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RAINFOREST DEFENDERS

How can we better cover the climate emergency in Latin America?

Through a journalistic project that gives voice and protagonism to young people from the Amazon, who are committed to defending their communities and the tropical forest against multiple threats.

The Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Journalism Fund opened a funding opportunity in the fall of 2018 and, together with Brazilian environmental leader Raquel Rosenberg from Engajamundo, and the young Uruguayan photojournalist and storyteller, Pablo Albarenga, the Rainforest Defenders / Defensores de la Selva was born, with the support of the Kara Solar Foundation in Ecuador.

The priority has been to bring the abstract issue of climate emergency to a personal dimension. To portray the concerns, projects, dreams, and emotions of the young people on the ground with a message that is close to them; a message of struggle, emotion, and hope.

Ednei, Dani, Drica, Joane, and Tupi in the Brazilian Tapajós, and Julián, Verónica, and Nantu in the Achuar territory in Ecuador, make up a powerful choral voice through journalistic text, video, and photography, portraying a reality that is both hard, committed, and open to the future. The highest care is taken in the coverage of the stories, taking into account the sensibility of the protagonists, whose involvement in the entire journalistic process seeks to translate the visibility obtained into personal and collective empowerment.

These 8 episodes of the series Defensores de la Selva, produced in Spanish, Portuguese, and English, were published in full in El País, El País Brasil, Pulitzer Center, as well as individual pieces in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and the Chinese media Intium Media. Pablo Albarenga won the Sony World Photography Award 2020 for the protagonists’ photographs, gaining enormous global impact. Spanish; Portuguese

Ednei: This is Maró Indigenous Land

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Ednei, who has just turned twenty, is a man of few words but great resolve. He has a clear sense of what the role he has been assigned involves and is determined to carry it through with all the courage of his youth. It is essential that young people acquire the necessary knowledge and experience for the defense of a territory which finds itself under pressure from a hostile and greedy environment that seeks to extract its many riches. The surveillance rounds are lengthy and conditions in the jungle hard, but the beliefs of these natives provide them with both the necessary wisdom and courage to ensure the success of their expeditions. Ednei and his people know, as do so many other Brazilian indigenous communities which have survived genocidal waves, that the mere fact of existing is resisting.

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Dani: LGBT+ and environmental activism in the Tapajós National Forest

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Dani is a 21-year-old riverine activist. In order to become what she is today, Dani has undertaken a difficult and courageous identity search which must be understood within the context in which it has taken place. "My struggles here are not a few," says Dani. "First, the fight for the preservation of the conservation area where the FLONA in which we live is located, surrounded by sojeiros (industrial soybean growers). "But I'm also involved in another fight", Dani forcefully goes on. "It’s the fight for sexuality, an issue which is not being addressed in the communities, or in schools, or families. It was just impossible for me to assume, on my own, the fact that I am a lesbian." To this petite but defiant young woman, the link between the fight for sexuality and the defense of the land is crystal clear.

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Drica: Resistance in the quilombos of the Trombetas River

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Vista aérea de la parte más pequeña de la “Mineradora Río Norte” sobre el río Trombetas. A unos diez kilómetros de esta, se encuentra la mina mayor, de aproximadamente 100 km2, junto al territorio de Drica. | Pablo Albarenga

Drica studied in Manaus but returned to Trombetas to be a school teacher at the quilombo. She is now also the leader of the association, which was formed by six communities 18 years ago to defend the interests of the territory. It is the first time that a woman holds the position. This generates expectations, but some reluctance too in a traditional society such as this. "Machismo has always been present here, from the very beginning. But a barrier has now been broken with my election as coordinator. I hope it helps other women to come up front and do the same", she says proudly. Drica is a courageous, empowered woman, but she has a very difficult task ahead of her. The risks that hover over her people, in addition to the bauxite mine, the logging companies and the hydroelectric project, are unfathomable. 

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Joane: Plastic is killing us in the Amazon

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Joane posa para un retrato sobre la playa de su comunidad junto a envases plásticos que llegan por el río desde la ciudad más cercana. | Pablo Albarenga

Despite her young age, Joane is determined to change things. Joane’s community illustrates how a coherent community policy, applied consistently over time, has far-reaching transformative effects. The challenge is, undeniably, a tremendous one. But the Suruacá community is sufficiently organized for an initiative such as stopping the omnipresence of plastic waste to prosper. An added problem to the waste generated by the community is the accumulation of plastic waste on the riverbanks coming from passing boats and from Alter do Chao, an emerging tourist resort right across the Tapajós. The wind and the currents drag the plastic waste to the shore, which every so often looks like a dumping site. Besides the problem of waste, there is the threat of fire. People in the community make bonfires in which they burn plastics and rubber, generating toxic dark smoke – "not the way to deal with waste", as Joane says. Yet, every family in Suruacá has its own special corner for lighting campfires. 

