Monitor Daily Podcast

March 08, 2018
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Monitor Daily Intro for March 8, 2018

Yvonne Zipp
Daily Editor

If students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in Minnesota couldn’t afford lunch, they knew they could go to “Mr. Phil.” Philando Castile would quietly pay out of his own pocket. 

Now, at least 1,788 schoolchildren have had their lunch debt erased as a way to honor the legacy of Castile, who was killed by police during a traffic stop in 2016. Philando Feeds the Kids has paid the debt for every student enrolled in the National School Lunch Program in St. Paul’s 56 schools, including J.J. Hill.

Children can’t focus on learning if they’re hungry. And school nutrition workers like Castile are the ones who most often see which kids are going without.

Generous people in other states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania also have raised money to make sure the school lunch tray doesn’t come with a side of shame. And our EqualEd reporters wrote about New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Bill of Rights, which ensured that no child would be publicly embarrassed or go without food. 

Originally, the Minnesota fundraiser was designed to help J.J. Hill’s students, Pamela Fergus, an instructor who started it last fall with her psychology class at St. Paul's Metropolitan State University, told The New York Times. Now organizers have a new goal: Pay the cafeteria debt of every child in Minnesota.

The reasoning is simple: “He loved those kids,” Ms. Fergus says.

Now, here are our five stories of the day looking at unexpected optimism around one of the world's tensest relationships, the ways that global challenges can reverberate locally, and a new effort to show people wonders that need protecting.

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Suing California: What Washington's move means for future conflicts

The hollowing out of the American political middle has had many consequences. One of the most notable might be the decline of legislation and the rise of lawsuits. “It’s very difficult to bargain when the center is so underpopulated,” political scientist John Pitney says. “The one thing you can say for sure is there’s going to be lots of litigation, lots of lawsuits, and lots of billable hours.”


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The Trump administration’s decision to sue the state of California over three new “sanctuary” laws highlights the way partisan agendas have grown entangled in court decisions. As the two parties swing toward their extremes, politicians (and the public) on each side have increasingly begun to turn to the courts to arbitrate policy disputes – and to equate a court win with a party win. That’s a false and dangerous equivalence, legal experts warn, because a court ruling endures no matter which party holds the majority in Washington. While partisan politics has always been a feature of American government, extreme partisanship means either side is less likely to compromise on issues like immigration – and more likely to turn to the courts to resolve disputes, political analysts say. Lawsuits are not necessarily a bad mediation tactic, especially when compared with bloodier avenues, such as the Civil War, says Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor. They do, however, lead to another enduring consequence: more power for the judiciary. “The courts win,” says Professor Gerhardt, “no matter what happens.” 

Suing California: What Washington's move means for future conflicts

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses the California Peace Officers' Association 26th Annual Law Enforcement Legislative on March, 7, in Sacramento, Calif. The Trump administration on Tuesday sued to block California laws that extend protections to people living in the US illegally.

In 2017, the state of California filed 24 cases against the Trump administration over issues that range from Obamacare to oil royalties.

This week, the Department of Justice sued back.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday evening in Federal District Court in Sacramento, asks to block three “sanctuary” laws enacted last year by California, claiming the laws prevent federal immigration officials from doing their job. It marks the latest skirmish in the conflict between the Democratic Golden State and the Republican Trump administration – a clash that began almost as soon as President Trump was sworn into office.

The suit also highlights the way partisan political agendas have grown entangled in court decisions. As the two parties swing toward their extremes, politicians (and the public) on each side have increasingly begun to turn to the courts to arbitrate policy disputes – and to equate a court win with a party win. That’s a false and dangerous equivalence, legal experts warn, because a court ruling endures no matter which party holds the majority in Washington. But it’s an equivalence that gives politicians more incentive to rely on lawsuits instead of, say, congressional compromise, to settle policy differences.

The result is not only a more powerful judiciary, political analysts say. It also allows partisan politics to seep even into age-old issues like federalism.

“It feels less about ensuring that rights are vindicated and more about ensuring a policy position is vindicated,” says Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It’s a legal matchup, and it’s also a political matchup. Those two things are actually quite distinct.”

The tug-of-war between California and the Trump administration serves, in some ways, as an avatar for this tangled, partisan battle – with immigration as the symbolic, central issue for each side’s politics, says Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. It’s not the first time Washington has scuffled with a state over a partisan issue, or even over immigration. In 2010, the Obama administration sued Arizona over a law that cracked down on unauthorized immigrants, accusing the state of violating federal law. The case made its way to the US Supreme Court, where, in 2012, a majority of justices found that federal law preempted state law in three of the four provisions in contention.

