- We speak with journalists who have known and reported on Amazonia for years, and who also know the violence in the region like the back of their hands.
- Repórter Brasil’s Daniel Camargos speaks about how he adapted his way of working after the deaths of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous specialist Bruno Pereira.
- Combat journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto shares good memories of his extensive trajectory reporting directly from Amazonia.
- Finally, photojournalist Michael Dantas and Talita Bedinelli from Sumaúma tell of their coverage and experiences with the Yanomami people.
Journalists in Brazil have a saying, an expression penned by Brazilian poet Gonçalves Dias: “Boys, I saw it!” It’s popular among anyone going to the field to make reports, interview and witness facts and then report to others what they saw. And heard. In this article, we used the words of the poet from Brazil’s north as a foreword to some conversations we held with those who, for years now, not only know and report on Amazonia but live — fully — the violence that goes on in the region.
According to environmentalist group Global Witness, there were 20 environmental activists murdered in Brazil in 2020 alone. In 2022, the deaths of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous specialist Bruno Pereira were, according to reporter Daniel Camargos, “a nightmare that came true” for anyone who — like him — frequently reports on events in Amazonian territories.
‘Dom! Send us some news!’
“Once, when I was doing a coverage in Rondônia, the photographer that I worked with and I were approached by armed plainclothes police. It was a situation that recurred in my dreams frequently back then,” says Camargos, who today works for Repórter Brasil. “I was also having nightmares shortly before what happened to Dom. I would see myself and my colleagues beaten up, dead, exactly like what happened not long afterward with Dom and Bruno.”
Camargos traveled to Amazonia twice with the British journalist, once to report as a team on what became known as the Dia do Fogo (Day of Fire), a coordinated attack to set fire to the rainforest in August 2019. “Dom was very careful; he would follow protocol to a tee, he would keep switching his path so people couldn’t track him. When I went to Vale do Javari [the Javari Valley] to cover the searches, I still had some hope that he and Bruno might be alive.”
“Dom! Send us some news!” was the text message that Daniel sent to his friend when he heard of his disappearance.
Most news agencies and vehicles working in Amazonia have strict safety protocols involving long forms with elaborate details on the trip and monitoring equipment to be used when the team is in the field. In addition, there is a great amount of care taken with regard to protecting sources and those who agree to be interviewed and live inside the danger zone. “I go away [when the reporting is done], but the person remains. I can’t place them at risk,” says Camargos.
When asked if anything changed after the death of his colleague, he says, “I would even say that now I’m the one who most holds the team back. ‘No, let’s not go on,’ I say. ‘Will we miss it? Yes, we’ll miss it so we can report on another one later.’”
“Playing with a lot of beehives” — this was the way Jornal Pessoal operated for 32 years. The independent newspaper, which reported on various topics related to the Amazon region, was created by Pará native Lúcio Flávio Pinto after he was unable to find places to publish what he had covered after the assassination of ex-state deputy Paulo Fonteles de Lima.
“The local papers didn’t want anything to do with it because the article quoted some of the richest and most powerful men in Pará,” he recalls. “One of the people I tried to convince —one of the owners of O Liberal — said to me, ‘So make your own newspaper and assume it.’ And that’s what I did.”
Because it had no advertisements or sponsors, as time passed and resources dwindled, Jornal Pessoal became more analytical. “With the global press crisis, it became unviable. I was selling less and less all the time. Even newsstands were disappearing. I was exhausted from producing it, getting older, and then I got Parkinson’s. So I decided to just stop suddenly, with neither a final edition, nor any explanation.”
Pinto also worked for other publications and has many fascinating behind-the-scenes stories from the journalism world. One tells of the day he was roused out of sleep by an urgent phone call from O Estado de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers. They wanted him to go straight to Manaus because two suspicious Libyan planes had been detained at the airport there, suspected of carrying weapons from Libya’s ex-President Moammar Gadhafi to revolutionary fighters in Nicaragua. There were rumors of explosives on the planes, so the Army formed a barrier so soldiers could enter the plane with specialists and see what was on board — which took some time.
“When it got dark, the other journalists went home to draft their articles, but I decided to spend the night with the soldiers. I was the only journalist that stayed,” he says. Then, something unexpected happened: One of the sergeants asked him, as a favor, to go to his house with a message for his wife that everything was OK (this was in 1983, when communication was more cumbersome than it is today). Pinto went, stopping by a bakery to buy fresh bread and milk for the soldiers on his way back. “In exchange, the sergeant asked me to wait around because they were planning to go inside the plane shortly, and I’d have a full report when they came back.”
The plane was, in fact, carrying missiles and, unlike his colleagues, Pinto was the only one to know — the famous leak. “You have to work hard, be persistent, dedicated and creative. Like the famous football coach Gentil Cardoso once said: Only those who hustle earn; only those who can get ahead. You have to take action like that to help Lady Luck find you,” he concludes.
