- Environmental defenders are increasingly under threat for protecting their lands against agribusiness, mining, illegal logging and other forms of development.
- Covering environmental defenders can put journalists in dangerous situations, but a sense of guilt at being able to safely leave can often follow journalists long after they have gone, and can be more psychologically difficult to deal with than the immediate danger.
- Learning how to acknowledge and deal with feelings of guilt is an important part of the job
In April at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, I was listening to a panel where Sônia Guajajara, the general coordinator of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), was speaking about the threats that indigenous people face — especially those fighting for their land in places like Brazil
“Nobody can live in harmony and feel safe if you are being threatened daily,” she told the audience. “Nobody can live in peace if you are not considered a citizen in your own land.”
As an environmental journalist who has reported on, researched, and worked with various indigenous and non-indigenous environmental defenders in Latin America, that line struck a chord.
Environmental defenders, often indigenous, often located in isolated, environmentally complicated parts of the world, are increasingly being killed with impunity. The death of 26-year-old Paulo Paulino Guajajara was the last to rock headlines. In 2017, every week almost four environmental defenders were killed. And last year Latin America accounted for more than half of the environmental defenders killed around the world.
Covering this beat is also becoming more dangerous. Over the last decade, environmental journalism has shot up in the ranks of the most dangerous types of journalism. According to an estimate by Poynter, 40 reporters around the world died between 2005 and September 2016 because of their environmental reporting — more than were killed covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which has been going on since 2001.
For local reporters in countries where illegal encroachment and agriculture and deforestation are rampant, those statistics look even worse. It comes as no surprise to me.
Reporting on the threats of climate change and deforestation, and the grave impacts this has on some of the most vulnerable populations, is bleak. The amount of money and power wrapped up in large-scale industrial, infrastructural, and agricultural projects that threaten the world’s forests is astounding — and going up against some of those large players can be both terrifying and even deadly.
Inevitably, as environmental journalists covering these conflicts, we are pushed for a very brief moment into the type of physical and psychological threats that many of these defenders experience daily — and then left to deal afterward with the guilt of being able to leave.
On a razor’s edge the whole time
A few years back I was doing my first documentary in Peru about the impact of large-scale agro-industrial plantations in the Amazon. I was fairly green, and this was one of my first international trips reporting on a land conflict. . I was filming that day with an indigenous Shipibo producer and a Spanish filmmaker near a cacao plantation in a rural village a few hours’ boat ride away from Iquitos.
The plantation owner, already notorious for a few other shady dealings in other parts of Peru, had deforested around 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of primary forest, leaving a giant, industrial footprint so perfectly square that you could see it clearly from satellite images hundreds of miles away in space.
Our main character, a 40-year-old mestizo man called Ricardo from the town of Tamshiyaku, owned a few dozen acres abutting the cacao plantation in the direction that the plantation wanted to expand into. He was being harassed to sell his land to the plantation but wasn’t budging, so the plantation had started to illegally section off and deforest part of his land and he had agreed to show us where.
Getting there required about three hours of travel and hiking through the remote Peruvian jungle — a hot, humid, buzzing tangle of trees, lianas, and stumps rising out of soggy red soil that smelled of leaf litter and detritus, and that promised blisters on my hand from whacking a machete through the branches that always seem to grow back over the trail as fast as I could cut them away. It was a prospect that at the time — and still today — genuinely excited me.
We hoped on Ricardo’s three-wheeled scooter, all four of us and our gear, and set off about two hours down a narrow, bumpy, red clay road into the jungle. On the way, our character told us about how he had been fired from his government job for protesting the plantation, and since then had experienced constant harassment.
The latest were threats to his wife and children, something he was having more difficulty with than when the threats were only directed at him.