Now in one corner it’s California and the Democrats who, at the urging of their progressive wing, have solidified protecting immigrants from enforcement. In the other are Trump and the Republicans who, through the calls of their populist arm, have consolidated – though with somewhat less uniformity – around enforcing immigration law, Ms. Brown says. Whoever wins the lawsuit over sanctuary laws scores major political points with their base.

“This is an exact mirror image of what the Obama administration did to Arizona with [Senate Bill] 1070,” says Josh Blackman, associate professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.

The problem is that there’s more at stake than just one-upping the other side. It’s true that whatever the courts decide would have repercussions for immigration policy at the state level – specifically around the kind of sanctuary laws states and localities can legally implement. And most people are aligning on the DOJ’s lawsuit based on whether they agree or disagree with California or the federal government on the issue, Professor Levinson notes.

But any decision could also redefine, long-term, how far states can push back against federal authority on immigration. “If the case decision will define the contours of federal power versus state power in this area – and I think it will – those contours and boundaries hold true regardless of whether it’s a Republican in the White House or a Democrat in the White House,” Levinson says.

She compares the situation to the filibuster: “If you’re the party in the minority you love the filibuster because it gives you a lot of power,” she says. “But as the minority, you have to be careful not to enlarge it because when once you’re in the majority, you hate the filibuster.”

To be sure, partisan politics has always been a feature of federalism – that age-old struggle to draw the line between states’ rights and federal authority – and of American government writ large. A Republican-majority federal government was always more likely to butt heads with a Democrat-led state, and vice versa. Still, extreme partisanship means either side is less likely to compromise on issues like immigration – and more likely to turn to the courts to resolve disputes, political analysts say.

Lawsuits are not necessarily a bad mediation tactic, especially when compared to bloodier avenues – like the Civil War, says Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. They do, however, lead to another enduring consequence: more power for the judiciary.  

“The courts win no matter what happens,” says Professor Gerhardt, who also teaches at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill. Regardless of who benefits politically from a court ruling, lawsuits “give the courts more authority over the political branches ... and increase the likelihood that they become institutions that people turn to to solve their problems.”

Until the decisions are made and work their way through the appeals process, it’s unclear what effects the clash between California and the Trump administration might have on immigration and other issues in the long run. What is certain is “neither side has very much reason to stand down,” says Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “For California politicians ... they believe that public opinion is on their side. Meanwhile Trump believes that taking down sanctuary cities is supported by his base.”

“It’s very difficult to bargain when the center is so underpopulated,” adds John Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “The one thing you can say for sure is there’s going to be lots of litigation, lots of lawsuits, and lots of billable hours.”

Staff writer Henry Gass contributed to this report from San Antonio, Texas. 

Why a (very) cautious optimism has emerged on North Korea

Two months ago, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were dueling on Twitter as a queasy world watched. Today, denuclearization may be on the table. How did we get here?


Call it a spring thaw. After a year of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program, the announcement this week that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is willing to start negotiations with the United States on ending the program is a welcome surprise, if one being met with caution. After all, it was barely two months ago that Mr. Kim and President Trump were fighting over who has the bigger nuclear button. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump expressed cautious optimism about the change in direction, calling it “possible progress” that also “may be false hope.” A pair of South Korean officials left Seoul on Thursday for Washington, where they’ll try to gain his support. Barring any unforeseen events, the next step would be a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a border village in late April. There are no doubt many “critical moments,” as Mr. Moon said on Thursday, “before reaching the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a permanent peace.” And there are plenty of reasons to question how sincere North Korea is about its offer. Talks with Pyongyang have repeatedly fallen apart, and some observers suspect its recent grand gestures are merely a bid for time. But there are also reasons to be hopeful, given all that’s happened over the past few weeks. Here’s a look back at some of the critical moments that got us here.

Michael Holtz, Molly Jackson, Jacob Turcotte/Staff; Photos: AP

In Russia, Olympic pride – but the shadow of doping still lingers

The Olympic ban made Russian athletes’ victories in Pyeongchang that much more dramatic for the Russian public. But the underlying issues over doping remain unresolved with fewer than 100 days until Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup.


