Beautiful Beast Turning a negative into a positive by subjecting it to light


By Steve Galster.

Traveling into new and different worlds awakens the mind and heart.  That’s what I felt this morning as I exited Addis Ababa airport after snoozing through most of my 9 hour Ethiopian Airlines flight from Bangkok.  I hailed a taxi that had “jalopy” written all over it, and scanned the mosaic of hills that form this rugged, colorful city (Addis Ababa means “new flower”).   I found myself staring at the strikingly beautiful people walking past me toward their cars following their own journeys home.  My first office in Washington, DC, long ago, sat atop an Ethiopian restaurant where I gained a curiosity for this country and a real appreciation for its unique and energetic music.  Reggae’s Bob Marley was deeply influenced by this place.  But as my unblinking, dry eyes took it all in, it was a Johnny Cash tune that entered my jet lagged, but surprisingly clear head: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine;…I keep my eyes wide open all the time…” This place woke me up! I walked the line to my taxi and held the broken door close to my side all the way to my hotel, peering out the broken window, day dreaming how beautiful and interlinked this world is, and how similar we all are in our human desire for safety and love, as well as our occasional instinct to flirt with danger, control, pleasure, and excitement.

The night before I left Bangkok, my organization, Freeland, had a raging rooftop dance party to raise money to stop violence against humans and wild animals.  I work with a bunch of people who love this world and want to protect it as their full time job. We’ve drawn up a plan to make this world free of wildlife trafficking and human slavery.  Most of us gave up other jobs and opportunities to work on this dark stuff, and it does come with some anxiety.  It’s not easy to raise kids or sign long-term apartment rentals on an NGO salary.  But we are rich: our lives are never boring and are always (almost always), gratifying.  The Saturday night party was not only to get donations, but also to blow some steam following intense efforts to stop trafficking, while navigating darkness, corruption and bureaucracy. 

There must have been 500 people at the 33rd floor party, which was DJ’ed by Bert Bevans, the original resident Disc Jockey at Studio 54 back when it was the place to be seen back in NYC during the late 70s and 80s.  So it was disco funk at its best.  At 58, Bert, originally from Belize, is full of life and optimism, which is how his music feels.  Down to earth, Bert tells great stories about his time hanging with the stars at that infamous big apple party spot way back then, before many people at the party were born.  And now he has new adventures to speak of, traveling the globe to play famous clubs in Ibiza, London, Brazil, you name it. He’s helped Freeland and our partner, Above Eleven, form “Funky Freeland”, a party brand to raise money for investigation work, which is hard to get donations for. If it’s a good party we could raise enough to pay for 2 months of hard digging in some countries.  I thought, what’s wrong with partying for good? Dance floor shaking and full to the end, they all clearly had a blast.  I was happy.

A few people thought it strange to have a party right after we helped Thai Police find mass graves full of dead slaves.  We didn’t time it that way.  We always need more support and awareness to keep the fight against trafficking going.  I also felt that our team needed a short break after a long streak of intense work.  We need to be celebrating life, while trying to protect it.  Ok, enough excuses.

In fact, it is still haunting to think of that human trafficking horror story that is still all over the news.  Boat loads of desperately poor, ethnic minority Rohingyas being tricked into thinking someone had a job for them, only to end up in detention camps, being extorted for money they didn’t have, or face being stuck –and even dying—on some abandoned rubber plantation very far from home.  

How can slavery still be happening in 2015?

For the previous 3 months, three of our “digital forensics” experts were dispatched to quietly help police in southern Thailand examine data from telephone sim cards taken off drivers who were caught smuggling lots of people to secret locations near the Malaysian border. Using special software, our staff showed the cops how to extract and plot the phone data onto spread sheets to see who was the kingpin of the syndicate, and who was helping him.  Phones tell a good story when you know how to make them talk.   In this case the data helped Thai police find and arrest a man named Anwar.  And that led to dirty bank accounts, graves, and more. 

Anwar was a senior broker in this slavery scheme.  He and his colleagues would go to Myanmar ad recruit Rohingyas –an ethnic minority without a country– stuff them onto a boat, then drive them to southern Thailand where the promises of jobs turned to lies and much worse.  Rounded up into camps, the traffickers would ask the Rohingyas if they had friends or relatives nearby or not.  Those who did were then asked to make a call and come up with $3,000 to buy their freedom.  Those who had no contacts were sold for $1,000 to farmers in Malaysia.  Many got stuck, sick and perished, then secretly buried.

We know from our research that Anwar is not Mr. Big.  So after his arrest, we put out a press release congratulating the hard working police, while encouraging top Thai authorities to widen and continue the investigation into this cross border criminal operation.  There have to be people higher up the chain than Anwar in this dirty, multi-million dollar scheme.  But would the authorities dare reach further into such dark and powerful corners?  The journalists who came to our party said they doubted it.  It was hard to argue.

