The June murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous issues expert Bruno Pereira, whom police suspect were killed by people with ties to illegal fishing in the Amazon, amounted to a “nightmare” come true, Brazilian journalist Daniel Camargos, who often covers the Amazon, told CPJ in a phone interview.
Camargos, an investigative reporter for news website Repórter Brasil, is one of the country’s journalists deeply familiar with the risks facing people who shine a light on environmental crimes in Brazil. According to environmental group Global Witness, 20 environmental activists were killed in the country in 2020.
The Amazon’s Javari Valley, where Phillips and Bruno were killed, is known as a drug trafficking route where illegal activities like logging, fishing, and mining thrive, posing a threat to local Indigenous communities. President Jair Bolsonaro’s cuts to environmental and Indigenous protection funds have only encouraged the lawlessness, reporters told CPJ.
Globally, the environment is a dangerous topic to cover. Between 2009 and 2019, at least 13 journalists who covered the topic were killed for their work around the world, according to CPJ research cited in “Green Blood,” a reporting project by the Forbidden Stories consortium.
To learn more about how journalists cover and navigate risks in the Amazon, CPJ spoke with Camargos and three other Brazilian journalists who have reported in the region. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Ciro Barros, reporter covering environmental and human rights issues at non-profit investigative journalism news website Agência Pública
What is the potential impact of the killings of Phillips and Pereira on future coverage of the region?
This murder is a benchmark. We are still numb, bewildered. Newsrooms need to think about what happened, because the kind of work that Dom was doing is the work that we do.
We went to Atalaia do Norte [a city in the Amazon’s Javari Valley] in the wake of their disappearance, thinking “What happened to them?” As time passed, the hope of finding them alive waned. It had a huge emotional impact. The day the bodies were found was very difficult. We spent many hours at the pier, waiting for the bodies to arrive.
It was a mix of emotions. While tragedies and difficult stories are hard to deal with, our work becomes more relevant when we are close to those stories. It is a contradiction that we carry in this investigative work.
I don’t know what will change. But that certainty that we used to have, that there was a limit [to the use of violence against journalists], we no longer have it.
A person [in the Javari Valley] told me he was threatened that this [violence against people who point out environmental crimes] “is not going to stop at Bruno.” People know that region will go back to being a place where the state is absent and where criminal groups thrive. It is impossible to imagine that just our work as journalists will create a profound change in Javari Valley. State action is needed [to address environmental crimes].
What does it take to cover the Amazon, a complicated reporting terrain?
Covering the Amazon is enormously logistically complex. Locations that appear to be close in proximity on a map are in reality far away. The roads can be very bad. You must rent a bigger, better car, a 4×4 [four-wheel drive]. There are many places in the Amazon that can only be reached by river, but the boats don’t always come when you expect them to. You must consider whether it is the rainy or dry season because certain areas are completely inaccessible at certain times of the year. There’s the cost of renting a boat and the cost of gasoline — and you must buy gallons of gasoline and store them ahead of time because in many places you can’t buy it.
The communication challenges are enormous. During our recent reporting trip in Atalaia do Norte we had connection difficulties in which we could not send a one megabyte Word document, let alone a photo. We could barely access the internet to check certain information.
There you pay everything in cash, you can’t buy anything with a card.
And in the forest there are health challenges, there’s the risk of catching certain diseases, of not having access to clean water, of getting hurt and being very far from a health clinic.
It’s expensive and you can’t skimp on these logistical costs because there’s a relationship between logistics and security, and because you can lose the story by not being able to get to a certain place. Going as equipped as possible is important. We will always try to reduce risks. But in the end, we can’t master everything, as there are unpredictable elements.
I’ve heard people [when out reporting] talking about how much it would cost to kill a journalist. I’ve had to abandon coverage because of the risks. The greatest protection against fear is information. You must have information to understand the local context and the risks. It is a complex job that requires preparation. The risk assessment must be done jointly between the journalist, the editor, and the outlet.
Daniel Camargos, investigative reporter covering rural conflicts and the environment for investigative journalism and human rights organization Repórter Brasil
Talk about why environmental reporting is so critical in Brazil.
Investigative journalists are able to delve deeper into the themes, look at production chains to identify the companies that violate environmental rights. At Repórter Brasil we do not aim for profit, we want impact, we want to transform reality. We don’t report to win prizes, but to improve the lives of people who are suffering because of environmental crimes. Last year, we discovered that a brewery was going to build a factory next to an archaeological site where the Luzia skull [an archaeologically significant 11,500-year-old skull] was found. This article took a long time to produce but it led the brewery to give up on building the factory there.
