Environmental Journalism, Part 5: Reporting on environmental crime

byAmarah EnnisNov 3, 2022 in Environmental Reporting

 This is the fifth IJNotes episode in our series on environmental journalism. To listen to the previous episode – Global crisis, local perspectives – click here.

Environmental crime, also known as eco-crime, is any form of illegal activity — organized or otherwise — that has a direct and negative effect on the natural world. From illegal deforestation in the Amazon, to unregulated overfishing in the Indo-Pacific, to water, air and soil pollution caused by illegal gold mines, environmental crime doesn’t just harm the environment, it also often has devastating consequences for local communities who rely on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods.

Reporting on environmental crime can take years, combining on-the-ground investigative reporting techniques with data journalism, geo-mapping, and combing of government records. Journalists on this beat are required to not only be skilled investigative reporters, but also adept communicators who can explain why these crimes should matter to the average reader.

For more about what it takes to report on environmental crime, we spoke with Fiona Macleod, founder and director of the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism, Africa’s first investigative outlet covering environmental crime. In our podcast, Macleod discusses why she founded Oxpeckers and the impact of its multi-year investigations, while offering advice for journalists interested in reporting on environmental crime.

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You can read our transcript of the podcast below. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Amarah Ennis (IJNet): Hey everyone, and welcome to IJNotes, the podcast where we take you behind the scenes to explore the work of journalists around the world. I’m Amarah, with the IJNet team. In this episode, the fifth in our environmental reporting series, I speak with Fiona Macleod, founder and head of the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism.

The Center is Africa’s first journalism investigative unit focusing on green issues, and combines traditional reporting with data analysis and geo-mapping tools to track and expose eco crime. Before founding Oxpeckers, Fiona worked as an award winning environmental journalist and editor. In this episode, she tells us about the Oxpecker center’s investigations and accomplishments in the field, and about what eco crime looks like in Africa.

Ennis: First and foremost, Fiona, I wanted to welcome you to the IJNotes podcast and thank you for speaking with us today.

Fiona Macleod: Thank you.

Ennis: To get started, I want to know a little bit more about you particularly. So, can you tell me how you became an investigative reporter in environmental journalism and what led you to found Oxpeckers?

Macleod: Thanks, Amarah. Well, before I founded Oxpeckers I was an environmental journalist for a number of years, working primarily at the Mail and Guardian newspaper in South Africa. I was the editor of the environmental section for ten years, and during that period I also won a number of awards, including the prestigious Nick Steel Award, acknowledging my contributions to environmental conservation.

 But then in around 2012, in the midst of a constantly shifting media ecosystem, I saw a gap opening in my area of specialist specialization. I started thinking that in order for environmental journalism to move into the new era of media, we needed to become a little bit more tech savvy.

At that stage, the use of data was very limited in environmental journalism. It didn't really exist. It has become more prevalent more recently in the past decade, but at that time it was niche and very much a nice to have rather than a must have in many media houses around the world. So, I set up the Oxpecker Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism towards the latter half of 2012 as a nonprofit company. We were the winners of a small grant from the African News Innovation Challenge, of which ICFJ was a supporter in that.

As a result of winning that support, we managed to set up oxpeckers, which operates through a network of various journalists, data wranglers and traditional investigative reporters with different specialties which are then applied to specific projects. So that is how it came into being, was from a very small project. Over the past decade, we've grown into a rather large project.

Ennis: Now the Oxpecker is a bird native to Africa that can be found on the tops of oxes, but also rhinos and other large mammals. So, I was curious why you chose this name for this platform that covers investigative environmental journalism.

Macleod: Thank you for raising that. Yes, as you mentioned, the Oxpecker is a small brown bird with yellow and red bills, and they serve a very useful function in the African savannas by removing parasites from mammals and the environment. We chose them as the mascots of our unit because like them, we take away parasites. Often it's just one by one. But our objective is to remove them from the body, corporate, and from our human environment one by one.

We do this by, as I mentioned, combining traditional investigative reporting techniques with new media tools to expose eco offenses and offenders. In fact, we recently heard someone say that Oxpeckers actually coined the concept of investigative environmental journalism ten years ago, which is a sort of a feather in our cap. So as I mentioned, we collaborate. We embrace a collaborative model of working in order to remove eco parasites wherever we find them.

Ennis: So, as environmental crime is the subject of this episode, can you tell us what makes an environmental crime and how environmental crime has affected specifically Africa?

