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Pulitzer Center Update June 30, 2021

Behind the Story: Making Brazil’s Urban Indigenous Communities Visible


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The silhouette of a woman wearing a headdress standing against the sun, as it sets in a city.

Indigenous people are not just in the Amazon Rainforest and remote rural areas. More than a third of...

A man in traditional Indigenous dress stands in front of a tall building and plays a flute-like instrument.
Michael Oliveira Baré Tikuna is shown in front of a building at Rio de Janeiro State University, where he was the first Indigenous person enrolled through the quota system, on December 1, 2020. Image by Mongabay. Brazil, 2020.

For the last year, Pulitzer Center grantee and Mongabay Contributing Editor Karla Mendes has led a team of freelancers across Brazil with the ambitious goal of mapping the country’s Indigenous population based on the 2010 census. The project, The Hidden Face of Indigenous People in Brazilian Cities, focuses on making visible Indigenous communities, and the prejudice they face, in the six cities where their numbers are greatest: São Paulo, São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Boa Vista, and Brasília.

Though Indigenous Brazilians are often stereotyped as living exclusively in the Amazon rainforest, the latest data shows that more than a third—about 315,000—live in urban areas. The 2010 census was the first to recognize Brazil’s Indigenous population through a self-declaration process, and experts predict that the number will rise as more people reject the stigma attached to indigeneity and claim their heritage.

“Karla's approach of using a potent mix of drones, spatial data, census data, and well-crafted storytelling revealed for the first time Brazil's very sizable urban Indigenous population,” said Steve Sapienza, the Pulitzer Center’s senior strategist for collaborative news partnerships. “Her proposal was a favorite of our 2019 data journalism open call for proposals, and we quickly supported it. The result is a robust, multi-part series that insightfully and respectfully gives voice to the struggle for identity and recognition by the hundreds of thousands of urban Indigenous people who continue to live in the shadows.”

Pulitzer Center Outreach and Communications Intern Naomi Andu spoke to Mendes about her experience executing a project of this scale during the pandemic, the importance of publishing the series in English and Portuguese, and what propelled her to make the leap to environmental journalism after working for a decade as a business reporter.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Naomi Andu: Can you walk me through your relationship with the Pulitzer Center over the last few years?

Karla Mendes: Until 2017, I was a business reporter, which was the whole of my background. I wasn't happy and was trying to change my career somehow. I got really excited about doing environmental research and land and property rights, and then in 2017, the Pulitzer Center promoted a land rights course here in Rio, where I live. I remember that I was doing the land rights course, and on the same day, I was interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. I became a stringer working for them three days a week, and after that, I became full time for the Thomson Reuters Foundation for a year.

And then I joined Mongabay in July 2019. I had applied for a HEFAT [Hostile Environment and First Aid Training] course [in Manaus, Brazil], funded by the Rainforest Journalism Fund. I met Steve [Sapienza] again, and my [current] director at Mongabay was invited to go. We were in the middle of a negotiation for me to take this position, and I literally signed the contract in Manaus. From there, I've been with Mongabay for two years. 

But when I applied for this grant—I applied twice, the first time I was working for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and I knew that I was really close to [getting] it, but at the time, I didn't get it. And then I left the foundation, and I applied as a freelancer, but I offered [the project to] Mongabay. They loved the idea. I received the news that I won the grant, I think, 15 days after being hired by Mongabay. So somehow I think the Pulitzer Center is really connected to my career and to all of these transitions: I'm doing a [land rights] course, then I started working with the Thomson Reuters Foundation; I was doing the HEFAT course, then signed the contract with Mongabay. So there were really great and happy coincidences over these four years. 

NA: Your project focuses on the erasure of Indigenous people in six Brazilian cities, including Rio, where you’re based. Did you want to report on this issue because it’s something that you saw firsthand? 

KM: Actually, the idea of this project came up during the land rights course. There was a week of training, and during one of the presentations, they talked about these issues. It was really surprising for all of us to see the percentage of Indigenous people and how they're distributed. I found that really, really interesting. And I have a master's in investigative and data journalism from Canada, but actually, I haven't had the chance before this grant to really have data-driven projects, so it was really exciting.

Our editorial choice was to focus on the cities that have the highest absolute numbers of Indigenous people because we realized that the percentage only gives us towns in the northeast region, which is really important, and we covered that in the last story to be the closing, but the famous Brazilian cities—Rio, São Paulo, Salvador, and Brasília—people don't think about Indigenous people at all. So I think, as I heard from the interviewees, that's where they're even more invisible because their presence is diluted in the city. 

