In the 1920's Henry Ford's Ford Motor Company sought to avoid having to buy rubber from the British by establishing a plantation on the western bank of the Tapajos river in the Amazon region of Brazil. The project, located in a remote corner of the Amazon with no road access, was beset from the beginning by high costs, and failures, after successive plantings of Rubber trees on cleared forest ground were plagued by disease and fungus. Despite the challenges, a factory, warhorses, a hospital, and numerous employee quarters were built to house the nearly 5,000 workers that were brought to the site. The project was ultimately abandoned in 1934 by the Ford Motor Company at a loss of millions of dollars, having never produced a single bit of rubber for Ford. Today, the remains of Ford's project are slowly being overtaken by the rainforest once again.
For more than six months, during the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014, public awareness campaigns discouraged physical contact throughout much of the infection zone. This non-pharmaceutical measure, known as “social distancing,” was widely adopted by rural and urban communities across the region in an effort to mitigate the deadly virus’ spread. For Sierra Leonean’s, the return to the physicality and intimacy of human touch was a slow and gingerly transition, marked by joy and uncertainty—a testament to the psychological impact and importance of being able to reach out to those around us.
Mongolians have long relied on folklore to explain how miserably cold their winters are.
During the first of nine phases of winter — each composed of nine days, starting on Dec. 22 — it is said that vodka made from milk freezes. During the third set of nine days, when temperatures can hit minus 40 degrees in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, the tail of a 3-year-old ox is said to fall off. Around the sixth set of nine days, which falls in the middle of February, roads are expected to re-emerge from underneath the ice and snow.
But for the nearly 1.5 million residents of the capital, Ulan Bator, the misery of winter is now defined almost singularly by the smoke rising out of the city’s chimneys. Since 2016, in addition to being the world’s coldest capital city, it has also had the distinction of being the one with the highest recorded levels of air pollution, surpassing notoriously polluted megacities like Beijing and New Delhi.
According to local government figures, around 80 percent of Ulan Bator’s air pollution is produced by just over half the population, living in the so-called ger districts in the north of the city, named for the traditional nomadic dwelling central to Mongolians’ herding lifestyle.
The ger, or yurt, is a circular tent comprising a single room, with a family’s bedding and furniture arrayed around the device that makes its simple architecture survivable in such a harsh climate: a stove. The ger can be packed onto a truck and set up within a few hours.
With little work available in Mongolia’s smaller cities, hundreds of thousands have left behind the nomadic herding lifestyle in the hope of finding opportunities in the mineral boomtown that Ulan Bator has become. And they have settled in the ger districts, which have sprung up because of a lack of clarity about land ownership.
During the Communist era, land belonged to the state, but starting in 1991, land was defined as belonging to the citizens of Mongolia, leading to confusion as newcomers to the city claimed land and demanded ownership of it.
In recent years, the predominantly lower- to middle-income migrant workers who reside in these unplanned districts have been burning over a million tons of raw coal per year. The heaviest use is during the winter when staying warm is a matter of survival as temperatures remain well below freezing for weeks at a time. Those who can’t afford coal often burn garbage, adding plastics and other pollutants into the soupy mix.
As families huddle indoors, burning coal around the clock, sections of the city see their levels of fine particulate matter, a pollutant, soar into the thousands. On Jan. 30, one station in Ulan Bator recorded a reading of 3,320 micrograms per cubic meter — 133 times what the World Health Organization considers safe, and more than six times what it considers hazardous.
In January, Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh announced that the transportation and use of raw coal in Ulan Bator would be banned starting in April 2019 as part of an effort to improve the city’s air quality.
Meantime, the government has been trying with its limited resources to put a dent in the problem. Subsidies have been offered to families for stoves that produce less pollution, and since January 2017, electricity in many of the city’s highest-polluting districts was made free at night, when pollution levels are at their most severe.
But the cost of electric heaters that can adequately heat a thinly insulated home in the cold of winter is far out of reach for many in the ger districts. Nonsubsidized electricity is more expensive than coal, and far less plentiful.
The planned ban on coal has raised eyebrows among miners and sellers who extract and transport truckloads of the freshly extracted fuel from the city’s Nalaikh area, which provides 75 percent of the coal burned in the ger districts.
Many are skeptical that Mongolia’s government will be able to enforce the ban.
“It’s a fairy tale,” said Khangai Unurkhaan, 25, who sells raw coal by the truckload at the Shar Khad market near the city center.
