Sumaúma wants to 'amazonize the world' by doing journalism with a 'nature-based view': An interview with Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum

Considered the "queen of the Amazon," the “sumaúma” or kapok tree is one of the symbols of this tropical forest that covers a large part of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. It can reach 70 meters in height (or 230 feet), and live for hundreds of years. It is considered a sacred tree by many forest peoples. This icon of Amazonian magnificence gives its name to a trilingual journalism project founded by three Brazilians, a Peruvian and a British journalist. It aims to amplify the voices of the forest and "refocus the world," as Eliane Brum, one of Sumaúma's founders, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

Eliane Brum

Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum. Photo: Azul Serra

The platform debuted on Sept. 13 as a newsletter in PortugueseSpanish and English. Since then, it has published on its website and landed in the inboxes of its subscribers with feature stories and opinion pieces by writers dedicated to warning about the "war" being waged against the Amazon region and its peoples. "We are living through a war against nature. And it’s a war between such disproportionate forces that it takes on the character of a massacre," said Brum, who in 2021 was one of the winners of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, one of the main journalism awards in the world.

The first issue of Sumaúma, for example, contains a feature story on the sexual violence by miners (who illegally exploit Yanomami territory) against girls and women of this Indigenous ethnic group in the Brazilian Amazon near the border with Venezuela. There is also an article signed by Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, shaman and Indigenous leader, who states that "There are great numbers of napëpë [white people], but they will die too. Big cities will be flooded; cities lying near rivers and seas will be swallowed up by the force of the waters.” In the following issues, Sumaúma turned to the Brazilian general elections, whose first round elected a Congress "that could destroy the Amazon" and established that there would be a run-off between Jair Bolsonaro, current president, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who governed the country between 2003 and 2010. About this dispute, Sumaúma is categorical: "Lula represents the best chance for democracy to win.”

Indigenous communicator Elizângela Baré smiles in front of a microphone in a recording studio

Indigenous communicator Elizângela Baré. Photo: Christian Braga / Sumaúma Jornalismo

The platform also has an audio version, Radio Sumaúma. Elizângela Baré, an Indigenous member of the Baré people and one of the founders of the Wayuri Network of Indigenous Communication of the Amazon, from São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in the Amazon, and Maickson Serrão, a river dweller and podcaster based in the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, in Pará, are in charge of the podcast. They talk with Sumaúma's journalists, who talk about the behind-the-scenes of the feature stories published by the platform. "[The radio] talks about Sumaúma’s stories because we want to respect this oral transmission of knowledge and also speak to those inside the tropical forest," Brum said.

Brum and Jonathan Watts, global environment editor of the British newspaper The Guardian and also co-founder of Sumaúma, live in Altamira, Pará. The city is the home base of the new journalism platform. The co-founders are journalists Carla Jimenez, who was executive director of El País Brasil during its almost nine years of operation, which ended in 2021Talita Bedinelli, who also previously worked at El País and Folha de S. Paulo; and Verónica Goyzueta, a Peruvian journalist with more than two decades as a correspondent from Brazil for international media and coordinator of the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund (created by Watts and which has Brum as one of the co-founders).

In conversation with LJR, Brum spoke about the conception and founding of Sumaúma, her Amazon- and nature-focused journalism, and the urgency of the climate crisis and the reaction to the "war on nature." “If your house is on fire — and it is on fire — are you going to sit around waiting to be set on fire along with your house? It's total nonsense.”

Read the interview with Eliane Brum below. This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

LJR: What led you to create Sumaúma? How did the project come about?

Eliane Brum: Sumaúma was envisioned by myself and John Watts, global environment editor at The Guardian. I have been living in Altamira [in the state of Pará in northeastern Brazil] since 2017, and John also moved to Altamira a year ago. We had been talking about this idea for a few years, and [the project] was stalled because of the pandemic. We got to work to create Sumaúma last year, and [Sumaúma] is part of the same idea that led me to leave São Paulo and move to Altamira — the idea that in this moment of climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction of species, we urgently need to refocus the world, geopolitically and even beyond geopolitics. The real centers of the world are the natural supports of life, the enclaves of nature, the rainforests like the Amazon, the oceans, the other biomes, because our lives and the lives of other species depend on them.

To say that the Amazon is the center of the world and that Sumaúma does journalism from the center of the world is not just words. The Amazon region is the center of the world, and today it’s very clear to us that Brazil is on the periphery of the Amazon region, although this is not exactly being discussed in the [Brazilian] electoral debate, unfortunately. But it’s reality. This also means a refocusing of values. We’re not going to come out of the climate crisis under the western, white, patriarchal, masculine, binary thinking that took us there. Another kind of thinking and another way of life has to be at the center. So this refocusing is a shift, a displacement of the geopolitical center, but a displacement of central values as well.

