EJ InSight: Walking With the ‘Guardians of the Forest’ — Lessons From Coverage of Amazonian Fires
By Roger Archibald
The 2018-19 southern hemisphere’s “Summer of Fires” consumed so much of Brazil’s rainforest that the country’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, at one point was plunged by all the smoke into midday darkness.
The fires were also the precipitating event that motivated three separate teams of video journalists to travel to the region to report the events. Each was focused on the same band of Indigenous people trying to protect their native homeland in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest from the depredations of invading illegal loggers and others bent on taking their land.
Teams from ABC News, Reuters and Vice News on Hulu all reported on the Guardians of the Forest, a paramilitary force made up of Guajajara tribe members (subscription required) who are single-handedly fighting to preserve their homes and culture in the Araribóia Indigenous land.
All three productions were later honored with reporting awards across various categories in the 19th SEJ Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment:
- Karla Mendes and Max Baring of the Thomson Reuters Foundation earned first place in the outstanding explanatory reporting (small newsroom or circulation) category for their story, "Guardians of the Forest.” (See also: “Fears Over Rising Violence in Amazon As 'Forest Guardians' Battle Logging,” written by Mendes.)
- Dan Harris, Brian Epstein and Evan Simon, along with four others from ABC News’ documentary unit Nightline Productions, won second place in the outstanding feature story (large newsroom or circulation) category for “Guardians of the Amazon.” (See also: “Deep in the Amazon Rainforest, Armed Tribesmen Battle Illegal Loggers for Their Future — And Ours,” written by Harris et al.)
- And Agnes Walton was part of a team of nineteen from Vice News on Hulu that took third place in the outstanding explanatory reporting (large newsroom or circulation) category for their production, “VICE Investigates: Amazon on Fire.” (Preview only; full length available behind Hulu paywall. See also: “Why the Amazon Is Really on Fire — and Why It's Going To Keep Burning,” written by Walton.)
SEJournal later interviewed team members via email to gain insight into the different approaches the various teams utilized in covering this challenging, intriguing visual story.
Pivoting to the fires, gaining access
“I’d actually written a pitch to explore rural populism,” recalled Walton of Vice, “and how powerful urban forces were riding this cultural celebration of settlers, frontiersmen and cowboys to push development and deforestation on a massive scale in the Amazon.”
But the burning forest encouraged a pivot: “The fires, a very visible symptom of this deforestation, offered a moment and context to tell that story.”
Similarly, the ABC team “wanted to provide coverage that didn’t just highlight the daunting scale of the problem, but also took viewers to the frontlines of the battle for the future of our planet,” according to Harris.
‘By the time we were on our way to Brazil
to embed alongside a tribal paramilitary
group that patrols the forest, the
Amazon was burning at historic rates.’
— Dan Harris
“By the time we were on our way to Brazil to embed alongside a tribal paramilitary group that patrols the forest,” he said, “the Amazon was burning at historic rates, capturing headlines across the globe. We knew we were pursuing a compelling, and timely, story.”
Yet gaining access to the Araribóia Indigenous peoples’ land was an obstacle for all the journalists, although apparently less so for the ABC team, which “succeeded in securing the tribe’s permission to visit their homeland,” Harris said, after “one of our Brazilian producers made several trips to the remote region.”
For the Thomson Reuters duo, the task was much more daunting. “It took months of hard work,” Mendes reported. “The scene was bleak, until I was able to contact someone who works directly with the Guardians, and authorized us to go, after analysis of the work that Max and I do. … It was not an easy task, given the slowness of government agencies and all the obstacles imposed by the (President) Bolsonaro administration.”
Ultimately, Mendes said contacts she’d developed during three years working in Brasilia contributed to their success.
Cultural, linguistic awareness a key
In preparing for their assignments, all the journalists stressed the importance of cultural as well as linguistic awareness.
“It’s important that any journalist working on Indigenous issues be well versed in their rich yet often neglected history,” ABC’s Harris observed. “It will not only be a vital foundation for your reporting but also show your subjects you’re serious about understanding their story.”