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Russia was not officially allowed to take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics because of the International Olympic Committee’s ban over Russia’s organized doping scheme during the Sochi Games in 2014. But the “Olympians from Russia” who were cleared to participate came in 13th place in the medal rankings – something the Russian public regards as a triumph, given the limited number of athletes able to participate. But while Pyeongchang is now over and the IOC appears ready to let Russia return to full participation, the doping scandal still hovers over Russian athletics. The World Anti-Doping Agency is digging in its heels and even threatening Russia's right to host the World Cup – set to start in just over three months – unless the Kremlin publicly accepts the findings of the report that documents its doping in Sochi. President Vladimir Putin is not expected to give in, though experts say the Kremlin may be losing interest in hosting big sports events as a way of courting global public opinion anyway. Indeed, the Kremlin will probably be satisfied if the World Cup comes off without any scandals.

In Russia, Olympic pride – but the shadow of doping still lingers

Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Russian team sings their national anthem while wearing their gold medals at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics on Feb. 25.

Russian TV audiences were riveted, and social media exploded, when a hockey team of “athletes from Russia” won gold by defeating a German team in the final days of the Pyeongchang Olympics and then, in defiance of the ban on Russian national symbols, locked arms and began to belt out the Russian national anthem.

That, plus the record-breaking performances of two Russian figure skaters, Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva, appears to have created an entirely unexpected spike in Russian national pride. That may not have been the intention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in winnowing the number of Russian athletes cleared to take part in the Games and denying them the right to display Russian symbols.

“You know how, in movies, when a character has to overcome great difficulties and perform against unfair odds, that makes the audience root for him,” says Dmitry Babich, an analyst with the state news agency Sputnik. “We didn't even know until practically the last moment whether any of our athletes would be allowed to go to Pyeongchang. That created a lot of dramatic tension, which was released when some of our people had amazing victories.”

Yet the underlying issues that created the crisis, with very serious allegations of state-sponsored doping made by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) following Russia's Sochi triumph, have yet to be resolved. The Kremlin and WADA remain at odds over what happened in Sochi. While the Russian public is firmly against doping, the underdog victories of Russian athletes in Pyeongchang have given them little incentive to pressure Russian sporting officials further.

Indeed, with Russia set to host the soccer World Cup in 11 cities in under 100 days time, Russian observers say that the Kremlin may be hoping simply to get through the summer event with a minimum of drama.

Doping and Russian pride

According to the IOC, the goal of prohibiting the Russian national team and all but a specially cleared handful of Russian athletes from taking part in the Pyeongchang Games was to punish Russian authorities and athletes – including the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and the Russian Ministry of Sport – for their role in widespread, organized doping at the Sochi Games, as outlined in the MacLaren Report commissioned almost two years ago. Presumably, there was also a hope that the ban would make Russian citizens themselves feel benched and to focus their minds on compelling the Kremlin to respond those doping charges.

But that clearly has not worked. Despite coming in a dismal 13th place in the overall Olympic medal count at Pyeongchang, a poll conducted last week by the state-funded VTsIOM public opinion agency found that 89 percent of Russians are very pleased with the performance of Russian athletes. That is even greater than the 82 percent who lauded the successes of their national team at Sochi in 2014, where Russia came in first in the medal count.

“There was a big debate in top political circles about whether we should even swallow all of the humiliations, lower our heads, and let some of our athletes go to Pyeongchang as ‘neutral’ players rather than a proud Russian team,” says Sergei Strokan, international affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. “Now there is a feeling that we made the right decision to go, despite all the obstacles. That small number of Russians allowed to participate in Pyeongchang performed almost as well as the entire Team Russia did at Vancouver in 2010. And the public seems to be really happy with how our people performed there.”

Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) shakes hands with Russian ice hockey player and gold medalist of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games Vasili Koshechkin after decorating him with the Order of Friendship during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 28.

To be sure, opinion polls consistently show that Russians abhor doping by wide majorities, consider it a bad thing, and expect their leaders to correct the situation. President Vladimir Putin insisted in a Kremlin meeting last week with Russian Olympic champions that the country is making great strides in that direction.

“We have already done a lot here in Russia,” he said. “An independent commission headed by [former IOC Vice President] Vitaly Smirnov is proceeding in a responsible and productive way, strictly abiding by the concept that the struggle against doping or the doping evil must be uncompromising. I am convinced that all members of the Olympic family are interested in making this the overriding principle.”

Last week the International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed to reinstate Russia as a full member, even though there has been no admission of wrongdoing from the Kremlin. That probably signals widespread weariness with the standoff, and a desire to move on.

But WADA, without whose certification of the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA no Russian athletes can be cleared to perform in international events, is digging in its heels and even threatening Russia's right to host the World Cup unless the Kremlin publicly accepts the findings of the MacLaren Report.

Mr. Putin has regularly denied the report's allegations, and he made no mention of them at the meeting with Olympians. It is generally believed by Russian analysts that he will never give in to WADA's demands.

