At the 2022 Pulitzer Center annual conference, Interconnected: Reporting the Climate Crisis, grantee Edilma Prada Céspedes spoke about protecting and preserving rainforests.
In the interview below, Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium and Outreach Intern Nathalie Castellanos talks with the journalist about Indigenous communities in Colombia, the dangers journalists face, and the projects of Agenda Propia, the journalism network founded and directed by Prada Céspedes. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund journalism covering underreported issues around the world. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
Nathalie Castellanos: It is very likely that being a journalist in Colombia is a dangerous position, considering the topics you cover. You tweeted #palabraenriesgo on Twitter to address this. How do you respond or deal with the threats or negative responses from those in power, especially when reporting on communities that are potentially at risk? More importantly, how do you stay safe when you mentioned at the Pulitzer Center's annual conference that 86 social leaders in Colombia have been murdered in this year alone?
Edilma Prada Céspedes: Firstly, I’d like to mention that the reality in Colombia has been the same for many years—a reality of armed conflict in the entire country. Colombia has been in a transitional process from conflict to peace in accordance with the peace accords with the guerillas in the year 2016 to this date. [However], the armed conflict continues. So, I believe that the reality of the country is not a new one; it’s a reality that has continued in the last 50 years. This has made it so that, as journalists, we have to take precautions when reporting in places where conflict intensity is higher.
I think the human rights violations that have been inflicted against Indigenous leaders and social leaders in the country have been public. There are many sources in those territories. One of them being the organization Indepaz, which is precisely the one that has been following up on the assassinations of social leaders, including Indigenous peoples. I believe that the reality, because it is public and so evident, allows us as journalists to report in a more direct manner.
The way in which we keep ourselves safe as journalists in Colombia firstly is by generating trust with the communities. I particularly cover Indigenous groups. A process of trust is carried out with the leaders and the communities. I am always presenting myself as a journalist, always informing them of the objective of my visits, whether it is my visit as a journalist or as part of the Agenda Propia team, which is the form of media that I lead. There are meetings with open dialogue or word circles, as they are called in Agenda Propia, to form trust with the communities and guarantee the protection of the journalist in those territories.
In other cases, we don’t get access. When the situation is overcomplicated and the communities do not recommend us to enter, we abstain from entering. We enter when security is assured. So you need to be patient because there are protocols that need to be followed to access these territorios. That’s what we do. It is urgent that the media or journalists use our social media as a way to communicate what happens in the country daily.
It is important to report back to the community and tell them, 'This is what was published about the community.' In this way, you will ensure an open access to this community.
Edilma Prada Céspedes
NC: In another interview, you mentioned that your guaranteed safety lies in the approval of Indigenous groups or leaders granting you entrance into their communities. How do you gain the trust of these people when they may have reservations about journalists coming into their safe space and a general distrust as you mentioned at the conference?
EPC: Yes, exactly. In the context of Colombia, the presence of these armed groups is very strong in Indigenous territories—there are both legal and illegal armed groups: the legal groups being the military and the police; and the illegal groups being the guerillas, paramilitaries, and other criminal organizations. So this effectively makes the security situation very difficult in the Indigenous communities or territories. Also, these are territories that have been functioning for many years as drug trafficking routes, for deforestation, and for illegal exploitation of gold by illegal groups. There are many situations that affect the tranquility of Indigenous groups, and because of that, the communities have established their own security systems. Among them, there are Indigenous guards. So the best way to guarantee the safety of journalists or anyone who enters is to go through the local, Indigenous security group and get permission from them through dialogue with the community. That is how I feel more secure.
This shows the autonomy of the Indigenous populations in Colombia as they protect their own territorios through unarmed Indigenous guards. They defend their territory with words and permanent dialogue. I believe that this is also a way to begin to delegitimize those who are armed, whether they’re legal or illegal groups in Colombia. You also have to be completely transparent with your work to reach the community. Why are you reaching out to this community? What is your objective? Besides the situations with armed groups, there are also historical narratives of harm that journalism or the media have done when reporting on Indigenous groups. There is a general distrust with journalists. So it is always important for me to mention why I am in their space. For example, what is the purpose for my investigation or the reporting that I will be working on? And of course, to maintain the trust after the piece has been published. It is important to report back to the community and tell them, 'This is what was published about the community.' In this way, you will ensure an open access to this community. In other cases, journalists do not inform the Indigenous communities on what was published about them or they publish things that are completely different from what they mentioned to the communities. And because of this, a distrust is formed against the media in general. So I believe you need to create trust with the communities, whether they are Indigenous, rural, or Black communities.
