While all attention is focused on the current coronavirus crisis, a group of Latin American journalists is investigating another topic of great urgency in Latin America that has not dissipated with the current pandemic: violence against environmental leaders on the continent.
According to the investigative and collaborative reporting project Tierra de Resistentes (Land of Resistants), at least six environmental defenders in Latin America were killed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 crisis a pandemic.
Adán Vez Lira, an advocate for the La Mancha wetlands and mangroves in Veracruz, Mexico, is included in that number. He was shot while riding his motorcycle in Actopan on April 8.
Vez Lira’s story was published along the second phase of reporting for the Tierra de Resistentes project, launched on April 22. The project has already published 29 reports and an unprecedented database with 2,367 attacks against environmental leaders in the last 11 years in Latin America. With content available in English, Portuguese and Spanish, the team has decided to make the project permanent.
After the success of the first stage, the initiative was expanded and now has a team of about 50 journalists, developers and photographers from ten Latin American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.
Led by the Colombian organization Consejo de Redacción, the project brings together the following participants: Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), Mongabay Latam, France 24 Español, Anfibia (Argentina), RunRun.es (Venezuela), Contra Corriente (Honduras), InfoAmazonia (Brazil), GK (Ecuador), Ocote (Guatemala), Convoca.pe (Peru), El Deber (Bolivia), Mexicanos contra la Corrupción y Impunidad (Mexico), as well as the Colombian outlets El Espectador, El País de Cali, El Tiempo, Mutante, La Liga contra el Silencio, RCN News, Verdad Abierta, La Patria and La Silla Vacía.
Created in 2018, Tierra de Resistentes aims to give visibility to the violence suffered by environmental defenders in Latin America, identified as the region most hostile to environmentalists by UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst. The president of the Consejo de Redacción, Dora Montero, told the Knight Center that she already wanted to organize a wide-ranging investigation of the environment,when she heard about Forst's 2016 report.
“And that coincided with the fact that in Colombia the murders of social leaders increased dramatically since 2017,” she explained, regarding another motive behind the project. With funding from Deutsche Welle Akademie, as well as additional support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Tierra de Resistentes began with a meeting in November 2018 in Bogota, Colombia, with members invited to the first stage.
There were three days of work and workshops, including courses on interpretation of maps and satellite images, geolocation and databases. The first stage, with 15 reports and the database, was launched in April 2019.
“We had some great achievements, a couple of German and French media outlets that published us, The New Yorker as well, and all that dissemination helped us get funding for the second part,” Montero said.
Interestingly, technical problems that occurred on the day the page was launched ended up contributing to the permanence of the project, initially imagined as just having a single edition, Montero explained. “We had a lot of problems with the page, so we decided to put together a WhatsApp group, before we used only email. And the group never disintegrated, that was the important thing. A few days later there were already some journalists from Brazil contacting us that the community covered in the report had received a ruling by the Brazilian constitutional court to protect their territory, then there was a very serious ruling in Guatemala,” she said.
The main reason why the project was maintained was the commitment and interest of the participating journalists. Even after the funding ended, the reporters continued to investigate the stories and follow the environmental leaders they focused on. “Everyone followed and everyone wanted to work, that is, we really have a commitment to the issue, not only journalistically but also ethically and morally with the communities,” she said.
With the new contribution, it was possible to organize the second stage. Three media outlets from three new countries, Argentina, Honduras and Venezuela, and six organizations from Colombia were included, totaling nine additional members. The project held another meeting and workshops for new participants. And on April 22, 2020, the 14 reports from the second phase were published. The database for all countries has been updated to include the violence experienced in the last year.
According to Montero, this inclusion of the new data was largely due to the personal commitment of the old members, since the financing of the second stage was directed to the reports and workshops of the new participants.
The involvement of journalists and the urgency of the topic made it clear to their organizers that the project should become permanent. Thus, Tierra de Resistentes will function as a live repository of reports, constantly fed by its members. And with the aim of including more and more countries in Latin America, deepening new lines of investigating and updating the database annually.
“If in two weeks I make a report about another environmental defender attacked in Colombia and publish it in my media outlet, then I can also upload it on our website, so that there is a place to centralize all those stories of violence,” Andrés Bermúdez Liévano, general editor of the project, told the Knight Center. The journalist, who works for CLIP, also contributes with his own reports to Tierras de Resistentes.
The collaboration also serves to strengthen small independent media and support investigative journalists specializing in the environment. Investigative coordinator for the Venezuelan site RunRun.es, Lisseth Boon, joined the project in the second stage. Boon told the Knight Center that she was very honored by the invitation. “It is a very important initiative, because it is making visible those struggles that are quite hidden, and in Venezuela even more so,” she said.