A split for sports and state?

The Kremlin may be losing interest in hosting big sports events as a way of courting global public opinion anyway. Putin staked his personal reputation on the 2014 Sochi Games, pumping about $50 billion into staging them, only to see everything quickly turn sour. The Kiev overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych happened as those Games were wrapping up, leading to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Western sanctions, and an East-West geopolitical crisis that continues to worsen. Russia's first place showing at Sochi has been tarnished by the WADA allegations, and the serial disgrace of Russian athletes that has persisted through two Olympic cycles so far.

State support for Russian sports, while still strong, no longer approaches the massive levels it enjoyed in Soviet times. “Now private business is moving in to substitute for the state in many sports,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow political consultancy. “Of course there will always be eager young people who want to achieve, but the landscape is changing.”

Years of exclusion and disappointment for Russian athletes have also taken their toll. “Of course, we could have done much better at Pyeongchang if our whole team had been allowed to take part,” says Oleg Shamonayev, an editor at Sport Express, Moscow's leading sports newspaper. “But even without all those obstacles, I don't think we could have hoped for better than 5th place. After being number one at Sochi, that would be hard to take. I don't believe our athletics can restore its former positions.”

Mr. Strokan says the Kremlin will probably be satisfied if the upcoming World Cup comes off without any scandals or negative incidents.

“Of course everything is hostage to politics,” he says. “We're living in a time of intensifying information war, a deeply unhealthy relationship especially between Russia and the US, recriminations of all kinds flying back and forth every day, and you imagine that these high-profile sports events in almost a dozen Russian cities can take place in a happy, nonpolitical atmosphere? I think in the Kremlin they are just bracing themselves and hoping for the best.”

Nigeria: Why the farmer and the cowman can’t be friends

When we talk about climate change’s impact, the emphasis is often on what we can see and touch: rising seas, drier fields. But one of its urgent consequences often goes unseen. As competition for resources heats up, so can the sense of "us" and "them" – causing people to forget that this is a fight we’re all in together.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
A church choir in Makurdi, Nigeria, sings at a Jan. 11 funeral mass for some of those killed in a clash between semi-nomadic cattle herders and members of a farming community.

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Nigeria is stunningly diverse. The country of 180 million people is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, and roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. The Middle Belt region, in particular, straddles cultural and religious divides. But at times, that’s made it a hotbed of conflict, due to decades-long grievances over competition for resources and influence – especially between farmers, most of whom are Christian, and semi-nomadic herders, many of whom are ethnic Fulani Muslims. Violent clashes have increased so much recently that they’ve sometimes killed more Nigerians per year than the terror group Boko Haram. A changing climate is pushing more herders south in search of scarcer grazing land, contributing to the uptick in violence. And as environmental pressures increase, so do social divisions – a pattern seen far beyond Nigeria. There has been “a sharp rise in the tone of divisiveness and the rhetoric of ethnicity” around the farmer-herder clashes, says one analyst who spent months traveling to affected areas. 

Nigeria: Why the farmer and the cowman can’t be friends


A dozen young boys in bedraggled shorts play football on a dusty field at the central primary school in Guma district, in central Nigeria’s Benue state. The children kick a football made from nylon garbage and filled with rags, yelling at teammates to pass the ball or shoot at the wooden post.

This school, where the loud cries of children rise with smoke from black pots perching on three-stone cooking fires, is now home to some 12,452 internally displaced people.

Sarah Sarwuan looks at the game and lowers her head. Two rosaries – one with red beads, the other yellowed from dust – are hanging around her neck.

“My brother-in-law helped me on my farm because my husband is an old man,” she says with a solemn face, remembering what life was like a few months ago. “He was like my second husband, always there to assist with my needs.”

But he was brutally killed when a militia from the Fulani ethnic group raided her village on the northern edge of Benue state, shooting and setting homes aflame. The attacks, which began on New Year’s Eve in remote parts of Benue, left 73 people dead. Around 80,000 people have fled their homes – including Mrs. Sarwuan, a mother of five.

“The pain still haunts me,” she says, remembering viewing his body at the district hospital.

Violent clashes between semi-nomadic cattle herders like the Fulani and farming communities have increased in recent years – particularly in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, which straddles diverse cultural and religious divides. It’s long been a hotbed of sectarian conflict, due to decades-long grievances over competition for resources and political influence: the Fulani, in many farmers’ eyes, are interloping settlers infringing on their time-old claims to the land.