Pinto also recalls a time when he negotiated an unprecedented sale with Indigenous people from the Gavião, who live near Marabá in the state of Pará. “They showed up at the Estadão branch office in Belém. They were negotiating the sale of their Brazil nut harvest to the exporters. I gave them the information they needed to get a better price. They made a lot of money and deposited it in the Banco do Brasil agency in Marabá. They invested some of the money in a savings account and were the first Indians in Brazilian history to make a financial investment.”
Today, Pinto continues his work on the internet through his site with content including a collection of his texts written over time, organized by category. They are a rich written history of Amazonia.
And what is his view on digital Indigenous activism, especially among the young people who have used social media to report on their communities? “This is new, positive and holds great potential for growth. But those really working on the fronts where the forest is getting hit by the ‘pioneers’ need connections with the press or with individual journalists. These connections need to be consolidated. This will be an effective reaction to the drop in local professional coverage. And these activists need to understand that, in addition to defending their causes, they need to be reputable sources of information, even the unpleasant or undesirable kind.”
The Yanomami in the spotlight
Michael Dantas is a photojournalist from Manaus whose photos recently caught global attention because they portray the collapse of the public health system in Manaus and the thousands of deaths that occurred there at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The photo below was taken above the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Cemetery, where mass graves were opened in April of 2020. “The press was prohibited to enter there at the time. I went to the neighborhood located behind the cemetery, sent up the drone and took the photos. It scared me when I saw what was on the screen,” says Dantas.
Dantas recently visited Boa Vista to photograph the exit of gold miners from Yanomami Territory and spoke a little about his time there. “I spent 14 days there, and it was very dangerous. One wrong word, and we would have been stuck in a very complicated situation. There were four international news agencies there and the Folha de São Paulo. We decided to all go in together, both for security reasons and to split the costs because working in that region is always very expensive — we paid 20,000 reais [$4,000] just to rent one canoe!”
The shocking photograph below of a malnourished Yanomami child in the hospital is also his. “It’s very difficult, especially as a father, to see a child in that condition. She’s 2 years old, with the bodyweight of a newborn … but what we did is fundamental for getting people’s attention, to report on what’s actually going on.”
It was Dantas’ images — along with the startling numbers — that showed the extent of the tragic situation that people in northern Brazil are experiencing. The day after the report “We’re not managing to count the bodies,” which holds terrifying images taken by Indigenous people and health care professionals was released from Sumaúma, President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva traveled to Roraima with Sonia Guajajara, the minister of Indigenous peoples, to kick off a campaign that continues on many fronts in the territories.
Talita Bedinelli is one of the reporters who bylined the article, together with journalist Eliane Brum and anthropologist Ana Maria Machado. In her words: “We visited the region in August. The first report on the Yanomami crisis came out in September, but we continued to monitor the situation because it was very serious. Things worsened a great deal in December and we began to receive images of malnourished children in different parts of the territories from health professionals, community leaders and census takers.”
There was, however, an issue with being able to use the images. “Having a photo published is a problem for the Yanomami because they believe that the image is part of the person, and it needs to be destroyed when the person dies together with all of her possessions. This, so the living can forget, so they can go on living in peace after the person has passed away. So publishing these images is a cultural shock for them, it’s a violation.” Conversations with Yanomami leaders went on for a month until — because of the dire situation — the photos were allowed to be released.
During the process, Bedinelli had been gathering data for previous reports that gave a broad overview of the health care system in Yanomami Territory up until 2021.
When Lula became president, she asked a press agency for data on mortality rates in children aged 5 and under due to “avoidable causes … so I could compare it to the numbers I already had. It took some time, but when I received the data, I added it up and saw that there was a nearly 40% jump during the Bolsonaro administration.”
Sumaúma has stood out for its reporting on Amazonia. Created by Eliane Brum, who has lived in Altamira, Pará, since 2017, the trilingual platform has an experienced team that knows the region. In addition to international funding, its partners are active collaborators. “They play a sort of ombudsman role for us,” says Bedinelli. “Aside from financial support, they sit with us to discuss the issues. Right now, for example, we’ll be having a meeting to exchange ideas about the reports we did on the Yanomami.”
Bedinelli explains that Sumaúma, created to give a voice to the people in the rainforest, “is a [communication] vehicle based in Amazonia with a global outlook. We have a network of excellent freelancers and are looking to grow this year by hiring more people to create a sort of laboratory, a co-formation with communications professionals and, by teaching people in the rainforest to become journalists, also with people who live in the riparian communities and Indigenous people. We believe that journalism needs to be at the center of where life is being lived, and Amazonia is that life,” she concludes.
Banner image: Reporter Daniel Camargos interviewing a woman who lives on the BR-319 highway near to Tapauá, Amazonas. Image courtesy of Fernando Martinho/Repórter Brasil.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Mar. 7, 2023.