One of those struggles concerns indigenous Pemon leader Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy who lives in Bolívar state in Venezuela. Boon and her RunRun.es colleague, Lorena Meléndez, published a report and profile of Percy, who defends the rights of her people, increasingly threatened by the growing violence following the creation of the Orinoco Mining Belt in 2016.
“This mining megaproject has brought a lot of conflict to the area, there were three massacres in indigenous towns in a matter of two years. We are talking about the presence of military groups, criminal gangs, that manage mines, and guerrilla groups. Lisa is very brave and faced the military and mining, to defend indigenous rights and her territory,” she said.
Boon explained that the area is, in addition to being dangerous, very difficult to access. And it would be impossible to make a trip to the region without financing from the project. “There is no transportation, there is no gasoline, there are few air flights, hyperinflation increases all costs. The budget of this trip serves to pay the wages of several months for RunRun journalists, it is like a luxury to do field work of this dimension. We could never have done that without a contribution. And there is nothing that substitutes field coverage, knowing the terrain. It is a very enriching experience,” she said.
Boon also highlighted the exchange with other journalists and the workshops as learning opportunities. Montero explained that training is a fundamental component of Tierra de Resistentes. Although many of the journalists are experienced and references in the field, they learn new tools in the workshops, which complement the reporting work, Montero said.
In the second phase, the project also stimulated the creation of mentorship pairs. “A mentor goes with a junior journalist and there is a whole learning process about working in the field, how to cross that with the data and when it comes to publishing as well," Montero said.
One of the great strengths of Tierra de Resistentes is its database, which has recorded 2,367 attacks against environmental defenders in the last 11 years in ten Latin American countries. To set up the table, it took a huge research and reporting effort. The initiative is a way of trying to fill a vacuum about information regarding violence against environmental activists on the continent.
“It is a topic that has a lot of relevance, journalistically and socially, but the information about it is very poor in our countries. It took us a lot of work to collect data. States do not have information or do not give it or it is fragmentary. There is a lot of underreporting. That is the strength of the project, to do collaborative investigation to show the magnitude of the problem,” Bermúdez said.
He said that some NGOs carry out such surveys, but generally focus only on the murders of leaders, while Tierra de Resistentes mapped various types of violence: murder, judicial harassment, attack, threat, sexual violence, expulsion, disappearance, criminalization and others.
“We had to search about 15 different types of sources, with all kinds of state agencies, communities, social organizations. And that is not the complete picture, because underreporting is very large, it is an initial photograph of the problem,” Bermúdez said.
Most of the time, the same journalists who did the reports developed the database for their countries. But, in the case of Brazil, the volume of records was so great that it was necessary to dedicate a professional just for that. The country has the highest number of attacks, according to the Tierra de Resistentes database: there were 912.
Journalist Juliana Mori, co-founder and one of InfoAmazonia's directors, took on the task of developing a methodology and accounting for Brazilian cases. It started from consolidated data from two organizations, the Pastoral Land Commission and the Indigenous Missionary Council, which compile information on violence in the countryside and against indigenous people. Mori had to filter thousands of cases to get to the attacks that were in fact related to environmental issues.
"If it is personal violence, a dispute, it does not enter our base, for example. Some are categorized, if it is a conflict with a gold miner or logger, I already know that it is an environmental conflict, but I need to look at a lot of data on a case-by-case basis. For that, I researched the local press, in reports and academic theses or did interviews by phone. It’s hard work," she told the Knight Center.
Mori said her main lesson was to note the regularity of the violence. "It is a systematic repetition, year by year, during the governments of different ideological shades. These people are always suffering violence, to defend what is theirs and the environment of all of us," she said.
It was also clear that the most vulnerable are indigenous, quilombola and traditional community leaders. "They are people who do not have an environmental credential. They are people who, with their way of life, defend their territory and the environment. Of course, there are many cases of dead and threatened researchers, NGO agents or civil servants, but they certainly are a minority," she said.
A major differential of the Tierra de Resistentes database is the amount of information researched for each case. The record is accompanied, whenever possible, by a photo of the victim, a summary of the story, the context and what activity the leader defended. "It is a way for the database itself to give visibility to these people, so that they are not just a name and a number," Mori said.
At the same time, the long reports complement the database, by addressing emblematic cases in depth. Bermúdez also says that the database has been a rich source of material. At least four reports from the second stage emerged from issues revealed by the database.
For example, one of the most difficult fields to fill was the legal status of cases. Mori explained that it was necessary to look at each case in court to see if there was an investigation or sentence. "It was very important to see impunity," she said. The project only found conclusive data on judicial decisions, regardless of whether or not the accused was found innocent or guilty, in 12.8 percent of cases.
In addition, the survey showed that, in 56 percent of cases, there had been prior reports from victims or their communities to the authorities. The data became a report done by Bermúdez and was also published on the CLIP website. “We believe that the database can be a bank of possible stories for other journalists,” he said.