But as Nigeria’s drought and desertification intensify, so do these preexisting divisions and the conflicts they fuel – a pattern seen globally, in an age of climbing temperatures and dwindling rainfall. As Nigeria’s population has boomed over the past half-century, making it the world’s seventh-most populous country, deforestation has expanded, as well: on average, 350,000 to 400,000 hectares are lost each year.

In 2016 alone, some 2,500 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced by farmer-herder conflict, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Several years, that toll has exceeded the death count of the terror group Boko Haram.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Fulani herdsman in Zango, Kaduna state, Nigeria, on March 22, 2014.

Hotter land, hotter conflicts?

Cattle herders, mostly from the Fulani ethnic group, roam across West Africa in search of pasture and water for their livestock, moving in and out of Nigeria through porous borders with Benin, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. More and more, however, their nomadism clashes with sedentary, non-Fulani communities.

At the root of this simmering hostility is the struggle for natural resources, such as water and land. But that struggle is being exacerbated by frequent droughts and advancing desertification in Nigeria’s arid north. As grazing land disappears, the herders move southward.

Finding fertile land is particularly difficult “in the extreme northern part of the country that is most vulnerable to climate change,” says Emmanuel Oladipo, who advises Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment on climate issues. The reduction in resources will likely intensify migration, which “may further intensify current conflicts.”

That trend extends far beyond Nigeria: from the Syrian civil war – which exploded on the heels of severe drought – to Sudan’s Darfur conflict, to landowner-grazer clashes in Kenya’s overgrazed highlands, a growing body of research explores how environmental pressures can deepen preexisting rifts such as religion, ethnicity, or politics, and increase the threat of conflict.

“Climate change is an indirect driver of a myriad of conflicts around the world; parts of East and Central Africa readily come to mind,” says Ikemesit Effiong, lead analyst at Lagos-based geopolitical intelligence consulting firm SBM Intelligence.

“As semi-arid climes become hotter, summers become hotter and freak weather phenomena drive mass population movements towards places deemed as more habitation friendly, these conflicts are bound to become even more common and in some places, intractable,” he adds. Moreover, herders’ ancient routes have been overtaken by urbanization and demographic growth.

'It will only divide us'

Nigeria has a population of 180 million people, evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. It is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, and the Middle Belt is particularly diverse.

Farmers, who are mostly Christian, say herders traveling on foot with their cattle are damaging their crops. The Fulani, meanwhile, complain of livestock theft by gangs from farming communities who attack them.

“In most cases it is retaliation for previous attacks that is causing this crisis,” says Shettima Mohammed, the Benue state secretary of the Myetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, an umbrella body for livestock herders. The typical herder is “only after his cattle,” he argues, and doesn’t attack unless “he was pushed to the wall.”

But “religion is getting into this crisis, and it will only divide us,” Mr. Mohammed says. It is common to hear Christians claim the conflict is driven by a “strategic plot” among Fulani to wage jihad, and establish caliphates across the country.

There has been “a sharp rise in the tone of divisiveness and the rhetoric of ethnicity,” says Effiong of SBM, who spent months traveling to affected areas.

Meanwhile, the mass displacements in Benue, known as the nation’s food basket, may bring larger consequences for food security. According to study by the global aid group Mercy Corps, Nigeria could gain $13.7 billion in annual revenue from ending the farmer-pastoralist conflict.

“There will be starvation and hunger because Benue state produces crops at a very large quantity,” says James Terkura, an official of the Benue State Emergency Management  Agency. “The price of food will increase in the local markets because there will be shortage in supply.”

Tersoo Mgande, a young man whose father was killed during the raids, said his family lost all the rice, soya beans, maize, cassava, yam, and sorghum they grew on their eight hectares. The stress of caring for the household has become almost unbearable, he says.

“My father has three wives and 23 children, so with all our crops gone we don’t know how we will cope when we return,” Mr. Mgande says, hissing in anger.

Ranch plans

President Muhammadu Buhari, who is himself Fulani, has ordered the head of Nigeria’s police to relocate from the capital, Abuja, to Benue to deal with the crisis. Mr. Buhari has also instructed security officials to arrest anyone with illegal weapons and said attacks by “suspected herdsmen” would not be tolerated. The National Economic Council has convened a committee to address the issue.

Nigeria’s federal government is planning to set up “cattle colonies” where cattle would be housed in large ranches, to decrease nomadic grazing. Some states have banned open grazing; Benue, for example, has a five-year jail sentence for anyone tending to livestock outside of ranches.

