The Scientist Who’s Part Indiana Jones, Part Pope Francis
Source International’s Flaviano Bianchini helps the powerless fight back against the poisonous side-effects of environmental extraction.
The Tech Awards, presented by Applied Materials, will be held Nov. 17, 2016. This year, The Tech Awards will celebrate a retrospective of the program’s history by honoring seven past laureates who have made an enormous difference in the world. For more information visit: www.thetech.org/tech-awards-presented-applied-materials.
Flaviano Bianchini knows all about being thrown out of countries.
Sometimes, he has been formally asked to leave. Once, Bianchini was given 48 hours to leave Guatemala, like an unwelcome diplomat being expelled. But it’s not always been so polite. Another time, in a small community in Southwest Mexico essentially ruled by drug cartels, he was confronted by militia members and told get out — and not to come back.
The logical question: Was he in danger?
“Probably not really,” Bianchini said. He paused. “Well, maybe yes. I don’t know really. Sometimes it’s a tricky situation.”
There are reasons Bianchini, a 34-year-old Italian, is seen as a troublemaker by powerful and well-connected corporate interests in third-world countries. It’s because the environmental scientist is a godsend for the powerless. He helps marginalized, indigenous communities by building scientific cases against corrupt companies that are poisoning people and destroying the environment as they extract minerals, gas and oil.
“I am sort of a scientific activist,” said Bianchini, founder and director of Source International. “I mainly do this through a sense of justice. I want to give back. When we see communities in the middle of mountain forests in South America, in Mexico, or wherever else, who are suffering from human-rights abuses and pollution caused by large industries, we help them gather evidence and build legal cases. We’re seeking justice and compensation for people who have no other recourse.”
Source International, a Tech Awards laureate in 2014, is being honored again this year as part of a retrospective gala on Nov. 17, 2016, celebrating the program’s first 15 years. Source International will be recognized with the Intel Environment Award for the impact it has had since first being named a laureate. It will receive a $50,000 prize. Learn more about all of this year’s laureates.
Bianchini’s core staff is just three people. And while it operates primarily in Latin America, the team is working on more than two dozen projects in 13 countries across four continents. They confront a daunting problem. National Geographic recently reported that over the past decade, Latin America alone has seen its mining sector triple in value, to $300 billion. While governments and corporations get rich, residents often suffer.
Bianchini takes up their cause.
“He’s kind of the Indiana Jones of environmental testing,” said Chet Tchozewski, a member of Source International’s board of directors and founder of the Global Greengrants Fund environmental foundation. “He’s always had this interest in helping communities that have been denuded by extracting industries.”
He does it in a decidedly low-tech way that doesn’t seem all that special. Bianchini conducts basic testing of water, air, soil, sediment, hair, food and so on. Then he brings samples back to a lab for evaluation. This way, Bianchini provides indisputable proof that communities are being harmed.
“The main thing is that The Tech Awards was like a stamp on our credibility when we won a few years ago. I believe winning again will be the same — and even more. The Tech is better known in the United States than in Europe and South America. But everyone understands what it means to be recognized by The Tech. It just gives you increased credibility.”
— Flaviano Bianchini
Here’s what is special: No one else does it. Bianchini journeys to far-flung locations and, because Spanish is one of his five languages, he earns the trust of people who have every reason to be wary of outsiders.
In some places, he has discovered tainted water that measures 1,000 times above safe drinking limits. In the 400-year-old city of Cerro de Pasco, Peru, Bianchini found that 100 percent of the residents tested had metal contaminants in their blood due to pollution from a mining operation. One community in Honduras had an infant mortality rate 12 times the national average. He has found locations where the life expectancy was just 27 years.
“It’s a human tragedy,” Bianchini said.
The only thing more tragic would be if no one stood up for them. Bianchini collects the data that tells their story. But there is no denying the risks of the work he and others do.
Earlier this year, Honduran activist Berta Caceres, who had worked closely with Source International and successfully fought the construction of a controversial dam, was killed in her home.
“Of course it makes me feel very angry,” Bianchini said of Caceres’ death. “But then you start to use the tragedy as more motivation to work harder and harder.”
And there are victories.
Source International has helped communities win claims of compensation. Bianchini says more than 100,000 people have benefitted from his team’s work. That includes regions in the Peruvian Amazon Forest where gastrointestinal diseases have been reduced by half. Also, the Honduran Supreme Court quoted a Source International study as it declared a mining law unconstitutional because it violated the basic human right to good health.
It’s why companies may be “a little bit worried” now when they see him coming, Bianchini said. But while mining corporations once were all about profit, he’s seeing a subtle change as increased investor awareness and media exposure have begun shutting down projects.
“I guess I’ve always been something of a pessimist,” he said, laughing. “But recently I’ve been moving in a more optimistic direction. We don’t perceive our opponents as enemies. It’s more like trying to get cooperation and solve the problem instead of conflict. We believe that we can use science to create a common ground of dialogue between companies, communities and government.”
For now, the work continues.
“He goes where the trouble is,” Tchozewski said. “One of the things that I like about him is that he’s so modest. So maybe Indiana Jones is the wrong description. He might be more like Pope Francis. He’s just doing this because he can and he knows that no one else will travel to these hostile places.”
At a Glance: Source International
Year of Previous Award: 2014
Regions of Impact: Global
Funding Sources: A mix of donations from private foundations, grants from public donors as well as revenue from non-government organizations and local communities. Also, a new business model has been added where mining investors pay for testing that ensures their projects are not polluting the environment.
Problem: Mining and extraction industries can damage the environment and harm local communities, and those located in remote areas often have few resources to seek help.
Solution: Provides scientific testing that gives data to indigenous communities in remote regions to help these communities hold mining and other extraction industries accountable.