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Tupí: A story of indigenous courage and resolve

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It was never easy to live here. Tupí has found the strength she needed by reinforcing her indigenous identity and, at the same time, affirming her femininity. It has helped her to be able to do this together with other courageous women who are struggling like her to overcome abuse, rape and mistreatment and achieve recognition through solidarity and collective action. Being part of a movement, learning how to lead it, and how to build their own free space is what makes these women exceptional beings in their community. Organizing to fight has been Tupí’s anchor, which has allowed her to leave oppression behind and become someone. Participating actively in recognition and awareness-raising actions that are taking place more and more frequently is what gives meaning to both the individual and the collective struggle.

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Julián: facing the road that destroys his part of the Amazon

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Julián Illanes es un indígena de la comunidad achuar de Ecuador quien lucha por prevenir los impactos de la nueva carretera que está siendo construida dentro de su territorio. A la derecha; Julián recostado; a la izquierda, vista aérea de la carretera | Pablo Albarenga

While still in Shuar territory, at the side of the road, Julián identifies some logging stations. The increasing numbers of these stations, and the sound of chainsaws in the background worry Julián and increase his scepticism about the construction of the road. During the debate in the communal house, the elders of the community express their scepticism at the arrival of the road and address repeatedly the dangers it represents. After the assembly, Julian is authorized to speak on behalf of the community and defends the arrival of the road, although the decision does not satisfy everyone. With much more enthusiasm than when talking about the road, Julián speaks about the decisions that will have to be made, from now on, to control its imminent impact. Julián is determined to preserve sovereignty, to make the new river port work, and to prevent the road from continuing to penetrate into the jungle.

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Vero: the midwife at the Amazon's heart

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Verónica Yunkar, or Cestsenk in her Achuar indigenous name, is a courageous woman. A woman who, in spite of the many obstacles, has taken control of her own life. Vero (from Verónica) fights to improve the lives of Achuar mothers and their babies and to reduce maternal and infant mortality within her community. This is her way of contributing to the defence of the rainforest, which Vero defends with pride and determination. "We are women. Like the rainforest. That is why we must be respected. We are sacred, just as the rainforest is sacred," she says. But Vero's work is complex. She tries to combine the sacredness of motherhood whilst actively trying to improve the health of her fellow indigenous women. Nowadays, Vero not only assists women in Sharamentsa, but also travels to other Achuar communities, and beyond. She is the coordinator for the province of Pastaza, yet she remains connected and close to their community.

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Nantu: Solar dream

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Nantu recostado sobre su territorio, junto al bosque primario que busca proteger a través de la no dependencia de combustibles fósiles. | Pablo Albarenga

This young man has a solution to avoid the construction of a road to his village in the Ecuadorian Amazon: connecting boats that use clean energy throughout nine communities in the Achuar territory. The solar canoe barely vibrates. Voices are heard from bow to stern, and at the confluence of both rivers, a few freshwater dolphins emerge to breathe, confident and close, due to the gentle murmur that doesn't scare them away. Nantu understands that this process does not stop without defending the territory and building alternatives. He works, for instance, in a project that installs alternative energy systems that are much more friendly with a green and circular economy of proximity and subsistence. The harmony of any development with the current ecosystem is, for him, essential.

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José Gregorio: we either preserve the Amazon or it will seek vengance

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José Gregorio, líder de la Guardia Indígena del Ambiental (G.I.A.), posa para un retrato mostrando el frente de la camisa de su organización en las selvas amazónicas que rodean el río Amacuyacu a su paso por Colombia. | Pablo Albarenga

Led by José Gregorio Vásquez, a patrol unit from the Indigenous environmental guard traces the Amacayacu River in the Colombian Amazon. He tells how, upon his return to San Martin, he began a conversation with his grandparents, a cultural and spiritual reserve of the community, and began a political dialogue with the authorities. He dreamed of asserting the values of the Colombian Constitution of 1991, which includes the rights of indigenous communities to politically organize their territory and community. It was the time of the formation of the Tikuna-Cocama-Yagua indigenous reservation, and José Gregorio saw it clearly when he said, "My task is here.” For him, the most important thing was to recognize that the territorial system forms an integrated whole where, as he says, "there is a union between the spiritual, the human, and the natural.”

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Lilia: defeding the Amazon's aquatic fauna is defending the world

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Derecha: Lilia está acostada junto al río Tarapoto. Izquierda: Algunos barcos de pescadores locales en la comunidad donde Lilia vive, junto al río Tarapoto. | Pablo Albarenga

For Lilia Isolina Java Tapayuri, protecting the pink dolphin is sacred. But Lilia's path, like that of so many other indigenous women, has been one of permanent struggle and determination. In the midst of the dominant patriarchalism, in a world where the ancestral cosmovision places men in the water and women on the land, male control tends to be absolute. And that is what Lilia achieved thanks to her emotional and spiritual relationship with the pink dolphins. Her fascination as a child, and encouragment from her father, made her collaborate in the care of some specimens. And, it was through her sensibility in their care that she found the door to that world, always intervened, materially and spiritually, by the masculine.

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