Q&A: Sumaúma Covers the Amazon Like It’s “the Center of the World”

We spoke with Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum and Guardian correspondent Jonathan Watts, who recently launched Sumaúma, a news platform dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Amazon rainforest.

Smoke rises from a forest fire in the Transamazonica highway region, in Amazonas state, Brazil. (Edmar Barros via AP Photo)

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with different journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and their ideas for pushing our craft forward. This week, we spoke with Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum and Guardian correspondent Jonathan Watts, who recently launched Sumaúma, a news platform dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Amazon rainforest. We spoke about the Amazon’s central role in the climate fight, journalists’ coverage of it, and Brazil’s October 2 national elections. Brum and Watts, who are married, spoke with us from their home in Altamira, Brazil. The conversation, with CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Brum and Watts on Twitter.

What led you to create Sumaúma?

Eliane Brum: I’ve been a journalist covering the Amazon for more than 30 years. In 2017, I moved from São Paulo to Altamira, in Brazil’s Pará state, which is an epicenter of Amazon deforestation, violence, and fires [many of which are criminal and deliberate]. I moved here because I believe we are living amidst a war against nature, in which the real centers of the world are our natural life-support systems — our forests, our oceans, et cetera. So, I realized: if I’m a journalist and I believe the Amazon is the center of the world, why am I not there?

We cannot face climate breakdown and mass extinction with the same thinking that led to these crises. We need to recenter our values — to listen to others with different ways of thinking about and being in this world. Especially, we need the thoughts and perspectives of Indigenous forest people, those who have remained part of nature, who’ve cared for and even planted parts of the forest.

Sumaúma is our answer to this. Along with our co-founders — Carla Jimenez, Verônica Goyzueta, and Talita Bedinelli — we want to create a journalism platform that is both based in the Amazon and incorporates the views of its people.

Jonathan Watts: News organizations are of course usually based in centers of power and capitalism — London, New York, Tokyo, Beijing. By living here, we aim to put life at the center of our journalism. I’ve worked for the Guardian for 26 years. I love working for the Guardian, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I’ve been covering the environment for 12 years now, though, and five or six years ago I got this strong feeling that journalism-as-usual isn’t working. That’s when Eliane and I co-founded the Rainforest Journalism Fund, which is a $5.5 million grant-giving fund to help journalists travel to the Amazon — because it’s quite an expensive place to cover, even for larger newsrooms. That helped us realize that we can push journalism further. Sumaúma is the next step.

For context, can you describe the current situation in the Amazon and the nature  of the threats to it?

Watts: We’ve had deforestation in the Amazon since the 1970s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship began opening up the forest with roads and encouraging people to move here. In many parts of the world, we’ve become numb to this. But according to leading scientists — certainly the leading climate and Amazon-focused scientists in Brazil — we’re approaching a “tipping point.” That is the stage where so much of the forest is degraded that it no longer functions as a rainforest.

The Amazon is sometimes wrongly called “the lungs of the world.” It’s not the lungs, because it’s not the oxygen the forest produces that’s so important. It’s the way it acts as a sort of water pump; the trees push water around the region and the world with so-called “flying rivers” that are hugely important for the environments in large parts of Brazil, South America, the Caribbean, and beyond. This function is weakening.

Also critical is the forest’s ability to store carbon. There’s no path to limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius — [which scientists call necessary to avoid the worst of climate change] — or 2 or even 3 degrees Celsius that doesn’t rely on a healthy Amazon that’s able to draw down carbon. Several scientific papers say some parts of the Amazon are already past climate tipping points and that the forest has become a net carbon source instead of a carbon sink. In other words, the forest is no longer our climate friend and is becoming our climate enemy — though, of course, it’s not the Amazon doing this; it’s the people burning it. Under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation rates are the worst they’ve been in a long time. As we speak, there’s a spectral orange haze in the sky over our home — due, locals say, to fires set by loggers.

