Green Echoes #12 - Investigating Supply Chains Q&A with Chinese editor Qiu Jiaqiu

This week featuring Qiu Jiaqiu and the insights he and his team gained in an investigation on the timber trade in Papua New Guinea. 

Dear friends and supporters,

Welcome to Green Echoes, a newsletter from the Environmental Reporting Collective that highlights key investigative stories, data sources, funding, reporting and training opportunities and our projects from across Asia.

This week, we are introducing you to Qiu Jiaqiu, a Chinese editor, the insights he and his team gained in an investigation on the timber trade in Papua New Guinea. Their report, "Cutting off the planet's lungs" was published in January by Jiemian News and Tencent News. You can watch a part of their investigation here with English subtitles.  

The team of reporters proved that the wood of forests that had been cleared for palm tree plantations ended up in Europe, China and elsewhere. They documented the impact on local communities and analyzed the overall flux in supply and demand amid changes in European and U.S. legislation on the timber trade. 

Like most environmental stories, this is a story that is bigger than one country: the affected communities in Papua New Guinea, the Malaysian timber traders operating there, the wood processing companies and consumers in China, and finally legislation and changes in demand elsewhere. But such reports in China are relatively rare in recent years. 

Qiu is the founder of Real Image Media, a media production start-up. He previously worked as the head of the original video at Jiemian News, was the head of video production at Caixin, a leading economic publication, and an editor at the Xinhua news agency. This interview was conducted by Jiaming Xu, the writer of 绿色回声 , our Chinese-language newsletter, where you can find the original version.

What tools and strategies proved helpful in conducting such an international and complex investigation?

We set aside some time for thorough research during the preparation period. We studied the work of environmental NGOs, the work of some Chinese and foreign scholars, as well as Chinese journalists' previous work. Then we dug into the laws and policies of China, Papua New Guinea, the United States, and the European Union. 

From a strategic point of view, in addition to PNG and China, we have also paid attention to three regions: United States, Europe and Japan. The U.S. has put a lot of pressure on the industry with the Lacey Act (punishing companies that profit from illegal trade in plants and animals). The E.U.'s laws are still evolving, so it is a dynamic process that draws attention. Meanwhile, Japan is interesting because China is going through changes that had already occurred in Japan. Also, in China, multiple stakeholders have responded with differing strategies in terms of linking up with the rest of the world economy, which has created a lot of room for maneuver for journalists to operate.

In terms of collaboration, only one reporter from PNG worked with us, the Chinese team. She helped us contact some local officials. While I have been in touch with some Indonesian, European and American journalists to develop the story, we didn't collaborate as much as we wanted. 

Our domestic collaborators used online tools such as Shimo to complete almost all the content like logic line, data, clues and document sharing, work plan arrangement and update, among other remote tasks. 

Our team has fully collaborated online in the past two years. supports the data visualization part of this project, and they are co-producers.

What were the challenges, and how did you overcome them? 

The on-site interview required us to follow local customs: We had challenges with visas, transportation, electricity, communication, food and accommodation. We worked hard to establish trust with residents to get the interviews we needed. 

The technical difficulties are actually not that hard to overcome. What is much harder for us as journalists is to connect with each other and gain each other's respect with our work. 

Reporting and narrative frameworks are essential. Collaborations need more thought to balance the most challenging and sensitive problems. That includes detours to deal with some sensitive content, and take a pragmatic longer-term look at the problem.  

Do you have any advice for other journalists, especially to Chinese reporters, looking to embark on a similar cross-border investigation? 

Firstly, pay attention to safety, learn to stay in the fight for the long haul. Avoid irreversible and unbearable consequences for moments of stubbornness. Secondly, study the policies and laws, especially those from China, so that you can find new ideas and protect yourself. Thirdly, communicate well with foreign counterparts and organizations, and tell them what the situation in China is like and what we can do. Only full communication on the actual situation can avoid unfortunate misunderstandings, and then we can play our role on this basis with our advantage.

Finally, I also suggest that you complain less. There are always good times and bad times. There are always ways in and ways out. You first need to find a way for yourself, think about the points above and take advantage of them before you enter an international collaboration. Also, use opportunities to participate in more international exchanges. I attended a recent Global Investigative Journalism Network conference and met many overseas colleagues, who were open-minded and collegial. 

Are there plans to do follow-up reporting?

We will try after the pandemic. Our team makes documentary films. We try to look at issues over three, five or even ten years. Many European, American and Japanese media have shown a strong interest in this project. We are thinking about how to work with them in the future. 

We hope to go to Europe and the United States to make the last report on the global package. We wanted to look at the inspection and processing at European customs. We also hope that this project will have an impact by improving laws and policies in the field of forest protection in China.

Best Reporting from Asia

In 1984, a chemical leak at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, killed 3000 people in a day, and an estimated 17,000 since. Now, residents who were impacted by the leak are succumbing to Covid-19 at a higher rate than other residents, reports Joe Wallen for The Telegraph.

In this piece for Mongabay, our colleague Keith Anthony Fabro reports on how high demand for wild-caught reef fish from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia is driving overfishing and fish-stock depletion.

Tempo has published this investigation into the Indonesian government's move to ease restrictions on the export of lobster larvae, finding that several exporting companies have suspiciously close ties with the same political party as the Marine Affairs and Fisheries Minister. 

Michael Standaert in Shenzhen profiled two climate activists in China for The Guardian: One of them, Howey Ou, might well be the first young person in China to engage in Greta Thunberg-inspired Fridays for Future climate strikes. The authorities are more opposed to her activism than her cause. 

Data, Resources and Training

Training: Climate Tracker will be holding a 3-day training about climate and energy reporting for Vietnamese journalists. Details (in Vietnamese) here (Deadline July 24). 

NASA is offering a 3-part training series on "Remote Sensing of Coastal Ecosystems", starting in late August. Details here.

Opportunities: The Oxygen Project is seeking proposals for stories covering deep seabed mining –an emerging ocean issue. Details here (Rolling deadline until budget disbursed). 

The Earth Journalism Network is accepting applications for Asia-Pacific Media Grants from journalist networks, media organizations, civil society organizations or academic institutions throughout Asia and the Pacific (Deadline August 15). 

Event: The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas are holding a webinar entitled Reporting Asia in the age of Covid-19: The future of media on July 23.

One more thing: Citra Prastuti, the editor-in-Chief of the KBR radio network, had a plan to boost climate change coverage before the pandemic hit. Covid-19 could have derailed that effort, but instead, Citra and her team used it to their advantage. She explains how in this video interview.

That's all for this week. We'll be back in about two weeks with our next issue. If you have ideas for themes, have worked on an investigative story that was published, or have other feedback, please respond to this email and let me know.

Stay safe and healthy,

Nithin Coca

The Environmental Reporting Collective is a group of reporters and editors across Asia and elsewhere, working together to rethink how environmental journalism is done. We support collaborative journalism projects that start new conversations on how our societies impact our planet. Such stories are complex and expensive. That’s why they require new approaches to research, reporting, editing and distribution.

To learn more about our work, check out our website, Investigative.Earth, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. You can also let us know what you would like to see in this newsletter by responding to this email.