Winter 2002

Covering the Environment From Rio to Johannesburg and Beyond

A Brazilian journalist describes his frustration with the beat.

By Marcelo Leite
Within 10 years, the United Nations (U.N.) sponsored two earth conferences, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and this year in Johannesburg. Brazilian media coverage of each was strikingly different.

In 1992, Folha de São Paulo—one of the nation’s leading newspapers—assigned a team of at least 10 journalists (not including photographers) to report on the Rio conference. Each day a minimum of two pages were filled with news about environmental issues, ranging from stories outlining the details of U.N. paperwork and multilateral negotiating process to coverage of Greenpeace demonstrations and shaman happenings at Flamengo Beach some 20 miles away. Competing news outlets based in Rio, such as Jornal do Brasil, printed a daily six-page special section under an “Ecology” banner.

Ten years later, Folha sent only three journalists (two reporters, one photographer) to South Africa to produce copy for a mere three-quarters of a page each day, about 60 percent less coverage than 10 years before. Had Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso not been going, only one reporter would have covered the entire conference.

There is, however, for me a similarity about both experiences: Though the sources were very different, I emerged from each conference with a sense of deep frustration because of my belief that the highly threatened global environment needs more attention and remedies in the form of concrete actions by all governments. As a journalist who covers environmental issues and has therefore witnessed the growing scientific consensus about the poor health of the planet, I don’t think that this belief prevents me from doing my job, since I regard “artificially balanced” coverage as often promoting anti-environmental positions.

The 1992 Rio Conference

For four years, I’d been preparing to cover the 1992 Rio conference. Back in 1988, the Amazon rain forest had become a story of international interest after it was learned that about 10 percent of the jungle had already been cut, an area comparable in size to France and roughly five-sixths the size of Texas. And, paradoxically, I and most other Brazilian journalists learned of this issue through reading alarming stories and editorials about the destruction of our country’s rain forest in the foreign press. This awareness led to my first two trips to the Amazon. As I learned about the complexities of the rain forest ecosystem, one of my guides was the U.S.-born ecologist Philip Fearnside at INPA—Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, in Manaus. After going there, I plunged into a long period of reading and research about the rain forest during a year and a half sabbatical in Germany, on a fellowship from the Krupp Foundation. Of course, while I was still trying to understand more about what was happening, the Germans wanted only to hear firsthand accounts about the Amazon disaster from a Brazilian science journalist.

By the end of 1990, I was back in Brazil and focused on the rain forest and related global issues, such as climate change and pressures poverty places on environmental resources. My frustration surfaced when on the eve of the Rio Conference I was assigned to coordinate the team instead of being able to do the reporting for which I’d been preparing. Too often this is what happens in Brazil. When a journalist’s reporting on a beat rises above average, management often promotes the reporter to a coordinating position in the newsroom, effectively preventing that journalist from using the knowledge and access to sources that have taken years of work to build.

Despite my professional discontent, the Rio conference turned out much more positively than had been expected. U.S. President George Bush attended at the last minute as a result of international and domestic political pressure. And two very important U.N. conventions were signed, one on climate change, the other on biodiversity. Wealthier countries did not commit themselves to specific financing goals towards supporting sustainable development in poorer nations, but at least they accepted a target of doubling their development- aid spending from an average 0.36 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). (In fact, even in our Rio coverage, most of our stories were about the financing of sustainable development in poor countries, not actual environmental issues.) At the conference’s conclusion, it seemed that global environmental issues were on a promising, albeit difficult, track.

This expectation could not have been more off the mark. As economic good times emerged in some developed nations, most notably in the United States, environmental concerns plummeted from their place as a priority. The United States—the world’s dominant consumer of environmental resources—kept to its unsustainable path of consumption as Americans’ fondness for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles grew. Meanwhile, fuel prices rose steadily in almost all other nations. In 10 years, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions went up 4.6 percent, while official development aid from developed countries went down to 0.22 percent of GDP, instead of up to the 0.7 percent agreed to in Rio. Early in his term, President George W. Bush made clear that the United States would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol (an international agreement to curtail global warming) in spite of a decade of excruciating negotiations.