Herders argue such laws are aimed at eradicating their lifestyle. “Fulani people are used to their traditional system of grazing, and most of those who roam in the bush are not educated. There was no sensitization program or even a temporary ranch to show us an example to follow in Benue state,” Mohammed says.

The bans may be popular, but are “inefficient,” Effiong argues. A suitable solution would involve ranching, but also a modernization of Nigeria’s agricultural sector, he says. “We would increase the productivity of our farmers such that farmers do not necessarily need more land to increase their yield,” making more land available for pastoralists.

But for Sarwuan, even if peace is restored, the future is filled with questions.

“If I had finished threshing my soya beans I would have got at least 40 bags, but now we having nothing,” she says, her voice full of uncertainty. “How do I start all over again?”

The quest to turn moviegoers into ocean stewards

How do you make people care about a world they may never see? Like Jacques Cousteau before them, the organizers of the International Ocean Film Festival are counting on the power of documentaries to take you there.

Courtesy of Alex Hofford
A diver appears in a scene from the film 'Blue,' which is scheduled to appear in the International Ocean Film Festival in San Francisco March 8-11. The festival’s mission is to inspire audiences 'to appreciate and care for the ocean.'

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John Armor grew up dreaming of the sea from a farm in Rhode Island. Now the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Mr. Armor says that it was films detailing Jacques Cousteau's undersea explorations that spurred him to pursue a career in marine science. In recent years, environmental documentaries such as “Blackfish” and “An Inconvenient Truth” have hit big at the box office and helped changed the public dialogue around environmental issues. This weekend, the International Ocean Film Festival in San Francisco will showcase 45 ocean-related documentaries from 13 countries. The films cover topics ranging from the dangers plastic straws pose to sea turtles to a profile of “Granny,” a very senior orca whale. The festival's mission is to inspire audiences “to appreciate and care for the ocean.” As one former National Geographic photographer-turned-documentarian puts it: “There is something about beautiful images, a musical score, and a strong narrative that rewires the people’s feeling.”

The quest to turn moviegoers into ocean stewards


Ana Blanco is on a mission to save the ocean – one film at a time.

As executive director of the International Ocean Film Festival, Ms. Blanco views film as more than a vehicle for entertainment or a temporary break from reality. It can transport viewers to distant seaside towns, to uninhabited shoals, and into the curl of a wave. But more than that, it can make audiences care about a world they may never witness for themselves.

This year’s festival, which opens Thursday in San Francisco, will showcase 45 documentaries from 13 countries that all explore ocean-related topics. Blanco is keeping a particularly close eye on “Straws,” a 33-minute documentary by filmmaker Linda Booker about the environmental impact of plastic straws, as a contender to become the next breakout film.

“Once you see a scientist extract a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose, you just know plastic straws will eventually get banned in cities everywhere,” Blanco says. “But it takes this kind of film to make that happen.”

Courtesy of STRAWS documentary / strawsfilm.com
A straw among litter on Monterey Beach, Cali., in a film still from, 'Straws.' The film aims to educate viewers about the environmental effects of disposable straws.

Not every film comes with a specific call to action. Since its founding in 2004, the festival has promoted films that explore coastal culture, oceanic adventures, undersea wildlife, marine science, environmental problems, or conservation solutions. Each film is selected to inspire audiences “to appreciate and care for the ocean,” according to the festival mission.

“Film festivals are a powerful platform to promote a broader conservation ethic,” says John Armor, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Mr. Armor, who grew up on a farm in Rhode Island, cites Jacques Cousteau’s film series of undersea explorations as the inspiration behind his pursuit of a career in marine science. After 20 years with NOAA, Amor has noticed a cultural shift that appears to go hand-in-hand with a rising popularity of environmental documentaries.

“I can’t point to cause and effect,” Armor says. “But there is an increased sensitivity to the importance and fragility of oceans. I believe film has played a large role in raising this awareness.” And that matters, Armor concludes, because “we save what we love.”

Sparking action

The effects of introducing audiences into ocean worlds can ripple far beyond the movie theater. Former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos’s film “The Cove,” which detailed the annual killings of dolphins in a Japan, went on to win an Oscar after sweeping the festival circuit. But more than that, it led to meaningful change, Mr. Psihoyos, IOFF’s “Ocean Champion” of the year, told benefactors at a recent fundraising gala for the festival.

“I don’t know how many minds we changed,” he said, but according to data from the Japan fisheries Agency, the number of porpoises and dolphins killed “has dropped from 23,000 to less than 3,000 a year.”

The immersive nature of film makes it an ideal springboard to activism and public engagement, Psihoyos says.