“There are thousands of families who mine, sell and burn coal in order to live,” added Mr. Unurkhaan, who had barely given his name before he was off to deliver to a client’s home his 1.3-ton load of coal, which at $65 to $75, depending on the quality of coal, lasts a family about one month, according to official estimates.
But residents agree that something has to be done, particularly to protect the youngest and the elderly, who are most at risk because of the pollution.
Already, the pediatric wards of hospitals have banks of nebulizers to treat the large variety of respiratory infections and viruses that become both chronic and dangerous during the winter months.
Because of the pollution, “a simple flu becomes a pneumonia or bronchitis very easily,” said Dr. Soyol-Erdene Jadambaa, an immunologist at the Batchingun allergy and immunology children’s hospital, a private clinic. “It requires long-term treatment.”
Pneumonia killed up to 435 children under the age of 5 in Ulan Bator in 2015, according to Unicef.
“We need a completely new city,” said Batmend Shirgal, who was raised in Ulan Bator and is now an engineer at one of the city’s power plants, as his 2-year-old daughter helped her younger brother hold a nebulizer to his small face at the Seven Dwarfs Pediatric Clinic near Ulan Bator’s airport.
The family had lived year-round in a planned part of the city with municipal heating until last year, when both children suffered severe cases of pneumonia and were hospitalized. This winter, the family decamped to Nalaikh, 24 miles outside the city, where the air is cleaner despite the area’s being the primary source of Ulan Bator’s coal.
“If you take coal out of the ger, people will burn anything,” Mr. Shirgal said. “The tires on their cars, their neighbors’ fences. It’s hard to survive in minus 30 degrees.”
I accompanied Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force and other units from the Iraqi military and the federal police into Falluja at the end of June, during the final days of their long battle to wrest back control of the city from the Islamic State.
Falluja was the first Iraqi city to fall to the Islamic State, more than two years ago, and the militant group had all that time to learn the city, sowing traps everywhere. It was only after a long siege that the Iraqi forces moved to take the center.
In the last stages of the battle, members of the counterterrorism force, in coordination with other Iraqi units, fought their way into the neighborhood of Al Jolan in Falluja, where Islamic State fighters were making their last stand. As we moved through the bombed-out streets, gun battles raged, and the insurgents’ improvised mortars exploded among the narrow alleyways and rubble in a last-ditch effort to halt the advance of Iraq’s security forces.
What, exactly, the Islamic State fighters were holding out for was lost on me. The city had been surrounded for months. Nearly all the civilians were gone, either driven out by their rulers’ brutality in the early days, or escaping during breaks in the fighting as the Iraqi forces approached.
The Iraqi Army, special forces and the federal police relied on heavy artillery, close air support from United States aircraft and a patient advance through the city.
The remaining Islamic State fighters were forced to be opportunistic. During one visit with the Iraqi special forces, I saw a soldier who had been shot through his right calf, either by a sniper’s round or random gunfire.
Gruesome markers of the battle dotted the roads leading into Falluja.
A charred body of an Islamic State fighter had been left on the side of a road that the Iraqi forces had bulldozed through a small field south of the city as they began the assault. A metal cable was tied tight around one of the body’s legs, and the head had been lopped off.
A police commander chastised two Shiite militiamen who were taking cellphone pictures of each other stomping on the corpse triumphantly.
Much of the heavy fighting in Falluja was done by the American-trained counterterrorism forces.
The units were designed for high-speed night raids and targeted extractions. Instead, as the fight to retake Iraq has turned into a series of urban battles and checkpoint fights, the small, specialized units have been called on for brute-force infantry assignments.
For the counterterrorism units, Falluja was the latest in a long string of assaults. They have been sent wherever the fighting was heaviest and the target most critical while the government has struggled to reconstitute its failed and deserted regular army.
It has left the elite units threadbare, run down.
Islamic State fighters had built underground bunkers in homes they had commandeered. When the Iraqi counterterrorism forces moved in, they discovered steel doors covering holes cut in the marble and tile floors of the houses. In other buildings in the city center, storage bunkers held caches of weapons.
As the Iraqi forces advanced block by block, courtyards and rooftops became vital vantage points, sniper nests and, despite the brutally hot weather, crash pads under the sun.
During one of my final days in Falluja, Islamic State fighters hiding out in the city showered us with large mortar shells, probably made in a makeshift factory set up in someone’s kitchen.
