Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review -- Law of the Jungle, by Paul M. Barrett

In the 1990s, Lawyer Steven Donziger took on Texaco in a class-action suit on behalf of poor farmers and indigenous people in Ecuador. Texaco, which had been drilling for oil in Ecuador for decades, eventually merged with Chevron. The class action suit, which sought reparations for environmental damages and illnesses suffered by thousands of Ecuadorian people, resulted in a $19 billion judgement against Chevron.

In his book Law of the Jungle, journalist Paul M. Barrett describes how Donziger's initial good intentions deteriorated into coercion, manipulation of evidence, and an eventual racketeering claim by Chevron against Donziger. Barrett gives a detailed account of the environmental, health, and economical grounds for the class-action suit against Texaco/Chevron, as well as the freewheeling, questionable tactics used by Donziger in the case. After winning the largest environmental damages award in history against Chevron, Donziger faced accusations of fraud, bribery, and other illegal and unethical acts.

I was impressed by the author's evenhanded approach to this book. Paul M. Barrett gives just as much attention to the injustices and tragedies suffered by the Ecuadorian people as he does to the racketeering claims against Donziger. Stating that "Donziger's deeds do not, however, exonerate the oil companies or the government of Ecuador," Barrett describes Texaco's failure to enact adequate safety and cleanup measures. Barrett points out that the oil company could have avoided costly litigation if it had ensured proper environmental and health standards.

Law of the Jungle is a great read -- a page-turner as engaging as any fictional political thriller. Unfortunately, the story is indeed true, and the suffering of the poor people of Ecuador continues. This book is a pointed reminder of the power of unchecked ego, and the high-stakes temptation to let the ends justify the means. I highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in environmental and legal issues, as well as anyone looking for in informative yet engaging book.

For more information about Law of the Jungle, click here. To learn more about the author and journalist Paul M. Barrett, click here.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Compassion International Textbook Fund -- Helping Kids Dream Big

Join the Compassion Blogger Network

Here in the United States, Labor Day weekend has passed and school doors have reopened. When the days start to shorten and the sunlight shimmers just so on the living room walls, I remember the challenges and joys of my own childhood school days. I realize now how blessed I was to be able to wear nice clothes and carry my new book bag on the first day of school.

Around the world, 80 percent of primary-school-age children are able to attend school. In the poorest countries, however, too many children are unable to go to school or even learn to read. For example, only 66 percent of children in the least developed countries go to school, and only 49 percent of secondary-school-age children are in school.

Girls are particularly affected by this disparity. Girls make up 53 percent of primary-school-aged kids and 52 percent of secondary school-aged kids who are not in school. Of the 130 million children who do not attend school and are functionally illiterate, 73 million are girls.

The good news is that caring people are helping children to break the barrier of extreme poverty. Compassion International is a faith-based, child-centered organization that works to release children from poverty. For a little over a year, I have been sponsoring a child through Compassion International. Her name is Joan and she lives in Uganda. In her letters, she often mentions her dream of becoming a nurse so that she can help the sick -- and I want her to know that she is worthy of that dream.

If you would like to learn more about helping children dream big, Compassion International's Text Book Fund is a good place to start. Donations enable Compassion to purchase textbooks and other learning materials for children at their child development centers. And while you're on the website, you can learn about sponsoring a child.

I have watched Joan, my sponsored child, express better and greater plans for her future. Every child deserves this chance to know that they are loved and valued!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Remember Human Trafficking Victims This Labor Day

In the United States, Labor Day was approved as a legal holiday in 1894. It is a day to pay tribute to the contributions of workers, and to remember the sacrifices that led to improved safety and working conditions. It's also a good day to learn about a form of labor that sadly still exists in the United States and the rest of the world: slavery and human trafficking. We can learn to recognize the warning signs of labor trafficking and help put an end to this practice.

Modern-day slavery often occurs in plain sight, in businesses ranging from farms to nail salons. Domestic servants and door-to-door sales crews --whether foreign nationals or United States citizens -- may be victims of trafficking. According to the International Labour Organization, women and girls make up 55 percent of trafficking victims worldwide. Ninety percent of trafficked individuals are exploited in the private sector, and 68 percent of these victims perform forced labor in areas such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and domestic servitude.

Traffickers use tactics such as intimidation, lies, violence, and recruitment debt to keep trafficked laborers in slavery. The most vulnerable people --- migrant laborers and runaways, for example -- are often enticed with false promises of prosperity.