“There is something about beautiful images, a musical score, and a strong narrative that rewires the people’s feeling,” he says. “People’s hands are shaking when they come up to me at festivals.”

The communal experience of seeing a film in a theater adds to medium’s emotional power, he adds.

“On paper, film festivals don’t make any sense,” Psihoyos laughed. “Only 1,000 or 2,000 people will see it. But they are the early adoptors. They’ll go back and tell people. Every person who falls in love with your work becomes a walking billboard for the film.”

An enduring tradition

Environmentally themed documentaries that have broken out of the festival circuit to reach box office success have played starring roles in public dialogue. The 2013 film “Blackfish” elevated the controversy over the captivity of orca whales to international prominence and helped spark a dramatic shift in the way the public views the use of wild animals as entertainment. Former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” similarly converted legions to awareness or activism on climate change.

The International Maritime Film Festival in Toulon, France, has been using film to call attention to ocean matters since 1954. That program, which was launched in the same town where Cousteau established the Underwater Research Group for the French Navy, has been something of a role model for the IOFF, Blanco says. It’s also where Cousteau purchased the Calypso, the deep-sea vessel most associated with his pioneering underwater research, diving, photography, and filmmaking.

Part of the impact is that films can spread from one festival or venue to another. Environmental films are also showcased at the The Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival in Alberta, Canada; the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC; BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit in St. Petersburg, Fla.; and the largest, Sundance Film Festival.

International Ocean Film Festival runs March 8-11 in San Francisco at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Blanco says IOFF films are often selected to air on Netflix and Amazon.

The nonprofit is also in talks to bring their program to Washington in June for World Ocean Day and to Quebec for the G7 Summit. This fall, IOFF’s program will travel to festivals in Barcelona and Kiel, Germany. Blanco also plans to send IOFF’s program to her counterparts at the Thunder Bay International Film Festival in Alpena, Mich., and Gray’s Reef Film Festival in Savannah, Ga., for 2019. Like IOFF, these festivals are cosponsored by the NOAA and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

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Behold Greeks bearing a gift

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While other European countries have seen a rise in anti-European Union parties, a nation that came close to leaving has reentered the fold with a measure of success. In 2009, Greece admitted it had lied about the size of its deficit. That, coupled with deep-seated corruption, defied core EU values of integrity in governance. With the Greek economy near collapse, however, the EU and other creditors still threw Athens a lifeline: conditional loans. The rescue effort seems to be working. In 2018 Greece’s economy is expected to grow faster than that of the EU as a whole. In fighting corruption, the Greek government still has far to go. But Greece is seeing a vigorous public debate about it. Polls show Greeks are more demanding of integrity in their elected leaders, reflecting a global trend. With further reform, Greece might have enough financial credibility by the end of the year to return to private markets for money. Instead of a divorce from the EU, it has been making up. The key was a new embrace of integrity.

Behold Greeks bearing a gift

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses lawmakers in Athens before a Feb. 22 vote on setting up a special committee which will probe the role of ten politicians in a case which involves alleged bribery by Swiss drugmaker Novartis.

The family of 28 nations known as the European Union has had a rough decade of near divorces. The latest blow was Italy’s election last Sunday. The anti-EU parties won. In other parts of Europe, similar parties have advanced. Britain wants out of the Continent-fusing project altogether.

But then there is Greece, which may serve as a model of a prodigal nation.

In 2009, the country of 11 million nearly brought down the eurozone and came close to exiting the EU after admitting it had lied about the size of its deficit (which was five times above the EU guideline). The official dishonesty, coupled with deep-seated corruption, spooked foreign lenders and defied core EU values of integrity in governance.

With the Greek economy near collapse, however, the EU and other creditors decided it was worth throwing Athens a financial lifeline – hefty loans with conditions of austerity and other reforms.

The cash-for-rescue effort seems to be working for now. Greece made a critical decision in 2015 to implement the EU-mandated reforms. It has improved government openness and transparency on budgeting, procurement, and trade – all key areas in fighting corruption.

Here’s the clincher: In 2018, Greece’s economy is expected to grow faster than that of the EU as a whole. In addition, the government has been running a fiscal surplus instead of the big deficits of a decade ago. And unemployment has fallen from 30 percent to less than 20 percent in the past five years.

On corruption, however, the leftist government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras still has far to go in ensuring a virtuous circle of honesty and openness. Last month, two of its ministers had to resign after accepting a housing subsidy. And the Council of Europe told Greece this month that it has fulfilled only six of 19 recommendations aimed at rooting out corruption. Some of the government’s new rules require lawmakers to disclose gifts and reveal potential conflicts of interest.

