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Journalist Resource March 7, 2024

How 37 Journalists Collaborated To Investigate, Map Armed Groups and Illicit Economies in the Amazon


Editor’s note: Bram Ebus is a 2022 Fellow of the Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN), a Pulitzer Center initiative. Read his reporting here. 

A team of 37 journalists and media professionals from 11 countries worked together for 16 months to produce Amazon Underworld, a data-driven and cross-border investigation that gained insights into armed groups and illicit economies in the border regions of six Amazon countries.

It includes a database that was converted into an interactive map visualizing armed groups in the regions, and a series of in-depth reports on various aspects of the region’s criminal enterprises, many of which have received little or no media coverage.

This investigation was also published by InfoAmazonia in Brazil, La Liga Contra el Silencio in Colombia and in Venezuela. Since its publication, the project has gained worldwide attention. Several major media outlets, including BBC, CNN, Nature, El País, Al Jazeera, and Folha de S.Paulo, interviewed the team or reported about the project. The team was invited to present its findings at more than 50 events and meetings, including to international environmental NGOs, U.N. agencies, and government officials in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and the U.S. It won the Cláudio Weber Abramo Award in Data Journalism, the most important data journalism competition in Brazil. 

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The database and map, built by data collected through quantitative and qualitative methods that cover 348 municipalities in six Amazon countries, are being used by NGOs and other media outlets to plan their fieldwork in a secure manner.

A screenshot of the Amazon Underworld interactive map. Image courtesy of Amazon Underworld.

Here are some of our strategies and methodologies to complete this ambitious and high-risk collaborative project, as well as lessons learned.

1. How did we collaborate across borders?

Four elements were key to coordinating the Amazon Underworld cross-border collaboration: listening, fostering trust, planning, and embracing flexibility. Within the six countries covered in the investigation, issues that affected the project management included language barriers and currency differences. However, most importantly, there are particular conditions that strongly influence our fieldwork, and understanding these is crucial for the success of the research and the safety of journalists.

Attention must be devoted to these local particularities, and for this, it is necessary to listen attentively to the journalists involved in the project, trust in the knowledge of colleagues working in the territory, and rely on local sources. There is no way to enter the field without understanding the geographical, social, and political characteristics of the territory where the research will take place — and ensuring that this knowledge is shared among the entire team: reporters, editors, and project coordinators.

Information required prior to going to the field ranged from knowing if a drought has affected a specific river crucial for navigation to reach a certain destination, to understanding which armed groups are present in the region, their military strength, their level of penetration in communities, how they operate, whether state agents may be involved with crime, and which sources and local actors can be trusted in case of an emergency. All of this varies not only from country to country but also diverges between regions within the same country. Therefore, the large amount of information was difficult to master without tapping into sources. It was very difficult to coordinate a project like Amazon Underworld without a foundation of trust within the team. Armed with this understanding, it is important to collaboratively build a very robust plan. However, in the end, being flexible was crucial because the dynamics in the Amazon are too unpredictable, and every field trip is undoubtedly unique.

Photographer Andrés Cardona and journalist Bram Ebus travel the borderlands of the Brazilian-Colombian Amazon to document illegal gold mining operations. Image by Alex Rufino.

2. How did we gather information in a region as big as the Amazon?

One of the most significant challenges of working in the Amazon is accessing sources in remote areas and obtaining reliable information. Initially, we needed comprehensive information to build our reporting strategy and conduct security assessments for our reporters. Obtaining basic information, crucial for planning field trips, such as the location of health centers (often without online presence) or airstrips for exit routes (sometimes clandestine), proved to be challenging across all countries.

To gather data for our investigation, the reporting element, we faced the task of collecting a vast amount of information in a region larger than the European Union, with limited roads, urban centers, and digital connectivity. Acknowledging this challenge from the outset, we assembled a specialized team and devised a strategy to gather information. We submitted hundreds of requests for access to public data and spent months creating a database on the presence of armed groups in the Amazon using Excel and Notion. This database, compiled transnationally with a uniform methodology, relied mainly on primary sources, including local interviews in the field or by phone and official documents, especially from the executive and judicial branches of each country.

Primary sources for the database are individuals known and considered trustworthy, living and/or working in the territory, and coming into direct contact with illegal economies and armed groups. Official documents, including intelligence documents and reports from state institutions, were considered. Given the potential bias in politically motivated or poorly researched documents by state institutions, these sources were thoroughly vetted and approved before being added to the database.

Image courtesy of Amazon Underworld.

3. How we investigated illegal mining barges

The objective of one of our reports was to identify the number of mining barges, which are metallic beasts that scoop up river sediments rich in gold and process them with the toxic quicksilver mercury. In this particular case, we chose to study the Puruê River in Brazil, which originates in a national park in neighboring Colombia. This illegal mining activity damages the Amazon ecosystem by altering the course of the river through heavy dredging, deforestation along the riverbanks, and severe contamination due to the discharge of large quantities of mercury into the ecosystem. Mercury ends up in fish, thus entering the food chain and diets of riverine Indigenous communities.

