Illegal gold mining activity has risen sharply over the last five years in Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami reservation in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, a Reuters analysis of exclusive data shows. Working with Earthrise Media, a non-profit group that analyzes satellite imagery, Reuters plotted the expansion of the mines across the reservation.
An analysis of these sites revealed that the number of mines has grown 20-fold over the past five years. Collectively, the mining areas identified in the reservation cover an area roughly the size of over 1,000 soccer fields.
The piece put the tribe’s struggle on the map and highlighted the issues faced by the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. The project has been cited in other publications and papers by the likes of Columbia Human Right Law Review and human rights groups such as Survival International.
The advocacy and research director of Survival International informed Reuters that she sent it to Dario Yanomami of Hutukara Yanomami Association in Brazil, who was very pleased to see such an important and strong report.
The main dataset was collected by studying hundreds of satellite images. The analysis involved scouring images covering the entire reservation. Earthrise enlisted the help of dozens of people to get through the first initial screening.
Some of the extra eyes came from ninth grade students at Weston High School in Massachusetts. Retired NASA Astronaut Catherine Coleman initiated the student search with a recorded video, saying “We need your help”.
Three classes combed through the images using a purpose-built tool, focusing mainly on river systems. Earthrise then revised and refined the findings.
We were then able to plot and map this data to tell the story. Other graphics showing mining permits across the Amazon and tree loss also complemented the story.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The sheer volume of satellite imagery was definitely a hurdle and meant this was definitely not going to be a quick story to report or produce.
Then turning the raw data sets into a deeply reported story with compelling visual narrative was also a challenge. It was also important to find that balance between bringing the problem to life and not overembelishing.
What can others learn from this project?
If a data set does not exist, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story. Sometimes we can build our own dataset through reporting, which can be even more rewarding.