One sign of hope is that Greece is currently in a vigorous public debate about the alleged bribery of 10 top politicians by Swiss drugmaker Novartis. And polls show Greeks are more demanding of integrity in their elected leaders.

This mood in Greece reflects a global trend. “More and more citizens from a growing number of countries ... have presently come to demand that their governments deliver good governance,” writes Alina Mungiu-Pippidi of the European Research Center for Anti-Corruption and State-Building in a new book.

The EU and other official lenders are still holding Greece to account. With further reform, it might have enough financial credibility by the end of the year to return to private markets for money. Instead of a divorce from the EU, it has been making up. The key was a new embrace of integrity.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Universal womanhood

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In the spirit of International Women’s Day, today’s contributor shares an experience that points to how each individual can #PressforProgress by taking a stand for the right of men and women everywhere to express strength, goodness, and purity.

Universal womanhood

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, is #PressforProgress. This call for action reminds me of a time when I saw, in a modest way, how each individual can be a part of pressing for, and forwarding, such progress.

It was my first time traveling in a particular country where sexual harassment of foreign women was not uncommon. Our group wanted to respect the customs of modesty for women in this country, so even though it was quite hot during that season, we wore clothing that completely covered our arms and legs. Nevertheless, the harassment occurred.

I have always found prayer to be reliable in addressing challenges, so I turned to God. I wanted to understand more fully the purity of all women and men – a quality that’s part of everyone’s real identity as God’s spiritual idea, or child. In the Bible’s book of Genesis, we read, “Male and female created he them” (1:27).

This helped me see that all of God’s children include all the masculine and feminine qualities of our Father-Mother God, by virtue of being God’s complete reflection or expression. There’s no conflict between these masculine and feminine qualities. In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Christian Science discoverer Mary Baker Eddy describes “man” (a generic term for all of God’s children) in part as “the compound idea of God, including all right ideas;...that which has not a single quality underived from Deity” (p. 475).

I was so reassured by this view that God’s pure and perfect creation includes everyone. Since we reflect Him, our real identity is Godlike, as holy as God is holy, and as valued by each other as completely as God values all His, Her, sons and daughters. This gave me a conviction that even if someone isn’t being respectful or appropriate, there is a solid basis for a change in course and hope for progress.

Within a day, my prayers were put to the test. A young woman in our group had gone into a shop to purchase a tailor-made blouse, but while the man who owned the shop was measuring her, he had made some sexual comments that so upset her she left shaking in fear. The next day she told me what had happened and asked if I would go with her to pick up and pay for the blouse.

Part of me wanted to simply tag along to help her feel safe, but as I held to my prayers from earlier, something in me knew that I needed to speak up to challenge the man’s misconception of womanhood. I needed to have the courage of my spiritual convictions that the correct message would be heard in a way that would bless, because as the children of God, infinite Love and Truth, we are all inherently receptive to truth and love.

When we entered the shop, the owner was there, and so were two other men. At first I hesitated to say anything, as I did not want to embarrass the owner, but then I remembered that this message was not meant to hurt anyone, but to correct a misconception about the real nature of man that had been foisted upon all of us. So quietly and firmly I told the owner that what he had said to my friend had upset her greatly. Then I said: “We are here visiting in your country because we love your people and the beauty of your culture, and we want to understand you better. But we also hope you will learn to understand us better, and we want you to know that we are good women who deserve your respect and honor as much as your wives and daughters do.”

The man looked right at my friend and apologized for what he had said. He thanked her for coming back to pay for the blouse. And we left on good terms.

While I don’t know what impact this experience may have had on the man beyond the incident itself, to me it illustrates how each individual can be a part of pressing for and forwarding progress in how we think of both women and men. We can all take a mental stand for the expression of universal womanhood and manhood in all of us – the right of each man and woman everywhere to express qualities of strength, goodness, and purity. Because that is how we are made!


Raising pachyderms' profile

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Polo players behind mahouts sit astride elephants as they play during the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, March 8. The annual charity event raises funds for projects that better the lives of Thailand's wild and domesticated elephant populations.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Yvonne Zipp
Daily Editor

Thanks so much for spending time with us today. Come back tomorrow. We’ll have a story looking at why all those stories this week about the Texas primary presaging a blue wave for Democrats in November elections might be overlooking a few key things about the Lone Star State.

First, here’s a bonus story for tonight: President Trump has just signed off on new tariffs, introducing a temporary exemption for Canada and Mexico. Read our economy writer's briefing here.

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