The vast interconnected rain-forest basins fed by the giant river systems of the Amazon and the Orinoco are at the centre of the global crisis of economic degradation and global warming. For media, it’s a challenge that’s both critically transnational and profoundly local. To manage the crisis, local media from Venezuela and Brazil are forging alliances to meet the moment as too much of the established media — captured by state-aligned interests — fall short.
Two (almost) simultaneous events have threatened to hurry on the destruction of this globally critical region: the election in Brazil of the ultra-right-wing Jair Bolsonaro and the creation in Venezuela of the Orinoco Mining Arc by the government of Nicolás Maduro.
In Venezuela, as traditional media became captured by the governments of Chavez and Maduro, journalist-run new media voices turned to collaborations to cover the hard-to-report stories of environmental degradation and corruption, particularly in the large Orinoco Mining Arc in the country’s southeast.
The leading digital news organisations, RunRun.es, El Pitazo and Tal Cual, formed a network with the Star Wars-inspired name La Alianza Rebelde Investiga (ARI) to share content and resources, while the investigative portal Armando.info cooperated with Spain’s El País, the Pulitzer Center and Earth Rise Media to produce the special report Corredor Furtivo.
Independent local media are getting into the act, with Ciudad Guayana’s El Correo del Caroni working with Runrun.es, the Netherlands’ De Correspondent and the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, the Pulitzer Center, website ProDavinci.com from Caracas and the investigative platform InfoAmazonia.org, from São Paulo, Brazil. (See separate story.)
In ARI’s Canaima: a Paradise poisoned by gold, Lisseth Boon and Lorena Meléndez, from Runrun.es, took to a curiara (a dug-out canoe) for several days to navigate the Carrao River upstream in Canaima National Park.
Canaima used to be a relatively contained tourism paradise. But when the Venezuelan crisis almost wiped out the activity, some indigenous people took up mining. In a 36-hour journey, Boon and Meléndez managed to count 21 rafts with mining dredges in the rivers of Canaima. The mining technique involves dredging earth from the riverbed and extracting gold using mercury, which is then dumped into the river or evaporated in the air.
Mining in rafts was legalised in seven rivers by the government. The journalists found the blackwater being muddied as primitive mining was destroying topsoils, filling rivers with sediment and mercury. They became stranded on the sandbanks being produced.
They found, too, that gold mining had crept into the western part of this national park. It’s dividing the indigenous Pemón between those for or against mining. It’s enriched a hotel entrepreneur, with planes to smuggle the gold to the Netherlands Antilles, who has turned his luxury tourism camp into a base for the Venezuelan military.
Along the course of the río Caroní, patches of devastated land look like beads in a rosary strangling the national park. The crystalline blackwaters have turned brown and murky. They enter the massive reservoir of the Guri dam, one of the largest in the world, which produces 70 per cent of the country’s electricity and powers basic industries in Ciudad Guayana. Sedimentation, mercury and heavy metals are retained in the reaservoir and jeopardize its operation.
Armando.info’s collaboration, Corredor Furtivo, turned to satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to pinpoint 3718 points of activity and 42 makeshift landing strips. They also tracked the activities of armed groups in the states of Amazonas and Bolivar. Invading ELN guerrillas and FARC dissidents are attempting to recruit young Venezuelan indigenous people, some of who are in turn organising into armed self-defence groups.
The work, coordinated by Joseph Poliszuk and Javier La Fuente found that “the proportion of forest affected and the speed of deforestation in Venezuela surpasses any precedent in the Amazon region” and that the Venezuelan part of the Amazon, (5.6 percent of the total area), contains 32 percent of all illegal mines in the biome of the Amazon-Orinoco basin.
The work carried out by all these media has helped the story break through globally, raising international awareness, and serving as a critical information source for the September 2022 report of the United Nations Fact- Finding Mission reflecting the dramatic situation in the Venezuelan Amazon.
With its priority on the environmental crisis, the São Paulo-based portal InfoAmazonia has grasped the importance of transnational collaborations to cover the whole of Amazonia, participating in projects linking journalists and media from Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia.
It’s a complex and shocking evolving story. As a report in partnership with El Espectador, on the activity of mining rafts in several rivers in Colombia and Peru wrote: “Parents have to decide ‘whether the little ones are going to get sick with mercury in 20 years or go hungry tonight’.”
InfoAmazonia looks for linkages beyond the region, too, looking into mercury smuggled into Brazil via Bolivia from Mexico, Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. They also produced a documentary about the mercury trade in Guyana.
InfoAmazonia received the King of Spain Journalism Award in 2022 for its work on air pollution caused by forest burning in the Amazon and its impact during the Covid-19 pandemic. In an interview prior to the ceremony, editorial director Juliana Mori stated that forest loss increased under the presidency of far-right former captain and paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro.
“It’s has been a time of many incentives for environmental crimes,” she said. “In 2019-2020 the burnings during the dry season have been more than in a decade.” In 2021, Brazil was by far the country that destroyed the widest area of primary forest, with 1.5 million hectares, getting dangerously close to the 20 per cent of forest cover that would mark the point of no return, when the shift of the planet’s largest rainforest into dry savannah becomes inevitable.
Cooperation between media to report the growing crisis in the Amazon biome has only just begun. “I think that these alliances,” says María de los Ángeles Ramírez of El Correo del Caroni, “like the one we had with InfoAmazonia, are now going to expand because the problems are already regional, they are not going to stay local.”
Want more? Read part two here and three here.
Andrés Schäfer is a Madrid-based freelance researcher and journalist. You can see more of his stories for IPI here.
IPI’s Local Media Project is telling the stories of how local media around the world are reinventing everything to better serve their audiences and fulfil their key role in democracy. This article is part of our series profiling innovative local news publishers.