Macleod: Well, quite simply, green crime or environmental crime is any type of illegal activity that harms the environment. It threatens natural resources and poses a serious threat to security and stability around the world. Examples of green crime include wildlife trafficking, oil spills, deforestation and destruction of natural resources, littering, dumping, water contamination, and the improper or irresponsible handling of chemical waste. Africa bears the brunt of many of these crimes, because while it is a resource rich continent, it often does not have the means or political will to hold these eco offenders to account.

Ennis: You have already mentioned that Oxpeckers was founded on the idea that we had to incorporate more technology in the way that we report. I noticed that you have hashtags like #WildEye and #MineAlert that you use for your database reporting. What is the role of data journalism in reporting on environmental crime, and why do you think that it's useful or important?

Macleod: So one of the founding core mandates of our units is to set up and populate data driven journalism tools that inform journalistic investigations. These tools are based on data that maps and tracks environmental crimes across the globe. Our work with these often complex datasets is particularly important in parts of the world where public access to information is a luxury and not a right. Our unit makes our data open source with an underlying strong commitment to transparency and sharing of information. We like to liberate our data for use by other journalists and organizations that are interested in them and would like to use them for their own purposes.

We're often a little bit different from other organizations in that those who work with data will tend to find data sets from other organizations and then reuse them. But it works because we actually build unique data sets for various reasons, including using the data for investigative journalism. In a nutshell, what this data driven investigative journalism is is a process based on finding, collecting, aggregating, analyzing and filtering large data sets for the purpose of creating or elevating stories. So, our data journalists collect data on a variety of topics from a variety of sources to use in their reports that always ensure that the data sources used are reliable and that data integrity is always maintained.

Data journalism encourages new ways of storytelling and adds certainty to our investigations. Using data visualizations and geo mapping helps us to use that to provide instant communication of complex situations in our articles. The way our model works is the data is that the data informs our stories, and our investigations help us to find the data. It's a hand-in-glove combination that is very successful and is not being replicated by many other media houses across the globe.

Ennis: You mentioned that you leave your data open for other journalists to use. Does the staff expect to see a lot of collaboration with other media organizations or other journalists using the data that you have for their stories or for them collecting data for your work?

Macleod: Yes. So as I said, you know, for our work, we create datasets that we do file and a growing number of other journalists and organizations make use of our datasets. In fact, we have a registration process now which tracks well asks people who use our data to give input on what they use it for, where they use it, and how useful it is. And we have an incredible response from that registration process, from organizations, researchers, and other journalists. So we were able to actually track how useful our data is and from that also fine tune the way we take it for our work forward.

Ennis: What have some of the impacts of your reporting been? Do you have any particular stories that made a really big impact?

 Macleod: Yeah. I mean, I could talk about this topic for a long time, but I'll try to be fairly brief. As I mentioned, we use the data in our investigations. But at the same time, one of the things that six months is the length of our investigations in often high risk environments, and we continue to follow up on stories even after they have been published.

One example worth mentioning is the excellent work that we did with our Mine Alert Tool, where we did an 18 month to two year investigation into abandoned mines, sometimes referred to as orphan mines. During this period, we did a deep dive into data on mines and mining activities throughout South Africa, and particularly of mines that had been abandoned for various reasons and including the fact that they're no longer profitable. Then we went on to look at the environmental footprint of those mines.

So what happens to those mines when they are abandoned and not rehabilitated? This two year investigation was accompanied by the liberation of a huge dataset of about 6000 mines throughout the country, reflecting the status and what amount of money had been set aside for the rehabilitation and whether that had been used or not. This investigation ended up in the change of policies, laws and practicalities around orphaned mines in South Africa. It's one of the projects that we're very proud of, and it won several awards. So that's one example.

Our reportage of more recent reportage on wildlife trafficking has also changed laws, policies and lives. We've been credited with promoting assisting in the ban of canned hunting in Botswana and helping to shape laws on trade in rhino and other wildlife products in China and Mozambique. In recent years, we expanded into Asia and Europe and continue to expose a broad range of eco crimes, ranging from wildlife trafficking to the misuse of protected areas.

This led, for example, to the banning of sand mining in Nepal and a crackdown on sand mining mafias creating environmental damage and terrorizing local neighborhoods. In Pakistan, the hunting of protected cranes was outlawed as a result of our work there. And the project we recently completed in East Africa resulted in a crackdown on elephant poachers in Tanzania.

Just last week, a notorious rhino poaching kingpin [was arrested] in Mozambique. We've been tracking him for close on a decade, was arrested and will finally be brought to justice. And so the list goes on.

