The Chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade has called for a “swift and thorough investigation” into the labor practices of large sugar producers in the Dominican Republic in response to reporting by Homelands’ Sandy Tolan and others.

In an October 25 press release, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) wrote that “Disturbing news reports have recently detailed appalling conditions under which sugarcane workers of Haitian-Dominican descent continue to live and labor to produce sugar in the Dominican Republic for U.S. consumption.”

The links direct readers to Tolan’s September 17 investigative article in Mother Jones and a separate investigation by Zoeann MurphyDebbie Cenziper, Will Fitzgibbon, Whitney Shefte, and Salwan Georges in The Washington Post.

Tolan worked with Haitian-Dominican journalist Euclides Cordero Nuel on “The High Human Cost of America’s Sugar Habit,” an in-depth report about conditions in the Dominican sugar industry, with a particular focus on Central Romana Corporation. The two also collaborated on “The Bitter Work Behind Sugar,” an hour-long episode of Reveal, the podcast and radio show produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Post piece, which also focused on Central Romana, drew heavily on documents uncovered in the release of the Panama Papers, and details tax evasion strategies by the company’s owners and executives.

Tolan had returned to the Dominican Republic 30 years after filing a report for NPR with coproducer Alan Weisman about the near-slavery conditions on Dominican plantations, particularly for Haitian-born and Haitian-Dominican workers. The U.S. government has called for improvements in the past, and according to Tolan, conditions have improved somewhat. But housing, pay, contract terms, and other issues remain deeply problematical.

Paul Hancock, Hannah Wilkinson, and Victor Chavez in front of The Loft in St. Johns, Arizona. Photo by Amy Martin.

In the 1980s, local governments across America braced — and built — for an expected surge in juvenile “super-predators.” But the surge never came, and many communities were left with expensive, nearly empty buildings that cost millions to maintain.

For the youth who were detained in them, the facilities often served as introductions to a harsh and punitive criminal justice system.

In a half-hour episode for the “70 Million” podcast and a companion article in High Country News, Homelands producer Ruxandra Guidi takes us to rural St. Johns, Arizona, where county officials have transformed their local detention center into a place where teens can play pool, make music, and receive mentoring instead of going to jail.

The success of The Loft Legacy Teen Center is leading many across the state to rethink local government’s approach to youth who come into contact with the law enforcement system.

Ithaca sustainability director Luis Aguirre-Torres (second to left) meets with college students, scientists, and artists at the Soil Factory maker space in Ithaca, NY.

In “The Little Town that Would Transform the World,” Homelands senior producer Jonathan Miller reports from Ithaca, New York, whose ambitious Green New Deal seeks to deliver drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and major benefits for the community’s most vulnerable members. It’s a hometown story with implications for hometowns everywhere.

The half-hour piece is the latest episode of Living Downstream, a podcast about environmental justice produced by Steve Mencher of Mensch Media and distributed by Northern California Public Media.

Miller introduces us to Ithaca’s sustainability director, Luis Aguirre-Torres, a Mexican engineer (his Ph.D. research was on entropy) with a global vision and an activist’s passion for disruption. Aguirre-Torres is both an insider and an outsider, a veteran of international climate policymaking but new to Ithaca. Since he arrived this spring, he has sought to broaden the climate conversation to include social change agents and people whose lives are likely to be most affected by climate change — and by climate policies.

We also meet Richard Rivera, an outreach worker at Ithaca’s sprawling homeless encampment, who deserves a podcast of his own, and civil rights activist and organizational consultant Laura Branca. Both know how hard social change can be, but both are hopeful that progress is possible. Both also appreciate a local government that doesn’t just see the connections between social justice and climate change, but pushes hard to bring the two together.

Special thanks to Jimmy Jordan, Felix Teitelbaum, Esther Racoosin, and Fred Balfour from WRFI, community radio for Ithaca and Watkins Glen.

You can listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Audible, NPR, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like it, please write a review and spread the word!

Inside a house in a batey (work camp) owned by the Central Romana sugar company. Photo by Pedro Farias-Nardi.
Inside a house in a batey (work camp) owned by the Central Romana sugar company. Photo by Pedro Farias-Nardi.

In 1991, Homelands cofounders Sandy Tolan and Alan Weisman reported a story for the Vanishing Homelands series from the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic. “Sugar and Sorrow in Hispaniola” documented the difficulties faced by Haitian migrant workers who lived in squalid state- and company-owned camps without sanitation or electricity. Many had been captured and transported there by human traffickers. They had no formal status and no access to health care or other protections.

For 30 years, Sandy was unable to get the story of one of those workers out of his mind. Lulu Pierre had been kidnaped as a teenager and forced to work in the cane fields. Desperately lonely, he had just quit when Sandy and Alan met him. Sandy decided to return to find out what had become of him.