Added Thomson Reuters’ Mendes, “In the Amazon, the sense of distance and timing are completely different from urban environments.”
For her part, Walton focused on the logistical hurdles the VICE News team had to overcome.
‘Nothing prepares you for the scale of
the forest, and the scale of destruction.
There was fire everywhere.’
— Agnes Walton
“One challenge we faced was the speed of turnover — just six weeks from pitch to delivery of the final cut. How do you make an hour-long documentary, in a huge forest, in just a few weeks?” she asked. “You need a robust budget, a large team, and a willingness to sleep very little. We shot the material in 4K [video resolution] and sent proxies back to New York, where editors were working to piece together scenes while the field teams were still shooting.”
Still, Walton continued, “Nothing prepares you for the scale of the forest, and the scale of destruction. There was fire everywhere. Burned clearings everywhere. Recently cleared patches of forest and newly-built dirt tracks stretching almost endlessly into forest ever further away.”
She concluded, “It's shocking and sobering, and I had a sense of immense loss.”
Side-by-side with danger
Once the journalists reached the Guajajara Indigenous people’s territory and were embedded with the Forest Guardians, none took their personal safety for granted.
The ABC team felt the danger of their surroundings acutely, reported Harris. “The embed itself turned out to be our greatest challenge. We spent three days and two nights with the Guardians as they patrolled, traveling mostly at night to avoid the prying eyes of loggers and locals paid off to inform on their fellow tribesmen. We traversed dozens of miles of rough terrain carrying heavy gear through intense heat with little sleep, all while filming in dangerous and unpredictable situations.”
Then, said Harris, on the last day of the embed the Guardians “discovered several camps of illegal loggers and performed a daring raid to capture them, allowing us to witness, with cameras rolling, what would become perhaps the defining moment of our story.”
Harris added that weeks after the team left Brazil, two of the Guardians we spent the most time with (Laercio Guajajara and Paulo Guajajara) were ambushed in the forest by a group of armed men, allegedly paid by illegal loggers. The attack severely wounded Laercio and killed Paulo.
“The Guardians frequently spoke of such assassination attempts, and we were well aware of the grim statistics surrounding their work, but it was still shocking to learn of the attack and witness its aftermath.” Harris concluded, “We learned that there are people out there who are targeted and even killed for protecting the climate we all depend on.”
Potential for stereotyping
The importance of balanced reporting was evident, with all the journalists expressing sensitivity to the potential for stereotyping the subjects of their stories. Such concern at times led them to unexpected discoveries.
Baring of the Thomson Reuters team commented, “I'm always aware of the pitfalls of romanticizing Indigenous people and the danger of assuming they are always ‘on the side of nature.’ I also knew from experience that no story is ever black and white.”
“But what did surprise me most,” he went on, “was [that] the two illegal loggers that the Guardians stopped in the middle of the night on an illegal logging trail were themselves, just like the Guardians, Indigenous Guajajara men.”
‘The forces driving deforestation have deep
roots in the demographics of poverty and
landlessness, as well as in organized crime.
Being Indigenous does not automatically
make you a conservationist.’
— Max Baring
Having learned that “the forces driving deforestation have deep roots in the demographics of poverty and landlessness, as well as in organized crime,” Baring concluded, “Being Indigenous does not automatically make you a conservationist.”
Vice’s Walton voiced similar concerns. “We were very conscious of wanting to tell the story from many points of view,” she said. “It was very important to portray the forest as a human society and a place where people live. It's not an empty expanse, it's full of people. So whatever happens there, impacts humans.”
Walton noted that “a lot of news outlets had covered the fires as if they were wildfires.” She countered: “Of course they weren't. They were agricultural fires, used to clear land. And that misrepresentation comes from the misconception that the forest is a place of nature, not a place of human production and politics.”
Admitting that “Western media outlets are certainly guilty of presenting a simplified narrative about the forest,” she continued, “It's either portrayed as an empty space, filled only with animals and plants, something ‘untouched’ for which there’s an unequivocal moral duty to conserve. Or it's portrayed as the space where Indigenous peoples collide with settlers, an arena for a battle between good and evil.”
