- The Amazon News Network has been in operation for nearly a decade, with the mission of providing news and information to unify people living all across the Amazon region of Brazil.
- The Network is especially involved in providing news about the massive infrastructure projects planned for the Amazon, including more than 40 dams slated for the Tapajós River basin.
- Late in August 2016, Amazon News Network founder Father Edilberto Sena, and Executive Producer Joelma Viana helped organize an environmental and social caravan that traveled from Santarém to Itaituba in Brazil’s Pará state at the heart of the Amazon. In Itaituba around 1,000 activists and concerned citizens gathered for a summit to develop sustainable economic strategies for the Tapajós region.
- The Itaituba summit called for the reinstatement of the Ministry of Agricultural Development (established in 1999 to oversee land reform in Brazil and promote sustainable practices, but abolished under the new Temer government). The participants also organized around their opposition to Tapajós dam construction plans.
“People need to bring cups, plates, etc., but not everyone who is coming is going to have access to facebook. And no one said this on the radio!. So we need [to inform everyone in advance,]” Joelma Viana said, explaining the problem to Father Edilberto Sena. The two were seated in the office of the Amazon News Network, a room with walls covered in sound baffling foam insulation so the small space can double as a radio production studio.
Viana and Father Sena were urgently conferring over last-minute details for a planned caravan that would depart the next day from Santarém for an environmental and social summit at Itaituba in Brazil’s Pará state in the heart of the Amazon. More than 500 participants had signed up to make the over 250 kilometer (155 mile) journey overnight by boat up the Tapajós River late in August, and the pair was concerned that plastic eating utensils would be both expensive and environmentally unsound.
In less than an hour, Father Sena was on the air, telling listeners to make sure to bring their own spoon, plate or cuia for the journey, a cuia being a wafer-thin carved wooden bowl traditional to this Amazonian region. “Bring your own things, like you would your toothbrush or underwear!” Father Sena exhorted his broadcast audience.
The priest has long applied such gentle humor, along with youthful energy, to his engagement in community affairs around Santarém where he serves the local Catholic diocese. It was this diocese that first established Rádio Rural in 1964, and out of which the Amazon News Network is based.
In the early 2000s, Father Sena began pushing to create a radio news network based in, and focused on, the Amazon region and issues important to its people. The project started with eight radio stations and now includes 13 scattered across seven states with a potential listening audience of 30 million people. Father Sena ran the Network for more than a decade after the turn of the millennium.
“We [don’t] use news from the others!” he declared proudly. “We [produce] the news from the ground [up], from [our] headquarters, and send [it] back so that all Amazonia can listen [to the] news; so that, for example, people in Cruzeiro do Sul near Peru can hear what´s happening in Maranhão, [in Northeastern Brazil].”
Father Sena has in recent times stepped back from his Network leadership role, and Viana now handles day-to-day newscast production. She also coordinates contributions from the various participating stations and reporters. “We produce a half-hour of news every day with our partners, and the news aims to value the culture, the people, the entire Amazon region,” she said.
The Amazon News Network won early support from a Catholic organization in Germany, and later from DW Akademie (an NGO affiliated with Germany’s public broadcaster that focuses on international media development). DW helped the Amazon News Network team learn how to produce environmental news.
In spite of multiple financial and technological challenges, the Network’s program keeps reaching the airwaves. “There have been days when we weren’t able to broadcast,” Viana said. “We work with [the] internet, and there are days when [the] Internet doesn’t work [locally]. So there are days when we can’t send, we can’t receive, and so we end up with no program.” But she noted, these blackouts are one indication of the program’s support — audience members reach out to ask why the daily broadcast hasn’t happened.
The Network is dealing with political challenges as well. Brazil was ranked worst in the world in 2015 for the number of environmental activists killed, and reporters affiliated with the Amazon News Network have suffered intimidation and fears of violence, Viana revealed. “We had a reporter in the state of Maranhão who produced a story about slave labor on a farm belonging to a businessman from the area. Afterwards, [strangers] started to call, to leave [threatening] messages, to drive by the office where she worked.” Viana encouraged the reporter to be careful, “because the region of Maranhão is a region where there isn’t much security for people who work on defending human rights issues.” As a result of this situation and others, the Network has adopted security measures to protect its reporters.
In late August, Viana and Father Sena joined the more than 500 activists sailing upriver to Itaituba for the three-day gathering. The meeting’s goal was to create a comprehensive vision for sustainable development in the Tapajós region of the Amazon. Others convened on the city from all across the Tapajós River basin, bringing attendance to more than 1,000 activists and interested parties.
Over the course of the long weekend, Viana produced regular reports for the Amazon News Network and a journalist from a local affiliate broadcast updates as well.
Attendance nearly doubled in comparison to the first such activist caravan to Itaituba in 2009; only 600 people attended that session. The 2009 caravan/meeting produced a letter to the Brazilian government and the Organization of American States denouncing plans for the São Luíz de Tapajós dam.
