Environmental Journalism, Part 6: Managing threats to environmental journalists

Sep 8, 2022 in Environmental Reporting
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This is the sixth and final IJNotes episode in our series on environmental journalism. To listen to the previous episode — Reporting on environmental crime —  click here.

In early June, environmental journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira went missing in the Amazon while reporting on Indigenous peoples in the state of Amazonas. The two were later found to have been murdered, in one of the most high-profile kilings of environmental journalists in recent years, which have also taken place in Mexico, India and Colombia

In the aftermath of the killings of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, we sat down with Jonathan Watts, global environmental editor at The Guardian, who has been reporting on the Amazon for over 10 years. Currently based in the Amazon, Watts is also the founder of Sumaúma, a new environmental platform that aims to place the rainforest at the center of global reporting. 

During the interview we discuss the challenges environmental journalists face in their reporting, why their reporting  brings risks similar to those faced by war reporters, and how journalists can manage threats to their safety.

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A transcript of this podcast can be found below:

Devin Windelspecht (IJNet): Hello and welcome to the IJNotes podcast, where we take you behind the scenes to explore the work of journalists around the world. I'm Devin with the IJNet Team. Today I talk to John Watts, an environmental reporter who has reported on the Amazon for over a decade, first as a Latin America correspondent for the Guardian and for the last five years as The Guardian's Global Environmental Editor. He is also the founder of Sumauma, a newsletter put in the rainforest at the center of environmental reporting.

I talked with Jon Watts in the aftermath of the killings of journalist Tom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Amazon last June. We discussed the first environmental reporter's face covering the Amazon, why environmental reporting is like war reporting and what journalists can do to manage risk covering an increasingly dangerous beat.

Jon Watts, welcome to the IJNotes podcast.

Jon Watts: Thanks for having me on.

Windelspecht: What brought you to report on the environment on the Amazon and environmental reporting?

Watts: Well, I didn't start as an environmental journalist. I was in, first of all, a Japan specialist and started writing on the financial crisis and the World Cup and other topics, the broad interest as a correspondent. It was really when I moved to China to become the Guardian's East Asia editor in 2003 that my attention started to turn to environmental problems. I'd always been somewhat interested, but when I arrived in China, you just couldn't avoid it. Every time you stepped outside your house, you breathed in the problem. Choking smog, in Beijing, where I lived was horrendous. And my two then young children, they would go to school and sometimes they weren't allowed out at great times because the air was so bad and the water quality was bad and there were cancer villages. And I ended up writing a book about the environmental cost of China's economic development and A Billion Chinese Jump. And I think it was the process of writing that book that really put me on a path that I've never left since.

I think once you start to look at the environmental issue, you really can't unsee. And after that I think everything else seems quite trivial. That's my experience. But I know it's since many others who've covered this beat and in fact it's stark. You start off and you think the environment is another story. You know, you have economics, then you have politics at sport, and then you have the environment. But, pretty quickly you realize, in fact, the environment is not just another topic. It's a prism to see absolutely everything. When you do that, it changes your perspective, your priorities. And that's certainly what happened to me.

So after that, I became Asia environment correspondent for The Guardian. And then I thought, I really need a break. And Brazil seemed like it was doing everything right at the time in terms of trying to get rid of deforestation or at least reduce deforestation enormously. So I moved to Brazil thinking, okay, it's a different economic model. Maybe it would be a better balance for the environment. So I spent five years as Latin America correspondent, but sadly I came to the conclusion that actually Brazil was just further behind the curve than China, and China was further behind the curve than Europe and the United States, of course. And so this was you know, it was quite, quite shocking. But at least I had a very clear picture of the way things are going. And then I had the chance to go back to London for the first time in 25 years and to be global environment editor for The Guardian and to try to look at these problems from a global perspective and make the most of the experiences I'd had in Asia and Latin America.

And that's kind of almost brings us up to date, except the last part of the story, I guess, is that, you know, I'd written so many times in stories that business as usual is is destroying the planet that I eventually came to think that journalism as usual. Is not good enough. I love being journalist. I admire journalism in the purist sense, what journalists do. But I felt like just sort of telling two sides of a story, this this old school way of doing journalism really just didn't cut it anymore, because sometimes one side of the story is so much clearer than the other, more truthful than the other. And that this idea that journalists have to be sort of in the middle, an objective was misleading often. You know, it's a good idea a lot of the time. But other times, you know, there very clearly is a right and a wrong. And I think with the environment, that is the case. And so I decided to move beyond my mind, my comfort zone. And I set up the Rainforest Journalism Fund, which is $5.5 million scheme, to provide financial support to journalists who want to cover rainforests because it's expensive and it takes time. And a lot of even the big media organizations are reluctant to send people deep into the forests because of the costs. So we thought, okay, we'll help with the costs and then hopefully we'll get more coverage. So this was definitely a step beyond what I was used to at the time.

