This project is a multimedia investigation that analyzes the last two decades of forest fires in all protected natural areas of Venezuela. We found that in 2020, Venezuela was the country in the Amazon region with the highest density of fires or more fires per area. It was almost double that of Brazil. We processed 3.7 million data detected by NASA remote sensors, multispectral satellite images, vector geospatial databases, and geographic information systems.
The investigation proved that the protected areas of Venezuela are, actually, unprotected. These areas represent 24% of the national territory, and they’re under the responsibility of the National Parks Institute and the Ministry of the Environment. We determined that fires increased in 63 of the 80 areas of the country in the last 20 years. The increase points to systemic failures: these areas don’t have functional water systems, adequate equipment, or sufficient personnel to fight and control the fire. The institutional deficiencies, added to the effects of climate change, put the most important natural areas of the country at risk.
We used digital tools to locate fires and thus detect illegal mining within the Venezuelan Amazon. Miners burn arbitrarily to deforest and open spaces to mine, build houses and grow food. We detected 13 illegal mines that had not been previously identified by the Amazon Network for Georeferenced Socio-environmental Information. We found that fires in Ciénagas de Juan Manuel increased 411% in 2020, compared to their average for the past nine years. This national park protects grasslands, swamp forests, and gallery forests. In the Aguaro-Guariquito National Park, which protects a microcosm of the Llanos region, the highest concentration of fires between 2012 and 2020 occurred over riparian forests.
“Nature in flames” won the award for best data visualization in a small-medium at the 2021 Digital Media Awards LATAM. The project was a finalist for the 2021 Premio Gabo, and the Thomson Foundation selected it as one of the 15 most outstanding stories about environmental topics for the Young Journalist Award. Thomson Foundation invited Helena Carpio to webinars about climate change. The Global Investigative Journalism Network published a review of the investigation, and international media interviewed Helena to explain the use of satellite imagery for journalistic purposes.
The project used statistical and geographic data analysis, investigative journalism, and scientific methodologies to produce rigorous and relevant data. We incorporated different spatial databases into our work, including one with all the vegetation units of the country. The information allowed us to know which ecosystem was burned in each protected area.
Understanding that fires in the tropics are almost always started by humans, we used fire to detect human activities within strictly protected areas. This means that we opened the heat spots detected between 2001 and 2020 in a geographic information system from NASA to detect places with high concentrations of fire. Then we looked for satellite images of these places with frequent fires, and we tracked down clues of human activities that could be potential causes. The images allowed us to find agricultural farms, livestock, invasions, and illegal mining within national parks, natural monuments, wildlife refuges, and other protected areas.
The project was carried out through close collaboration with specialists linked to academic and research communities in Venezuela and the region, including biologists, geographers, ecologists, firefighters, and park rangers. The Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund of the Pulitzer Center supported the investigation.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Official institutions in Venezuela don’t have updated data on protected areas. It is unknown the conditions of their fauna and vegetation. There is also no information on the fires or data to suggest what the fires are set by men. For this reason, we decided to create our database. The investigation lasted six months, as it was necessary to locate international sources that could provide verified information.
In the capital, Caracas, you could see smoke from fires that seemed to come from natural places, and we wondered what was happening to protected areas. We called scientists to advise us on the matter, and so we learned that NASA captures information all the time about what happens on the surface of the Earth. We wanted to know if NASA detected areas that were burning. We processed 3.7 million heat sources, which represented information from 2001 to 2020. This allowed us to review the evolution of the fires, in which periods they occurred most frequently, and which areas were the most affected each year.
The environmental crisis goes under the table especially in a country in a complex humanitarian emergency. It was necessary to highlight the causes and consequences of fires in natural areas. Hence the importance of using satellite images and learning to read them: we find clues about what was happening in the affected areas and what human actions caused these fires.
It was also a challenge to combine scientific information with a journalistic proposal. We rely on storytelling to give the reader not only crucial data on the lack of protection of the country’s natural areas, but also to show that they are not oblivious to the consequences of environmental devastation.
What can others learn from this project?
We believe that when it comes to the impacts of climate change, multidisciplinary teams that include experts and scientific researchers are indispensable to cover complex and multifactorial issues in a responsible and rigorous way, and thus build trust with audiences. It also represents a great opportunity to generate new methodologies, data, narratives, user experiences, and products. Hyperspecialization within the environmental source allows the conceptualization of products that provide added value.