In June 2008, The Pulitzer Center partnered with Helium to continue its third round of the Global Issues/Citizen Voices Writing Contest. Contestants chose topics for their essays from prompts related to different Pulitzer Center reporting projects. Find their winning essays below.
How does stigma and discrimination, as witnessed in Jamaica, perpetuate the global HIV/AIDS epidemic?
Winning essay by Glynnis Hayward
It is just over a quarter of a century since the HIV virus manifested itself in the world population. In those early days of the 1980s, one could be excused for one's ignorance and fear. All we knew was that a deadly virus was ripping through gay population groups, with little knowledge of how it was spread and with no known cure. It was a death sentence. In such circumstances, bigotry thrives and it did. With an almost evangelical zeal, many could be heard proclaiming that it was a moral disease as much as a physical one. It wasn't quite so easy to dismiss however, when innocent babies were born with Aids, or patients received tainted blood transfusions that condemned them to a miserable fate. Role models like Mother Teresa and Princess Diana did much to remove notions that you could catch Aids by simple contact with a patient who had the disease. Their compassion and bravery was a lesson to many.
Fortunately now, two decades later, we are no longer ignorant and need not be fearful of this epidemic. Enormous funds worldwide have been dedicated to research and education regarding the HIV virus, and as a result we know how it is transmitted and how to prevent it. Although we cannot cure it, there are drugs which make patients able to live and function well for many years. The problem now, however, is not only getting these anti-retro viral drugs to poorer countries and educating populations there about the transmission of the virus, but changing attitudes in those places as well.
Sadly, ignorance still plays a huge part in this worldwide epidemic, much as it did in the 1980s. It is ignorance that leads to bigotry, stigma and discrimination. Homophobia as seen in Jamaica, Zimbabwe and other parts of the world, makes the gay population doubly at risk; those afflicted with the virus are slow to get help, afraid of social retribution. They continue unsafe practices, furthering the spread of the disease without access to resources that might check it. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean countries have the highest rates of Aids in the world. It is significant that they also have arguably the greatest degree of bigotry and discrimination. Homosexuality is illegal and prison sentences are common in both Jamaica and Zimbabwe. This does not stop the practice, but pushes it under cover where it becomes a conduit for the spread of the virus. Homosexual men also hide their sexuality under the guise of marriage, spreading the virus even further.
South Africa has one of the the highest HIV rates in the world. Here is another example of ignorance, stigma and discrimination compounding the problem of Aids. The virus is rampant amongst heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, and while it is difficult to know exact numbers, it is thought that one fourth of the population is infected. There is a generation of grandparents looking after children orphaned by the disease. Yet still it continues, even with the anti-retro viral drugs, education about safe sex, and free distribution of condoms. In some African cultures, it is considered unmanly to have sex wearing a condom and those men that do so, would be considered weak. There is also a superstition that the cure for Aids is having sex with a virgin. Consequently, young children even babies - are raped every day in the quest for a cure. Jacob Zuma, who is the head of the ANC ruling party in that country and a candidate for the next president, was recently charged with raping a woman whom he knew was HIV positive. He was acquitted, and in his defense said that it was permissible to have unprotected sex with her because he had a shower afterwards. What sort of lesson is that to a country ravaged by this terrible epidemic?
We have made great strides in treating the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As important as finding a cure, however, is the need to eliminate the stigma attached to the disease and the discrimination against those that have it. These are the things that keep it under cover, untreated and unchecked. We are fighting this disease on two fronts; prejudice, ignorance and superstition worldwide are as dangerous as the virus itself.
What role should the US play in reducing the production of illicit drugs-such as cocaine and heroin-in places like Bolivia and Afghanistan?
Winning essay by Eric Lannak
Most drug-crops are raised by impoverished farmers who see no other way to improve their lives. In Bolivia and Afghanistan, they eagerly accept small payments (princely sums to them) for their labors. Drug-crop farming is tied to poverty, and the best policies would seek to raise these farmers by inducing them to grow other crops ... profitably.
Coca is not a big cash crop in Bolivia (compared to Columbia) because of Bolivia's vigorous anti-cocaine policy. But the growing popularity of raising coca leaf for legitimate export (for tea, flavorings, etc.) makes it clear the farmers simply want a cash crop. They don't want to raise drugs, they want a living. In Afghanistan, too, the farmers want to make a living. Now, they raise poppies, harvest opium, and sell it easily to "drug lords" who pay them diddly for their efforts.
A few dollars may seem like nothing to us, but to a farmer living in a dirt-floor hut on an Afghani hillside, it seems like a princely sum.
There's an obvious solution: help farmers grow other crops that pay better.