And now in the next month, set up a new newsletter and web platform that is called Sumauma. And the idea is that you look at world events as a journalist, but from the perspective of the rainforest. And so you look at everything from the center of life rather than the center of money or the central power, which is where most journalism was born. And the idea is we base it instead, we censor it here in the Amazon, and that as a result, you're looking at the world from a forest perspective. So the forest always comes first, not the not the money, not to control as well, although obviously they're important, too. And so it's an attempt to find a different way to tell stories, communicate set values. It’s exciting, but it's an enormous leap for all of us involved because we're trying to do something that doesn't exists. So even we don't know what the end result is, whether we be able to achieve what we want to achieve. But we know we want to try and we need to try to do something different.

Windelspecht: What are some of the major issues and stories that you think that are really important to be reporting on right now?

Watts: I think the primary one is the destruction of the rainforest is is well known, but perhaps not enough is appreciated about the role of traditional communities such as indigenous groups who live with the forests and have learned to live with the forest and have an expertise of living forest. And for too long they were treated as sort of backward and obstacles to development. But in fact, especially the Indigenous communities, you know, they have thousands of years of expertise of managing the forest. The Amazon’s biggest untold story or rather the underreported story about the Amazon is that this is largely an anthropogenic forest. This isn't a wilderness in the sense that it's empty and nature just does extinct. Something like 40% of the forest archeologists believe was planted by Indigenous communities that go from place to place and in each place they would settle, they would cultivate the land, they would plant the trees that were most useful to them. So so fruit trees and medicinal trees. And there's this evidence of black soil, which is kind of a settlement by humans in swathes of the Amazon.

So this is these are communities that learn to grow the forests, to live with the forests and manage the forest, and more recently, to protect the forest, because many scientific studies have shown that the best protected areas of forest are indigenous areas and the best, most cost efficient way to drawdown carbon is to guarantee Indigenous land rights. So I think that that side of things, I think much more can be made of that and appreciate it instead of just in indigenous groups to sort of backwards and obstacles to to so-called progress, which often is anything but.

Windelspecht: Recently we've been seeing threats to journalists and experts who are reporting on these regions — the murders of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert, Bruno Pereira — reporting in the Amazon. Can you speak to the events surrounding this and what risk journalists do face in reporting on these issues?

Watts: The risks have always been there. The murders of environmental defendants are all too common now and in the past, in Brazil and also in many other countries, particularly in the global south, in the developing world, that still has many areas of many holdouts of nature. These are areas where over centuries, but particularly over the last century, indigenous people have been pushed further and further back and still has wildlife being pushed further and further back. So these are sort of holdouts. These are enclaves. And this is also where a lot of the last untapped mineral resources and other targets of extractive industries have come to be.

So there is there is a fight going on in these lands with people who are trying to protect the last chunk of land they've got and then sort of corporate interests moving in and trying to exploit whatever it is in the soil that is valuable to them that they want to take out. And I think this is for me, this is this is usually reported as when there is when there is violence, when there is a killing. And there are there are something like 200 every year of environmental defendants killed, according to Global Witness. Generally, if the if these murders are reported at all, and usually they're not, then they're reported as sort of one off killings in some really remote place that don't really matter to the average reader. So they're you know, they're marginalized. But when you put them all together and you start to see the patterns about how similar many of the cases are and the kind of issues that they're fighting for and the kind of interests that fighting against. And when you look at the death toll, which is higher than in many sort of conflict zones, you start going, you know, there is a global war against nature going on and environmental defenders are on the frontline.

And reporters you cover in an interview them and travel with them are war correspondents in a way this undeclared global war on nature. And Dom, obviously, he hugely admired and respected Bruno Pereira, who was an indigensista - an expert on indigenous issues - a true believer in protecting the Amazon and the importance of the role of indigenous people and don't really came to admire him. And Bruno was really the target. Dom, like many journalists throughout history, happened to be there to witness a crime. And so he was he was silenced. And that's what happens when you are on the frontline and you see something that people don't want you to see. So, you know, he was he was killed doing his job, which was going out into off the beaten path and covering stories that he felt were underreported but very important.

Windelspecht Is there a concern that this will cause an intimidation factor on other journalists to convince them not to report on these issues?

