The Overseas Press Club announced ProPublica’s “Fuel to the Fire” as the winner of the Whitman Bassow Award, which recognizes the best reporting on international environmental issues.
“Fuel to the Fire,” by ProPublica senior reporter Abrahm Lustgarten and co-published with The New York Times Magazine, exposed how U.S. laws intended to reduce dependence on fossil fuels unleashed an environmental disaster in Indonesia. The laws encouraged the use of vegetable oil in gasoline and other fuels, in an ambitious effort to reduce carbon emissions and curb global warming. Lustgarten’s reporting showed, however, that the policies were based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs of biofuel, and the result has been a calamity with global consequences.
Traveling from Washington to Indonesia, including the remote oil palm plantations of Borneo, Lustgarten traced the disastrous consequences of an ill-considered scheme. He showed that the forests of Indonesia have huge amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning them to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that in one year released more carbon than the annual emissions of the entire continent of Europe. The palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which are using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce more oil. Lustgarten also revealed the inner workings of the “shadow companies” that palm-oil producers use to distance themselves from slash-and-burn production even as they market their product as environmentally friendly.
In addition, ProPublica’s “Unprotected” won the citation (runner-up) for OPC’s Madeline Dane Ross Award, which recognizes the best international reporting showing a concern for the human condition. Co-published with Time magazine, the story by reporter Finlay Young, with photography by Kathleen Flynn, looked into an acclaimed charity called More Than Me. Led by American Katie Meyler, the Liberian school promised to rescue some of the world’s most vulnerable girls from life on the streets; but from the very beginning, children placed under its care were being raped by one of the nonprofit’s leaders. Following publication, More Than Me apologized to the victims, and for the first time, it conceded it had failed them. The board chair resigned, along with two other board members, while Meyler took a leave of absence pending two internal inquiries.
See a list of all the Overseas Press Club award winners here.