About halfway there another farmer coming in the opposite direction waved us down. A friend of our main character, he was similarly fighting to keep his land and not sell it to the plantation. He agreed to give us an interview on the condition of anonymity: he was too afraid to speak out on camera in case he was targeted
I sympathized; we were in a small, isolated village with almost no police presence. Not that it mattered too much; Peru is one of those countries where people tend to fear the police and often government agencies just as much as they trust them. In fact, during our stay at the village we saw the water and sanitation agency, the same agency that monitors the effluent and water use from large plantations, arrive and leave in private boats chartered by the plantation itself.
As we were finishing our interview, the farmer warned us that he had been stopped and questioned by a pickup truck full of heavily armed plantation guards stationed further up the road. Ricardo, upon hearing this, became visibly anxious, but pressed on, stating “if they are going to kill me anyway, I’d rather they do it while I am defending my land.”
What had seemed like an exciting reporting trip suddenly became extremely unstable in my mind.
Getting to know fear, a frequent travel companion
Our actual brief, intimidating encounter with the pickup full of armed guards was anticlimactic: after briefly stopping and unnecessarily questioning us they left us alone. But their presence, and their clear signal that they were watching Ricardo and by default us — was enough to make me feel like I was on razor’s edge the entire time. Walking through the jungle with my senses heightened and imaginary eyes on my back made me feel like I was on speed.
When we finally wrapped up our shoot and made it back to the boat terminal and onto the ferry back to Iquitos I felt like a hundred pounds had been lifted off my back.
I could finally think again. The tension in my jaw and back lessened, my heart slowed down to a normal speed, my hands stopped sweating. I didn’t realize how the blanket of fear that had been covering me during our whole shoot had been impacting me so viscerally.
As our boat sped away down the Amazon, my relief turned for a brief moment to euphoria: we had gotten some great vérité moments, an unexpected interview, and some awesome shots of the plantation from the edge of the farmer’s fields. But watching Ricardo on the riverbank turn away and walk back toward his house — an exposed tin and wood dwelling on the edge of town — that relief quickly turned to guilt.
Who was I to feel safe again when he lives with constant harassment, intimidation, and the threat of harm to himself and his family? How could I enjoy that sense of relief when the people I am reporting on don’t have an inch of ground where they can feel safe?
That guilt has never fully gone away; it’s a feeling I’ve experienced in some way after every shoot or reporting trip that has any kind of environmental justice component. Environmental journalists are, in some ways, pioneers for dealing with aspects of climate guilt that the world is slowly waking up to.
It has a different name depending on the story and my mood: privilege, inequality, culpability, shame, luxury. Unacknowledged, guilt can be paralyzing. It can cloud judgment and lead to rash and dangerous decisions. The only way through is to acknowledge it; make space for it, and then let it go.
Surrounding myself with other inspiring environmental journalists, like the ones in the Mongabay Freelancer-in-Residence pilot program and those who are similarly dedicated to telling stories of land and environmental conflicts, has been the best remedy for any kind of guilt. Recently a friend of mine got back from Cauca, Colombia, one of the most dangerous places in a country that has seen a surge of attacks against environmental defenders and social activists. She was there to document a 10,000-person protest against the exclusion of indigenous people in the peace accords, and the disrespect of their lands and resources.
“It’s not guilt anymore,” she told me when I asked her about how she deals with her own sense of guilt when she leaves Cauca to come back to the relative safety of New York City. “It’s accountability. These people are risking their lives protesting. Someone has to tell these stories, and I was in a position to. Guilt makes me want to tell more of these stories, better.”
Having recently returned from a reporting trip from Matopiba, the epicenter of agricultural expansion rife with land conflicts in Brazil’s tropical savanna and an area that often falls under the shadow of the Amazon, I’m learning to turn guilt to gratitude; to give thanks for my own and loved ones’ safety, and then use that as a motivation to write more, and better things, exposing more of the inequalities and issues that have created a world where some people can be safe, while others can’t.
Life is too precious not to.
Sarah Sax is a freelance environmental journalist based in New York City, formerly with Vice News. You can find her on Twitter at @Sarah2theSax.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this article. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.