Ennis: You guys have done a lot of amazing work, but I'm sure that the people who commit these types of crimes are, of course, trying to cover up what they're doing. Is it difficult to get a hold of the data that you use in your investigations?

Macleod: Yeah. I mean, it depends on where we're operating. But definitely the data is not always easy to track down. Obviously also the individuals, the offenders are not always keen to get to know what they're up to. So, yes, it's not an easy job, but I mean, that's our job, right?

Ennis: One thing that differentiates our speakers from other organizations is the length of your investigations and your two year investigation into mining. Is that the longest story that you've worked on or have you conducted investigations for even longer?

Macleod: A six to nine month investigation is our average time, although we do some over a month to three months. Two years is a long time. But that was a very big investigation. You know, when you're looking for government data and you need to access it via Freedom of Information requests, those don't happen, generally speaking, very quickly. So, you need to set aside a lot of time. We do follow up on all our major investigations on an ongoing basis. As I mentioned, this rhino poaching kingpin known as Navarra, who's just been arrested in Mozambique. I mean, that's that's a decade or a little bit more where we've been tracking this guy. Not every day -- I'm not saying that somebody is sitting on the story every day. But, the impact of journalism takes time, it's not often overnight.

Ennis: As one of the organizations that, you know, as you said, sort of paved the way for investigative environmental journalism. How have you seen other journalists or other organizations around the world or even just in Africa following Oxpecker’s footsteps.

Macleod: Thank you for that question. Oxpeckers has been a pathfinder in investigating environmental crimes, as we mentioned, working in the arenas of climate change, extractives, wildlife trafficking, etc. And we're now moving on to spotlighting the energy sector as well. We are seeing a lot more interest in this kind of work and also a lot more collaborative models in all these areas of investigation as interest in them grows. So, you know, I think that we have helped to make the topic of great interest to a lot of other media houses and to a lot of other journalists.

This is one of the reasons why this year we launched what we call a community of practice of environmental journalism. This is what we do is we supply them with professional support networks, contacts and training, and then they go on to become mentors to new members of our networks. So, we're having a sort of Facebook kind of networking experience where we're finding that our work is becoming more and more useful to a larger and larger number of people.

Ennis: So we sort of know where we are now, but how do you expect environmental reporting to evolve in the future, both in the short term and the long term?

Macleod: It's becoming an area with more and more focus. I'm optimistic that it's going to keep on growing and growing, particularly if you regard climate change and its impacts as an environmental offenses. That's a point of contention because it's not just about the environment. It's about everything, you know. Climate change has an effect on Livelihoods, economics, everything. It's about human activity. But it definitely has brought a new cohort of journalists and investigative journalists into the sphere of environmental journalism. And I hope to see excellent work being done in that arena in the next decade or so.

Ennis: What would you say to people who are thinking about becoming an environmental investigative journalist?

Macleod: I would say welcome on board. The more the merrier, the more the better. What do they need to do? Well, it helps to know what you would like to focus on. The environment is, as you know, a very broad sphere. It encompasses a lot of different topics. So, if you have a particular interest in one particular area, it is going to help.

Then you need to build up contacts, understanding context within your area of specialization. And if you can, get training, get mentorship, if possible, so that you can take your area your area of work forward. Because there are more and more people now working in environmental journalism. So, you know, you need get good at what you're doing as quickly as you possibly can.

I think, you know, one of the reasons why Oxpeckers has become so successful is because we also kept an eye on changes in the media regime, and then moved into a gap. So journalists who are interested in environmental journalism should also try to refine the practice in terms of what was happening in the media arena. So just because you're doing environmental journalism doesn't mean that people are going to thank you for it. You have to make sure that they are going to take notice of you, because you're doing work that is important and that they want to care about.

So, for example, what we've done over the years, in addition to building big datasets and visualizing them using interactive maps, we've experimented with tools like drone photojournalism, immersive sound clips, visual storytelling, we've done a bit of podcasting. I think finding your medium, that medium that works for you and is going to help maximize your impact going forward.

Ennis: Be on the lookout for the last episode of our series, where we’ll examine the risk environmental reporters face in the wake of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira’s murders. In the meantime, you can check out the previous episodes on environmental reporting anywhere you get your podcasts. Our last episode discussed how local reporting is so critical to coverage of our climate. Be sure to follow IJNet on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn to be notified of when we release new episodes of IJNotes, and check out IJNet.org for more resources on environmental reporting.