This year’s environmental and social summit took place just a few weeks after Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, archived the licensing request for São Luíz de Tapajós, killing the dam, at least for now. The mega-dam would have produced 8,000 megawatts of power. Opponents argued successfully that indigenous areas claimed by the Munduruku tribe, and protected by Brazil´s constitution, would have been flooded and that the dam would have created other serious environmental and social impacts. Traditional riverside communities would also have been affected by flooding, fish kills and changes in the river´s flow.
While the majority of the meeting’s participants came from outside Itaituba, Father Sena emphasized the importance of creating connections with local residents. Itaituba, a city and municipality of about 100,000 people, sits on the west bank of the Tapajós River and became important in the 1980s as the commercial hub for a regional gold rush.
Itaituba still relies on the gold trade for its bread and butter — gold-related businesses pepper the city, and one block in the city center counts half a dozen stores for selling and purchasing gold, plus a registry office for small-scale miners. But as soybean production takes on greater importance in the region, Itaituba is developing a new economic role as a port and staging area for commodities transportation.
In fact, if many in the federal government and in Brazilian agribusiness get their way, it is the booming soy production areas in the state of Mato Grosso to the southwest that will drive Itaituba’s future growth — as well as its environmental and social problems.
A network of more than 40 dams are planned by the government for the Tapajós basin, along with new roads and a railway. The goal is to turn the Tapajós River and its tributaries into a canal-like industrial waterway to move soy and other commodities cheaply to the coast for easy export to China and other foreign markets. The plan has many activists and people living in the region concerned over the intense development and deforestation such a massive project would bring.
“Now we decided we have to make a step ahead,” Father Sena explained. “The city of Itaituba [has] 100,000 people, and a big part of the people are not from Itaituba. They are from the Northeast because of the gold. [Others] came from the South because of agribusiness. So many people in Itaituba don’t have the feeling of roots.” He argues that Itaituba is poised to experience problems similar to the city of Altamira, which from 2011 onward became the staging site for the construction of the controversial Belo Monte mega-dam on the Xingu River.
Between 2011 and 2014, homicides rose by 79 percent in Altamira and traffic accidents increased 144 percent, while between 2010 and 2012, undernourishment of indigenous children soared 127 percent, according to reporting by the BBC. The Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens) estimates that 40,000 people were displaced by the Belo Monte dam, though there is no official figure for the number of people resettled in new, urban neighborhoods around Altamira to absorb that population.
Many Altamira residents claim they weren’t properly compensated by the companies contracted to build Belo Monte, as required by an agreement with the Brazilian government. The city, whose population exploded during the years during which the dam was built, still lacks adequate public water and sanitation infrastructure — also promised by the dam’s builders — and now faces a potential health crisis; the dam’s operating license was suspended this month as a result of the water/sewage problems.
“What they are planning to do in the Tapajós will be similar or [worse] than what they made in Xingu. And Altamira is now the mirror for Itaituba,” Father Sena cautioned.
Antonio Santana Chaves works in Itaituba with one of the Amazon News Network’s affiliates. He credits the network with helping people achieve a new sense of regional unity: “People end up more engaged with the work. When we broadcast, people feel much more members of the community; they feel greater belonging. People feel more connected because they are part of this.”
At the conclusion of the event, each of the 10 working groups that convened presented their conclusions and offered priorities for action. Itaituba conference participants united in calling for the reinstatement of the federal Ministry of Agricultural Development (established in 1999 to oversee land reform in Brazil and promote sustainable practices, but recently abolished under the new Temer government). They also called on the government to provide technical assistance and support for agro-ecological farming. The participants proposed setting up a region-wide activist support network for sharing information and knowledge; supported plans for cultural events to help disseminate awareness of the region´s traditions; and the establishment of security measures to protect indigenous leaders. They also backed a proposal to acquire equipment for mass communication, as well as an effort to locate public spaces at which to debate those who support Tapajós dam construction.
Viana participated in the communications working group during the Itaituba meeting. Afterwards, she explained that sharing available tools and strategies is especially valuable for Amazonian activists: “During the meeting we shared the experience of other groups, like the indigenous group of [Raposa/Serra do Sol]. They used video to create a counterpoint to the news [and misinformation] disseminated by mainstream media, [who] said that the indigenous people had a lot of land and didn’t need more. [So] the community created these videos to show that this wasn’t true.”
Viana is optimistic that this year’s meeting will enable the Amazon News Network to expand its partnerships: “What is the Network’s purpose?” she asked. “It’s to work with groups to disseminate social struggles. So starting with the experience here, we have more groups that are going to be supporting our work. And we’ll be sharing their struggles so that they aren’t isolated, and [so that] the world hears about [those struggles] as well.”
For more on this story, listen to a radio companion piece produced by Mongabay contributor Zoe Sullivan for Deutsche Welle.