Concluded Walter: “Reality is more complicated. I thought it was important to honor their culture and history, while also covering the scale of destruction that extraction and agriculture have caused.”
Pressure on time, resources
All of the journalists lamented the time restrictions that prevented them from including everything in their productions that would otherwise have enabled them to better tell their stories.
Harris, whose ABC News team spent only three days with the Guardians, said, “Our effort to track down the employers of the illegal loggers working in the area developed some promising leads, but we were too pressed for time and resources to fully investigate such a complex underground economy. We wish we could have spent more time on the ground to unravel that aspect of the story.”
Walton’s VICE News team was similarly frustrated. “We certainly needed much more time. The pace we were working at was maniacal, but the story lacks the voice of at least one person on the top, who's making big decisions and pulling strings. I often think about how many victims and how few villains we see in climate reporting, and it's a critique I'd absolutely apply to this story too.”
Also, aware that three separate production teams had descended on this one group of Guardians at roughly the same time, Walton added a cautionary note: “We also need to be smarter about not covering the same people and same beats as ‘every’ other news outlet. The Guajajara story was so well covered, but countless others weren't seen at all. That gives the public the impression that the story is limited and contained, making it seem smaller than the massive-scale existential threat it really is.”
From the perspective of the following years, she concluded, “The lesson is that one story isn't enough, and we need to see many more.”
Adding context, bringing climate change closer;
The smallest of the teams covering the Guardians — the Thomson Reuters duo of Mendes and Baring — appeared to be the most successful at obtaining the broadest story coverage, despite shooting in just 10 days.
“We felt it was vital to add as much context as we could,” Baring reported. “Karla managed to leverage all her contacts and experience (in Brasilia) to get the very top level interviews with the state chief of police, the head of the ‘uncontacted’ peoples desk, a top environmental investigator, (President) Bolsonaro’s new and very controversial agriculture minister and the first-ever Indigenous congresswoman.”
Nevertheless, Mendes regretted that more attention wasn’t devoted to Paulo Guajajara, the Guardian leader who was assassinated a few months after their visit. “I’d have given him much more voice in both the video and the written story,” she said. “He was such a great leader, and all his remarks so strongly portended an upcoming tragedy.”
With a nod to the longstanding mantra of environmental activism — “Think Globally, Act Locally” — Walton summed up by stepping back from the context of her reporting on the Indigenous Guardians of the Amazon to explore how that slogan perhaps now applies to the way environmental journalism should be practiced going forward.
“There’s a really well-trodden path where the ‘big, important, expensive’ headline climate reporting tends to go,” she began. “And our story is certainly aligned with that tradition. Impressive and remote landscapes, Indigenous people, forests, glaciers, etc.”
Walton continued: “This kind of climate reporting exists, I think, as a form of escapism for people. You get a window into another world; it's dramatic and grandiose and tragic. But it's also far away. I often wonder whether we're making climate change seem more distant to most people, and less relevant to their lives, with this kind of reporting.”
But, Walton went on, “the challenge — and it's one that a lot of good reporting is taking on, and really succeeding with — is to bring climate change closer, to show how our natural surroundings have changed directly around us. Unglamorous places are also changing. They’re also the victims of ecological collapse. New Jersey is also nature, and it's also warming. But as environmental journalists, we aren’t great at covering that in an engaging way, and we seem unsure how to remind people of what's being lost — to them directly, and in their surroundings. And why that change, which to them is incremental and probably imperceptible, matters.”
Concluded Walton: “It's much easier to go to the Amazon and make a story about a huge fire, and cowboys, and strongmen and Indigenous fighters.”
Contributing SEJournal editor and creator of EJ InSight Roger Archibald is a freelance photographer and writer based in Boston. He is also the founder and director of the Documerica 2020 Project, and was a co-founder of the North American Nature Photography Association. Previously, Archibald was a U.S. Forest Service seasonal smokejumper, a U.S. Merchant Marine officer and a Navy Vietnam veteran.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.