The drug trade isn’t just killing people, it’s killing the planet

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Austrian filmmaker, Richard Ladkani. Photo credit: Anita Ladkani/Malaika Pictures.

There are just 15 vaquita porpoises left in the Gulf of California, and in just a few months, that number could plummet to 0. The Earth’s most endangered whale has become a victim not only of the usual environmental suspects, but, due to the fact that its habitat in the Sea of Cortez is also home to the totoaba, a valuable fish, it has been caught up in none other than the drug trade.

This week’s “Scheer Intelligence” guest Austrian filmmaker Richard Ladkani recorded the shocking and dangerous story of the activists, scientists and journalists risking their lives to save the rare whale in his documentary “Sea of Shadows.”

“The film ‘Sea of Shadows’ for me was one of the most important films that I've ever made,” Ladkani tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in the latest installment of his podcast. “Because here you have an example of criminal syndicates attacking planet Earth. And the clock's really ticking, because if they continue to do what they do---if they continue their fight against this ocean, for money and greed---they're actually going to destroy one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

“Nobody has ever heard about this war even happening,” the filmmaker goes on. “It's happening in the shadows, but only a five hours’ drive south of Los Angeles. And here you have a species go extinct---the smallest whale on earth, a beautiful creature right out of a Disney movie, the vaquita.”

The urgency of the issue is highlighted by the fact that at the time of filming, there were double the amount of vaquitas left, indicating an alarming spike in deaths. To add insult to injury, many other marine creatures are being wiped out in the area due to these illegal activities.

Drug cartels became involved in the totoaba fishing trade partly because, according to Ladkani, it’s much easier money than selling narcotics. Their involvement in the overfishing of the Sea of Cortez, however, makes it even more difficult for efforts to save the vaquita to take place because of the deadly threat that getting involved poses to activists, journalists and scientists, as well as to the very fishermen entangled in the trade.

One of the film’s most poignant moments, according to Scheer, comes when a group of well-meaning scientists believe they are saving a vaquita, only to have it die on their watch.

“[This scene] shows that it's a complex problem,” says scheer. “I think the takeaway from your movie is, yes, it's important to save the Sea of Cortez; it's important to save the vaquita. But it has to be done in a comprehensive, serious way. It can't just be talk. You know, and it's not going to be just round up the existing 15 and put them in San Diego in SeaWorld.”

Scheer also highlights how the problem can be traced back to extreme poverty in Mexico, which is at the foundation of violence such as this, and is linked to Western consumption of narcotics.

“One of the depressing things is some of [the fisherman] get killed as a result,” Scheer tells the filmmaker. “But there's an even larger group, at least visibly in your film, that needs this money, that needs to cooperate with the gangsters, because they're on the lowest edge of poverty.”

Listen to Ladkani and Scheer discuss the dire situation in the Sea of Cortez, the dangers the filmmakers faced in the creation of their documentary, and the glimmer of hope that had come from speaking truth to power using “Sea of Shadows.”



Joshua Scheer