Current programs rely on suggesting, coaching, and training on alternate crops, but do not guarantee a price. We need to guarantee a price. Give them free seed for food crops when they make their sale of cash crops. Provide incentives to the government for creating a system to collect and ship the crops produced, based on tonnage.A good start would be to promote a biofuel source that grows well in the local environment. Soy is already a big crop in Bolivia and would do well in Afghanistan, and soybean oil can be used in place of diesel fuel. Sugar beets (which can be turned into ethanol) grow well at higher altitude, and can replace some of the corn we are now redirecting from food channels for ethanol production. Both would do wonders to promote the health of the local populations, relieving rampant malnutrition.
This would provide the farmers with a lucrative crop that will not be destroyed by anti-drug efforts; it would involve local governments by paying them for their efforts; it would inspire local governments to improve their crop markets; it would provide food-crop seeds to farmers every year; and it would help the U.S. in it's attempts to reduce oil consumption by providing alternative energy crops without petroleum-intensive U.S. farming methods. Further, the money currently spent on eradication and interdiction (with negligible effect) could ultimately fund this program.
Crafting the initiatives with business partners could create an environment that strengthens the Bolivian and Afghani governments and people.And it would change the war on drugs. The battle would become humanitarian, to raise people from subsistence farming and poverty. It would become an ecological battle to help free the world from petroleum's grip. And it would make the world street-price of drugs rise, reducing consumption. The most popularly suggested alternative is reducing U.S. drug consumption as way to "dry up" the market. This is an absurd notion based on the idea that the U.S. is the only drug market. Bolivia and Afghanistan are not large suppliers to the American drug market.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), opiates produced from Afghan poppies are mainly used in Europe, Russia, China, and the Middle East. Most U.S. heroin, on the other hand, comes from South and Central America. According to the DEA, Bolivian cocaine is consumed in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Very little reaches the U.S.
Reducing drug use in the U.S. is of course a worthy goal, but it would have little impact on the farmers. A reduction in U.S. drug use would reduce the "street-price" and increase the availability of drugs worldwide, because traffickers would seek out new markets and expand distribution. This would make drugs cheaper in other countries and increase their use. Demand worldwide might actually increase. Further, the U.S. would feel a lesser security threat, and reduce its anti-drug funding and efforts. The farmers, however, would get a little less for their crop.
But when you don't have other options, you bite the bullet.
Make the farming of coca and opium poppies less desirable, and the supply goes down. Street-prices will go up, and consumption will go down. Everyone wins. Help the farmers, and we help ourselves.
How is the struggle for water, such as in Ethiopia and Kenya, shaping conflicts in this century?
Winning essay by Don K. Potochny
Faadi Jilo makes a daily four mile trek to pick up water for her family. But she doesn't hop into a Suburban and drive to the local grocery store for bottled water. The thirty year old Ethiopian woman lashes an empty twenty-five liter jerrycan onto her back for the daily sojourn to procure a resource that most of us take for granted.
The daily eight mile round trip walk for Jilo used to be much shorter. Water was in plentiful supply because of the copious precipitation that fell for three and a half months during the rainy season. The rainy season's surfeit of water was enough to sustain local wells and lakes throughout the rest of the year.
A combination of factors has coalesced to drastically reduce the water supply. Deforestation and irresponsible agricultural practices are partly to blame. A population explosion has caused massive erosion and industrial pollution along the once pristine and fertile Nile River Valley. Antiquated colonial era Nile River treaties force pastorals in Eastern Africa to farm the land without access to the river basin.
The desperate water supply situation is evident in the Horn of Africa region. Two of the countries hardest hit-Ethiopia and Kenya-are experiencing record droughts. Once full after the rainy season, wells are now depleted three months before the next cycle of precipitation. With the dwindling rains comes a rise in average seasonal temperatures that scorch a once fertile landscape teeming with lakes and wildlife.
The erratic rainfall pattern over the past ten years is attributed to global warming. The pastoralists that tend to this increasingly barren land don't care about data that supports the scientific theory of global warming. Through years of raising livestock and growing the cash crop chat, all the pastoralists understand is that an abrupt climate change has decimated their livelihood.
In Ethiopia, it is estimated that eighty out of every one hundred animals owned by pastoralists died in the last year. The drastic loss of livestock has locals concerned that human beings aren't far behind. A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bluntly forecasts that the irreversible effects of global warming will besiege Africans with famine, poverty, disease, and death. It will be Mother Nature's version of genocide.
Already, the dire circumstances have forced local tribal factions to square off over water resources. 2005 was the seminal year for violence as 70 people were brutally killed in northern Kenya's Marsabit district, beginning an internecine conflict that has morphed into regional battles for dwindling water resources. The attacks inside of the Kenyan border became so numerous that the Kenyan government had to shut the border down for weeks at a time.
