Amazon alert: Crime and destruction in the rainforest

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: Sky News

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 28/09/2021

Credit: Carmen Aguilar Garcia, Victoria Elms, Kieran Devine, Przemyslaw Pluta, Pippa Oakley, Brian Gillingham, Nathan Griffiths, Larissa Johnsson, Marcia Reverdosa, Matthew Price, Natasha Muktarsingh


Carmen Aguilar is an award-winning journalist, specialised in data journalism. Victoria Elms and Kieran Devine are investigative journalists, using digital and open-source techniques to reveal stories. The three are part of Sky News’ Data and Forensic team, led by Matthew Price who edited the story together with Natasha Muktarsingh, assistant editor of the unit.

Przemyslaw Pluta is an award-winning creative technology leader. He’s the Head of Platform Solutions, developing innovative solutions and identifying opportunities for emergent technologies.

Pippa Oakley, Brian Gillighan and Nathan Griffiths, Communications & Motion Designers, are part of the Graphic department, working for digital and video platforms.

Project description:

The story is the result of several months of investigating deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It focuses on the areas granted the highest level of protection – where deforestation should be almost impossible – and the political and business forces behind the illegal activity taking place.

Data analysis revealed that deforestation in federally protected parts of the Bazilian Amazon is at record levels, and it has accelerated during President Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

Using satellite imagery, government databases, and social media, we were able to expose a network of local politicians, their families, and business people responsible for industrial-scale deforestation.

Impact reached:

The story required the combination of open-source data analysis and investigative techniques to provide a macro and micro level picture of deforestation as it occurs. This was only possible with the collaboration of colleagues from both our Data and Forensic teams. 

Moreover, our ambition to present our findings in an interactive article meant seeking and utilising the technical expertise of developers from the wider company outside of our newsroom. This collaboration – with colleagues inside and outside Sky News – had a lasting impact by not only resulting in a more powerful story which readers engaged with but also by impacting the way the wider Sky News operation approaches journalism.  

While it was initially formulated for our digital platform, the story was subsequently adapted for all Sky News outlets and featured on each of them. 

There were, therefore, different versions of the story told on social media (Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook), on YouTube, on a podcast and on the Daily Climate Show on Sky News TV. 

Adapting the story for each of these platforms increased our audience, reaching at least 150,000 unique viewers, listeners and readers.

One of the results of this wide audience was that officials from the UK parliament, who were assessing the UK’s role in deforestation abroad, contacted us in relation to the article. Likewise, praise was received from knowledgeable experts on the topic, including Gustavo Faleiros, founder of InfoAmazonia, a respected local media outlet that investigates environmental crime.

Techniques/technologies used:

The data analysed came from the real-time deforestation monitoring system DETER of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, which records deforestation warnings and publishes them regularly under shapefiles. Using R, we ran a statistical analysis to interrogate the data and understand trends and patterns.

The analysis revealed that deforestation warnings were at record levels in federal conservation units, the areas with the highest level of protection. It also showed that the area covered by these alerts increased during Bolsonaro’s presidency, and revealed the specific national park where the problem was most severe. 

We plotted this data using the geographic information system QGIS. We also combined the deforestation alerts file with shapefiles of the federal protected areas to look into geographical patterns.

We then used this information to specify particular plots of land that had been deforested, verifying it through satellite imagery. We cross-referenced these plots with government databases on land ownership and environmental fines to identify individuals involved. 

By doing further research on the award of local government contracts and the messaging of local politicians on social media, we were able to build a picture of the individuals and networks who were committing or enabling deforestation in the national park.  

To tell the story, we built an immersive narrative using the storytelling tool Shorthand, the mapping platform Mapbox, and the data visualisation tool Flourish.

Mapbox gave us flexibility to represent several layers and to activate and deactivate them according to the narrative. We used this map to show general patterns and to place the user in a specific area.

The data, in both the map and the charts, is represented with a scrolly-telling technique. This contributes to the immersive narrative and helps to present the information in a more engaging, digestible and communicative way.

What was the hardest part of this project?

This project was the first collaboration between the Data and the Forensic teams and it also involved the skills of other Sky News departments and external teams. Managing the project in an effective way given the different areas of the newsroom involved was one of the biggest challenges. This was particularly difficult given the ambition of publishing the story on several platforms, such as digital mobile and desktop, tv, podcast, and social media, requiring appropriate versions for each format. Strong editorial support was key in overcoming this challenge. In addition to providing the typical overarching strategic guidance regarding the main news lines, this support involved giving the individuals contributing the time to fully explore the story, best using the diverse skills of team members. For example, enabling the time to find the story in the data involved extensive research, and interviews and conversations with experts, to acquire a deep knowledge of Brazilian environmental law and the administrative divisions of the protected areas. This resulted in a story focused on a different aspect than many other stories about deforestation in the Amazon: the destruction of the forest in the federally protected areas and the political and economic drivers – including corruption – behind it. From a technical point of view, this was the first time that either the data or the forensic team had used QGIS software, which was key for our investigation, requiring a steep learning curve. Likewise, we pioneered a new story telling technique within Sky News by experimenting with the visual software Mapbox for the first time in the company. Finally, as with many investigations, the story revealed itself slowly. Understanding which lines of enquiry to pursue, which newly discovered facts were relevant, and when to finish the investigation, were essential in delivering a piece of original investigative

What can others learn from this project?

Deforestation in the Amazon is a familiar topic that will no doubt continue to re-occur in news stories. The danger is that as the topic is so well covered, little new can be discovered. Yet the work on this project can show that taking new approaches can breathe fresh insight into this issue.

For example, the data team showed that by doing extensive analysis, looking at many variables in the data and combining it with deep research of Brazilian administrative divisions, significant new angles can be revealed. This story is not, therefore, a repetition of many others about deforestation but a new contribution to a topic that deserves repeated coverage given its importance. Appreciating that even small details can tell a larger story in a familiar area is something we as journalists will take into future work. 

A second learning involves the collaboration of different types of journalists. While the main news line of the story was based on a data analysis, our efforts did not stop there. The analysis served as a starting point for more traditional investigative journalism, showing not just where and how much deforestation was occurring in national parks, but why.  This approach – viewing data and investigative journalism as close siblings – resulted in a more powerful story with a bigger impact.

Finally, another learning was to keep innovating when covering familiar topics. A reasonable editorial question to be asked was whether a UK audience would read another story about the Amazon. Using new and immersive storytelling techniques, that required learning new software, was our way of successfully drawing in viewers and readers.

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