Fortunately, everyone can learn the warning signs of labor trafficking. Informed people can learn to spot the signs and report a tip without endangering themselves or the victims. Here are a few indicators, among many others, that a worker may be a victim of trafficking:

  • Worker is not allowed to speak without a third party
  • Worker does not have control over personal identification documents
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts or location
  • Appears malnourished or physically abused
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Reluctance or fearfulness at the topic of law enforcement
  • Vague or inconsistent information about employer
Find out more about reporting suspected trafficking at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center web page. There you will learn important information, including how to report a tip using the hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Knowledge is power, so let's set aside some time this Labor Day weekend to learn about this illegal and abusive form of labor. We really can make a difference!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Snow Monkey Named Carly: Lessons in Hope and Compassion

I have always been saddened and angered when I see reports of poaching and exploitation of animals. After the recent news coverage of the killing of Cecil the lion and the practice of trophy hunting, I searched for a way that I could join in the work to protect wildlife. I have always admired the conservation work of Born Free USA  -- part of the Born Free Foundation in the UK, which was founded by actress Virginia McKenna and her son, Will Travers. McKenna and her late husband, Bill Travers, portrayed Joy and George Adamson in the 1966 movie Born Free, which tells the true story of Elsa the lioness and her return to the wild.   

A couple of weeks ago, I read about the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, which is located near San Antonio, Texas. The sanctuary rescues and rehabilitates abused primates including macaques or snow monkeys, baboons and vervets. The primates have previously lived as exotic pets in cages, or as laboratory animals. At the sanctuary, they can live in a natural, free-range environment that resembles their native habitats.

I decided to sponsor one of the animals at the sanctuary -- a Japanese macaque named Carly. Today, I received a special packet in the mail, which included a photo of Carly, as well as a certificate, a pin, and newsletters from Born Free USA.

Like the Japanese macaque in the image below, Carly has thick, grayish fur and loves to climb trees and forage for nuts, fruits and insects. In their native habitat in the mountains of Japan, macaques live in colonies and form strong social bonds.

Japanese macaques are native to the mountains of Japan.
Image by Yiannis Theologos Michellis via Flickr.

I read that before she arrived at the Born Free Primate Sanctuary in 2005, Carly had not been able to do any of these things. Kept as a "pet" in a garage, she spent all her time in a small cage that had been welded shut, with no sunshine, no climbing, and no fresh air. The floor of the cage was littered with rotting junk food and waste. Perhaps most damaging of all, Carly was isolated and had no social interaction -- and showed signs of malnutrition and abnormal behavior. At the Born Free sanctuary, months passed before Carly was able to bond with other macaques.

As I looked at Carly's picture and read her story, I was grateful to learn that she now lives with two other snow monkeys who had had similar traumas. In their huge enclosure, they can climb, eat, and socialize in a natural environment with a tree, grass, shrubs and a skyway. Eventually, Carly and her companions will probably live in the free-range section of the sanctuary. 

Snow monkeys grooming
Image by Petra Bensted via Flickr

I love reading and sharing this story of hope, healing and compassion. With hard work and dedication from Born Free USA and similar organizations, animals who have been neglected, isolated, and traumatized actually help each other heal. Maybe we humans can learn a thing or two from these beautiful creatures. Amid the horrifying stories of trophy hunting and poaching, we can promote healing and hope, one animal at a time.

For more information on sponsoring a primate at the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, visit this page

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg

In a society segregated by gender, women and girls in Afghanistan usually live in the shadows. From the moment a girl is born in Afghanistan, she is seen as a liability rather than a gift. As a teenager, she will likely find herself in an arranged marriage; as a woman, she will be unable to leave her home unless she is escorted by a male blood relative. When she ventures outdoors, she will be expected to wear a head-to-toe covering known as a burka, which has only a small mesh opening in front of her eyes.

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, journalist Jenny Nordberg uncovers a little-known practice among families without sons in Afghanistan. Some families temporarily raise their girls as boys, in order to obtain the family honor that goes with having a son. Known as bacha posh, these girls dress and live as boys, usually until they reach their childbearing years. Then they must change their gender identities once again, as their families negotiate arranged marriages.

In her book, Nordberg follows the stories of several bacha posh and their families. These underground girls experience the privileges and freedoms of being male, only to be forced into the shadows at puberty, where they must learn to stay indoors, speak softly and avoid eye contact with men who are not their blood relatives.