He reports what he found in two powerful pieces of narrative journalism, both produced with Dominican journalist Euclides Cordero Nuel. One is “The Bitter Work Behind Sugar,” an hour-long episode of Reveal, the podcast and radio show produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The other is “The High Human Cost of America’s Sugar Habit,” an in-depth feature in Mother Jones. Both tell how the Central Romana Corporation, whose billionaire owners live in the United States, continues to exploit its workers despite its claims to the contrary.

“Sugar and Sorrow in Hispaniola” was featured in an NPR story in May 2021 as part of the network’s 50th anniversary celebration. A listener in Boston said he hadn’t expected to be so affected by the story, and he still remembered it 30 years later.

Angélica M. Casas

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists will present Angélica M. Casas with the 2021 Cecilia Vaisman Award at a virtual ceremony and conversation on September 30, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. EDT. Please register here.

The award honors the legacy of Homelands co-founder Cecilia Vaisman, an extraordinary reporter, producer, and teacher who inspired countless students to pursue careers in audio and video journalism. Ceci died in 2015.

Here is Angélica’s bio courtesy of our friends at Medill:

Angélica M. Casas is a bilingual journalist telling visual stories for BBC News. She travels throughout the US and Latin America reporting on the effects of policy on underrepresented communities, the coronavirus pandemic, fronteras and immigration. As a “one-woman band,” she produces, films, animates, and edits her own videos and short documentaries. In front of the camera, you can catch her presenting explainer videos, hosting the BBC’s Facebook Watch show “Cut Through the Noise,” or reporting for World News America or World Service Radio.

Her English and Spanish work has also appeared in PBS Newshour, AJ+, KQED, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Antonio Express-News.

Volunteers search for a missing person on Aug. 28, 2021, near Three Points, Arizona. Photo by Bear Guerra for BuzzFeed News.

In August, Homelands’ Bear Guerra accompanied volunteers with the group Aguilas del Desierto (Eagles of the Desert) as they searched for missing migrants in the desert near the Mexico-Arizona border. Nine of his photos appear in the BuzzFeed News article “We Know How They Suffer” by staff reporter Adolfo Flores.

Most of the Aguilas del Desierto volunteers themselves made the treacherous journey across the desert on their way to the United States. The group receives hundreds of calls per year from loved ones seeking help locating missing persons. So far in 2021, Flores reports, the Border Patrol has recovered more than 380 human remains in the desert and has made more than 10,000 rescues.

Guerra, a native of San Antonio who lives in Tucson, frequently covers border issues. In addition to his freelance work, he is also the photo editor of High Country News.

Minnesota’s 9th Judicial District Court has dismissed the criminal trespassing charge brought against Alan Weisman after Alan was arrested, strip-searched, and held in solitary confinement on June 7. He was in northern Minnesota to cover the protests against Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 pipeline for a forthcoming book and for an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

The gross misdemeanor charge was dismissed “without prejudice,” which means that it can be refiled if the authorities decide to pursue it. Meanwhile, Alan’s attorney is exploring the possibility of filing a civil suit in federal court for illegal arrest, suppression of his First Amendment press freedom rights, and other violations.

“I’m enraged by the deliberate denial of my press freedom by a sheriff who knew exactly who I was,” Alan said. “Protecting writers and journalists to bear witness to their doings is crucial to our species’ future, and I’m grateful that Author’s Guild, PEN America, CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists], and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have proved stalwart.”

Alan was arrested by deputies of the Northern Lights Task Force, which is composed of sheriffs from 18 northern Minnesota counties and funded by Enbridge Inc. to protect its pipeline against protests.

For more information about the arrest and detention, read the CPJ’s detailed account of the incident.

“To counter mounting climate catastrophes,” Alan Weisman writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, “tar sands must stay in the ground. Anything else risks incinerating our species’ future.”

Alan traveled to northern Minnesota in early June to cover protests against Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 oil pipeline for the LA Times article and for a book he is writing on humanity’s best hopes for getting through the coming challenging decades.

The Line 3 pipeline is designed to carry crude oil extracted from western Canadian tar sands to a terminal on Lake Superior. Native American tribes have led the resistance to the project, which would cross more than 200 rivers and streams. Climate activists have argued that oil derived from tar sands is up to three times dirtier than conventional oil, and that burning it will make it impossible to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals. Both groups have called on the Biden administration to halt the pipeline project.

On June 7, Alan was detained and strip-searched during a mass arrest by sheriff’s deputies and charged with gross misdemeanor trespassing. He faces a hearing on July 16. The Committee to Protect Journalists, Homelands Productions, and other organizations and colleagues have condemned the arrest and called for charges to be dropped.

You can read the entire op-ed here. If you encounter the LA Times’ paywall, try opening a Private, Incognito, or InPrivate window in your browser and pasting the link there.