In the last story, I will tell the expectations for the next census because it should have happened last year. It didn't happen because of the pandemic, and the expectation is that we will see a jump in the number of Indigenous people. because although they can self-declare Indigenous in the last few censuses, there [are a] lot of things involved in what it means to declare Indigenous because they face real prejudice, especially in urban areas.

One of the interviewees said that his dream is when Brazilian people stop saying, “Oh, they are the Indigenous,” and they say, “They are our ancestors and part of us.”

NA: You interviewed several members of different Indigenous communities, each with their own languages and histories that, as you wrote, aren’t taught to most Brazilian students. What was that learning curve like as a reporter?

KM: In history books, we are taught the story from the colonizers’ point of view: They came here, and they civilized the Indigenous people. All the historians I talked to, they urged a real change in the way the history is being taught, because it puts the Indigenous people in a secondary place—hidden. 

The sources helped a lot—anthropologists, sociologists, and freelancers as well. And one thing that I really aimed to bring in these stories, beyond showing where they are now, was to highlight the colonization history in each of these places with something that we don't know. Whenever we talk about a specific ethnic group, I thought, it's really important to add a bit of this history.

Some knowledge came from the interviewees, but most of the work came from looking for this background information because I think it's a unique chance to pass along this knowledge to Brazilians and to an international audience. Because I won’t blame only Brazilians—international audiences and some experts, they only usually care about Indigenous people in the forest. Of course they are crucial to keep the forests, to protect the environment, but we cannot disregard Indigenous people who live in cities.

NA: When you first pitched this project to the Pulitzer Center in 2018, you were working at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Now you’re a contributing editor at Mongabay, where the project is being published. How did your original plans for the project change, if at all, when you joined Mongabay as a staffer?

KM: The initial project was that I would go to all these places and do the reporting myself with a photographer and videographer. Then the pandemic came. So I was kind of waiting, thinking that it could last just a couple of months, and then the situation didn't resolve. Then the third quarter of last year, I realized that I need to do a really different turnaround to make it happen because I cannot travel, not only for my own safety, but for the safety of the interviewees and Indigenous people we will be interviewing. I decided to set up a plan to hire freelancers to do these stories so we would be minimizing the risks. It was a good experience, but challenging at the same [time] because of the time frames that we needed to make happen, and then these reporters, I've never worked with any of them before. For me, it was the first big project I was leading because during all my career I was a reporter, and then I became a contributing editor, and then leading a huge project like that with multimedia, maps, video, and all these things—let’s just say that it was a Ph.D. in project management and managing a team. But we’re really happy with all the outcomes, and we’re receiving really great feedback.

NA: Mongabay publishes reporting in nine languages, including Portuguese. Can you talk about the decision to publish this project in English?

KM: Well, Mongabay publishes in several languages, that's correct. It also has a Portuguese website—when I was hired two years ago, it was part of the strategy to bolster this coverage in Portuguese. Since I started working as an international correspondent for other outlets, I always worked bilingually because to reach the world, it has to be in English—to have a real international impact. But to have an impact in Brazil, we need it in Portuguese because less than 5 percent of the population speaks English. So it's a lot of work because I have to double everything, translate the maps, the legends. But it really pays back because if you don't have this in both languages, you don't have the outreach because of the language barrier. We cannot just rely on English or Portuguese to reach everyone.

NA: Before you began reporting on environment, land, and property rights issues, you were a business reporter for 10 years. Why did you make the switch?

KM: One thing that really changed was in the end of 2015 and 2016, when there was this huge dam collapse in [Brazil’s] Minas Gerais state. It's my home state, and I was really bothered about the coverage. A good friend of mine and [I] said, let's investigate it ourselves. Both of us had a full-time job, we both were not that happy with that. And then we did it: As freelancers, independent, we published a huge series, and we told the story that nobody told. We went there and we [dug] into all the wrong things that happened in the past that culminated in that dam collapse. And then I said, that's the thing I'd like to do. I want to do environmental reporting because many of the wrongdoings we see are because of the structure and the system that is set up to favor business, industry, powerful people, and not the minorities and the people that have been affected by that. 

Many people sent me job positions to cover financial stuff again, and I said, I'm not willing to work to make people richer than they are. I want to work to try to, that dream of "save the planet" that I think that all journalists have, or should have, and to use my work as a way to bring awareness to issues that are underreported and to try to change the situation.


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