Rainforest Investigations Network Alumni César Molinares is a Colombian journalist experienced in covering violent land disputes. He has cultivated many hard-to-obtain sources, and this journalistic determination led to breaking information barriers during his 2021 RIN Fellowship.
Molinares has obtained information previously inaccessible to journalists through innovative freedom of information requests and by going toe-to-toe with government agencies when denied access. With this information in hand, he brought to light the sophisticated cattle laundering scheme that connects large Colombian meatpacking plants with deforestation inside protected areas.
As part of RIN's series on investigative methodology, the Pulitzer Center talked to Molinares about challenges he encountered during his investigation.
Colombia’s animal sanitary authority omitted important information from Molinares’s first information request, which for months casted a shadow of doubt over the viability of finishing his investigation. The authority alleged that the names of the registered ranchers were protected under habeas data law.
“One of the main problems was that we were denied full access to information,” Molinares said. “In the first information requests we made to the ICA [The Colombian Institute for Agriculture and Livestock], we were denied access to names.”
Molinares had requested cattle vaccination records, data by which he would be able to figure out where cows were getting medical treatment, and who owned them.
After Molinares and his outlet 360-grados were told that cattle vaccination records contained personal information that went against privacy concerns, they decided to take it to court.
“So we sued [the sanitary authority] before a Colombian court, which obliged the authority to provide all the information requested, especially the names of farmers and companies involved in the supply chain.”
From the moment the data was obtained, Molinares made great strides. In partnership with Liliana Duica, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at City University of New York, he was able to geo-locate cattle herds in the Amazon and identify the areas of greatest pressure on national parks and other conservation areas in the Colombian forest.
“We worked with two databases as the axis of the research. One was the sanitary registry of vaccination and the other the registry of cattle mobilization of two departments: Meta and Caquetá,” Molinares said.
“The key to these databases was to ask for detailed information, namely village, municipality and department, that would allow us to geo-reference this information and contrast it with other databases such as cadastral and property records, maps of protected areas, Indigenous reserves, and land management plans at both the municipal and departmental levels,” he explained.
Verifying the data proved to be a big challenge. Much of the registration information was outdated or had errors.
“We had to exclude information that did not match or that we could not verify or even where we could not find its georeferencing,” Molinares said.
Once the data cleaning work was done, it was time to look for ways to do more detailed analysis and data visualization.
“The data was cleaned and organized using Excel. Once the information was obtained, it was transferred to Arcgis and Qgis, in order to make the map overlaps,” Molinares said. “Tableau, Flourish, Qlik, and SQL Server were used for visualization.”
Half a year after the publication of Molinares’ first story in this series, Colombia’s animal sanitary authorization updated its regulation.
“Since the publication of the findings of our investigation, the ICA decided to cancel the sanitary registrations of farms within the parks and their buffer zones, which means that these farmers can no longer vaccinate or move cattle.”
Molinares' stories were published in alliance with El Clip, a journalistic investigations center specializing in collaborative projects in Latin America. The stories were also featured in one of Colombia's leading newspapers, El Espectador.