Based on this understanding, we realized that we needed to create a journalism platform that would be able to do journalism from the center of the world, from these other values, these other voices, these other intellectuals. A platform that could bridge the gap between the science of the forest and the science that is done outside the forest, the gap between the intellectuals of the forest and the European, American, Brazilian intellectuals from the Center-South.

We started doing this project on paper last year, and then in December [2021] El País [Brazil] was suddenly closed, a very violent act in that — at least in my opinion, and I feel free to say this — El País Brasil became in eight years the most progressive newspaper in Brazil. So, it was closed at a crucial moment, which is the moment of the most important election in the history of Brazil. From there, John and I got together with Carla Jimenez, who was the director of El País Brasil for the eight years it existed; Talita Bedinelli, who was the editor of El País; and Verônica Goyzueta, who is a Peruvian journalist who has been a correspondent for many years in Brazil and who is the coordinator of the Amazon Rainforest Fund, which was also something that John created with the participation of other journalists, among whom I include myself.

We created Sumaúma as a trilingual platform, because it is our response, in the field of journalism, to the urgency of this moment. We started with a seed, which is a newsletter, with the resources that we have now, but we want to grow quickly and become an online newspaper, to talk and be influential on the planet, because the planet needs this conversation that comes from the forest. So we have been posting simultaneously in Portuguese, English and Spanish since the beginning. But we are also Radio Sumaúma. We have a newsletter-podcast, let's say, that is presented by Elizângela Baré, an Indigenous person from São Gabriel da Cachoeira (Amazonas state), from the Baré people, and Maickson [Serrão], who is a river dweller from the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, in Pará. [The radio show] talks about the stories from Sumaúma because we want to respect this oral transmission of knowledge and also speak to those inside forest, because it is an oral transmission of knowledge and news as well, not written.

LJR: You said you want to become an online newspaper. Tell us about that plan.

EB: Today we have five people, and we plan to become a much larger newsroom, able to handle much more, because we face a total emergency. We are not even able to cover 0.01% of what needs to be covered in the Amazon region, which is under attack. We understand that we are living through a war against nature. And it’s a war between such disproportionate forces that it takes on the character of a massacre. We are losing this war, which is a war for life. So we need to grow quickly, and when I say newspaper, I mean doing exactly what Sumaúma is already doing, but on a much larger scale, with many more journalists.

The Sumaúma project is an expansion by biomes [a biome is a large community of vegetation and wildlife adapted to a specific climate]. "Amazonizing the world" means taking a look from within nature, and in this case we are based on the largest rainforest on the planet. But this fixed thing, just like the nation-states, the biomes, "here’s where the Amazon ends, then comes the savannah," that's not how life is, that's not how nature is, it doesn't have these borders. Amazonizing the world and journalism is to take a look from nature far beyond the Amazon. The Sumaúma project is an expansion by biomes, and this growth is foreseen in our project and is a very important part of it.

One of the most important points of the Sumaúma project is what we call "the muvuca [mix of seeds] of new journalisms," a co-training program in which we teach the journalism we know, do and believe in, and the people of the forest teach us the way they produce news and tell stories. If journalism as we know it is 200 years old, Indigenous people have been telling stories for 13,000 years, and news circulates in the Amazon region in many ways. So, we want to create another type of journalism. And these people that will train us and that we will also train will make up the newsroom. Sumaúma will grow with a newsroom made up of journalists from the various communities of the forest: Indigenous people, quilombolas [Afro-Brazilian residents of quilombo settlements, first established by people who escaped slavery between the 16th and the 19th centuries], river dwellers, agro-ecological peasants, and also from the outskirts of Amazonian cities. This is how we will grow, and to become a newspaper is to become a newspaper with these kinds of journalists.

This project will start out in our home base, in Altamira, with a group of Indigenous people, riverine people, peasants and young people from the outskirts of Altamira, who will form the first group. Now we are in the process of talking to the communities, the villages, projected to start next year.

LJR: So, this plan of expansion by biomes provides for Sumaúma to not only cover the Amazon, is that it?

EB: Sumaúma covers the Amazon region, but it also covers the planet from the point of view of the Amazon. More than covering the Amazon, it is a look that comes from it, from the center of the world, from this vision of displacement of the centers of the world. It comes from a different worldview, other thoughts, other technologies, other intellectuals. This is not limited to the Amazon biome, but it is another take of being on this planet. Of course we are going to cover primarily the Amazon at this moment, but it is also a look coming from the Amazon.

LJR: You have a crowdfunding page and are asking for readers' support. How is the funding issue going for you?

