The Big Green Lie: the (in)visible destruction of the Amazon forest

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: BBC Brasil, BBC Mundo, BBC News

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 13 Feb 2020

Credit: Camilla Costa, Cecilia Tombesi, Marta Marti Marques, Marcos Gurgel, Carol Olona

Project description:

Brutal fires hit the Amazon during 2019. From that sad episode, we thought we had to give perspective to our audience and dimension the real loss of the biggest tropical forest on earth. What do we really lose when a “football-pitch of forest is lost every minute”? What is damaging the rainforest in each of the 9 countries that is spread across? Since our audience is based in LatAm, we believed that mission was crucial. The result was a two-part in-depth data-driven project on deforestation and degradation – its silent-killer cousin – and the specific human activities that are causing

Impact reached:

The audience response was fantastic. Engagement time was above average in both BBC Brasil and BBC Mundo, with pick readership times of 5 minutes. It sparked great discussion on Facebook and all the graphic and infographic material was widely shared across social media, especially on Instagran. A special mention for our infographic on “what can we find in an hectare of the Amazon”, we did in collab with Jos Barlow y Alexander Lees.

Also, most of the main Environmental and Climate organizations in Latin America – both NGOs and organizations linked to governments in some cases – praised and shared links to our story in their social media outlets. Some of them as a response of our seeding campaign, such as Greenpeace or WWF Colombia.

The project had a special impact in Brazil.

Our work was quoted in the country’s Regional Justice Courts and circulated among unions of public servers of the federal courts in Amazon states. It was also the basis for academic papers in discourse analysis of the Brazilian government’s policies regarding the Amazon and it was also cited in the book Modern Brazil: A Very Short Introduction, by King’s College London Professor and director of the Brazil Institute Anthony W. Pereira. In the education front, the project was used in school tests in the Brazilian public school system, for 7th year students: shorturl.at/kCU46

We were also asked by Brazil’s School of Data to explain our process of collecting and processing the data, as well as our insights about the projects. RAISG, the only monitoring organization of the Pan-Amazon and one of our sources, invited us to be in a debate about the new deforestation and degradation data released in 2020. We were the only media outlet invited to debate with the experts: https://youtu.be/XvpMaoMeDGU

Techniques/technologies used:

We used spreadsheets (Excel and Google sheets) to work with different sets of data, such as the cumulative deforestation between 2002 and 2019 among the 9 Amazonian countries. We visualised the result with D3 for accessibility and that way would be easier to adapt in other languages.

All our country charts were built with D3 to which we added some annotations to give further context. We also built some expanders to break down the jargon and/or to explain scientific concepts that we tend to see in reports.

Map wise, we used QGIS to process the data and build some of them, such as the one on illegal mining in Venezuela. QGIS allowed us to work with a big chunk of georeferenced data. 

In the second part of the project, the menu was an invite to the user to navigate at his or her own leisure through the countries, given a bit of “choose-your-own-adventure” feel.  

Visually, we opt for infographics (combining data, photography and illustration), moving galleries and GIFS to add motion to the project and translate that sense of deterioriation.

All in all made it more acurate, informative, attractive and fun to consume.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part of the project was to curate the amount of information and data we were working with, which potentially could have turned this project into something unmanageable (considering we are a multidisciplanry team of five) and/or too overwhelming for the audience. 

The latter is the reason why we split the project in two parts.

Also, we thought it would be beneficial for SEO purposes, since each part would have its own headline and that could increase the chances of discoverability and shareability.

Editorially, it made sense to focus first on the crucial role of the rainforest and the phenomena of deforestation and degradation. The challenge there was to choose among the different ways of measuring these and make it relevant to the audience. We opted to work with data sets from the World Resource Institute and collaborate with diferent institutions and scientists. They all were super generous and their help was much appreciated. 

Having a second part allowed us to dive in each one of the Amazonian countries, breaking that sometimes-prevailing view that the rainforest spreads only across Brazil. Exploring 9 countries brought challenges in itself, one of which was to make it palatable for the audience – so we kept it concise, visual and fluid.

We think the result was a comprehensive project that gives good sense of the real role of the rainforest and a great understanding of what it means to lose it. ​

What can others learn from this project?

Questioning common preconceived ideas about the Amazon and “diving in” the data showed us new angles and new possible stories.

For example: the idea that Brazil is the main responsible for the Amazon might prevent us journalists from questioning the authorities about the lack of cooperation among the countries in the interest of conservation. But the data actually shows that all the Amazon countries have the same patterns of deforestation and that the activities responsible for it have established an illegal network among these same countries. We should be looking into that.

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