Feeling slightly dry and tired the next day, and getting ready to head to Bangkok’s Survarnabhumi Airport to catch my flight to Addis, the Thai Foreign Ministry called to ask for more information about the case.  They said they were going to organize a regional meeting to widen the scope of the investigation.  Wow.  Just when you’re feeling tired and almost hopeless, there’s progress and hope to wake you up. 

That’s what Addis feels like as you look around.  New worlds re-awaken the senses and one’s optimism.  People seem so nice here.  Everyone points their chin and shoulders upward and smiles serenely.  As the taxi bumped through the wet roads, tall women with very soft afros walked past orthodox priests dressed in long black robes, while soldiers donning camouflage uniforms stood in front of civilian men who were sitting down in their smart casual jackets drinking coffee, talking and watching it all go by.  

I arrived and fumbled through my hotel lobby and was startled to hear my friend Jonathan Head’s voice.  He was reporting in a BBC TV report describing the Rohingya slavery scandal.  The story was global.  A great journalist, Jonathan repeated what he told me days before when my colleague Sulma and I ran into him at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club.  It boiled down to this:  many people, including police, army, local politicians and villagers were all in on the scheme to entrap and exploit the Rohingyas.  Everyone was profiting.  Well, not everyone to be precise.  There were good cops and local authorities who helped expose the trafficking, but they didn’t feel safe to do so until the Prime Minister paid more attention and demanded action.  It just made me think: If we are the world, then we are the Beauty and the Beast.  I just don’t believe life is a simple story of good people vs. bad people.  There’s something more to it.  Darkness and lightness appears everywhere.  Evil is not confined to a particular group of people or place.  Living alongside the troubled men and women who exploited the Rohingyas are people who blew the whistle on the mass graves.  According to press reports, in addition to the peaceful Ethiopians walking down the streets are Ethiopian men trafficking and raping girls.  While my hometown friends ask me “how can you work in such dangerous places,” insinuating the USA is so peaceful, I think about the recent Baltimore race riots; or about old stories of Ed Gene, the man who lived 35 miles from my small Wisconsin hometown where he invited people over for dinner and ate them, inspiring Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho.

Darkness seeps in everywhere when allowed, so how do we keep it out?  Or can you?  When I started working to stop wildlife and human trafficking, my friend Tom showed me the definition of “exposure”: turning a negative into a positive by subjecting it to light. 

That is what we are trying to do at Freeland: exposing darkness and lightening things up.

Neither my colleagues nor I pretend to be saviors on white horses.  We have our own challenges and issues.  I think we’re linked through our common desire to solve darkness.  A famous South African wildlife conservationist, Ian Player (brother to golfer Gary Player), told me a few months right back before he died:  “we need to look in the mirror when we get angry at someone, because we’re probably seeing a bit of ourselves.”  Referencing Carl Jung, he said we need to come to grips with our own dark side before we can feel the light. NGO activists, including myself, are far from perfect, and often compete for territory like the big carnivores we’re trying to save.  But at the end of the day, we do believe that voiceless victims need a voice.

Freeland TV will initially follow our staff and partners around Asia and Africa who are setting up programs to combat wildlife and human trafficking.  We’ll follow rangers into the jungles of Southeast Asia where they chase poachers and illegal loggers.  We will accompany undercover police targeting syndicates trafficking animals.  We’ll follow the plight of the ocean’s sharks, the ongoing trade in shark fin, and the activists trying to stop it.  We’ll go inside the world of psychologists and advertising to see behavior change experts designing new ways to reduce demand of endangered species.  And we’ll enter the underworld of human trafficking, including forced labor and enslaved sex workers to see what can be done to stop it. 

And, for better or worse, a whole lot more. 

I’m in Africa this month working with partners, setting up a network to stop poaching and trafficking of wild animals, like elephants, cheetahs, lions, rhinos, and the many small creatures that don’t get much attention, but are getting poached and packaged in large quantities as gifts or medicine, like tortoises, geckos, lizards and more.  A lot of these critters are being trafficked to Asia, where our headquarters is located.  So we are trying to bring the good energy of Asia together with the good energy of Africa to relieve pressure on Mother Nature. 

Investigating all this, we’re discovering the convergence of crime: Human traffickers are getting into wildlife trafficking.  Al Shabaab terrorists are killing elephants to pay for bullets to kill innocent people.  Pakistani drug dealers have moved into the rhino horn trade.  American, Chinese and African businessmen are paying for canned hunts of lions and giraffes, while pleasuring themselves with young women trafficked in from Southeast Asia as part of their hunting junket. 

Join us on the frontlines.  Let us know what you think of our stories. Help us make sense of them and convert darkness to light. We can help the Beauty win over the Beast if we understand the Beast.  It’s a beautiful world.  Lets fix it.