The unit I was traveling with discovered large stocks of crudely made mortar rounds: improvised rocket-assisted mortars, or IRAMs.
In one house, ordnance, including explosives, was piled in the kitchen. Other deadly ingredients — bags of ball bearings, rusty screws, nails and other shrapnel — were strewed about.
Other homes in Falluja had been converted into torture chambers and, according to some of the security forces, dormitories for the Islamic State’s sex slaves.
Iraq has been at war since some of the soldiers were in grade school. But evidence of the Islamic State’s brutality took aback even some of the most battle-hardened soldiers.
One officer, who spoke openly only on the condition of anonymity, citing military protocol, told me that the Islamic State was different from the insurgents he was used to fighting. You can negotiate with insurgents, he said in English laced with military jargon he picked up from years of working with United States Special Forces, but the Islamic State fighters seemed to have embraced unbridled and inflexible savagery.
Another officer, Lt. Hassan Almosawi, from Iraq’s Emergency Response Brigade, took me to an Islamic State prison his unit had discovered in a once upscale neighborhood in central Falluja.
Homes in the area were outfitted with bars on the doors and grated metal sheets welded over the windows. Some of the rooms — possibly for the female slaves — were furnished with fans, carpets, pillows and blankets.
Nearby, we discovered a burned-out two-story home where the Islamic State had established a torture operation. A heavy chain with a hook at the end hung from the ceiling of a second-floor parlor, and car batteries were arrayed on the floor near the wall, connected to an AC/DC transformer.
Across the street from the prison and torture chamber, in a former school, decomposing bodies were tangled in a hastily dug grave, left to rot in the 120-degree heat.
The victims had been blindfolded and appeared to have been killed as the Islamic State fled the city.
Almost 60,000 Iraqis who managed to escape Falluja were now stuck in the desert in Anbar Province. Though Falluja is on the doorstep of Baghdad, only 40 miles away, the authorities were limiting access to the capital for fear that retreating militants might try to infiltrate the city.
The fleeing families have been forced to live in wind-battered camps in the desert, like the one I visited in Amiryat Falluja, south of the Euphrates River. Women and children sleep in the open, exposed to heat and gusts that whip the fine desert dust through the frames of unfinished trailers.
Aside from a few older men, there are few men or boys in the camps. They have been taken to screening where the government tries to weed out possible Islamic State fighters. After weeks, some of the displaced families still have no word about what has happened to their men.
Most of the forces securing Falluja and the surrounding area are Shiite. But the families, and the detained men, are Sunnis. And though there have been few verified reports of extrajudicial killings or abuse, the people’s resentment and fear are being carried in whispers.
Victory is never the end of the story here.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, American ground forces surged into Afghanistan. The invasion, which began in 2001 as an existential battle against the threat posed by Islamic terrorism has, over the long years, morphed into an indefinite occupation, complicated by a grinding war that has grown increasingly abstract in its tactics, and uncertain in its strategy.
Too powerful to be defeated on the battlefield, but unable to find a clear path to victory, the United States has not won or lost the war in Afghanistan, but instead become lost within it.
One of the more obscure niche's of the worldwide illicit trade in wildlife is the trafficking in live Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans and Gorillas. Despite the fact that these sensitive, and socially complex fellow hominids are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, they are increasingly under threat from poachers, hunters scouring the forest for protein, and human destruction of their native habitats in the rainforests of Africa and South East Asia.
Three of the four great ape species—Bonobos, Chimpanzees and Gorillas, can be found in the remote interior of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In small hamlets and towns along the Congo River and it's tributaries, much of the population survives on wild animal protein that has been killed in the dense forests, or in the wide rivers that snake through the region. Many of the regions are so isolated and poverty among the population is so extreme, that hunters do not transact in cash for what they kill, but instead barter for materials like clothing, food, and other consumables. Despite educational campaigns, many local residents that live near Chimp and Bonobo habitats still believe traditional lore that eating the meat of an adult Chimp or Bonobo bestows mystical powers and strength on ones person. The growing market for capturing and selling the orphaned offspring into a shady market that feeds baby chimps and bonobos into private or unscrupulous zoos around the globe has made poaching an even more lucrative business in recent years.
While a small part of the multi-billion dollar illicit global trade in wildlife, the smuggling of Great Apes has increased in past decades, and it is now believed that approximately 22,000 have been trafficked or killed by poachers. Read more about the subject here, in the New York Times article which originally accompanied these images.