EB: Everyone’s dream, who does independent journalism, is to be supported by the public, is that people understand that what you do is relevant enough to invest the money they can. Crowdfunding is very important because we also want to have a different kind of relationship with our readers. We really want readers to participate in Sumaúma. In November, the people who are already our supporters will participate in a debate and an evaluation meeting that we carry out online. We will talk a little bit about what we have done and where we are going, and we want to hear from readers, so they can criticize, suggest topics and paths to follow. We will listen to our readers and they’ll have an opportunity to say what they think.

The invitations were sent by levels of support: if you support this much, you get an invitation to the debate. If you support a lot, you get an invitation to the debate and to the evaluation meeting. But, for each supporter invitation, there will be a second invitation to someone who doesn't support us [financially]. Because otherwise it would be undemocratic, only those who have resources could participate, and this is not what we want. So, there will always be someone who paid and someone who didn't pay. At the beginning, it will be people invited by us, because we are inviting people from the forest.

But, we do not depend on crowdfunding. We have funding from [international] foundations. We dream of crowdfunding sustaining us, but we’ll depend on funding from foundations for a while.

LJR: What is your relationship with local communicators and journalists in the Amazon region?

EB: We are still at the beginning, so there are several levels. Every edition of the newsletter has a standard section that brings the most interesting news about the Amazon region that was not produced by Sumaúma.  We make a selection trying to always prioritize what is produced by independent Amazonian agencies.

Part of our idea with our muvuca de novos jornalismos project [seedling of new journalistic projects] is that we hope that Sumaúma's editorial staff will be these journalists. But, we also hope that these journalists will create other spaces, because we need a lot more journalism and independent journalism agencies than exist today to cover all types of Amazon regions.

We have also started talking to other agencies and independent journalism initiatives so that, for example, they’ll let us know when they publish a story they think might be relevant for us to republish. Since we are trilingual, this needs to be done with some advance notice. We are not quick in this sense, because everything we do has to be translated into two other languages.

And we hope to do joint investigations, pooling our human and financial resources to do investigative stories in a collective way, which is good for everybody.

Another thing is that we prioritize local journalists who are already working as journalists in the Amazon. For example, the main story in the second edition of the newsletter, which is about Indigenous candidacies, was done by Catarina Barbosa, a reporter from Belém (Pará state).

LJR: When you announced Sumaúma, in August, there was some criticism from Amazonian journalists about your positioning yourselves as the "first journalism platform made from the Amazon," when it is a media and information ecosystem that includes several initiatives. Are you aware of this criticism?

EB: Yes. We are the first trilingual journalism platform made from Amazon. If there was ever another one, we stand ready to make a correction. But, I am unaware that there is or has ever been another trilingual platform made from Amazon. And that's what we said. Now, I think the "first" really is unnecessary, and we even stopped using it. When we launched ourselves this way, we wanted to put out there what made us different, the fact that it is trilingual, because there is a political choice in this, a choice of conversation, of being able to expand not only our voice, but also the voice of other agencies with which we can collaborate.

I think criticism is always too quick and too easy, and not always fair. And I think we respond by being. We respond with journalism, with concrete action, with what we are. Sumaúma is already responding and showing who it is aligned with, which voices are there. And I think that these criticisms are also localized, because I live in a city that is an Amazon hotspot, and I have not seen these criticisms coming from Indigenous people, from riverside dwellers, from quilombolas, from peasants? These criticisms did not come from this Amazon base in the forest, which on the contrary is very committed to Sumaúma. So much so that Rádio Sumaúma is a partnership with the Wayuri Journalism Network, which is an Indigenous network. So, I think that this criticism is unfair and unnecessary at a moment when, on the contrary, we need as much journalism as possible. I hope that we can collaborate with other agencies and that other independent journalism agencies will be created. We’re working in this direction.

But, I think that's not even important, and in that sense it was our mistake, because it's not important to be first, second or third. The important thing is to be, to work and to add value and join efforts. So I think that in this sense we were wrong about the importance.

LJR: The issue of the safety of journalists covering the Amazon has become more prominent after the murders of British journalist Dom Philips and Brazilian Indigenous journalist Bruno Pereira in June. How did these murders impact you personally and professionally and on the development of Sumaúma?

EB: It had a very big impact because of everything it means and because Dom was one of John's best friends, so it had a very big personal impact. There have been murders of other journalists in the Amazon, but in Amazonian cities, and there is a big difference. I am not aware of any another journalists murdered under these circumstances in the forest. This shows the level of confidence in impunity, the penetration of drug trafficking in the forest, how fragile the forest communities are, and how some people from these communities become involved in organized crime. So. this showed the risks are on another level in the forest.

I have covered the Amazon for more than 25 years, and John has covered the climate crisis in the world for a long time, and we know that we are at war. We understand this historical moment as a moment of war against nature. We think of ourselves in Sumaúma as war journalists, because we are covering a war. This increases our risks, we are aware of this. We do and we have security strategies to diminish the risks, but we have no way to override them. We are at war. And this war will not end after the election [for the presidency of Brazil], whatever the result is.