Our reporting has also had an impact on the beef production chain. After our reports documenting cattle production in deforested areas, European supermarket chains stopped buying from these meatpackers.
What precautions should a journalist take when covering social and environmental conflicts in the Amazon?
One of the main concerns is the security of the source. The journalist needs to ask: “Will this person’s life get better or worse with my story?” We go there and we leave. Our sources stay there. Where there are environmental crimes, people are being harmed and you have to be careful with their safety.
Many risks are related to transportation, there can be accidents during the car or boat trip. You must anticipate infrastructure issues to avoid risks. Create a security protocol and comply with it. You must do pre-production work, understand the local actors, the imminent threats. It’s not just travelling into the forest.
Have an evacuation plan, an escape route, and figure out exactly what to do if something goes wrong. Keep contacts of authorities that can be activated quickly. When renting the car, you must check whether the tires are bald or not. In many places in the Amazon there is no phone signal. It’s important to have satellite equipment, tracker devices, and to put those in the travel budget. Reporting in the Amazon is very expensive. A 10-day trip with two people can cost 40,000 reais [US$8,000]. To go to certain places, you even might need to charter a plane.
When an incident happens, you need to evaluate what went wrong so you can learn from it. All this takes time. But at the same time fear cannot paralyze us.
I was threatened with a gun pointed at my face when we were in Rondônia [in northern Brazil] covering the confrontation between the police and a local peasant’s movement. A police officer in plain clothes approached our team very aggressively. I thought I was going to die.
After that, I had nightmares, which became more violent. I went to Atalaia do Norte to cover the search for Dom and Bruno. When I saw their bodies arriving in the plastic bag, the feeling I had at the time is that the nightmares have come true. It was brutal. I’m still a little numb from everything.
Today the Amazon is a lawless land dominated by those who want to destroy the forest. The state needs to take action to protect the forest, which would help ensure the safety of those who defend the forest and those who do journalism there. Covering a lawless land is risky.
Elaíze Farias, journalist and co-founder of Amazônia Real, an independent investigative journalism website based in Manaus, capital of Amazonas state
What is different about Amazônia Real’s coverage of the Amazon?
We are based here in the Amazon itself. We are witnesses and we experience the destruction of the forest. The fact that we are here, reporting, witnessing, and experiencing reality, this brings us closer to certain stories that we portray.
We are focused on giving visibility to the populations of the region and on themes that are not predominant in the [mainstream] media. We listen to the populations experiencing environmental violations, the Indigenous people, the riverside communities.
We broke with certain practices of Western and white media. You can’t interview someone, write the story, and then not want to know what happens to that person, to that population. We don’t always report something when it happens in order to get “the scoop.” Instead, we carefully cover the peoples’ perspectives, and take into account how they want their story to be told. We want to highlight the demands and experiences of the Amazonian people.
Why is it important to have dedicated coverage of the Amazon?
The Amazon is a large, heterogeneous region. People need to understand its history, why mining, cattle breeding, and exploitation of resources threaten the ecosystem and the local population.
There is degradation of the ecosystem and the forest, but there are also people resisting this. These are the stories we will always tell. In our reports, we always highlight the groups that resist, such as the Indigenous people who denounce the invasions of their territories.
The problems in the Amazon have historical roots but in recent years with the rise of Bolsonaro, we have seen an escalation of threats, violations, and brutalities in the Amazon. His rhetoric has authorized exploitation, environmental crimes, and invasions of Indigenous lands. It’s not that he orders people to do these things, but his rhetoric spreads and people know they won’t be punished for environmental crimes.
Cícero Pedrosa Neto, multimedia reporter for Amazônia Real covering mining and agrarian conflicts
What would you say to a journalist who wants to cover the Amazon?
I would tell the journalist to strip away any internal prejudice against the Amazon population, not to exoticize it. Be prepared to be in a place where you do not belong, and to respect the symbols, privacy, and pace of life of local populations.
Journalists must abandon once and for all the neocolonial posture that the media often ends up assuming in these places, of extracting what they want from the place, obtaining information, and not giving anything in return to these communities.
Editor’s note: The Brazilian office of the presidency did not reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the connection between the government’s environmental policies and violence against rights defenders and journalists in the Amazon.