The 2002 Johannesburg Conference and Beyond

As a result of this downward spiral of environmental issues in the global agenda, environmental journalists sensed that the conference, dubbed Rio + 10, was going to be a total flop. President Bush kept his word and never showed up; Secretary of State Colin Powell came on his behalf on the last day of the summit. Nevertheless, hundreds of news outlets throughout the world sent reporters to Johannesburg. Our newspaper published a six-page special section before the summit. It presented a rather pessimistic view, such as the lead story that appeared under the headline, “A Década Perdida do Ambiente” (“The Environment’s Lost Decade”). Our reporters sent daily stories from Johannesburg about efforts the Brazilian delegation and many European Union countries made to get a commitment that 10 percent of global energy production would be from clean sources—non-fossil, non-nuclear and no gigantic hydropower—by 2012. (The current share is 2.2 percent.) And they reported on the thwarting of this effort by the United States and Arab oil-producing countries.

American journalists were there, too, but the conference’s timing converged with the first anniversary of September 11, so their reporting didn’t receive the attention it otherwise might have. With talk of possible war also dominating the American news, these negotiations taking place in endless meetings in a distant African nation about issues that can seem like abstract entities were unlikely to draw much public interest in the United States.

I stayed in São Paulo, sending my young assistant editor, Claudio Angelo, to cover the summit. My general directive was for our two-member team (Angelo plus a political reporter/columnist) to bypass the daily haggling over commas and brackets in official U.N. documents and identify and speak with the conference’s leading figures, including heads of state and respected environmentalists. I wanted to portray for our readers “the big picture,” but even as the conference began I knew this assignment was doomed to failure since no significant action was to come out of Johannesburg. One story stood out, however, and that was an interview Angelo did with chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, which gave our readers a sense of how difficult, long and demanding environmental transformation can be.

After the disappointment with Johannesburg, and a sense that the international environmental situation appears stagnant right now, science and environment journalists in developing nations are back to their daily work of reporting on regional and local issues. For instance, support is still coming from entities in the United States and European countries to assist sustainable initiatives in and about the Brazilian rain forest. These funds and expertise help to maintain the ongoing work and research of emergent Brazilian research nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) such as Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (www.ipam.org.br) and Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (www.imazon.org.br), both located in Belém do Pará, which is roughly halfway between São Paulo and Miami.

During the past decade, these innovative NGO’s have been involved in painstaking gathering of data about basic ecological relationships, forest dynamics, and timber industry patterns of (so far predatory) operation. These data are proving crucial for devising a rational way of reaping what the rain forest has to offer without compromising its ability to grow again. This is the only way to preserve the five million square kilometers of the Amazon (about 60 percent of Brazil) and at the same time find a sustainable source of living for about 20 million people (some 12 percent of the Brazilian population) who live there. The NGO studies have been published in renowned journals such as Nature and Science, and these reports are making the rounds even in our capital, Brasilia, where rational policies for the rain forest are in the process of being slowly decided.

These are the kind of success stories we are now eager to report. Perhaps, in a reverse of the usual pattern, some of our reporting will find its way into the foreign media. It is my hope that maybe someday American and European journalists and decision-makers will realize there is more to the rest of the world than corruption, backwardness and threats, and focus on the ways in which richer countries are implicated—for better or worse—in such circumstances. But to report and see these connections, the focus would at least momentarily need to be diverted from Ground Zero and its aftermath. What happened on September 11 is surely something never to be forgotten, but there are also other extremely critical issues that ought to be remembered by everyone—including the United States. To persistently try to keep environmental issues high on the priority lists of editors and decision-makers should not be mistaken for advocacy. Rather, it is the job we should do in being the ones who watch carefully and report what happens in our own backyards and in the global environment.

Marcelo Leite, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, is science editor at Folha de São Paulo in Brazil and author of “A Floresta Amazônica”—“The Amazon Forest” (Publifolha, 2001) for the series, “Folha Explica”—“Folha Explains.”

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