LJR: You discuss climate angst or anxiety in your editorial of this most recent issue. There is indeed a phenomenon of distress caused by the news, which even leads many people to avoid the news, as research is showing. How do you see this situation in Sumaúma? What would be the best way to communicate what needs to be communicated in such a way that it not only provokes anguish, but also a call for action in readers?

EB: We’ve been thinking about this a lot, since before Sumaúma, and I think Sumaúma is a response to this. When I met John, I was traveling to Altamira, but I was still living in São Paulo. John came to talk to me about the Rainforest Journalism Fund, which he was creating. He wanted me to be part of the founding group. He asked me about this, and I talked and wrote a lot about this when I had the column in El País Brasil, and it is that people need to understand that the Rivotril [a medicine used to treat anxiety] they take has to do with the climate crisis. This is the junction, this is the synapse that needs to be created so that people understand that the climate crisis is not something that is far away from them, it is not a scientist's speech, just like the destruction of the Amazon is not a speech. It is in their daily lives and it is impacting their bodies, even if they don't know how to name it. Its name is climate crisis. And this is a big challenge for us journalists, because the deniers go far beyond those who are outright deniers. Because even in the case of people who say they have no doubt about the climate crisis, between understanding that there is a climate crisis and acting to address the climate crisis there is a gap. And that's where we need to act, so there is none. Because we all need to act.

Sumaúma works to make people understand that there is no choice between being in the war or not. You are in the war. And the only difference is whether you are going to sit tight and wait, or fight. And this is a big choice, an urgent choice that everyone needs to make. It’s Greta Thunberg's speech: our house is on fire. In our case in Altamira, sometimes literally. Not the house itself, but I sometimes spend the whole night watching the forest burn. So if your house is on fire — and it is on fire — are you going to sit around waiting to be set on fire along with your house? It's a total contradiction. At what point did our species stop having the basic survival instinct that every primal organism has? Any living organism has a survival instinct, and we, for a number of reasons, seem to have lost ours. So, Sumaúma seeks to act on this as well. Because today, to feel the climate crisis, you only have to open the window. So [Sumaúma seeks] to make these connections, to also bring the voice of those who are not human, but are also affected. One of our stories shows that Bolsonaro, in less than four years, has killed two billion trees. Each tree is a world. The forest is not measured in individuals. We talk about two billion trees, but each tree has ants, termites, other invisible beings that we can't even name, because most of the things that exist in the forest we haven't even managed to identify yet. There are fungi, birds, monkeys, interconnected worlds are being destroyed. If there is a massacre of people, there is a holocaust of non-human peoples. And our understanding of democracy goes far beyond a democracy for humans. We are going to speak a lot about the rights of nature, about the rights of those who are being destroyed and do not have a voice, are not listened to.

LJR: When facing this war, how would you like Sumáuma readers to fight? What kind of action would you like to provoke?

EB: I have a conviction, and I have been writing about this for a long time. Those of us alive today are at the most limiting moment in human history on this planet, which is the climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction of the species. This goes far beyond anything that any other generation has experienced. So, we need not only to do what we know: we will also need to do what we don't know. I have been trying to do what I don't know for a long time. First, we need to get together, create community, which is something that capitalism has destroyed, this idea of community, of the collective, of seeing oneself as part of something bigger and interconnected. But, I can't say what each one is going to do. Each one will have to see what they know and what they don't know and can do with others, but they have to act. We are at the moment of taking action, we need movement. At this moment, what you can do is to reverse the vote [from Bolsonaro to Lula]. At this moment, what you can do is make sure that people who want to vote can get to their polling places, because there are many people in this country who can't get to the ballot box, either because they can't afford transportation or because they feel intimidated. I live in a city where the presence of Bolsonarism is so intimidating that people are sometimes afraid to vote. So, at this moment it is [necessary] to make sure that people can vote, can exercise their right to vote, and turn out to vote. This is the main action of this moment, which is what we say in the editorial: stop everything and go do this, because there is nothing more important. This Congress [that was elected] is worse, especially the Senate. We are going to have four years of a worse Congress [than the previous legislature]. Lula being elected is our only chance to confront this Congress. We are choosing between the catastrophe that is Bolsonaro and a very difficult scenario. The best option we have ahead of us, at best, is the very difficult. That is, the fight is not over, on the contrary: it will become more difficult. Now we have to fight for the very difficult to avoid a catastrophe. I state it very calmly: if Bolsonaro is reelected, with this Congress, chances are the Amazon will end. And if this happens, our chances and the chances of the generations that have already been born to have quality life on this planet will be very slim. Our near future is hostile. We depend on the Amazon region. So, this moment is a call to action.