Watts: I think the opposite is true. I think it's inspired more journalists to finish Dom's work, to do similar work, to cover the Amazon more thoroughly, to make sure that these kinds of forces can't just bully people into not telling the truth. I think I think there needs there is more concern about security than there was before. I know many organizations, including the Rainforest Journalism Fund, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and others, who have put in place tighter security protocols, which is what you'd recommend to journalists to follow if they go into one of these areas and things like, you know, what you need to take with the equipment to be safe, how to make regular call ins with people back at base headquarters so that they know you're following a set schedule and you haven't go missing the importance of maybe choosing where you interview people rather than traveling with them and a whole bunch of things.

So, yes, there is more concern, there are more safety protocols, but at the same time, I think there's more reporting of the kind of issues that Joan's reporting. So it's chilling, but it's it hasn't intimidated people. It's inspired people.

Windelspecht: You were earlier speaking to the world environmental defenders. What is the role of journalists who support these environmental defenders who are facing threats and arrest and direct attacks?

Watts: Well, I think the role of journalists is to this to find a truth that is relevant to them and relevant to their audiences, and to try to find maybe a truth that isn't widely known to their to their audiences, to go onto the ground and see for themselves so that they can challenge their own preconceptions about the story. That's always very important to go with an open mind. Still, you might have a sympathy on this one for one side or another. But often when you visit a place, your thoughts completely change when you see the reality on the ground. And it's not exactly as you see it, but the main thing is to go out and talk to people who are usually ignored and amplify the voices of people who are badly affected by major developments, whether that be a hydroelectric dam like Belo Monte or whether it's a new planned gold mine or whether it's farmland that's been carved out of the Amazon for whatever reason, because these do affect activities in other parts of the world. And that that is the ultimate role of a journalist is to make those connections, the connections between the individual incident and the bigger picture, the global patterns behind those individual incidents and not just say this happened, this happened, is that you've got to look for context. The journalist must think about context, about joining the dots. That's the first kind of connection.

The second kind of connection is making a connection between the subject and the region so that it's not just something that happens in a faraway place that has nothing to do with you. It's not just exotic and interesting, like a fairy story or an adventure story. It's actually connected to you. It's affecting your life, and your life is affecting that life over there. So in the case of the Amazon rainforest, that means obviously showing how the beef you eat, whether it's deforestation free beef or whether the chicken you eat is fed on deforestation free soil, the gold you have in a ring or a tooth, whether that's sustainably mined or not, etc., I mean, that's one way of making the connection.

 And then the other side of making that connection is to show that what people in the forests are doing is protecting an environment that's useful for all of us, because there is no solution to a climate disruption without an Amazon rainforest, without strong carbon, natural carbon sinks. And this is essential for all of us. It's like one of the world's organs and so on. Making those connections, I think, is essential. And on that last part, I think that's the challenge. And I think maybe that's where journalism often sometimes fails. It's making the emotional connection. Yes. First, you must tell the truth. Yes, you must get the statistics. But you've then got to make the emotional connection so that people don't just understand it and feel it. And that's really hard. That's the hard part of journalism. And that's an important part of journalism. And maybe this isn't always the most recognized kind of journalism, but I think all of us who grew up in a culture of sort of Western mainstream journalism, you know, our heroes, or at least my heroes, the real stirrers, the investigative ones who expose and uncover and upset people.

There’s that famous phrase that's often talk and always attributed to somebody different that if it doesn't upset someone, it's not real journalism. You know, there's that school of thought, but that's not enough. That's, you know, that's good. That is one type of good journalism and that is important journalism. But there are others is important journalism where you're telling a story that hasn't been told, but that's important. And finding truths that haven't been that haven't been told. And it's more reflective. It's reflecting something that maybe people haven't seen before. And that kind of journalism, I think, is really important to making the connections type of journalists, not just, oh, it's horrible, it's a problem, but wow, you know, that's the bad that's that I'm partly responsible for that. And what happens over there connects to me in that kind of journalism, I think is for me, really, really fascinating and important.

Windelspecht: I want to come back to something you said earlier, which is the idea that journalism is journalism when it upsets someone, there is certainly environmental reporting that upsets people — cases in India, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil of people being arrested, attacked and even murdered for this. Do you feel like it's a more dangerous era now to be an environmental reporter or has this always been the case?

Watts: It's a very good question, and it's only difficult to answer because there aren't clear statistics on this. I think the Committee to Protect Journalists has done reports on threats to environmental journalists. And I was part of a series called Green Blood that we did with Forbidden Stories a few years ago. That looked at threats to environments of journalists or intimidation or killings or murders were really quite rare. I think threats and intimidation of very, very common. Is there more of this? My instinct is that almost definitely, yes. Just because there is much more environmental journalism than there was in the past. And environmental journalism has more prominence than it did in the past. It has more impact than it did in the past. So it's more of a threat than it was in the past.

