How Collaborative Journalism Enabled Reporting on Latin America’s Threats to Environmental Leaders

Hernando Sánchez

Juan Miguel Álvarez interviewing Afro-Colombian leader Elizabeth Moreno Barco in Cucurrupí, Colombia, on the banks of the San Juan River.

 

After eight years as an environmental journalist in Colombia, Andrés Bermúdez Liévano was familiar with the violence that sometimes faced people trying to protect their lands and livelihoods from development and pollution. But these stories often came one at a time: isolated incidents, rumors of danger. Bermúdez Liévano wanted to better understand the magnitude and patterns behind the violence, he says.

Then, in 2016, Michel Forst, a United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, released a report on the violence facing environmental advocates. It described a shocking number of killings, often of people objecting to mines, agribusiness, dams, and logging. It also showcased a long list of other forms of harassment: threats to families, disappearances, surveillance, blackmail, travel bans, slander, and more. The scale of the violence, Forst argued, “indicates a truly global crisis.”

But Bermúdez Liévano’s trained reporter eye focused on one detail: Six of the ten most dangerous countries were in Latin America.

He talked to colleagues at Consejo de Redacción, a Colombian association of investigative journalists he’d joined several years earlier. Like him, they were wondering how to cover the escalating attacks against environmental activists in the region. They also wondered about the impact of the violence: Could killing an environmental leader be the first domino unleashing the collapse of entire communities and ecosystems?

With initial funding from DW Akademie, Germany’s agency promoting independent media worldwide, they started Land of Resistants, a project that would produce the most ambitious journalistic coverage of violence against environmental leaders in Latin America.

Land of Resistants is an ongoing international multimedia effort. So far, 38 reporters from 10 countries in Latin America have documented nearly 2,400 attacks against environmental and Indigenous leaders, creating the biggest dataset of these kinds of attacks in Latin America. Additionally, reporters have worked on 29 in-depth stories to better understand the nuances, and the shared patterns, of the violence that environmental defenders endure. In 2020, the project was a finalist for the Premio Gabo, one of the most prestigious journalism awards in Spanish.

The group wanted to “bring complexity to the conversation” about environmental leadership in Latin America, Bermúdez Liévano says. “I think we achieved that.”

Land of Resistants came at a time when, as Nieman Reports has repeatedly reported, journalism is becoming increasingly collaborative. A 2020 report by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University showed that collaborations specifically focused on climate reporting have sharply spiked since 2014.

The reasons behind this rise are diverse. For the Land of Resistants team, the chance to scale up audiences and impact was a primary reason to take this approach. Working alone, Bermúdez Liévano says, a journalist might be able to see one or two points of connection between cases. “But if you work with more people, you can connect those dots”—seeing whole constellations rather than individual stars.

To map out those constellations, the project’s core team had to plan its approach carefully, explains Tatiana Pardo, a Colombian freelance journalist and co-editor of Land of Resistants. In November 2018, 25 journalists from seven countries got together in Bogotá to shape the initial plan for the project. A year later, 15 new journalists—including Pardo—joined the project, and gathered for three days in Bogotá.

 

Consejo de Redacción

A photo during the first meeting, in late 2018, where 25 journalists defined the first set of stories for Land of Resistants.

 

Pardo describes those three days as intense but necessary. “We knew we were doing something new and hard to do,” she says. To prepare for the project, the team had to build from the ground up. They knew they wanted to document the real scope of the violence against defenders and see if they could find any patterns. They had little to start with: The information about violence against these leaders was scarce and diffuse, and it wasn’t even clear who should be considered an environmental-rights defender. In many cases, they knew only names, but no details. They decided they would create a unified, robust dataset, and a series of in-depth features to add a human story to those names on people’s screens.

The team had to answer the most basic questions first: How would they define “environmental leaders,” and what would they consider violence against them? (What, for example, to make of threats on social media?) To pick the stories to focus on in the features, they did a pitch slam in which each journalist had between 10 and 20 minutes to explain two or three ideas. They set up a detailed schedule to report, write, and edit each story.

To build the database, they set up a reporting process for all the journalists. They started looking for cases that had occurred since 2009: looking for media reports, sending information requests to government institutions, and asking Indigenous organizations, nonprofits, and human rights advocates if they knew about cases not covered by the press. To register all that information, the team used a Google questionnaire only accessible with a password and username. This way, the answers were automatically compiled on a spreadsheet, later used to create the data visualizations. The spreadsheet included categories such as where the attack happened, the victim’s basic information (age, gender, and a couple of lines about who they were), whether the person belonged to an ethnic minority group, what kind of resources they defended, and any previous violent episodes. These details helped them to later find patterns in the violence. They created detailed instructions to guide the collection of information in certain categories, such as “type of violence,” to avoid the complications that would arise if, for example, one journalist wrote “murdered,” another, “homicide,” and another one, “killed.”

