Busy journalists like Barbara Fraser are used to filing stories from exotic locations. Sometimes Fraser’s audience is an editor at The National Catholic Reporter, The Daily Climate, Lancet, Environmental Science and Technology, or one of several other publications she writes for. Sometimes her audience consists of faculty and fellow students in Green Mountain College’s masters of science in environmental studies program.
For Barbara, the boundaries between journalism and scholarship become blurred, but she’s excited about the connection between her professional writing and her studies at GMC.
“My thesis project turned into a book proposal on sustainable development in the Amazon,” she said. “It’s going to focus on the Madre de Dios watershed.”
A tributary of the Amazon, the Madre de Dios is flanked by the new Interoceanic Highway linking the Brazilian Atlantic with the Peruvian Pacific. The highway connects some of the best preserved rainforests in the Amazon with some of the poorest regions of Peru. It is well-trodden territory for Fraser who has lived and worked in Peru for 20 years. She used a trip down the highway as a rhetorical way of introducing readers to economic and ecological issues in the region.
“My project questioned the traditional notion that development and economic growth always go hand in hand, and that gross domestic product is always the best way to measure of a society’s progress,” she said. “Experts say that a country needs an annual growth rate of 6% just to climb out of poverty. That’s a long climb for a place like Peru where there are still lots of people living on less than $2 a day. I want to contribute to discussion of what sustainable development might look like in the southeast corner of the Peru.”
A native of the Washington DC area, Frasor cut her teeth as a journalist at The Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, and then moved on to a newspaper in the coal mining region of Morgantown, West Virginia, where she saw the unavoidable connection between local economic distress and a despoiled landscape, a dynamic she would later witness in the Amazon basin.
“There were a lot of third world problems in West Virginia,” she said. “The most valuable resources there are underground and the biggest interest in the resource lies outside the state.”
She briefly left journalism and worked as a technical writer, but decided the work was unfulfilling. In 1989 she joined the Catholic volunteer organization Maryknoll, which assigned her to the communications team at the Center for Studies and Action for Peace, a Lima human rights organization.
She intended to complete just one three-year contract before returning to the United States, but her three-year stint turned into a journalism career in Peru.
“At the Center for Studies and Action for Peace I saw the country not from the point of view of a tourist but from the perspective of a neighbor,” she said. “There is a sense outside South America that the Amazon is this huge pristine forest but in fact it is populated and anything done there needs to take people into consideration.”
One of Fraser’s stories from the National Catholic Reporter described the effects of copper mining high in the ecologically fragile cloud forest near the Ecuador border. Local farmers feared a proposed Monterrico Metals mine would cut off water supplies to their crops, and affect the certification status of shade-grown organic coffee they grow for export.
The farmers voted against allowing mining in their district and church workers attempting to stem environmental destruction became targets of officials and corporations eager to cash in on the project. The dispute became a classic flashpoint between pro-development forces and those trying to protect traditional farming practice.
“Government officials say that mining, which has largely driven Peru’s economic growth in recent years, is crucial to the country’s development, and companies are often eligible for large tax breaks,” wrote Fraser. “Critics, meanwhile, point out that the remote Andean highlands where most mines are located continue to have the country’s highest poverty rates.”
Fraser occasionally felt out of her depth when interpreting the science behind the disputes, particularly in stories involving energy and mining. “I could get to a certain point in my interviews, but then people could snow me because I didn’t have a strong technical background.”
She took some night courses and found a good science degree program at a local university, but the school required her to be in Lima full-time. Casting about for a graduate studies program that could accommodate her career, she opened up a copy of Sierra magazine and found an ad for Green Mountain College’s new MSES program.
The GMC program can be completed in two years and most of the class work is completed online. Each year students gather in Poultney for a three-day residency where they connect with colleagues and faculty and participate in intensive small-group seminars with national leaders in the environmental sciences.
“I travel a good amount, so the portability of the program was essential to me,” Fraser said.
The MSES program also asks students to apply their skills and knowledge to issues in their local areas. Already well schooled in environmental topics in Peru, Fraser gained a deeper scientific background that she has found helpful in her reporting.