Want to help? Consider donating to Lola Ya Bonobo, who work to rehabilitate orphaned and trafficked Bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
From the New York Times Story "How U.S. Torture Left a Legacy of Damaged Minds"
"Before the United States permitted a terrifying way of interrogating prisoners, government lawyers and intelligence officials assured themselves of one crucial outcome. They knew that the methods inflicted on terrorism suspects would be painful, shocking and far beyond what the country had ever accepted. But none of it, they concluded, would cause long lasting psychological harm.
Fifteen years later, it is clear they were wrong."
When armed bandits prowled this remote, mountainous stretch of the southwestern province of Guizhou in the chaotic years before the founding of modern China, the ethnic Miao villagers hid in the region’s enormous caves.
And there they have remained, even after China was united under Communist rule, grinding out an existence of profound rural poverty and isolation.
The area is in one of the poorest provinces in China. The only link to the rest of the country, and the outside world, is over a mountain footpath — a brisk one-hour hike through a steep valley — that leads to a nearby road.
Over the past 20 years, though, the caves have become less secluded because of a steadily increasing trickle of tourists, who come to experience what local media have described as the last continuously inhabited cave in China.
A cottage industry has popped up in which the cave dwellers earn extra money by renting out rooms in their homes, which over time have clustered within Zhong cave, a limestone cavern big enough to hold four American football fields. The hangar-like cave is so large that their wooden or bamboo-made residences form a small, subterranean village built along its undulating walls.
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During the day, the cave is filled with the sound of cows and roosters. On Friday afternoons, the laughter of children echoes and the smell of cooking fires permeates the cave’s cool, damp air, which offers relief from the heat of the valley below.
The county government wants the residents of Zhong cave to move to a nearby block of housing: low-slung, white-walled farmhouses with wooden window frames that were completed nearly 10 years ago.
Officials say that residents have not taken care of the cave, leaving it unsuitable for inhabitation, and that the government should oversee the village as it is listed as a protected community by the Getu River Tourism Administration, a local agency. They have offered each resident 60,000 renminbi, or approximately $9,500, to leave.
Only five families have agreed to move.
The remaining 18 families have held on stubbornly to their homes inside the cave. They say that the new homes are too small, that they fear losing access to their land, and that they alone, because of their historical connection to the cave, should have the right to independently control its small tourism economy.
“The residents of this cave should be the administrators of tourism here, regardless of whether or not we are paid,” said Wang Qiguo, the head of the local village, who established the first hostel there.
As he spoke, his wife prepared a steaming array of dishes made from home-smoked pork and local vegetables grown in the valley.
After all, Mr. Wang noted, “The best thing about this cave is its inhabitants.”
Even residents who are considering moving out seem to agree that $9,500 per person is too little money, especially because many are elderly and speak little or no Mandarin, meaning they could feel isolated if they leave the cave community. They still rely on their nearby land to grow the millet and vegetables on which they subsist.
Villagers have also complained about the quality of the new housing, saying it’s too small and poorly made.
During the 1980s, the outsiders who most often visited the Zhong cave were local government officials conducting checks to enforce China’s “one-child” policy. The measure was deeply unpopular among the villagers whose children work alongside their parents in the fields, tending to livestock.
Mr. Wang said that during those years, violators of the policy would sometimes be taken away for forced abortions and sterilization.
The single greatest change in the history of the cave was the introduction of electricity, only in 2002.
Surprisingly, the Chinese government did not bring electricity to the area. Instead, a wealthy American businessman from Minnesota, Frank Beddor Jr., was responsible.
Mr. Beddor first visited the Zhong cave in 2002, and would ultimately return several more times — donating tens of thousands of dollars to connect the cave to the region’s electrical grid.
His continuing financial support also built a schoolhouse and a communal bathroom, and delivered livestock and other assistance to the villagers, dramatically improving their quality of life.
But in 2011, the school was closed by the local government, forcing residents to send their children, some as young as 5, to the region’s boarding school nearly two hours away.
Mr. Beddor died at age 83 in 2007. His emotional connection to the village is still a mystery to the villagers, some of whom remember the few times he visited the cave.
Wang Qicai, 39, a farmer who also runs a small general store out of his home in the cave, said young people may move out to become migrant workers, but many end up returning to have their families.
The cave, he said, “feels like home.”
“The weather inside the cave is amazing,” he added. “It feels like heaven.”