Brum: A recent study showed that butterflies in the Amazon are becoming gray and brown, to mimic the ashes of the forest. For me, this is a very powerful image. It’s a big-small thing, or a small-big thing, that shows the tragedy of the Amazon. People are stealing the color of the world.

Historically, how do you feel the media has done covering the Amazon?

Watts: The Western press is essentially a product of an industrial society. The big newspapers of Britain and Europe date back 200-some years, to near the start of the industrial revolution. They’re part of the system that was designed to exploit the resources of the Amazon and other places, particularly in the Global South. So, I think there’s a subconscious mentality in the press of colonialism, resource extraction, and “get rich now, clean up later”—or, for that matter, don’t bother cleaning up at all.

But we’ve entered a different phase of capitalism, one of climate destabilization, and maybe what made sense 50 or 100 years ago doesn’t anymore. I think very few Western news outlets recognize that we’re reaching limits of the capital-fueled, carbon-driven model of growth. There’s an assumption that this is just how things work. I’ve had conversations with journalists who say, “Oh, whenever people start blaming capitalism, I switch off. Capitalism is what there is, and we’ve got to live in reality.” But really you don’t have to go back far in human history to find a time when there wasn’t capitalism, not as we mean it.

That said, there are honorable exceptions. I think the Guardian has been quite good on the environment. And the AP and Reuters, for example, now have Amazon correspondents, which they didn’t in the past. So, there’s good coverage being done here, just not enough.

How does that compare to coverage in the Brazilian press?

Brum: It’s very similar to the press in the US and Europe. The press in Brazil is based in the biggest cities — São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasilia. Most of the journalists are white, middle-class people of European descent. And most major outlets have just one correspondent covering the Amazon. Some have none. But the Amazon is a very complicated place to understand! Even good, experienced journalists can fail here. There are hundreds of different languages spoken in the forest and so many different ways of thinking. Even for me, after covering the Amazon for decades, there are many things I came to understand only when I moved here. Every day, I’m still learning.

Watts: There’s been a lot of Amazon coverage recently both here and abroad due to the murder of [freelance correspondent] Dom Phillips, who was a friend of many of us journalists working in Brazil. It’s unusual for a journalist to die in the Amazon, especially a foreign journalist. But, crucially, activists and Indigenous people are threatened and killed with horrible frequency. It’s important to recognize that this is a conflict zone — part of a global conflict zone encompassing many of the world’s natural hotspots, where resources are extracted and where environmental defenders are in real danger.

Can you tell us more about the voices and perspectives you aim to elevate in Sumaúma?

Brum: We want to represent the Indigenous people of the forest — and those who are not considered forest people but whose lives are very important to the Amazon, such as the agricultural peasants, who are killed so often, and the people living in the outskirts of the urban areas, whose grandparents or parents were forest people who were expelled from the forest because of development.

Watts: Essentially, we want to host and amplify all the voices that, together, represent a healthy forest. So that also includes beiradeiras, people who’ve moved into the forest in the last 200 years but live there sustainably, and quilombolas, the descendants of rebel slaves. And scientists whose work doesn’t always get full prominence in mainstream outlets.

Brum: One of the first articles we published was by Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a prominent shaman and leader of the Yanomami people, about devastation brought to this supposedly “protected” territory by illegal miners. Our first big, reported feature was about Yanomami women, who have been raped by some of those miners; sometimes, they are raped by many miners at one time. The women don’t speak Portuguese, so to speak with them we contracted two anthropologists, one a Yanomami woman herself and the other a white anthropologist that’s lived with the Yanomamis for 15 years. We couldn’t show their faces, because it would put the women at risk, so we asked them to draw what the miners represent in their lives and featured these drawings. This is the kind of journalism that Sumaúma will stand for.

In the “manifesto” published on Sumaúma’s website, you write that part of the work ahead is a matter of “de-training” yourselves, with regards to your journalistic habits and assumptions. What does this mean?

