Posts for category ‘red markets’

A Nepali Spectre in the Thai Protests
| May 19, 2010 | 11:14 am

For as long as I can remember Thailand has a been a patch of tranquility in the turbulent waters of South East Asia. In the Vietnam war the country was a resort for American GI’s who took a break from the fighting on its placid beaches. During the era of the Khmer Rouge killing spree Thailand took in refugees and despite sharing a border with Burma it has never visited totalitarianism on its own people. Thai people are surprisingly un-political in conversation, rarely expressing dissent from the party line. Indeed, most Thais hold unbridled respect for the King and wear yellow and blue shirts in his honor every week. His pictures line the highways as a symbol of unbridled affinity.

Which is precisely why the violent political struggle that is engulfing the capital city of Bangkok this month seems so out of character.It is hard to believe that any society can be politically tranquil. What seemed to be a veil of peace and non-confrontation was a thin veil for burning resentment against the status quo. In 2001 there was a similar situation in Nepal where the Royal family was almost universally adored. At the time a disparaging remark about him to an ordinary could start a fight. Then in 2001 a royal heir slaughtered the rest of the Royal family and the country descended into chaos. For centuries the king had been able to quell distrust between the impoverished rural hinterland and comparatively wealthy major cities. Since the 1950s or so Kathmandu and Pokhara had been inundated with development aid, most of which transmuted into graft and only developed the cities, leaving the rest of the country desperately poor. It was fertile ground for Nepali Maoists to organize and grow a rebel movement. When the Royal family died the revolution was unstoppable.  By 2006 the Maoists won and the country abolished all Royal powers.

The protests this month in Bangkok could be Thailand’s Royal massacre. Simmering resentment beneath an a-political facade has broken through in a violent orgy. Unused to dissent police open fire on protesters who magnify the violence by setting fire to the city’s landmark buildings and hurling grenades.  Yesterday I saw a video on Youtube that has since been taken down of a protester being shot in the head by a military sniper. He died in a pool of blood as other protesters surged forward without regard to  the danger. Even as the leaders of the protest surrender to police today, the violence just seems to magnify. As I write this the city hall is still smoldering.

Thailand is the only country in SE Asia that was never under the control of a colonial power. The tradition of self-rule has continued unbroken because of savvy partnerships between the royal family and western powers. Nepal was also never a colonial subject.  While self-rule has helped Thailand become one of the most developed countries in SE Asia, its mode of governing is an anachronism in a modern world.  The protesters demand new elections to oust the sitting government. Most protesters still seem to support the king, but the party that has kept him in power is losing its popularity fast.

I don’t know what is going to happen in the coming months. But I don’t think that Thailand will ever be the same. We may be witnessing a new revolution. Or we might see the protesters quashed into oblivion, only to rise up again years down the line.

New Blog Address: Red
| April 28, 2010 | 7:08 am

This blog will be moving to a new address to help promote my upcoming book Red Markets: Every Body Has a Price. Last week I finished a first draft of the manuscript while at the Ledig House International Writers Residency and am very excited to start getting the word out. The book is a fast paced investigative romp that opens with a crime scene on the Indio-Nepal border and traces the spread of tissue economies across the globe.

When I first pitched the idea to Harper Collins/William Morrow in 2008 I came up with this sample cover art. Hopefully we’ll find a more talented illustrator to make this look even sharper.
So come along for the ride and check out my new blog address I’ve also started a new homepage for my work which should be online soon.

“Meet the Parents” wins Payne Ethics in Journalism Award
| April 12, 2010 | 11:14 am

I’m honored to have been recognized by the University of Oregon and the Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for my Mother Jones story “Meet the Parents.” I’m even more honored to have worked with one of the most diligent and thorough editorial teams in the business. Special mentions for senior editor Mike Mechanic who honed the story with me through every stage, Editor in chief Monika Bauerlein who had faith in my reporting and was my sounding board for the hardest decisions. Also Jennifer Phillips who checked my facts and kept the story accurate.

See: Payne Award Announcement

Also see a nice write-up about it on the MoJo website.

Temple of Do
| March 26, 2010 | 11:50 am

The international trade in human body parts is by no means confined to essential organs, tissue and muscle. In fact, one of the most lucrative markets is human hair. On Nostrand avenue in Brooklyn where I live dozens of bodegas and beauty parlors sell top-quality Indian locks for big money–mostly to African American women who want to change their hairstyles rapidly. In this month’s issue of Mother Jones I reported on how Indian temples shave the heads of their devotees and ship tons of hair from one side of the world to another. I attended a hair auction where distributors broke out in to fistfights with one another as they tried to corner the hair market and had a temple devotee shave my own head. So check out the piece here, and don’t forget to see Sonja Sharp’s related story on how some of that hair ends up in the American food supply.