The mining barges, called dragas in Spanish and Portuguese, can cost up to $500,000 and can dredge up to 3 kilograms of gold per month, generating substantial wealth in the heart of the jungle. But environmental damage is not the only reason we investigated the mining barges, as we also knew that miners pay a commission, an extortion fee, to a Colombian guerrilla organization that crosses from Colombia into Brazil to collect payments in gold. Additionally, corrupt state officials, including the Brazilian Military Police, receive a cut, specifically to protect the mining from the aforementioned guerrilla and to warn of impending crackdowns.

Colossal gold mining dredges are devouring rivers deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Andrés Cardona.

For our reporting, it was crucial to count the number of barges, allowing us to calculate environmental damage, estimate gold production, and determine the illicit revenues of the Colombian guerrilla and corrupt Brazilian police officials. Initially, we attempted to develop an algorithm with the assistance of the Pulitzer Center and Earth Genome. However, we encountered two challenges: 1.) persistent cloud coverage in large parts of the Amazon—satellite images could not capture the entire river at once due to its length, and the portions captured in one sweep always had areas covered by clouds; 2.) the risk of double counting. Unlike land mining, where visual mining pits can be detected, the barges are mobile, and the inability to capture the entire river at once poses a risk of double counting.

Ultimately, we forged a partnership with an NGO working on Amazon protection and scheduled two piloted flights: one over the Colombian stretch of the river and another covering the extensive portion in Brazil. Surprisingly, we counted a total of 168 barges. This raised questions, considering that just a month prior, a targeted crackdown—days of intensive law enforcement operations aimed at these barges—destroyed a significant number. 

However, utilizing satellite imagery from Planet, we noted a shift in the river’s color, which had been a light brown, similar to coffee with milk, for years due to intense dredging. Approximately five days before the crackdown, the river reverted to its original blackish hue, darkened by organic material, signifying the cessation of barge activity. Upon consultation with local sources, including miners themselves, it became evident that they had managed to conceal most of the barges in anticipation of the impending crackdown. Nevertheless, when we conducted the follow-up aerial survey several weeks later, the number of barges drastically increased as the miners were back.

During a flyover in early July, 159 mining dredges were observed along the Puruê River. Image by Jaap van ‘t Kruis.

 4. Security approach

When the project kicked off, one of the team's initial meetings was a fieldwork security workshop led by Steve Hide, an expert in the field with extensive experience in the humanitarian sector. The training aimed to prepare teams on security issues, involving learning how to analyze contexts and identify risks, establishing protocols for physical and digital security, and knowing how to respond in emergency situations. At that time, we were acutely aware of the murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira during a trip to the Javari Valley in the Brazilian Amazon. This underscored the importance of establishing security protocols for the Amazon Underworld project travels.

Police in Barcarena search a suspect during a nighttime patrol. Image by Wagner Almeida.

All reporting trips to Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela were monitored, and security protocols were designed before each mission. These protocols included contextual information about security conditions in the field, presence of illegal armed groups, mapping of nearby hospitals and health centers, confirmation of communications (cellular signal, data access, etc.), communication routes (roads, rivers, airstrips), key contacts for emergencies, and details of places and individuals to interview in each location. We understood that the plan on paper could change, but it served as our secure foundation for work. We pre-established the frequency of calls or messages to report everything was OK or inquire about any updates.

The Amazon, across all involved countries, has common features and specificities compared to other regions that needed consideration. Many chosen travel destinations can only be reached by air or water, and in many areas, there’s no cellular communication due to a lack of coverage or poor connectivity. Additionally, health care in Amazonian cities and towns is limited and basic, requiring potential transfers to major cities in emergencies. Moreover, the overall presence of the state is minimal, and illegal activities and armed groups require a serious approach to the safety of both journalistic teams and contacts in each location.

Rivers in southern Venezuela are used as trafficking routes for fuel and other mining supplies. Image by María Ramírez Cabello.

Among the tools used for monitoring and communication was a Garmin GPS device in each country. It helped monitor routes, locate teams in established places, and provide brief reports on their progress in the field. It also facilitated sending and receiving alert messages.  

An incident occurred with a team investigating illegal dredging for gold on the Puruê River in Brazil, near the Colombian border. We had monitored the journey as usual; team members crossed to the Brazilian side and were navigating the river when they were menacingly confronted by a group from the Japurá Military Police, who even seized devices storing photos and videos. 

In the region, there is a presence of illegal armed groups extorting miners, pirates robbing travelers, and police generating distrust in the population due to corruption allegations. We covered what was happening in this area in the report “Dredges: Gold Spurs Crime and Corruption on Brazil-Colombia Border” and later denounced the police’s actions. (More details can be found in this article by the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

Upon being alerted to the situation by the field team, those monitoring in Colombia and Brazil immediately activated the agreed-upon protocol and reached out to trusted contacts of interest who assisted us, within hours, in notifying the authorities. By making the information public with these contacts, we believed we were establishing a protective shield for our colleagues, and the same day, they were approached again by the military police, who returned the seized devices. Monitoring continued, and check-ins with contacts became more frequent to closely follow the situation, which ended without further incidents until the team returned to Colombia. Continuous communication, prior establishment of protocols, contact with key stakeholders, and prompt action allowed us to react to the alert and complete the field trip.


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