NC: Agenda Propia covers a variety of topics important to the Indigenous community, but your organization has recently released a project known as Dibujando mi realidad, which covers the everyday life of Indigenous youth through art. There is an abundance of heavy topics that you cover as a journalist. What is the reason you decided to focus on kids and what information do they add through their perspective?
EPC: The subject of children is a journalistic exercise that we did as a group to the extent of Latin America that is called La Red Tejiendo Historias. It’s a community that Agenda Propia promotes. Within the community there are more than 300 journalists from various countries, and every semester we decide on a series of reports that we will cover. In those editorial discussions, the topic arose—partly because of Indigenous leaders that we invited to these spaces—that one of the least informed populations is precisely Indigenous children. When you are informed of Indigenous children, you are also informed by the perspectives of adults, their parents, and officials.
In this case we decided to portray those realities that children live, but have them also be a part of the project. So the series is divided into reports made by Indigenous journalists or narrators, and the children who also spoke on their realities and drew a little on what was happening in their communities. This series is composed of 13 stories. As of this moment, there have been eight stories published and the others will be published soon. The stories narrate the realities of migration: How the kids have lost their parents that have attempted to cross borders as migrants. There are stories on parental abandonment because those parents go to work and they leave their children behind. There are also stories on child labor because of the economic reality of some children that are forced to work. There are other stories on human rights violations. For example, in Honduras, there was a case of a mother who was exiled and her daughter also had to live through the exile from her land, precisely because her mother was fighting for the defense of the territory. So the kids also live through everything that happens in their communities. There are also stories about malnutrition in children. The reality is very complex, but in this opportunity we wanted to narrate the stories through the voices of children and also have a visual component where they drew their realities. We also wanted them to draw what they lived through with their parents.
In the group, we considered that it was a series that was long awaited for the media in the region where the children also participated. However the stories are also deep, they were investigated and there were different types of sources interviewed: specialists and local and community authorities. NGOs have denounced these cases because they are very complicated situations. These are not calm situations that Indigenous children experience. It’s very complicated and also has a bit to do with preserving these cultures, traditions, and languages that are at risk of disappearing. There is something important to note, and it is that Indigenous children are the ones receiving the knowledge of their parents and grandparents at this moment. If that knowledge is not protected and not given the importance to Indigenous children, it runs the risk of physical and cultural extinction. There is already a great threat that all the Indigenous knowledge has weakened because the children are not learning their native tongue, they’re not gaining the knowledge, and each time they are getting farther from their natural and ancestral territories. This makes it so that there is a loss of cultural values in Indigenous communities.
It is crucial that journalists look at these other stories of children who face risks, human rights violations, but also what it means for Indigenous children to leave their native territories due to forced migration, or children whose parents have abandoned them and caused the traditional formation received by their communities to break.
I think that there are more human and social stories that journalism needs to focus on and should narrate from a worldview and from the importance of the transmission of knowledge. I believe that it is really important to be able to do that. Agenda Propia covers topics of Indigenous communities in different segments—young people, mother earth, their territories, violations, human rights in affected communities. The final point is precisely to raise the voices of indigenous communities, not only in Colombia, but in all of Latin America.
Many of those 115 groups are at risk of physical and cultural extinction.
Edilma Prada Céspedes
NC: Why did you decide to become a journalist and why did you choose to focus on Indigenous communities?
