20% of those employed in its camps and lodges. Those who could find work did so mostly as low-paid camp guards. Yet there’s a growing realization that the Masai and the 590-square-mile (1,530 sq km) national reserve share a common future. The tribe’s fortunes will most likely be found in the tourists who provide Kenya with the bulk of its foreign exchange — and in the wildlife those tourists pay to see.

Keep reading.

UPDATE: Check out more photos from this trip here.

Karl Ammann

I contributed this brief profile of bush-meat activist Karl Ammann for Time’s 100 Heroes of the Environment. It’s archived below.

October 10, 2007
Karl Ammann

By Stephan Faris

Karl Ammann’s photography books are too gruesome for your average coffee table. A hog-tied crocodile strains against its ropes. Charbroiled monkeys, stiff and stacked like cordwood, grimace at the camera. A gorilla’s severed head, propped against a bunch of green bananas, drains slowly into a saucepan.

Continue reading “Karl Ammann”

Calling All Healers

This article ran on the use of traditional healers in the fight against AIDS was published in Time Magazine and is archived below.

July 16, 2006
Calling All Healers
African nations with few M.D.s ask traditional medicine men to pitch in on the fight against AIDS.

By Stephan Faris

Alenga – When Americans think about the problem of getting modern medical care to the people in Africa who need it most, Anthony Okello is not the solution that comes immediately to mind. He’s a medicine man, apprenticed as a teenager to the wandering witch doctor who treated him for a fever that other doctors couldn’t cure. When a patient goes to Okello complaining of rashes and diarrhea, as Lucy Ajam did recently, he recognizes the typical symptoms of AIDS for what they are. He immediately sent Ajam to the nearest hospital to start her on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs)–an approach even a traditionalist like Ajam heartily endorses. “For minor cases, I still use local herbs,” says Ajam, 51, a roadside bread vendor in Alenga, Uganda, a sprawling settlement overlooking the Nile River. “But it’s the ARVs that are keeping me alive.”

Continue reading “Calling All Healers”

Can Africa Get Out Of Debt?

This piece on debt relief in Africa ran in Time.

It’s archived below.

Oct. 03, 2004
Can Africa Get Out Of Debt?
Loan forgiveness is finally becoming a reality — and it will help. But more needs to be done to get the continent on the road to growth and make a dent in poverty.

By Stephan Faris

Kampala – The sound of shuffling feet announces her entrance as dozens of youngsters rise from their seats to chant in unison: “We welcome our headmistress.” Jane Kansiime, who runs the Kamwokya primary school in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, silently reviews the students, who stand politely at attention, five to a bench. Most wear the navy-and-turquoise school uniform, but other colors speckle the crowded classroom: a yellow shirt, a red dress, a white blouse. “We are not rigid here, as long as a child can come,” says Kansiime, 40. “It’s not the clothes that make the child learn.”

Six years ago, before Uganda became the first country to have its debt burden eased under a World Bank–administered initiative, classrooms like Kansiime’s were half empty. Parents couldn’t afford the $40-$50 annual tuition. Then the World Bank program, called the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, reduced Uganda’s loan payments on the condition that the savings be channeled into health care, agricultural development and free primary education.

Continue reading “Can Africa Get Out Of Debt?”