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Pulitzer Center Update January 12, 2015

This Week: The Violent Roots of Colombia's Palm Oil Boom

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From pizza dough to detergent to biofuel, palm oil has become a key ingredient in the world economy...

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The dark roots of Colombia's palm oil growth. Image from video by Gabe Silverman for the Washington Post.

THE REAL PRICE OF PALM OIL

Palm oil is used in the manufacture of everything from snack foods to biodiesel. Its production on vast plantations has fueled economic growth in many parts of the developing world, but also raised concerns about land rights and environmental degradation.

Colombia is now the fourth largest producer of palm oil, after Malaysia, Indonesia and Nigeria, but as Pulitzer Center grantees Nick Miroff and Gabe Silverman explain in a special report for The Washington Post, the industry's rapid expansion in Colombia comes at the expense of small farmers and indigenous groups who were pushed off their land over the course the country's long-running civil war.

"Several of the regions where palm has spread during the past decade are places notorious for paramilitary violence and rural terror," writes Nick. "Central to the dispute is a clashing vision of rural development, between the traditional model that has been partly destroyed by the violence and an agribusiness vision that promises growth, jobs and modernization through the spread of commodity crops like African palm."

BATTLING EBOLA

Reporting from the frontlines of Sierra Leone's fight against Ebola over the last several weeks, Pulitzer Center grantee Amy Maxmen, has written about innovative techniques to curb the spread of the disease and the heroic struggles of a 17-year-old girl who cares for Ebola orphans.

In a recent dispatch for Nature magazine, Amy explains why health workers distributed malaria medication to 2.5 million people. "The effort was meant to curb the number of malaria cases as the disease approaches its peak season, and reduce, in turn, the number of people whose symptoms could be mistaken for those of Ebola. The government is planning another mass distribution in mid-January," she writes.

"But the side effects of the drugs can limit the efficacy of this approach, known as mass drug administration (MDA)," says Amy. "People report fatigue and nausea — side effects that can be intensified if they have taken too many pills at once or have taken the drugs on an empty stomach. As word has got around about these problems, some people have opted not to take the medicine as directed, or at all."

OUR STUDENT FELLOWS

This week we are featuring work from several of our student fellows. Jessie Li from Davidson College produced a slideshow on a model special education school in Shenzen for her project on children with disabilities in China. She highlights the modern facilities for arts and athletics—amenities available to students in urban areas, but not to those those in suburban and rural parts of the country.

Katie Mathieson, also from Davidson College, writes about environmental activism in Patagonia, in particular a movement to stop the building of mega-hydroelectric dams, funded by Douglas and Kristine Tompkins, whose fortune comes from the North Face outdoor clothing company. Calling the Tompkins "the most controversial conservationists on the continent," Katie writes, "Their biggest project, Pumalin Park, is 300,000 acres and stretches from the coast of Chile to the border with Argentina. For some this is an impressive accomplishment in conservation—others, especially local residents, remain skeptical." Carlos Olivares, who heads a local opposition group, says, "I want you all to know that Mr. Tompkins doesn't represent us. He has come to invade our land."

Jennifer Gonzalez and Luke Nozicka from Southern Illinois University Carbondale have just launched their new project "Teenage Pregnancy in the Dominican Republic." They profile a 16-year-old girl who completed 4th grade but cannot write her own name. Already a mother, she is now bearing her second child. The father, her partner, is 73. She says, "I should have paid attention to the doctors' and nurses' advice about getting the birth control pills. Now I realize I should have waited to grow up a little bit more."

Until next week,

Tom Hundley
Senior Editor

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