 

Consejo de Redacción

This is the board where the team wrote down all the ideas for the first round of in-depth stories, during the first pitch slam.

 

The in-depth pieces brought their own set of challenges, particularly over safety issues. Many environmental leaders live in isolated, rural areas, where the state’s presence is often virtually nonexistent. So the team partnered up with Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), an organization fighting for press freedom in Colombia, to create a strict safety protocol. Before leaving, each journalist left a detailed itinerary, including the days they thought they’d be able to call in to report (some of the regions were off-the-grid). They also agreed on a safety word that the journalist would say during phone calls if she or he were kidnapped during the trip, and informed their editors of their blood type, medical conditions, and any kind of bodily markings—things like tattoos or moles or birthmarks— that would help identify their bodies if anything went wrong. Finally, between November 2018 and February 2019, and then in January 2020, the journalists embarked on reporting trips all over Latin America. Their stories capture the complex decisions journalists face when covering environmental leadership.

 

Making a Flexible Plan

When Lisseth Boon, one of the team members, reached her reporting site in southeast Venezuela, she found an immediate problem: She and her traveling colleague, Lorena Meléndez, had no mobile network access, so they weren’t able to make any of their scheduled phone calls. Yet she didn’t feel unsafe, she says. As the editor of the investigative portal RunRun.es, Boon had been in the area before, so she had a small network of sources who guided her through the eastern side of Canaima National Park, where illegal miners are taking over Pemón Indigenous lands as the Venezuelan army turns a blind eye. The knowledge of the area and who to trust allowed her and Meléndez to move safely across the region to tell the story of one Indigenous leader speaking truth to the military: Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy, from the Pemón peoples.

 

Lisseth Boon

A selfie of Lisseth Boon and her reporting partner, Lorena Meléndez, during their reporting trip in Venezuela.

 

Henrito Percy was slandered by the Venezuelan army on a TV show because she opposed mining activities on her people’s lands. In an interview, General Roberto González Cárdenas had accused Henrito Percy of “betraying the homeland” and leading a secessionist movement. The Indigenous leader saw those words as an attempt to erode her credibility within the Pemón peoples, aimed at enabling the army to enter their ancestral territories to support the expansion of the mining activities in the region.

Because the situation with the army and illegal miners had escalated—there had been a massacre of three members of the Pemón Indigenous group in early 2019—Boon and Meléndez decided to enter as tourists, only confiding that they were journalists to the people they wanted to interview. They only took out their cameras or recording equipment when they were inside the sources’ homes, away from eyes on the street.

 

Protecting Vulnerable Sources

Unlike Boon and Meléndez, whose main character was already publicly recognized and had no issue facing the camera, Alexa Vélez Zuazo and her colleague Vanessa Romo arrived in a community where most of the environmental leaders who were central to their story were still anonymous. The leaders they wrote about are facing drug traffickers who are cutting down forests to plant coca in their Tikuna ancestral lands near the Peruvian-Colombian border, in the Amazon.

Vélez Zuazo and Romo knew that if they wanted to enter as journalists, the illegal actors in the region wouldn’t allow them to do their job. Fortunately, an NGO that was already working on deforestation in the area allowed Vélez Zuazo and Romo to enter with them, disguised as part of the project. This situation presented an added reporting challenge: Not only did they have to use cameras and recorders sparsely and only in private spaces, but they had to restrict their interviews to the places where the NGO could enter. Most of the time, each talked to a different person, in order to interview as many leaders as possible within the limited time they spent in each location.

In all cases, Vélez Zuazo says, the biggest concern wasn’t her safety, but her sources’—she didn’t want to add to the danger they were already facing. So she and Romo used what they call “an exclusion system” to decide what personally identifying information to include and to leave out of stories. First, they repeatedly asked sources if they were sure they wanted to reveal their identities, explaining the consequences doing so might have. If the sources wanted to omit names, Vélez Zuazo and Romo were also careful about sharing other details, such as about the place or location of specific events. If necessary, Vélez Zuazo says, they omitted those details too. Finally, if she believed the risk was too high for her sources, with the sources’ consent she informed legal authorities she trusts about their cases, hoping they’d get protection.