EPC: I have been a journalist for 20 years now and I began very young in a local area. It is a very rural area in Colombia. From that moment, I started covering the violations derived from the Colombian armed conflict. As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, Colombia has been in an armed conflict for 50 years, a conflict that continues. The reality of the rural communities is very serious. Precisely due to the tendency for conflict, forced displacement, social inequities, and poverty. Those were the stories I began to cover from my adolescence, when I entered the journalistic field. Through this experience in the rural areas of the country, very dispersed areas but also Indigenous, I understood a little about this group in general.
Out of those who have been displaced in Colombia, there is a group that is much more vulnerable, and that is Indigenous populations. There are 115 Indigenous groups in Colombia, but only 4.4% are a part of the total population of the country. Therefore it is a minority population in the country—wrongly called a minority—that requires for there to be more exposure to what happens in their territories. There is a great portion of land and territories, but the population is low. Many of those 115 groups are at risk of physical and cultural extinction. Some due to the armed conflict because they had to disperse everyone to the cities. And others due to different exploitations, the expansion of the agricultural sector, and deforestation that has lasted since colonial times that has reduced the population. So I believe that it is important to understand that there are very few communities that are still here and that as journalists, we need to protect, preserve, and raise awareness in this moment. Maybe other stronger communities in the country could have other possibilities to stand up for themselves, but Indigenous communities, in my personal opinion, require good journalism and allies.
What is happening in Colombia reflects on what is happening in Central and South America where many Indigenous communities are being cornered by the pressures of large companies. So it is extremely important to stand by these Indigenous communities with all of their diversity, rituals, and worldviews. It is a cultural richness that is not only in Colombia, but in the entire region. This requires more oversight so that it doesn’t get lost.
NC: What are other topics that you believe should be discussed more in the media?
EPC: I think that there need to be more stories about communities at risk of extinction. There were many communities that were semi-nomadic historically and that no longer have territories or they have territories that are too small to go back to their traditions. For example, hunting and fishing. Each time, their space is reduced and they are unable to consider themselves nomads or semi-nomads. I think those are the stories that are not being told. I believe that it is really important. I would really encourage journalists to work from this angle.
As I previously mentioned about Indigenous dialects, the number of speakers continues to decrease and I believe that it is because of forced displacements. Now, children are not receiving their native tongues from their parents and this is because there are other dominant cultures: Spanish, English, etc. This creates a disinterest within young people to learn about their culture. This is really bad because it ends a worldview, an entire community. That is another topic.
Topics on climate crises within Indigenous communities. For example, in Central America, there are communities that live in islands, and in a few years are going to have to move from those islands because they will disappear, according to forecasts that show the island will disappear due to rising sea levels. For example, there are many medicinal plants that are no longer growing or being cultivated because of the contamination or because each time, the land is growing warmer and those plants—that at one time were cultivated and used for medicinal purposes in communities—are dying, and because of this, many animals are also dying.
I believe that we should also give animals a platform from the communities in addition to giving a platform to Indigenous communities. There are many animals on route to extinction that have a spiritual meaning to these communities and also form a part of a system of protection in the forest itself. This is something we as journalists are not seeing. We are simply seeing it as another loss of a species, but it represents something significant in the ecosystem. Culturally, these species represent a type of knowledge, or they represent something significant to the communities. I believe those are other stories that are not being told or that there are very few in the media.
I’m naming only these, but I think it is also important to investigate the effects of mining. More on the topic of health. The media is publishing stories like, “miners are not entering the mines,” but they are not discussing the effects of mining. For example, there are many Indigenous and rural communities that are becoming sick because of the mercury. These are the stories that are not being published.
There are other stories, such as the pressures from armed and criminal groups in the territories that are increasing suicide rates among Indigenous youth. There are collateral damages surrounding the presence of these groups and the environmental contamination that are making communities weak. These are other stories that are not being reported on.
I believe forced displacements continue to occur in rural and urban areas, and urban communities are changing their worldviews. So I think that we need to focus more on stories about human rights within Indigenous communities. From my perspective, Black communities, rural communities, and other minorities, including Indigenous communities, need to be given a platform from the media. And of course, to follow up on supply chains and the pressures of the oil industry and the cattle industry. The pressures that generate harm to these communities. So investigating these supply chains requires more information, in terms of corruption. It really is a long list.