Money to Burn is an investigation by a team of journalists and European newsrooms, led by Argos and funded by Investigative Journalism for Europe. For a period of three months, our cross-border team investigated everything related to the biomass trade, from subsidies, to certifications, to the European lobby, after learning from a colleague in Tallinn that Estonia was exporting almost all of its pellets overseas, with increasing impact on the country’s forests. The result: a cross-border story about the effect of European subsidies on Estonia’s forest, plus a series of radio, print and online publications in partner media.
Our team reporters worked together for three months to create a 10,000 word interactive feature on the biomass trade, including interactive timelines and graphics on how pellets are made, a certifications “game” and using 360 degree imagery and Google Street View to take the reader to the site of environmental devastation. An extended team of 16 reporters across 11 newsrooms worked on a suite of stories in national press, including the Guardian in the UK, Zeit Online in Germany, Publico in Spain, and De Groene Amsterdammer and Investico in the Netherlands and across national press and television in Estonia.
Our investigation has been cited in the Estonian and Dutch parliament. Since it was published, the new Estonian Government has promised to review cutting rates in state-owned forests. Our Dutch radio broadcasts were picked up across national Dutch media. Our interactive investigation was cited by scientists and campaigners at a European Commission meeting to discuss a revision to the Renewable Energy Directive. The Guardian version was cited by Greta Thunberg as an “essential read” on Twitter and cited by the US magazine the New Yorker, which covered the subject a week later.
To investigate the subsidised European pellet trade and its impact on Baltic forests, we uploaded boundary files for Estonia’s Natura 2000 zones to Global Forest Watch, an online platform for monitoring forests, and found that per-hectare tree cover loss (the removal of the tree canopy rather than outright deforestation) in these areas accelerated after 2015, when Estonian changed the rules around clear-cutting in some of its nature parks. We uploaded the KLM file to Google Earth Engine to identify areas where we could test for changes in forest cover. We used Google Timelaps to test for changes, then singled out Hanja Nature Park using open source GQIS, which allowed us to test one area for tree cover and some related statistics. In order to verify the Global Forest Watch data, which has its critics, we built an overlay in Goggle Earth Engine and checked the patches using Google Earth Pro’s time-slider. We used photoshop to create different overlay images for our story, including GIFs and a slider, to allow the reader to explore differences in tree cover over time for themselves. For the 10,000 word feature, we travelled to Estonia and worked with local designers to custom-build graphics, including a certifications “game” and drop down features and timelines to add depth and context to our story. We worked with a local photographer to capture drone imagery of the forests and nearby pellet milles. We used Google Street View technology and 360 degree imagery to take the reader to the site of the environmental devastation so they could explore the differences in forest cover over time. Our investigation relied heavily on open-source, encrypted, collaborative tools including Next Cloud for file sharing, a DocuWiki to organise the mammoth amount of research we accrued over three months, Rocket Chat as a Slack alternative
What was the hardest part of this project?
Conducting a cross-border investigation in a pandemic comes with no small amount of challenges. We had always planned to report the findings of our sateliite work on the ground, but as the summer waned and another round of lockdowns took hold across Europe, we had to make the call about whether or not it was safe to travel to Estonia. Four made it from Germany, the Netherlands and the UK but travel restrictions and the depleted number of flights made it impossible for others to travel.
At this moment, our well-established collaborative tools came into their own. Using RocketChat, Signal and video calls, we were in daily contact with the team working remotely. During trips to clear-cut areas, reporters sent us their location co-ordinates and we were able to corroborate their photos, videos and other reporting with satellite images in real time.
Because we only had a few days on the ground in Estonia, we adapted the Google Sprint model of iterating startups to our story. In this way we went from concept to product – an interactive feature of 10,000 words – within a week, iterating the story as we gathered evidence on the ground.
What can others learn from this project?
Cross-border investigative work is still a relatively new field. We are indebted to Investigative Journalism for Europe for funding and Arena for Journalism in Europe for supporting our project with technical and professional expertise. We feel there is enormous value in sharing what we learned during our investigation, from the technology and the systems that allowed us t share data and communicate safely, to the OSINT tools that enabled us to identify areas of interest to the investigation and explore changes in tree cover over time. Journalists might learn from the way we organised our investigation: both over time and practically how we kept track of our reporting. We set out to map the trade in biomass across European borders for the first time, in order to shed light on the major actors in the industry and their practises in three phases: a month on the trade in our own countries, a month on the trade across borders and a final month bringing all the pieces together to create our stories. We met once a week and spoke almost constantly on messaging channels in between. We established a DocuWiki, a kind of investigative wikipedia, which allowed us to navigate through our extensive reporting and find files and references. This was invaluable in helping us to identify who we had spoken to and what we already knew in the reporting phase, and as a reference point when we came to write up our work. Journalists might also learn from the way we used the Google Design Sprint to iterate our story over the course of a week on the ground in Estonia. The methodology meant that we were able to respond and adapt our plans based on what we found locally and in collaboration with local developers, videographers, designers and photographers