Unfolding Mystery Yields Complex Characters, Key Climate Clues

April 17, 2019

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Journalist Laura Heaton reporting from Somalia for her award-winning piece on the realities of extreme weather and drought in Somalia. Photo: Nichole Sobecki. Click to enlarge.

Inside Story Q&A: Unfolding Mystery Yields Complex Characters, Key Climate Clues

A scientist goes missing after working for years in Somalia, and his notes, found in a London attic, yield insight into how the troubled African country might adapt to climate change. Laura Heaton’s story about the case for Foreign Policy, “The Watson Files: A Climate for Conflict,” won her a second-place award for outstanding feature story in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2018 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges noted how she wrote the story “in the style of a mystery novel … gripping from beginning to end.”

SEJournal Online’s “Inside Story” editor Beth Daley recently caught up with Heaton via email. Here is the conversation.

How did you get your winning story idea?

I was living in East Africa for about five years when I started working on this story, and I wanted to look into the changing weather patterns that everyone seemed to be talking about. It felt like Kenya and the wider region was always on the verge of a drought or dealing with flooding — always these extremes. Somalia in particular, next door to Kenya, seemed like a compelling place to report, because people there, living as nomads, are very accustomed to dealing with extreme weather. And yet even they are having a very hard time coping with the frequency and severity of drought.

In starting to research a piece, I learned about a collection of old photographs of Somalia from the 1970s and 80s that had been stashed away in an attic in the U.K. for safekeeping. By now, Somalia was about a quarter century in to a harrowing civil war. So I traveled to see them and began learning about the man who took them: an elderly British scientist named Dr. Murray Watson whose last known whereabouts was southern Somalia as a hostage of al-Shabab extremists.

What was the biggest challenge in reporting the piece and how did you solve that challenge?

Working in Somalia is very difficult because of the ongoing security challenges. My reporting partner — photographer Nichole Sobecki — and I wanted to be able to access as many areas as we could to try and match up Dr. Watson’s old photographs to the landscape today and interview people in those communities. Fortunately, we had the strong backing of The GroundTruth Project that served as our editorial team while we were traveling in remote Somalia and outfitted us with satellite phones, hostile environment training and, crucially, several rounds of funding.

We spent a lot of time prior to trips and day-to-day in the field focused on security, by gathering contacts, mapping out safe routes, double-checking those routes as violence flared and constantly balancing how to spend time interviewing and photographing sources while working safely.


'I was surprised to hear how

the people I interviewed often

linked the fighting back

to environmental issues.'


What most surprised you about your reporting/findings?

Somalis have been coping with waves of conflict for many years, and violence often plays out in tit-for-tat attacks, revenge for previous injustices. But I was surprised to hear how the people I interviewed often linked the fighting back to environmental issues, like the struggle over control of a well or the decision by some forward-looking farmer to try and fence communal land to ensure at least his animals would have pasture when the next drought came.

We often hear conflict in Somalia described as “clan violence” — which in a way can be dismissive of people’s struggle, because it doesn’t attempt to offer an original rationale for the fighting. So it was fascinating to delve into these stories in very rural parts of the country and hear people describe how their problems started when the droughts came more often, or when the pastureland could no longer sustain the booming herds of animals. I anticipated needing to connect the dots more myself through my reporting.

How did you decide to tell the story and why?

When I learned of Dr. Watson’s incredible collection of photos and maps, and then learned about his own tragic fate, I knew I’d found a compelling central character around which to build a narrative about climate change and conflict. Here was a man who spent much of his career trying to understand and document the environment in Somalia, because he believed that the future of the country depended on the government finding ways to protect the fragile environment.

Heaton travelled to remote areas of rural Somalia under sometimes unsafe conditions to report on how people coped with severe environmental challenges. Photo: Nichole Sobecki. Click to enlarge.

So it’s ironic that the person who was arguably doing the most to try and ensure that Somalia’s environmental woes weren’t its undoing was himself swallowed up in the chaos. But because he inspired a band of dedicated environmentalists who are trying hard to continue this work, and he rescued a detailed baseline — the land survey and thousands of photos — for them to use, the story also has a glint of optimism.

What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story/series and why?

The structure of this piece was complicated from the start (I was trying to avoid giving readers whiplash as I moved between different time periods), and my editor at Foreign Policy and I both tried to find ways to weave in more modern-day stories. During my reporting trips, I’d met people who turned to violence to deal with their untenable situations — like the fisherman who turned to piracy after watching foreign fishing vessels loot the Somali coastline, or the farmer who joined al-Shabab when drought destroyed his crops.

In the end these narratives were published on Foreign Policy’s website, which was good, under the brilliant headline written by my editor: “The Making of a Climate Outlaw” (please check it out!). But the intrigue surrounding Dr. Watson’s kidnapping brought a lot of attention to the main feature, so I wished it could have amplified these other stories more as well.

What lessons have you learned from your story?

One of the most fascinating parts of working on this story was learning about the history of environmentalism in Somalia. We think of the country now as being anarchic, plagued by civil war and piracy. I was completely surprised to learn about how the National Range Agency, essentially the country’s environment ministry, was the best-funded government department apart from the military. The old photos of Mogadishu and stories I heard from the Somali environmentalists who started their careers in that era, the 1970s and 80s, suggest a country on a very different track from the one we know now.

The Somali president at the time was becoming power-hungry and paranoid, so politically the situation was unsustainable. But the scenes of this vibrant capital, Mogadishu, and lush rural areas where people were concerned about the fragility of the environment and taking steps to conserve were remarkable to me and very unexpected. In some ways, this history makes the tragedy of the past quarter century of violence even more dramatic, because it suggests things might have turned out differently.

What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?

Letting reporting be guided by compelling characters is often wise, but in particular with climate change-related stories, I think it’s crucial. So many of the places where climate change is hitting hardest first likely feel very remote to most readers in the West. When I started working on this Somalia piece I knew that it would be important for readers to identify with Watson, Abdirisak Ali [a soil analyst at the National Range Agency] and Abdullahi Ahmed Karani [a pioneering Somali environmentalist].

If you, as a reader, felt how committed they were to their work and how tragic it would be to lose all they’d created — on top of the many other tragedies of Somalia’s long war — then you could feel the emotion of this discovery. I thought that was important, in addition to the relevance of the “lost archive” for research and climate change work today.

So I would say that to make climate change stories resonate with readers it’s smart to build out richly drawn profiles of complicated people, who approach their struggle in ways that feel familiar, even if the details of their lives are vastly different.

Laura Heaton is an award-winning writer and journalist based between Nairobi, Kenya and London. Her writing in East Africa over the past decade has focused primarily on conflict, the environment, human rights and women’s experiences in war. Her book, “Rwandan Women Rising,” on the role of women’s leadership in the rebuilding of post-genocide Rwanda, working with U.S. Ambassador Swanee Hunt, was published by Duke University Press in May 2017.

Heaton’s reporting has appeared in a variety of U.S. and international outlets, including The New York Times, National Public Radio, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, National Geographic and the International Review of the Red Cross, a journal published by Cambridge University Press. She was a 2017 Climate Change Reporting Fellow with The GroundTruth Project, and her reporting and writing has been recognized with awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, American Society for Journalists and Authors, the Overseas Press Club and the Scripps Howard Foundation.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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