Ms. Nordberg explains that in spite of attempts to improve women's rights, vestiges of the harsh Taliban laws remain in Afghanistan. In fact, she notes that many of the Afghan rules that govern the lives of women pre-date Islam. One woman named Azita -- a former bacha posh and later a member of Parliament -- recalls learning how to walk slowly in a burka so that her ankles would not show. Another asks "how many people must I be" after many transitions from girl to bacha posh to bride to divorced woman after her husband announced that he was leaving her. In Afghanistan, a woman is considered still married to her husband if he initiates the divorce -- one of many impossible situations for women in that country.

I found The Underground Girls of Kabul to be a well-documented, fascinating look into a world largely unknown by the West. The author describes every conversation, every meal, and every household with such detail, I felt as though I knew these women personally. I highly recommend this book to anyone who seeks a greater understanding of the lives of women in Afghanistan.

For more information about the author, Jenny Nordberg, click here. You can find more information about the book at Penguin Random House.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book free of charge from Blogging for Books for this review.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Review: Versions of the Self, by Christy Birmingham

Words have the power to inspire and heal. Poetry often has an especially transformative effect on the reader. An example is the poetry collection titled Versions of the Self, by Christy Birmingham. In the preface, Ms. Birmingham writes, "I encourage readers to find brand new ways of seeing their surroundings, in the hopes that it makes the colors that surround them shine a little brighter."

Versions of the Self is divided into sections -- or "selves" -- of poems that explore relationships, growth and the poet's perception of the world around her. For example, the book starts with the section "The Self: I."  In one of the section's poems, "Bottom of a Waterway," resiliency of the spirit is reflected in these lines: 

"And, in turn, through our meeting of 
Weeds, water and whimsy, 
I tell my self that it is okay to start at the bottom - 

Other sections in this poetry collection include "I, Uncertain," "I, You, and Effects," "Us, In Friendship," and "The Future Selves." Within each section, each poem shares wisdom from the poet's personal journey. These lines from "See My Sense of Self" remind us that we can rely on our own wisdom:

"Here is my sense of self, 
Here I am strong and focused, 
Putting my needs first. 
I realize that it is a proud moment." 

I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful volume of poetry, and look forward to returning to its pages in the future. I highly recommend Versions of the Self  to anyone who loves words that uplift and encourage. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

It's a Start -- Why We Need to Talk About the Confederate Flag

A poem by Maya Angelou, at the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial

Since the murder of nine African American people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag has rightly been a hot topic. The flag flies on the grounds of the South Carolina and Alabama state capitols, and is part of the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi. Elements and earlier versions of the flag can also be seen in the Alabama, Arkansas and Florida state flags.

This national discussion about the Confederate flag is long overdue. Some see the Confederate flag as a relic of a long-ago Civil War. The flag, however, has a much more recent history as a hurtful symbol of racism, segregation and violence.

The Dixiecrats

In 1948, President Truman -- a Democrat -- proposed civil rights legislation that included provisions to repeal the poll tax and make lynching a federal crime. The Democratic party also included a civil rights plank in that year's Presidential campaign. Southern Democrats who opposed these measures formed a segregationist political party known as the Dixiecrats, who adopted the Confederate flag as their symbol.

Although Truman was elected in 1948, the Dixiecrats won in Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana. The Dixiecrat party no longer exists, but the party's legacy continued in the form of resistance against desegregation. In the years that followed, people who happened to be African American and who simply wanted to vote, go to school or sit at a lunch counter faced intimidation and violence -- including four little girls who were killed in a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

Desegregation Opponents

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its famous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. In that ruling, the Court overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson "separate but equal" doctrine and declared public school segregation unconstitutional. The Confederate flag once again appeared as officials in Southern states defied federal desegregation efforts.

In 1956, Georgia legislators voted to incorporate the Confederate flag in the Georgia state flag. John McKay, one of 32 legislators who opposed the flag change, stated that the flag "telegraphs a message." In April 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace ordered the raising of the Confederate flag over the state capitol. Wallace was about the meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to discuss the state's refusal to desegregate the University of Alabama campus. The Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the Alabama and South Carolina state capitols.

Which leads us back to last week's senseless tragedy in Charleston, and the increasing recognition that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred and violence. Simply put, it has no place over government buildings or grounds. Political leaders from both parties -- including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley -- are finally acknowledging the public revulsion at this symbol. Walmart, Amazon and eBay are refusing to sell products that contain the Confederate flag.

A little late, but it's a start.