As world leaders gather for COP26, it is a pertinent time to showcase the work of young journalists who put the environment at the heart of the stories they tell. The fifteen give voice to communities that have played little role in raising the world’s temperature but who have been hardest hit by the climate emergency.
From Colombia and Cuba to Egypt, India and Albania, the shortlisted stories were chosen from more than 300 environmental stories entered for the annual Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award, as part of a special, one-off prize to mark the make-or-break UN climate summit in Glasgow.
The journalists are from a generation mobilised to generate urgent change and avoid inheriting a planet in peril. They have transformed complex ecological issues into compelling storytelling that is both local and relatable and frequently, solvable. They have demonstrated that the crisis is not abstract and a distant threat, but one that is personal and affects everyone directly, although not always equally.
Their stories are about ordinary people who are grappling with the crisis in deeply personal ways, and are doing something about it, such as Sonia Sánchez, an environmental activist from El Salvador, fighting to protect her small town from the irreparable harm of a large housing construction project.
“Her story portrays the battle of small versus giants, the consequences that these battles can have, but also the legacy and importance of them,” says 25-year-old reporter, Carmen Valeria Escobar.
These journalists have transformed complex ecological issues into compelling storytelling.
There’s also a shared sense of what needs to change from those born into the reality of the climate emergency. Cuban journalist Ismario Rodríguez Pérez documents the work of a group of environmental campaigners, including teenager Jesús Linares, who faces intimidation and threats as he organises garbage collections, bike rallies and environmental education on social networks to mobilise all generations to play their part to save the planet.
“My story is another step to make visible the silent struggle of many to keep alive the cause for climate justice in a small and underdeveloped country like Cuba,” says Ismario.
Part of the challenge of getting people engaged with the climate crisis is making it personal – provoking an audience to realise how it may impact them directly. But Venezuelan journalist, Helena Carpio, says that the people most vulnerable to global warming are often the least aware. “Most people in our region don’t even know what climate change is,” she says. “In the case of Venezuela, we have a complex humanitarian emergency, people are malnourished. So why is the environment important?”
Helena, whose pioneering data-driven piece on wildfires and the irreversible effects of climate change in the Amazon region, describes with disbelief the speed at which glaciers are receding in her country: "Venezuela could be the first country to lose all of its glaciers. We lost four out of five glaciers in less than a century,” she says. “Our natural and cultural heritage – yours, because it belongs to the world – is disappearing with very few witnesses.”
Image taken from Juan José Relmucao's piece, 'Things we find in fire' (credit Carlos Salazar)
There’s a broad range of approaches to the environment from the shortlist. Some present cold, hard facts, such as Albanian freelance writer Gëzim Hilaj who reports on the construction of hydropower plants on the Luma River that’s leading to “an ecologically dead river” and Tatiana Pardo Ibarra who exposes how beef sold in Colombian supermarkets is fuelling illegal deforestation in protected Amazon forests.
Others consider climate mitigation, the possibilities inherent in natural resources or remind us that the crisis intersects with existing social inequalities, for example Nigeria’s Damilola Ayeni, who uncovers the threats and dangers to the survival of indigenous communities in the Niger Delta. “Their water, food and air are poisoned and they are dying,” he says plainly.
For Egyptian water journalist Mohammed El Said, success in his reporting depends on unpicking difficult scientific studies and reporting on solutions. His investigation looks at the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile which threatens to upset a millennia-old ecological balance in Egypt: “What makes this story significant is that it offers solutions based on science,” he says. “These include planting drought-tolerant crops, particularly rice, building desalination plants for the seawater and harvesting water from desert air.”
Groundwater sustainability is an important topic and one of which Monika Mondal has a deep understanding. The Indian journalist, who is currently reporting from COP26, collected water samples in the state of Uttar Pradesh for her story— both from households and from storm drains where a sugar mill dumped its waste water — and ran lab tests to report on the quality. The findings were alarming and now a case has been filed with India’s environmental court.
These are just a few of the stories plucked from an impressive shortlist where the power of community action at a local level has been highlighted, the human and ecological impact revealed, the possibilities of a sustainable future considered and the inaction and complacency of authorities pointed to.
From Devyani Nighoskar's piece, 'The forest builders of India's Shivaliks'
With the current spotlight on the two-week long climate summit – and a palpable sense that the public, politicians and policymakers are collectively realising just how far things have to change, and how urgently – it is vital to maintain that energy.
Powerful storytelling can help keep that momentum and remind world leaders that the world is not only watching but expecting decisive action and leadership from them.
We will be showcasing the work of our shortlisted journalists for the duration of COP26 and celebrating their contribution to the climate debate. Follow us on Twitter @thomfound and take part in the conversation using our dedicated hashtag #TFEnvironment.
Here’s our full shortlist:
Young Journalist Award – Environment: What happens next?
Established in 2013, the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award, in partnership with the UK Foreign Press Association (FPA) pays homage to the emerging journalists, 30 years of age and under, addressing some of the most important social and political issues of our time. The winner can be from any part of the world where the gross national index per capita is $20,000 or less, and the body of work submitted must have been published or broadcast during the 12 months preceding the deadline for entries.
An environmental category was introduced to this year’s award in response to COP26 and the urgent fight to tackle global warming. All entrants were asked to submit a portfolio of three stories, including at least one story with an environmental reporting focus.
Judging the shortlisted stories will be Thomson Foundation chief executive, Caro Kriel, biodiversity and environmental reporter for The Guardian, Patrick Greenfield, and director of Carbon Brief, Leo Hickman.
The winner of the Young Journalist Award and our special environmental prize will be revealed during the FPA’s media awards ceremony in London from 7.50pm GMT on 29 November, which will be live-streamed on our Facebook page. Both winners and the two runners up from the Young Journalist Award will receive £1,000 learning bursaries or funds to buy equipment.