The apocalyptic water forecast has some experts concerned that the local tribal conflicts will escalate into a continent wide bloodbath. The colonial treaties that were negotiated to give Egypt control over the Nile River have recently been revisited by a ten country panel. But if there isn't any movement on amending the treaties and opening the Nile for irrigation use in the Horn of Africa region, then the water resource conflicts of Ethiopia and Kenya will spill over into neighboring Somalia, Chad, and Sudan.
The burgeoning water conflict in Eastern Africa is exacerbated by the tribal violence in Somalia and Sudan's brutal suppression of Darfur. Geopolitical experts warn the merging of the two now disparate war zones could ignite a maelstrom that sweeps the rest of Africa.
The pastorals await the climate future with stark pessimism. They believe the industrialized nations haven't learned from their mistakes. And they have less hope that the ten nation conclave of African nations can settle the Nile River disputes. According to the pastoral community, the day of a continent wide conflagration is nearing.
They also believe the wealthy nations need to pay close attention to what is happening in Africa. One day, according to the pastoral community, the rich nations of the earth will feel the same water resource pinch being felt in Eastern Africa. In some parts of America, verbal sparring over water rights has already landed disagreements in the court system.
All of the political maneuvering is beyond the comprehension of Faadi Jilo. She witnesses women that collapse from the weight of the twenty-five liter jerrycans. Some break their legs; others miscarry in the third term of their pregnancies. The brutal heat and parch conditions take the lives of others.
Faadi Jilo doesn't worry about the increase in regional violence. She worries about finding enough water to survive another day.
What are the key obstacles to obtaining sustainable peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and what steps are necessary to overcome them?
Read winning essay by Julia Bodeeb White
You probably have a tiny bit of the Congo in your pocket, purse or on your desk. Your cell phone, computer, camcorder and stereo most likely contain the mineral coltan. Much of the world's supply of this mineral is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). Coltan and other minerals such as cassiterite are very lucrative and the DRC is rich in them. This abundance of minerals that are lucrative in the world market is one of the reasons peace is elusive in the DRC. The conflict may also involve the DRC's resources of diamonds, copper, and water.
Greed of nearby countries such as Rwanda and Uganda has led to illegal mining in the DRC. The illegal mining is done under the cover of civil strife in the DRC. Neighboring countries supply arms and funds for the conflict and then use the chaos in the DRC to mine minerals that are very valuable. Coltan sells for about $100 a pound.
The United Nations has recommended that the United States step in to help the DRC by prosecuting countries that illegally mine natural mineral resources in the DRC. Urgent action is needed. Despite a peace agreement signed on January, 23, 2008, mandating a ceasefire and removal of forces from the front line, a campaign of murder and rape continue. As chaos still rages, many countries have called for the United Nations to assign a special adviser to the DRC.
Since the 2006 election, the Tutsi have become violent. Thus, 800,000 DRC citizens have fled the violence. Refugees are suffering from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, malnutrition and other disorders. The overall death toll since the civil war in 1996 may be as high as 4 million. About 47% of the deaths have been children. Approximately 45,000 people die due to the conflict each month in the DRC. The DRC conflict is the deadliest since WWII.
The soldiers in the DRC war too often use rape as a tool of violence. Women are raped by soldiers who utilize guns and molten plastic as tools of rape. There is a huge stigma to rape in the DRC. Thus, women often do not seek medical care unless they develop a fistula which requires emergency care.
Children are common victims in the war. They are raped and they are also sent to work in the mines. In the coltan mines child labor makes up a large percentage of the workers. Children who are refugees due to the conflict are missing valuable education and are in urgent need of stable medical care.
The DRC is a new democratic state. The Congolese people are eager for peace. That longing has increased since the president, L. Kabila, was assassinated. To promote the peace process the United Nations has proposed a trade embargo on export and import of coltan from Rwanda and Uganda.
Many large companies use components in the technology devices they manufacture made from coltan that is probably, at least in part, from the DRC. Companies are very vague about the country of origin of the coltan they use and state there is no possible way to track where the coltan was mined. Companies believed to use coltan in their products include: Alcatel, Compaq, Dell, Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent, Motorola, Nokia, and Solectron.
The DRC is a land of astonishing beauty, with tropical forests, exotic flowers and rich mineral resources. Yet the country has massive debt and chaos reigns due to civil conflict. The world has not paid very much attention to this country and its massive war death tolls. The United Nations must make the DRC's plight a more urgent cause for action. Also, it is crucial that businesses worldwide stop buying illegally mined coltan from Rwanda and Uganda. That practice just prolongs the war in the DRC and ensures that the Congolese will continue to suffer as war rages on.