A reporting project by University of British Columbia journalism students, in collaboration with the New York Times, has exposed violent conflicts over resources and territory in Brazil, as the emerging superpower grapples with an increasing demand for food and electricity.
The resulting video, entitled Dying for Land, detail the dramatic conflict between farmers and indigenous people near the Brazil-Paraguay border, and can be seen on the New York Times website. A newspaper article co-reported by the students also ran in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, in anticipation of the upcoming Rio +20 United Nations conference on sustainable development and social equality.
Over the eight-month project, the students uncovered a series of murders of Guarani Indians in the southern Brazilian state Mato Grosso do Sul, a part of the country that is the traditional homeland of the Guarani people. As a result of a 1988 constitutional revision, indigenous people have the right to return to their ancestral land, much of which is now productive farmland.
“Several groups of Guarani have returned to areas they claim are their ancestral soil,” said Prof. Peter Klein, director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, who led the team of students. “What they’ve found are Brazilians farming the land, some for decades, and the clashes have resulted in a lot of bloodshed.”
Klein said the story has been largely ignored by mainstream media, but after his student Calyn Shaw heard about the most recent murder last November, he brought the idea to the attention of the class and the New York Times.
Three months later, the students were in southern Brazil, tracking down the family of the murdered Guarani chief Nisio Gomes. Gomes’ son and nephew appear in the video explaining the attack.
“What’s playing out right now in Brazil is, in some ways, a real ‘cowboys and Indians’ scenario,” said Klein. “You think of these stories as sort of ancient history, but you don’t realize this is still going on today.”
Dying for Land is the second part of a Sunday New York Times series looking at land conflicts in Brazil. Last month, another UBC student group completed Damming the Amazon, which highlights the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon Basin and how the massive project threatens to uproot the Xikrin Indians, whose way of life depends on a steady flow of water from the Xingu River.
The course was co-taught by UBC Assistant Journalism Prof. David Rummel, the former senior producer of the New York Times’ video unit. He helped arrange the partnership and co-produced the series.
This is the fourth project of UBC’s International Reporting Program, which results from a gift from Alison Lawton and Mindset Social Innovation Foundation. Previous projects include: Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, which won the 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Magazine Investigative Reporting, Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs, an online multimedia project for the Globe and Mail, and The Pain Project, which explored the global pain crisis caused by morphine shortages, in partnership with Al-Jazeera.
Students involved in this year’s International Reporting program, and their cities of origin:
- Hassan Arshad (Karachi, Pakistan)
- Shannon Dooling (Hampton, New Hampshire)
- Sam Eifling (Fayetteville, Arkansas)
- Lisa Hale (Vancouver)
- Farida Hussain (Hyderabad, India)
- Jacqueline Ronson (Toronto)
- Aleks Sagan (Gdansk, Poland)
- Calyn Shaw (Vancouver)
The video profiles Brazilian farmers on the verge of losing their family farm after more than half a century, because the government has ordered them to turn the land over to the Guarani Indians.
Brazilian law currently stipulates that the government must compensate farmers and ranchers for their homes, but not for their land. As a result, landowners have little incentive to leave, and conflicts continue to simmer.
“With any luck, [this project] will draw more attention to the Brazilian government from the international community,” said Sam Eifling, one of the UBC journalism students who reported on the land disputes.