Tiffany at the Grooming Room on Nostrand Avenue curls the hair of her client. She specializes in extensions.
Laborers in a hair factory in Chennai sort through thousands of poinds of hair, remove lice and prepare raw hair for export.
Processed hair is hung on racks to dry before bundled for export.
A tribal man in a small village outside of Chennai has learned to make money collecting shorn locks from barbershops and selling them to international hair suppliers. This cottage industry is entirely tribally run.

Further reading: The New York Times wrote a very interesting piece on how hindu hair became a major issue in the orthodox Jewish community who shave their heads and wear wigs as a sign of humility. When they discovered that the hair was offered in a pagan sacrifice they started to burn wigs.

“Cutthroat Capitalism” strips down story to chase pirate treasure
| November 8, 2009 | 11:38 am

The Nieman Storyboard is a Harvard initiative that aims to promote innovative approaches to narrative in journalism featured a piece on my story about Somali piracy this week. Here’s an excerpt:

In WIRED’s recent take on Somali piracy, “Cutthroat Capitalism”, Scott Carney leads what might have been a meaty narrative straight into a piranha-infested stream. What he pulls out on the other side is a story picked clean of words, revealing foundational economic forces that drive modern day pirates, expressed as a series of well-dressed equations. It’s the narrative equivalent of one of those painted skeletons in a Dia De Los Muertos parade: the bones of a story coated with bright eye-catching paint.

For the last few months I’ve been working on a similar narrative approach for a story in WIRED about markets in human bodies and body parts. However, I’m learning that combining graphics and feature writing is can be a herculean task. Cutthroat Capitalism took almost six months to conceive, report and write. The piece appears elegant on the page only because it had to go through several stages of refining. First I had to collect enough information to write a full-length feature. Then we had to boil down all that research into nugget sized chunks that make room for an artist to create a beautiful layout. But there’s the rub. With only a few words for each idea, retaining a sense of narrative structure through it all is pretty difficult. In the pirate story we (my editor Ted Greenwald, designer Siggi Eggerson and several people on the art team) split the piece up into a single hostage situation–“the Attack, “The Negotiation” and “the Resolution”, which provided a base to build a larger argument about piracy in general.

However, not every story breaks down so easily. In the piece I’m writing now, I’m not looking at a single type of event, rather a dozen ways that the body gets funneled into commercial markets. Coming up with an elegant solution that encompasses the whole concept while also informing readers about broader theoretical implications of Red Markets is a narrative obstacle course. I still don’t know how I’m going to resolve the problem without removing key pieces of my argument.

For instance, take a look at how different the pitch for “Cutthroat Capitalism” is from the final product:

Pirate Gambit

Everyone knows that you don’t negotiate with terrorists . . . but pirates? That’s a different story.

Case in point: Last September, the Ukranian freighter Faina, carrying scores of Russian tanks and grenade launchers plus a crew of 21, was overrun by 50 gunmen. Later, encircled by destroyers from the US, UK, and Russia, the attackers demanded $20 million in return for the boat and its contents. Last week, a helicopter dropped $3 million onto the deck. The brigands released the crew unharmed (though one had died of a heart attack during the ordeal). They dumped some guns overboard (presumably to pick up later) and slipped away to plan their next attack.

The Faina incident is by no means unique. Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa, attacked 111 commercial ships in 2008 alone — triple the previous year’s total. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and speedboats, they captured 14 vessels and took 300 hostages. In every case, the ship owner struck a deal, paying for the return of the ship and passengers, and letting the bandits go free.

The Somalis owe much of their success to a simple innovation. For centuries, pirates have operated in a familiar way: Board the target, take everything of value, and flee. That’s the way Indonesian and Caribbean marauders work to this day. Their counterparts in the Gulf of Aden, on the other hand, demand a ransom. The Faina’s $3 million settlement may seem small, but it’s the largest ever in such a caper — and, in any case, it’s a fortune compared to northeastern Somalia’s average per-capita income of $180 a year.

