The Amazon: Urgent stories, told at a risk

A portion of the Bolivian Amazon cleared for sugar cane, from a Mongabay article authored by Eduardo Franco Berton, who organized and moderated the “Amazon in Crisis” session. (Photograph courtesy of Eduardo Franco Berton.)

Painting the picture of Brazil’s vulnerable Amazon region continues to be complex, contentious and even downright dangerous for journalists and others.

During the CASW New Horizons in Science panel session, “The Amazon in Crisis,” presented Oct. 15 at ScienceWriters2018 in Washington, D.C, a scientist, a sociologist and an environmental journalist shared dramatic stories about challenges they’ve faced getting the news out about a region vital to the sustainability of the planet.

Hydroelectric dams in the evolving Amazon region have been the research focus of Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research who has lived in and studied the area for 40 years and is a leading expert on global warming and deforestation. Fearnside’s research, which shows that Amazon dams emit high levels of greenhouse gases, particularly methane, has him increasingly locking horns with the political forces in the country that want to build hundreds of more dams in the region.

Amazon panel
Philip Fearnside presenting his research on the Brazilian Amazon at ScienceWriters2018 as other panelists watch.

Those disagreements are playing out in the news media, Fearnside explained in the panel session. In a research presentation earlier in the day on the climate impacts of the massive dam-building projects now underway, Fearnside said research articles and news stories about his findings are continually criticized and challenged in the media by proponents of the dams.

Fearnside also described what has happened to others fighting on behalf of the Amazonian ecosystem—environmental agencies whose offices have burned to the ground as they go head to head with gold mining companies and a government that, he said, compromises its own laws and powers to clear the way for mining companies’ interests.

Fearnside’s fellow panelist Sabrina McCormick is a sociologist and climate change researcher at George Washington University and a filmmaker who has also spent time in the Amazon. McCormick chose to document the impacts of hydroelectric dams on the surrounding indigenous communities through a film focused on child trafficking. Her film “Tribe” tells the story of a young girl taken from her home.

McCormick said the film helps viewers understand how many forces are involved in getting a dam approved. For example, the indigenous community surrounding a dam has to legally sign off on the dam, which puts the community at risk.

Asked about the danger of filming with indigenous people in a remote and high-conflict area, McCormick said it is the communities who are vulnerable to the forces pushing for building more dams.

“Police can and are hired to kill people,” she said.

Barbara Fraser, an independent journalist in Peru, discussed the challenges she has faced covering environmental issues in the Amazon and those affecting indigenous peoples.

Flush with illegal gold mining, sex trafficking in the mining camps and illegal timber cutting, the Amazon can be dangerous for journalists, she said, and many have been threatened and killed.

“I’m very careful about where I go,” Fraser said.

Carol Lawrence (@Carol_outdoors) is a freelance science writer with a business journalism background now focusing on agriculture, manufacturing and technology, environmental issues, climate change, nature and wildlife.