Watts: We plan to work with and encourage storytelling by forest communicators. But importantly this shouldn’t be one-way communication; our goal is not to train them to be “like us.” We want two-way communication, where we’re critiquing our own practices. In the mainstream press, for example, stories almost always report on destruction in the Amazon in terms of “hectares,” like a land property owner would. But what about the millions of trees and billions of insects lost that are also vital?

Brum: The traditional model of journalism is 200 years old or so, but Indigenous people have been telling stories and sharing news with each other in their own way for 13,000 years. So, we will share our style of journalism, and they will teach us how they tell stories. From this process, we expect we’ll be creating something different and new.

Who do you envision as your audience?

Watts: The website is trilingual from the get-go, with English, Portuguese, and Spanish editions. For now, our audience is primarily Brazilian, but we hope to find and build support internationally, from anyone who cares about the Amazon and anyone who’s open to different value sets. News outlets are generally hubs for the exchange of ideas and information, with communities created around them. We hope to become a hub ourselves and for our audience to be quite involved in the work we do.

Brum: We also want to talk to people inside the forest. This is the reason that we have a podcast to cover Sumaúma’s reporting, hosted by Elizângela Costa, who is an Indigenous communicator and podcaster. The traditional transmission of knowledge and news in the forest is oral, not written, and we want to respect this tradition. So, we will always have both written and audio formats.

Regarding Brazil’s national elections on October 2, what are some issues on your minds that journalists everywhere might pay more attention to?

Watts: What’s missing in coverage of the Brazilian election is what’s missing in coverage of elections all over the world: a sense of urgency about the climate crisis and the nature crisis. These should be the top issues in every debate, rather than, “Oh, what are you going to do on the economy?” or “What’s your policy on law and order?”

Important questions that I think aren’t being covered enough: One, will Bolsonaro accept the results if he loses by a small margin, or will he try to do a Trump, which, given his character and some hints he’s made, is entirely possible? Two, if he loses, which polls suggest he will, what will [Bolsanro’s opponent, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] do? Lula’s record on the Amazon in the past is mixed, and his successor, Dilma Rousseff [who represented the same party as Lula], was actually pretty bad for the Amazon. So, what change can we truly expect from Lula?

Brum: Brazil left dictatorship in 1985. We had our first democratic election in 1989. Still, I believe this is the most important election in Brazilian history. Our choice is between a democrat and an authoritarian criminal. That is Bolsonaro. More than that, our choice is between life and death, because the politics of Bolsonaro are the politics of death. We could talk for hours about facts that support this, but I suspect the world already understands this. Brazil cannot stand four more years of Bolsonaro. The Amazon cannot stand four more years.

One more thing important to point out is that this isn’t just an election for president. We have a record number of candidates for congress who are Indigenous, and most of these candidates are women. This reflects the fact that women have been among the foremost protagonists in the struggle to defend the forest in recent years.

Also in your manifesto, you’re very deliberate in saying Sumaúma “takes a side” and that the publication will be “an ally of those who defend enclaves of nature and centers of life.” What would you say to those who would take issue with this, believing journalists should be “objective” and never take sides?

Brum: There are many examples in history where it was important to take a side. In the war against nature, the side of nature is the only ethical position. It’s not possible to take the “other side.”

Watts: When you write a story, you’re always making judgements. You’re deciding what’s the top line, what’s the second. You’re deciding that this detail is more important than that. A story is never entirely balanced, and it never should be, because in most stories there is real clarity about what’s going on. As the old, hackneyed cliché goes: when the Journalism 101 instructor asks, “Is it raining?” you don’t write stories with one side saying, “Yes,” and another saying, “No.” You look out the window.

Right now, there is no, “Is this a crisis or not?” It’s very clearly a crisis, and it makes sense for journalists to side with people trying to fix it rather than make it worse. And doing so doesn’t have to come at the expense of journalistic principles. You can still get the best possible knowledge out there and express it in a way that’s cogent and accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

Brum: What’s important to being a good journalist is not to be neutral. It’s to be honest. And we are honest — including about those who are against nature.