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Environmentalist Ma Jun in 2012. Keith Bedford/Redux

 

By ANDREW SHEETS —

(Exercise in writing an obituary about a living person. The only nonfactual information is the death and cause of death — TYJ)

When Chinese environmentalist and investigative journalist Ma Jun began inspecting factories producing components for Apple, he was asked for help by local villages who brought bottles of contaminated river water.

Ma’s environmental nonprofit organization later released an investigative report titled “The Other Side of Apple” in 2011, illuminating heavy metal pollution and toxicity created by Apple’s suppliers’ factories.  Ma’s work resulted in major efforts by the American technology company to address environmental concerns in its supply chain.

Famed for his environmental work in documenting environmental issues in China, especially relating to water contamination, Ma was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2006, and received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012, the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009, and the Skoll Foundation Award in 2015.

Ma, 47, died Wednesday morning from a heart attack, said his wife, Ma Jie.  The nonprofit he founded and directed, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, is known for its work in bringing Chinese government data on factories and pollution to the public in easy-to-understand maps.

Ma was born in 1968 in Qingdao, China according to online profiles, and grew up in Beijing, where he began focusing on environmental issues while working as an investigative journalist for the South China Morning Post from 1993-2000, later becoming the chief representative in Beijing for SCMP.com.

The pollution he witnessed as a journalist led him to write the book, “China’s Water Crisis,” in 1999, which provided one of the first prominent voices for China’s environmental crisis and has often been compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

In 2002 he began work as a consultant for the Sinosphere Corp., advising foreign companies in China on the nation’s environmental, health, and safety regulations.

His research focused on the Chinese government’s lack of capacity for enforcing existing environmental regulations, which incentivized both foreign and domestic companies to skirt regulations whenever possible.   “When you have a situation where the laws are there but the enforcement is not quite there, then you’re basically rewarding those who cut corners and hurting those who try to be responsible,” Ma told the Guardian newspaper.

In 2004, Ma worked as a visiting scholar at Yale as part of the Yale World Fellows Program, where he conducted comparative research on American and Chinese environmental policies.

Ma founded the IPE in May 2006, focusing on the role of the public in driving environmental change in China.  Four months later, the IPE developed the first “China’s Water Pollution Map, “ a database of water pollution records. The IPE maintains the “China Pollution Map Database,” a public database of information, including air and water pollution maps based on corporate environmental records collected by the Chinese government.

The map displays more than 15,000 companies, and more than 1,400 factories have been cited as having taken steps to decrease pollution, 500 of which worked directly with IPE.  In April 2015, IPE released a “Bluesky Map App,” allowing users to check air and water quality, see local sources of pollution, and showing polluting emissions from more than 9,000 companies.

Ma wrote for the online journal Chinadialogue since 2006.  The journal has the slogan “China and the world discuss the environment,” and publishes articles in Chinese and English.

Ma enjoyed running since middle school and compared his work to a marathon, “needing long commitment and effort.”  Once a fan of outdoor running, Ma now knows much more information. As he said in an interview with Yale Environment 360, “I still run, but inside on a treadmill now.”

(Written by Andrew Sheets, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Oct. 29, 2015)

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