 

When the Violence Has No Shape

Whereas most of the stories in the Land of Resistants project narrate identifiable violent episodes against environmental leaders, there was one case in which the violence was there but it was nebulous, almost impossible to grasp without taking a deep dive into the context in which it happened. It was the story of the environmental and social conflicts that lithium mining has created in the northeastern Argentinian region of Jujuy, where 33 Kolla Indigenous communities have traditionally depended on salt extraction, agriculture, and tourism.

Ezequiel Fernández Bravo and his colleague Emiliano Gullo found that the violence against regional leaders wasn’t as explicit as in the rest of the stories. There had been an attack against one member of seven anti-mining families in 2012, allegedly by pro-mining members of the community. But in this case, much of the resistance that environmental leaders faced was subtler: Rather than physical violence or character assassination, communities faced a justice system that ignored their right to prior, free, and informed consultation before mining operations began in their lands, and denied them justice in the sole instance of explicit violence from 2012. In reporting the story, Fernández stayed in Buenos Aires making phone calls and working to understand international lithium markets, while Gullo went to Jujuy to interview the community members and employees from the mining companies.

This allowed them to show, in their piece, the subtle violence and conflicts of interest imposed by the close relationships between companies, courts, and politicians. For example, they were able to report the case of Reinaldo Casimiro, an Indigenous farmer, or campesino, who lives near a recently installed lithium plant. His llamas, goats, and donkeys started losing weight after the mine arrived and started using precious water the community relied on to grow grass for the animals. He took his case to the Environmental Court of Jujuy, only to find out that the judge in charge of the ruling, María Laura Flores, is married to lawyer Fernando Eleit, member of the Mining Chamber of Jujuy and advisor of the companies working in the region. Once Gullo had talked to enough people in the community to grasp what was going on, he went back to Buenos Aires, where the writing process began.

 

Writing and Editing: Harmonizing Diverse Voices

After the reporting was done, each pair of journalists involved in Land of Resistants took a different route to transcribing interviews, organizing their notes and writing each piece. Fernández and Gullo wrote their story together; Vélez Zuazo and Boon each wrote individually from their reporting partners; and Romo and Meléndez each focused on producing the multimedia content that accompanied their respective stories. In all cases, however, pre-organizing the information while reporting in the field helped the teams visualize possible story structures from the beginning.

During the editing process, “We didn’t have a strategy to unify the tone,” explains Pardo, who was the main editor of all of the stories. “We mainly focused on answering the basic questions of the investigation.”

 

Tatiana Pardo

Tatiana Pardo, lead editor of the project, during her reporting trip investigating deforestation in the Llanos del Yarí-Yaguará II Indigenous reservation.

 

Juan Miguel Álvarez believes his story, which was about Afro-Colombian leader Elizabeth Moreno Barco, benefitted from the broader context that the series editors encouraged him to add. Álvarez has been a freelance journalist for almost 20 years but only started writing environmental stories in 2015. He was familiar with the communities on the Colombian Pacific Coast, where he followed Moreno Barco along the San Juan River, where all kinds of environmental conflicts—from pollution to illegal mining and drug trafficking—converge. “For me, it was a lesson,” Álvarez says. Andrés and Tatiana were adamant about including the scientific, environmental, and medical context for understanding the biodiversity in the Chocó region and about the pollution caused by glyphosate fumigation of coca plantations, he says. Without that, he says, “it would have been a political text with the environmental theme as background, not as a central part.”

In total, each story took between two and six months to complete. By the time the first 16 in-depth stories were published in May 2019, the team had researched 1,300 cases of violence against environmental leaders across Latin America. After that first cycle, the team secured more funding and they repeated the process, inviting 15 additional journalists to join, including young journalists who were mentored by their peers to report and write their stories. In April 2020, they published the second round of in-depth stories, now covering 13 activists in ten countries.

“In the future we want to document all countries [of the region], cross-examine data and find stories there, look for trends and patterns to look into,” Bermúdez Liévano says. “The idea is that the project turns into a living repository of stories that center on environmental leaders” and that helps people understand that the problem is not only that they kill an Indigenous leader, “but that his death affects us all.”

 

 

 

 

María Paula RubianoMateo Guerrero

María Paula Rubiano A.

María Paula Rubiano A. is a freelance science journalist writing about biodiversity, environmental justice, food, and sustainability for Popular Science, Audubon, Atlas Obscura, El Espectador, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @Pau_Erre.

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