The increasingly dangerous work of environmental journalism

An indigenous Tikuna woman in Peru keeps her anonymity, for fear of persecution for sharing stories about illegal actions on her community's coca land. Vanessa Romo, Mongabay
3 May 2019
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This post is also available in: Spanish

I still remember the intensity with which Pablo García, former head of the Tikuna indigenous community of Buen Jardín, Peru, told me of a confrontation between bands of drug traffickers in his territory: “At eight in the norming, we heard a number of people in boats coming toward us, shooting as they came. And the other group in the boat came up into the community and began running, armed, toward that house there, and the others shot at them.” Pablo’s testimony confirms the sense of impunity and insecurity present in the Amazonian trapezoid, a space bordered by Brazil, Colombia and Peru that is increasingly controlled by drug-trafficking cartels.

I had come to Pablo’s community about a month earlier to write a story for Tierra de Resistentes, a feature that proposed to address the threats and violence perpetrated against environmental defenders in Lain America. We had received information that the Tikuna indigenous residents feared for their lives, and in their attempt to conserve their forest, they had decided to stop the invasions of settlers seeking more land for the illegal cultivation of the coca leaf.

During the trip we verified the zone’s insecurity, the absence of the State and the fear of the residents. The coverage wasn’t important only for the urgency of narrating these stories, but also because it confirmed what I see year after year as a senior editor for Mongabay Latam: environmental field coverage is increasingly dangerous for the journalists who decide to go to the most remote areas of their countries. Environmental crimes have become more complex, extended their borders and adapted to the organized crime scheme. In the majority of cases, they take place in distant zones, where it is harder to monitor who is responsible and a challenge to capture them, and where official control posts are few and far between.

Deforestation in Buen Jardín, Peru, is captured with a drone. Buen Jardín environmental monitors

It is in these difficult conditions that the more than 30 journalists who are Mongabay correspondents all over the region continue telling their crucial stories.

The mafias that operate the illegal lumber traffic; those that concentrate on increasing the plantations of illegal cops without caring if they are in protect areas; those who finance the illegal mining that devastates virgin forests and rivers; and those who traffic wildlife species, violently impacting the biodiversity – these people and groups of people require rigorous field research, close to the direct sources. This gives a voice and face to the information that appears in the satellite maps.

We should also not lose sight of the “illegal deforestation,” as some experts call what the State itself sometimes promotes by opening the doors to large-scale mining and agro-industry, as well as infrastructure projects that would hardly pass minimum environmental standards. The journalists who specialize in these issues have a lot to tell and also a lot to lose. Their security is at stake most of the time.

An especially delicate situation occurs with our Central American colleagues. The journalists who cover the threats to the region’s national protected areas have to grapple with the fact that these areas have been invaded by drug-traffickers. The increase of illegal cattle raising on very sensitive ecosystems is an excuse the mafias use to operate unpunished and to build clandestine landing strips to get their shipments out. Covering these stories in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua was an enormous challenge for our correspondents. The series of stories on this grave problem received honorable mention in 2018 from the Inter American Press Association’s Roberto Eisenmann Jr. Environmental Journalism awards for journalistic excellence, demonstrating the quality of work done by Central American journalists.

Tikuna farmer Pablo García told Mongabay reporters that he needs help from the government to continue safely living on his land. Alexa Vélez, Mongabay

Another very difficult setting for environmental coverage is Colombia. After the signing of the Peace Accord between the FARC and the government, land struggles and speculation has become one of the cause of death for dozens of environmental defenders. Tierra de Resistentes (Land of Resistants) identified 180 victimizing events in Colombia in 10 years (2009-2018). A similar situation exists in Bolivia where illegal tree felling has shot up – a recent report put it fifth among the world’s most deforested countries in 2018 – and where drug trafficking is also present in protected areas such as Tipnis. Zones like Tipnis are almost inaccessible, even for the authorities, but journalists get there.

Just as difficult is proving the existence of criminal networks that make their money trafficking threatened wildlife species, such as the case of the Chinese detected in the Galápagos archipelago with a gigantic illegal load of hammerhead sharks; or in the teeth and other parts of jaguars extracted from the Bolivian forests and sent to Asian markets; or in scarlet macaws constantly stolen from their nests in Guatemala, México and Honduras.

Journalistic environmental coverage is imperative, as is the commitment that must be assumed by Latin America’s media to monitor and report on the actions taken by the States. On 1 January of this year, following this logic, a group of 25 members of the region’s media made the commitment to sign the editorial: We aren’t doing enough.  The phrase questions us as journalists: what more can we do?  “This continent’s journalists have a profound commitment to scientifically understand that the entire planet must move toward a different model of growth and development,” the editorial says. 

Reporting on environmental crimes is more important than ever, which means that thinking about the security of the journalists who cover this issue must also become a priority.    



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