The new business model depends on a delicate dance among four parties: Somalis struggling to survive amid total economic collapse, shipping companies in need of protection, insurers trying to minimize payouts, and private security firms looking for work. It’s a cozy relationship in which everyone benefits. The pirates can make a living without demanding more than the market will bear. Shippers absorb the ransom as a minor cost of doing business; with typical cargo loads worth tens of millions of dollars — and ships upward of $125 million — a few million is small change. The insurance companies charge higher premiums, up from $900 to $9000 per trip within last few years multiplied by 20,000 ships passing through the Gulf annually. And the security companies earn a handsome fee for resolving a crisis. (Even the US Navy allegedly accommodates the pirates, directing them to harass its
enemies and leave its friends alone.)

In a way, the Gulf of Aden’s troubles are an unintended consequence of efforts to make the region safe for international trade. The notoriously unstable Horn of Africa is the gateway to the Suez Canal— so everyone is willing to pay to minimize risk. The outlaws start with outrageous demands, but they’ll settle for a modest purse. They know that harming crewmembers would bring their operations to an abrupt and bloody end, so they treat hostages well. Ship captains, like convenience-store clerks, are trained to surrender. They’re allowed to defend themselves with high-pressure water hoses, sound cannons, and evasive maneuvers, but “beyond that, we are not to resist,” says Jayant Kohli, who regularly sails the Gulf. And negotiators know they’ll settle on an agreeable sum sooner or later. “Paying ransom to criminals isn’t criminal in itself,” says Leslie Edwards, a former British Special forces commando who now works with Clayton Consultants, a security company. “We’re not there to solve the issue of piracy.”

I’d like to explore this symbiosis between piracy and globalization. I’m in touch with top security experts and former hostages. The reporting presents obvious challenges: several journalists have been kidnapped at the port of Ely, where pirates are based, and security companies are bound by confidentiality contracts. However, it looks likely that I’ll be able to travel through the Gulf of Aden on an escort boat. With attacks surpassing 100 a year, I might well see some action. I have placed enquires with the US, UK, and Indian navies and I’m working the back channels at several
security companies.

Lit Search: The fate of the Faina and Somali piracy in general have been covered extensively in the daily press and in the trades (particularly shipping and insurance). However, most reports cover only breaking news. There have been a few magazine articles (The Spectator debunked a reported relationship between the pirates and Islamist militants, McLean’s profiled the chief of the Somali coast guard), but nothing that traces the business priorities that help make this new style of piracy so pervasive.

In the pirate piece, the story I pitched was meant to explore the collusion between insurance companies that hire hostage negotiators and pay ransoms and pirate gangs. Both pirates and insurance companies are getting rich off of lack of security in the Gulf of Aden, and they work together to keep the situation unstable. I’m not so sure how many readers got that out of the piece. Instead, I think readers got an understanding of the business model for pirates, not how the business model requires the consent of insurers. Of course, every pitch ends up being different than the final product. But the graphic format makes the changes much more radical.

Welcome to the Red Market
| September 29, 2009 | 11:53 am

For the last three years I have been living in South India researching the dark side of the human soul. For WIRED magazine, Mother Jones and NPR I found a world where victims of fatal diseases pushed the limits of morality to procure replacement organs when theirs began to fail. I’ve met charitable adoption agencies that stole children off of the streets and sold them on the international market. And traveled to urban ghettos where anemic blood donors were imprisoned against their will and had their lifeblood drained in the name of capitalism.

When I first began researching these topics, I knew that they were stories that had to be told, but it took me a while to see that they were all part of a larger systemic problem. The human body is more than a commodity, and yet we build vast medical and commercial infrastructures that buy, barter and steal flesh across international lines. While the end goal seems to be unquestionably right: a longer life for a dying patient, children for the childless, and advancing medical knowledge for the world’s benefit, the supply of human body parts is rarely as unproblematic as people would have you believe.

Red Markets is my attempt to uncover the supply chain of human body parts. This blog is my public note pad as I dissect and identify commerce in the raw materials of humanity. This site will also be the public start to my forthcoming book with Harper Collins: Red Markets: Every Body Has a Price.

William Morrow (Harper Collins) Picks Up "Red Markets"
| March 23, 2009 | 10:19 pm

William Morrow, publishers of Freakonomics, has agreed to publish my first book. Tentatively titled “Red Markets”, the book is going to explore the economics of death and the movement of body parts between people and across the globe. Red Markets will offer an expanded view of stories that I’ve written for WIRED, Mother Jones and