So my sense would be that yes, and it will increase even more in the future. And it's again, it goes back to what I was saying about there is a war and it's kind of like being a war correspondent. And if you're on the front line and you're embedded with an environmental defender, as in a sense the war correspondent, then there are risks involved. I think Dom would have been aware of the risks, maybe not quite how great a risk. And I don't think he would risk his life for that if he knew it was so dangerous. But it certainly knew there was some risk. And all journalism is a risk calculation, because if you if you wanted to avoid risk, you wouldn't go out. You would just write in front of your computer all the time at home. But, you know, you assess, is this story worth this risk? Is this important enough? And you make a decision.

Windelspecht: For journalists, especially young journalists or journalists just getting into environmental reporting now, what advice would you have for them even as they're managing and weighing the risks involved?

Watts: I would encourage them to get more involved, to really follow their instincts and this is their beliefs and to follow good journalistic practice. But I've got to say, don't rush. I think there's there is a danger, especially when you're young, that you want to cut corners and catch up and get ahead, and that that can be very dangerous if you're in this kind of situation where you really need to feel your way in. Try to go with someone who knows the territory. Ideally, work alongside a journalist who has more experience for a year or two to just get a feel of things, look at all the safety protocols and follow them as rigorously as you can and sort of build your career. I can just hear the young my myself in my twenties listening to that advice and probably say, “Oh yeah, well, you would say that, but you know, I want the story. I want to get ahead. I know what I'm doing. You know, I'm no idiot.” Okay, there will be people who do that. But I think you've got to be really careful.

Again, it's like a war zone. And a lot of the journalistic casualties in war zones tend to be freelancers and people trying to get ahead and people who don't have the protection of of an organization behind them, who are trying to just just get that story that the others are slightly too afraid to get. And then they take a risk and maybe they're more willing to take risks than the others. And that calculation, they haven't maybe had the experience to know what that calculation fully is yet. So my advice would be a mix of enthusiasm, but temper it out over some years so that when you are in the field and you are doing the story you want to do, you have the skills that you need and you're going to come back safely because there's no point going out and doing the story if you don't get to write it up.

Windelspecht f you're one of these journalists, keeping that advice in mind, beyond the Amazon — which is a huge story right now — what other parts of the world, what other stories would you be keeping your eye on?

Watts: You know, there's so many. I think the climate and nature story is getting bigger and bigger all the time, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. And it's this is going to continue for the rest of our lives, for the rest of the century. And you can just look around. Now, in the past week we've had these devastating droughts in the Yangtze Basin of China. We've had extraordinarily destructive floods in Pakistan and lots of other climate related events. But, you know, putting connecting those things together, reporting on those things on the ground, I think these are really important. And then, yes, going to these places that aren't well-reported to talk about, people who are affected, who are on the front line, I think this is very important. And so that's you know, that that that is here in the Amazon. But it's it could be any of the last healthy biomes left in the world, most of which are in the global south. So it could be you know, it could be the rainforests of Congo, Papua New Guinea or Burma, it could be the Antarctic, it could be your wetlands.

There are many, many of these places and just trying to find new ways to tell the story, to show what's going on and not just to allow this sort of climate apartheid, where there's one part of the world that sits tight in air-conditioned cities while another chunk of the world is exposed to these increasingly dangerous climate conditions. I would say that if you're going to be an environmental reporter, there will be times when you are asked about what you feel and ask yourself, “am I helpful?”, and feel despair because, you know, it's a tough it can be a tough beat on your mental health sometimes.

But I would say that it's ultimately very it's the best way to deal with anxieties about what's going on with you, because if you ignore them, then I think that it just resurfaces and it's much better to face it and do what you can when you can hope and despair that people talk about that endlessly. And I think in the end it's doing what you can do when you can do it. And that gives a sense of purpose. And that's that's really a great motivator. I hope that there is, you know, a new generation of really great kind of journalists who find innovative and fun and clever and influential new ways of talking about problems that we've been talking about for some time. We haven't fully fathomed what's going on. We haven't got it through. We haven't overcome the resistance of the fossil fuel lobbies and apathy and fear. But we keep trying and I think new ideas and new thoughts, new approaches will get there, in the end.

Windelspecht: This episode concludes our series on environmental reporting. You can check out the previous episodes anywhere you get your podcasts. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram to be the first to know when we publish our next series. For more resources on environmental reporting, check out IJNet.