Pulitzer Center Update

Sol Lauría and Guido Bilbao Discuss 'Atlantic Conquest' Project

The landing page for the Atlantic Conquest project

The "Atlantic Conquest" multimedia reporting project was developed and reported by Sol Lauría and Guido Bilbao after receiving a 2017 data journalism and property rights grant.

What was the genesis of the Atlantic Conquest project? How did you get tuned into the subject?

Guido Bilbao: The initial idea was to carry out a survey of the infrastructure projects undertaken by the government of Panama in protected areas, on forest lands inhabited by indigenous peoples. We focused on two areas: Darién, on the border with Colombia, and the central region of the country, on the Caribbean coast. In both places, roads were opened and infrastructure established to expand the possibilities of the energy industry. However, as we began to deepen the search we understood that we could not cover so much territory and decided to focus on a single project given the complexity and scope of the potential social and environmental consequences that the opening of a road across the Mesoamerican Corridor. Every day we got new information that made the situation more dramatic.

Ultimately, the construction of the road was no longer the central part of the story but just the gateway to a wider story about the transnationalization of
natural resources and dispossession of indigenous peoples. That is how the Atlantic Conquest was born.

How did using data help you report on the story? Was your original intent to write a data-based piece?

Sol Lauría: We knew that a story like this would entail great data work, along with traditional reporting in the field: raising testimonies, describing the area, talking to the people who have been living in these places for dozens of years. The first challenge was mapping: setting an updated map that would, for the first time, reflect the actual reality. For that purpose, we needed to gather all the official information available online about the highway project, locate hydroelectric plants, mining sites, and the electric transmission grid, as well as the rivers, the state of forests and other minor investments. We looked for environmental impact studies, land investments, and their owners. Then, we set up databases to analyze and display all the information collected. This allowed us to draw an overview of public limited companies with interests related to direct investments or public tenders awarded. We also had to verify the clearing of forest and environmental damage that all these investments cause in the province. We developed excel sheet with names of companies, owners, managers, date of registration in the Public Registry of Panama, lawyers. We tracked the companies and names behind them until we came up with the findings published in the stories.

How are Panama’s public registries designed to protect the identities of title owners? How did you overcome this problem?

Sol Lauría: Corporations in Panama, as in any of the more than 100 offshore jurisdictions in the world, are legal platforms that protect the identity of the people behind them: the real owners. Thanks to this confidentiality clause, there are people who can operate anywhere in the world without the obligation of be held accountable or laundering their capital, bank movements, investments, etc. To get to know the identity of people with direct interests in the province of Veraguas, we first looked for the owners of the land in the Public Registry on behalf of whom were the lands titled. When the owners were joint-stock companies, we also searched in the Public Registry for the people behind the companies. In some cases, we found them. In others, we haven't yet. The search was mainly carried out through the Public Registry and other databases such as OffShoreLeaks (Panama Papers) and Panadata.net.

What about a time when you were forced to change your data collection/analysis strategy?  What were some of the roadblocks you faced when working with the data, and how did you deal with them?

Guido Bilbao: The initial strategy of scanning all the land near the road was wrong. There were thousands of square kilometers. The documents are not digitized and we had to review maps in different public departments, located in different provinces. It was simply measureless. We then decided to investigate the known entrepreneurs, landowners, the companies with interests in the area, politicians, and deputies to look into the records for their companies, their names, their relatives and, through them, the properties. On the other hand, we went through the titles close to the beaches, as we knew these would be the most coveted lands. And that is how we found foreign businessmen monopolizing thousands of hectares and national deputies titling land to $7 per hectare. We also tracked mining and energy permits and found companies and entrepreneurs linked to extractive projects that are already being built or planned in the territory.

Was there data that you really wanted for your reporting, but could not gain access to?

Guido Bilbao: Yes, we could not get an official response on the massive titling that was done in the focus area over the last ten years. We wanted a list with the dimensions of territory and new owners, but it was impossible. Thus, we were forced to build a database with the information we were able to collect and compare it with the information we could get from the different departments of the State.

Onto Max van Rijswijk. How prominently was he featured within your data? Did you find evidence of other opportunists like him? How widespread is that type of person?

Guido Bilbao: He is actually a prototype of the type of entrepreneurs who find their way in the Caribbean countries. It is the 21st century update of the pirates of the Caribbean. Unfortunately, this type of character spreads like wildfire in Panama. Somehow, the offshore company system attracts this type of predator. The most striking and saddest part of the situation happened after the publication of the work: We received dozens of emails from people who asked us to go to their villages across the country to report similar cases. Or new victims of the Dutch man. As journalists, we are unable to respond to the needs of these people, and we cannot enter the arena of the judicial system. Nevertheless, we were surprised by the number of land conflicts and accusations that we received. These expanded what we knew about Max, along with conflicts that were new to us, but all of them similar in the matrix—foreign businessmen linked to the national policy that hoarded and occupied land illegally.

Finally—what is the status of the cases brought against MVR by indigenous communities? Are they making any headway? What kind of stance has the government taken (especially in light of its proposal to open up protected coastal lands to tourism)?

Guido Bilbao: The indigenous communities try to generate the defense of their lands through negotiation with the state. The Ministry of Environment, following the publication, declared that the tourism projects linked to the Dutch entrepreneur had no legal validity and had not been approved by the ministry. The National Assembly halted its progress on these lands—the bill was put on standby—although progress was noted on the Coib National Park, in the Panamanian Pacific coast, another virgin archipelago in which the building of an airport was announced a week ago, which will open the door to tourism investments. That is, politicians and businessmen are determined to move forward on protected territories and, like water, they always find their way. Much to our regret, the Atlantic Conquest is far from stopping.

You can view this unique multimedia project online